This paper is an ethnography of how six Australian volunteers experience a house-build project in the Philippines. Contingencies of empathic pain arising from the living conditions of those they aimed to help were felt through their bodies. Drawing on Sara Ahmed's ideas on pain enabled us to explore the politics of volunteer tourism. We suggest the intensification of volunteers' empathic pain constitute ambivalent spaces. In some volunteering contingencies, pain led to a blurring of conventional boundaries of 'them' and 'us', giving priority to difference over dominance. In others, volunteers reproduced dominant understandings of volunteering that mobilised neoliberal and colonial discourses. We conclude by encouraging other tourism scholars to think politically about pain.