Thailand - The Rise of Alternative Tourism

Thailand has long been a famous tourist destination and it’s not hard to see why. Known as the “land of smiles”, visitors revel in the country’s incomparable pad thai, idyllic beaches, full moon parties, and sacred spaces. However, Operation Groundswell’s “Rise of Alternative Tourism” program digs below the surface of conventional tourism to examine its pitfalls and the emergence of new community-led alternatives that focus attention on local income generation, environmental sustainability and social justice.

Journey from the bustling capital of Bangkok to the cultural mecca of Chiang Mai and tiny “hill-tribe” villages in the country’s northern reaches, you will interact with different forms of tourism through community engaged-activities and critical service-learning while asking each other about their impacts, who benefits, who doesn’t and what potential the alternatives hold for the people of Thailand.

UN Sustainable Development Goal - Sustainable communities

Community Partners


Dates of Travel

Friday, May 1, 2020 – Friday, May 15, 2020

Participant Numbers

  • 7 Student Participants
  • 1 Student Team Leader
  • 2 Team Leaders

*Note: this experience can accommodate up to 12 participants (including team leaders), assuming airline seats are available; however, this may mean additional participants pay an increased fee (based on new flight prices). 


  • Embrace the chaos and complexity of modern Bangkok – from the delights of Thai cuisine to the beautiful temples and pagoda, and the harsh realities in the urban slum of Khlong Toey.
  • Get up close and personal with the endangered Asian elephant while we talk about the ethics of animal tourism at Elephant Nature Park.
  • Stay with local families in a hill tribe village and learn about one of Thailand’s most successful volunteer and community-based tourism initiatives.

Learning Outcomes

  • Demonstrate the ability to explore ideas, issues, and global systems from viewpoints other than your own, through reflective practice, group discussions and program activities
  • Work under conditions of ambiguity or uncertainty by engaging with community partners, community members and working as a team
  • Demonstrate an understanding of intercultural competence, sensitivity and humility by completing pre-departure workshops, activities in OWL and the Reflective Practice Workbook, and engaging in the 1-2 week community-based experience
  • Identify the pressures that the tourist system has on Thailand and Thai culture and become further aware of how they are pushing back
  • Compare and contrast urban life in Bangkok with rural life in Chiang Mai, and describe how sustainable living is embraced
  • Recognize and understand the ethics of animal tourism

Ideal Participant

This experience does not include any significant hikes or trekking but may feel more than a little intense due to the extensive travel and hands-on fieldwork in the hot tropical climate. This is a fast-paced program with lots of local food, community engagement, collaborative project work and homestays making a high level of immersion. If you are curious, energetic, and open-minded, this is a great opportunity for you. Students who are flexible, adventurous and want to engage in ethical learning outside of the classroom are a good fit for this experience.


Total cost (subject to change) – $4,800 CAD

Costs include:

  • Flight
  • Registration and programs fees with Operation Groundswell
  • Contribution to the project and comprehensive on-site support
  • Insurance (health, flight cancellation, baggage)
  • Transportation to/from airport
  • Transportation in Thailand
  • Accommodation
  • Meals
  • Administrative Fee (buff, team leader contribution, journal)

Note: Impact Experience participants will be responsible for any luggage costs assigned by individual airlines, airport tax, souvenirs, or additional food/snacks during the trip.

Preliminary Itinerary

Day 1-3 – (Orientation Bangkok) – After being picked up from Suvarnabhumi International Airport, you will settle into your temporary home downtown in Bangkok’s historic Rattanakosin district. Over the next three days, you will explore the diversity of Thailand’s big bustling capital and acclimatize to the sights, sounds, smells, flavors and smiles of the country.

Once you get your cultural bearings, your team will find your way to some of the best food stalls, markets and temples Bangkok has to offer! You will also escape the crowds of the world’s most visited city and join OG’s friends from Sikha Asia Foundation and Hivesters for a day of exploration in some of the Bangkok’s lesser-known neighbourhoods.

Day 4-8 – (Community Tourism Chiang Rai) – Your group will then take a comfortable overnight bus from Bangkok to the far northern province of Chiang Rai where you will be met by the Mirror Foundation. Mirror is the Thai NGO that works towards improving livelihood for underprivileged ethnic minority groups in the country. One of the ways they do this is through an ecotourism project that combines immersive homestays, volunteer opportunities and cultural exchange in villages with which they have strong connections. Hiking through tropical forests and past rice fields, you will get to bask in the landscape of endless hills and lush greenery. Along the way you will visit remote villages and see first-hand the Mirror Foundation’s initiatives while hearing the stories behind them from the volunteers and villagers they work with.

Day 8-9 – (Animal Tourism Chiang Rai) – Leaving Mirror, you will head into town and take some time to get to know the city of Chiang Rai, famous for its night bazar and northern-style cuisine. Then the team will visit the nearby Elephant Sanctuary (Elephant Valley Thailand) where you will learn about a conservation initiative trying to put an end to the mistreatment of elephants in the tourism industry. You will, of course, have a chance to meet the resident elephants and hear their individual stories from the dedicated staff. You will not ride or bath these gentle giants, it is all about letting elephants be elephants in a setting as close to their natural environment as possible.

Day 9-10 – (Cultural Tourism Chiang Mai) – You will take a short bus ride from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai, often referred to as the cultural capital of Thailand due to its well-preserved historical character and a vibrant, modern yet distinctively northern Thai cultural identity. Here you will spend time visiting glittering spiritual sites, sitting down and talking with monks to learn about Theravada Buddhism, and of course trying your hand at the art of Thai cooking.

Day 10-12 (Temple Tourism Sukhothai) – Continuing your exploration of tourism, you will make a stop at the World Heritage Site of Sukhothai, renowned for its architecture that has survived since the 12-14th centuries, a time when this area was a powerful kingdom in the region. The team will rent bikes and get to know a little Thai history!  You will also take time to discuss issues surrounding tourism at ancient sites like these.

Day 12-14 (Disorientation Bangkok) -  Coming full circle, you will conclude your adventure where it all began, in Bangkok. Here, your team will reflect on an incredible journey, discuss lesions learned and assess your IMPACT. Then it’s back to the international airport to catch flights home.

*PLEASE NOTE: this itinerary is draft, and subject to change at any time.



Operation Groundswell coordinates appropriate accommodations that reflect the atmosphere of the region. They do this by working closely with guesthouses, hotels, and homestays to ensure that they are adequately safe and hygienic.


A variety of meals will be offered. Some meals will be provided on site, and some will be at local restaurants, and will reflect a variety of local foods.

All group meals on program days are included, and you will be responsible for any meals during travel days as well as personal snacks.

Need to Know

  • This experience does not involve travel through the USA.
  • You are responsible for ensuring that you have the required travel documents and travel visas necessary to participate in the experience.
  • If you require disability-related accommodation, or have other special considerations, we encourage you to contact us before applying. We may require further information to determine how we can best meet your accommodation needs.