Thailand - Animal Conservation

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. But 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/or social justice.

Journeying from the bustling capital of Bangkok to the cultural mecca of Chiang Mai and tiny “hill-tribe” villages in the country’s northern reaches, we’ll interact with different forms of tourism while asking ourselves and each other about their impacts, who benefits, who doesn’t and what potential the alternatives hold for the people of Thailand.

Program Themes

Students will explore the business of tourism in one of the world’s biggest hotspots, Thailand. They will engage with animal tourism, temple tourism, and community-based tourism to see how social enterprise and alternative models compare to the big box conventional forms we more often see.

Program Highlights:

  • Embrace the chaos and complexity of modern Bangkok – from the delights of Thai cuisine to the beautiful temples and pagodas, from the spirituality of Buddhism to the harsh realities in the urban slum of Khlong Toey. 
  • Get up close and personal to the endangered Asian elephant as we talk eco-tourism with the volunteers and staff at Elephant Valley Thailand. 
  • Live with homestays in a hill tribe village and learn about one of Thailand’s most successful volunteer and community-based tourism initiatives. 
  • Trek through tropical forests and lush rice paddies, stopping to stay the night in bamboo huts and savouring banana-leaf delicacies. 


  • Dates: April 24, 2020 – May 7, 2020
  • Estimated Cost: TBD


Things to Keep in Mind:

  • You will need a credit card to make a payment. Visa Debit Cards are not accepted;
  • The first installment is non-refundable and must be submitted by the application deadline for your application to be considered complete;
  • All other installments must be submitted only AFTER your application has been approved;
  • ALL payments must be submitted by the required deadline for acceptance and participation in the UTM Abroad program;
  • Payments are non-refundable. Please refer to our Terms of Participation page for more details.
  • All payment deadlines are posted directly in the payment system.
Payment Number Payment Due Amount Due
1 At time of application $250
2 TBD $950
3 TBD $950

Documents & Forms

  • Access all forms and submit all documents through the UTM Abroad Portal;
  • Use Firefox or Google Chrome;
  • Use a desktop computer rather than your mobile device;
  • You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to print forms completed through the UTM Abroad Portal. Adobe Acrobat Reader should be installed before beginning the application process and can be downloaded here;
  • Your browser must enable cookies and JavaScript. For security reasons, your log-in session will automatically be timed out if you have not entered data during this time;
  • Save your progress as you go by clicking “save” at the end of each session to avoid losing the information you have already entered in the form.

UTM Abroad Portal

Student Checklist

Things to Keep in Mind:

  • The list linked below is meant to serve as a guideline as you progress through the UTM Abroad Co-Curricular Experiences, not as an exhaustive list.
  • Additional tasks particular to your program will be communicated to you via email.
  • Deadlines will be communicated to you via email.

UTM Abroad Student ChecklistItinerary

Our partners at Operation Groundswell will lead you through a truly immersive experience filled with planned daily excursions, educational programming, and opportunities to interact with the local community.


*The following is a sample schedule and is subject to change*

Day(s): 1-4

Location: Bangkok

Accommodation: Born Free (Shared dorm) or equivalent

Transportation: Registered Taxis, Tuktuk

Meals: Local restaurants

General Summary: After being picked up from Survhanabhumi International Airport, we’ll settle into our temporary home downtown in Bangkok’s historic Rattanakosin district. Over the next 3 days, we’ll explore the diversity of Thailand’s big bustling capital and acclimatize to the sights, sounds, smells, flavours and smiles of the country.

Once we get our cultural bearings, we’ll find our way to some the best food stalls, markets and temples Bangkok has to offer! We’ll also escape the crowds of the world’s most visited city and join our friends from the Sikha Asia Foundation and Hivesters for a day of exploration in some of the Bangkok’s lesser known neighbourhoods. All in all, our menu will be full of contrasts and lots to chew on as we begin to unpack the differences between mass and alternative tourism.

Learning Service or Critical Service Learning component:

There will be no project-based volunteering inn Bangkok. Rather, OG’s partner, the Sikha Asia Foundation and Hivesters have requested that participants serve by spending a total 6-8hrs on an interactive tour of Bangkok and visiting the Klong Toey slum of Bangkok participating in a workshop and facilitating a number of educational games with local youth in one of Bangkok’s overlooked and underserved communities.

Note: OG will limit activities on Day 1 to a) Airport pick-ups; b) Meal(s); and c) light orientation activities. No field physical activities or field trips will be included. The itinerary may require that the group undertake a 1st class overnight bus from Bangkok to Chiang Rai on Day 3. The route has been audited and vetted to ensure the minimal possible risk to participants.

Day(s): 4-5

Location: Sukhothai

Accommodation: The Hub Dorm (or equivalent)

Transportation: Private bus

Meals: Local restaurants

General Summary: Continuing our exploration of tourism, we’ll 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. So, we’ll rent bikes and get to know a little Thai history! We’ll also take time to discuss issues surrounding tourism at ancient sites like these.

Learning Service or Critical Service Learning component:

There will be no project-based volunteering in Sukhothai. Instead participants will do a half-day interactive tour of Sukhothai and engage with Thailand’s historical and cultural tourism industry.

Day(s): 5-9

Location: Chiang Rai

Accommodation: Homestays

Transportation: Bus

Meals: Homecooked

General Summary: Next, the group will continue its journey to the far northern province of Chiang Rai where we will be met by our friends from the Mirror Foundation. Mirror is a Thai NGO that works towards improving livelihoods 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, we’ll get to bask in a landscape of endless hills and lush greenery. Along the way, we’ll visit remote villages and see firsthand, the Mirror Foundation’s initiatives while hearing the stories behind them from the volunteers and villagers they work with.

Learning Service or Critical Service Learning component:

As OG’s primary partner within the Rise of Alternative Tourism program, the Mirror Foundation has invited participants to spend 4 days engaging in critical service-learning on two different projects with two distinct communities in Chiang Rai. In this regard, approx. 25hrs will dedicated to activities with a local school for stateless children, ongoing road construction in the village of Pak La and agricultural field work (aquaculture, organic compost, etc.) in the community of Ban Kway. The combination of homestays and critical service-learning with Mirror and communities in Chiang Rai will allow participants to explore issues surrounding immigration, identity, citizenship, and access to opportunity.

Day(s): 9-11

Location: Chiang Rai

Accommodation: EVT Lodge (shared dorm)

Transportation: Bus

Meals: Homecooked

General Summary: Leaving Mirror, we’ll 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 we’ll visit the nearby Elephant Sanctuary (Elephant Valley Thailand) where we’ll learn about a conservation initiative trying to put an end to the mistreatment of elephants in the tourism industry. We will, of course, have a chance to meet the resident elephants and hear their individual stories from the dedicated staff. We don’t ride or bathe these gentle giants, it’s all about letting elephants be elephants in a setting as close to their natural environment as possible.

Learning Service or Critical Service Learning component:

Elephant Valley Thailand (EVT) has invited participants to serve by touring the sanctuary and its facilities with local staff/volunteers to learn more about (un)ethical animal tourism and EVT’s model before lending a hand with the maintenance of the facility and elephant enclosures.

Day(s): 11-14

Location: Chiang Mai

Accommodation: Hotel Spring (or equivalent)

Transportation: Private bus

Meals: Local restaurants

General Summary: We’ll take a short a 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 we’ll spend time visiting glittering spiritual sites, sitting down and talking with monks to

learn about Theravada Buddhism, and of course, trying our hand at the art of Thai cooking!

Finally, we’ll find a quiet corner of the city and celebrate disorientation. A staple of every OG program this is our chance to reflect on an incredible journey, discuss lessons learned and assess our impact. Then it’s off to Chiang Mai’s international airport to catch flights home and say our fond farewells!

Learning Service or Critical Service Learning component:

There will be no project-based volunteering Chiang Mai. Instead, participants have been invited to participant in a variety of tours and workshops including an intensive 4hr cooking lesson where they can engage with Thailand’s cultural and culinary heritage while learning about community-based efforts to generate sustainable livelihoods.

Note: OG will avoid inter city travel outside of daylight hours and limit activities on departure day to a) transportation from the hotel/hostel to the airport; b) Meal(s); and c) in the case of late-day flights, final program activities and/or reflective evaluations.