Southeast Asia

Cities & Sanctuaries

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Southeast Asia

Cities & Sanctuaries

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  • Volunteer at the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia, an ecotourism project that provides an alternative approach to elephant care, rehabilitation, and conservation.
  • Embrace the chaos and complexity of modern Bangkok, from its ornate temples to the mouth-watering cuisine!
  • Explore an 800-year-old ancient temple complex and get to know our friends in Banteay Chhmar as we learn about community-based tourism and heritage preservation.
  • Dive deep into the Cambodian countryside as we work with Ockenden Cambodia, a grassroots NGO aiming to promote capacity building through agricultural innovation and adaptation.

Program Dates

January 7 – February 15

Fees + Community Contribution  

$2,890 + $615
$3,170 + $750

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Sample Itinerary

*This itinerary is based on our previous experience with the region. Programs change every year based on the needs of our partners. This should give you a sense of what our program may look like.

Orientation in the Big Mango

Following airport pickups, our group will be introduced to Thailand’s bustling capital of Bangkok. In a citywide scavenger hunt we’ll be introduced to the sights, sounds, and tastes of this modern yet distinctively Thai city. We’ll visit some of the city’s most beautiful temples and get a feel for the intricacies of this diverse and colourful metropolis. We will also have the opportunity to visit the Sikha Asia Foundation and learn about the work done to promote literacy and education in the city’s biggest slum.

Ancient Temples and Responsible Tourism

We go from one extreme to another! After the urban jungle of Bangkok, we’ll head straight into the Cambodian countryside to the village of Banteay Chhmar. We’ll be spending valuable time with our friends at the Community-Based Tourism (CBT) Initiative – a local cooperative organization dedicated to preserving a massive 800-year old temple complex located in the vicinity of the village, as well as developing a sustainable local tourism economy.

We will broaden our perspective and understanding of what alternative tourism really means, how it compares to mainstream tourism, and how the two differ in their effects on local communities. Exploring remote temples hidden in the forest, waking up to the sound of roosters at 6 a.m., learning Khmer from community members, and chowing down on delicious home-cooked Khmer meals are just some of the things to look forward to!

Rural livin’ with Ockenden Cambodia

Thought Banteay Chhmar felt off the grid? Well, we’re going to dig even deeper! Joining our friends at Ockenden Cambodia, we will spend a week taking an in-depth look at the challenges facing Khmer farmers and the innovate ways of overcoming them. Comprised of a group of amazing and dedicated activists, Ockenden is committed to promoting and teaching sustainable, innovative, and disaster-resilient farming practices in marginalized communities around the country. We will join them on one of their many ongoing long-term projects while getting an intimate glimpse of the realities, challenges, and promises of rural development in Cambodia.

A staple of most projects with Ockenden is tree planting, which we do alongside primary and secondary school students! Deforestation and global warming are two of the biggest issues that will affect the country for generations to come, and planting trees is one of the most beneficial things we can do as guests in the country (while also educating the youth on the importance of doing so!) Other activities in the past have included digging ponds, installing floating gardens, and building trellises and bail gardens.

We’ll be sleeping in hammocks and on mats, eating food prepared from the local garden and market. We’ll be stripped down to the basics, and by doing so, we’ll have an opportunity to truly connect with the community and our newfound friends!

Bat Caves and Circus Acts in Battambang

Ready for some urban comforts? We’ll head to the charming town of Battambang where we’ll relax and get cleaned up at a funky hostel. Battambang is famous for its nearby caves, where, in the evenings, we will witness millions of bats gliding through the sky! If bats aren’t your thing, don’t worry! We’ll also be visiting a unique social outreach program that engages at-risk-youth in the area by channeling their energies into acrobatics and circus arts.

Dark Histories and Bright Futures in Phnom Penh

Our team will keep heading south as we move on to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Integral to any journey in Cambodia, we’ll visit the S-21 prison museum and the infamous Killing Fields in order to understand Cambodia’s tragic recent history and contextualize its present challenges and opportunities. But we will also make sure to familiarize ourselves with the hip, modern, funky vibe that energizes this booming city!

Volunteering for Elephants

The moment you’ve all been waiting for: elephants! The gentle giants at the Elephant Valley Project (EVP) will quickly capture our hearts as we spend days hiking through the sanctuary and getting to know each of their individual stories. No, we will not be riding them. And no, we will not be feeding them. We will observe them, learn about them, and contribute to their wellbeing by volunteering around the sanctuary! These are senior elephants – coming largely from histories of being overworked – who may now roam as close within their natural environment as possible.

Working alongside the dedicated and knowledgeable staff at EVP, we will be cutting down banana trees (juicy treats for the elephants), clearing weeds in bamboo fields, and contributing to other tasks that need to be taken care of! There is always plenty to do when you’re looking after such big animals in such a big space.

Independent Travel Time

A staple of all Operation Groundswell programs is Independent Travel Time (ITT). You can travel independently if you desire but we encourage everyone to travel in pairs or small groups. This is the ideal time to learn more about your specific interests, volunteering, travelling, or just relaxing. Southeast Asia is bursting with gems! From the pristine beaches of southern Thailand to the ancient temples of the mighty Angkor Empire, from hiking into the territory of the northern hill tribes in Chiang Rai to the unreal views of Ha Long Bay, there’s no shortage of things to do here!

**Please note that you are not under the auspices of the organized program during ITT. Team members will be given the emergency contact number of program leaders during ITT for any advice.

Disorientation in Bangkok

Our group will reconvene for a program debrief known as ‘disorientation’ prior to flying home. This will likely take place in Bangkok, back where all the fun began. We’ll learn that it is possible to take it easy in this restless city and re-live memories of the program, recap the lessons that we’ve learned, discuss how to stay connected, and collaborate on projects in the future. Then off to the airport for some tearful goodbyes!

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What’s Included?

A comprehensive program itinerary and educational curriculum focused on the issues facing your specific region

Experienced and caring program leaders with you 24 hours a day

All lodging and accommodations throughout the program

Three local meals a day

All group tours, entrance fees, and excursions

All group transportation on the ground

Regular discussions and workshops to help you internalize and reflect on your experience

Support from OGHQ whenever you need it


Independent Travel Time is your opportunity to go out there and explore on your own terms!

  • Live and work alongside mahouts at the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia.
  • Explore and get lost in the mystic and majestic ruins of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Hike into the territory of the northern hill tribes and explore the famous night markets in Chiang Mai.
  • Take the epic bus ride from Saigon to Hanoi or visit Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.
  • Relax on the pristine beaches of southern Thailand and relish in the stunning landscapes these islands have to offer.


With OG, you live like the locals.
Traveling as much as we do on the Southeast Asia program, there will be a number of different styles of accommodation. In cities, we’ll usually be sleeping at clean, safe, and secure guesthouses. When we’re out in rural communities we’ll be hosted by local families and we might just sleep under the stars for a few nights (with mosquito nets of course). Being welcomed by local families is an incredible way for the team to become integrated with the communities we visit. Cold bucket showers are common while continuous electricity can’t always be guaranteed – so come prepared! Though Western comforts should not be assumed, you can expect to better connect with locals and their culture.

Meet Our Regional Director

After hearing about OG while sweating in a sauna in northern Ontario in 2010, and subsequently going on a Southeast Asia program, Sidney quickly got hooked on backpacktivism. Since then. he has led four years of programs in Southeast Asia. His favorite part of the job (if he had to choose) is getting people to fall in love with this part of the world and understanding it through a critical and educational lens. Sid lives in Bangkok where, besides operating as Regional Director for OG, he is pursuing a Masters in Tourism Management. Previously, Sid was an archaeologist, a passion he continues to cultivate when time permits. Eating is another big hobby, which is easy to maintain in a place like Thailand.

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