From Buddhist rituals to culinary delights, explore the unique subtleties of Thai culture, and learn about the role of ASEAN in the global conversation.

Exploring Culture in Thailand

A longstanding stop on the tourist circuit, Thailand has a wealth of destinations and activities to pursue. Envoys students visit an elephant conservation center, learn to cook a variety of Thai culinary delights, and ride bicycles through ancient temple parks, building confidence in exploration and having fun!

Envoys utilizes its strong roots in the country to go beyond tourist activities and explore the unique subtleties of Thai culture. From the concept of sanuk to the wealth of Buddhist rituals, our exploration of Thai culture helps students develop socio-cultural awareness and empathy. We also examine the importance of the tourism industry for Thailand’s economy and the effects of tourism on the traditional cultural rhythms.

Potential Project Themes

The role of Buddhism in everyday Thai life
Urban-rural divides in modern Thailand
Political turmoil and hopes for reconciliation

Sample Itinerary

We land in Bangkok and move to our comfortable accommodations slightly outside the city. Following a thorough health and safety briefing, we begin a discussion of the unique aspects of Thai culture, including how to interact with Thai people respectfully. We also discuss the importance of sanuk, the ability to interject fun into every activity—this is a key theme for the trip!

We begin with a goal-setting process unique to Envoys expeditions. Students take responsibility for separating themselves from the great mass of “educated tourists” traveling through Thailand. Envoys staff will help students set concrete goals for understanding Thai history and culture, interacting with local citizens, exploring the country, understanding the larger picture of what we see, and sharing our adventure with those back home.

We then depart for the famed Grand Palace and nearby Wat Pho, where we combine our tour with set learning activities on Thai history and culture. At Wat Pho, we see the famed “reclining Buddha” and make merit for the next year. Students also take part in learning the basics of Thai massage–a painful and rewarding process! Our evening sends us on a dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya River, where we can view the temples at night and see remarkable river scenes while enjoying exotic Thai food.

During the morning we travel by private bus to Kanchanaburi, a key holiday destination for many Thais. Kanchanaburi was the scene of a WWII Japanese prison camp: the center for POWs and forced laborers who constructed the infamous Burma Railway. It has been said that a prisoner died for each of the railway’s 120,000 sleeper rails.

This somber backdrop provides a frame for the afternoon’s learning. We begin our journey by visiting the Bridge Over the River Kwai and Allied Prisoner War Cemetery, then boarding the “Death Railway” train for a trip past the Sai Yok Waterfall and through to Hellfire Pass. Students present short video “vignettes” on their learning at each location, demonstrating their understanding of the history along the way.

Upon our return to Kanchanaburi, we engage in a highly dynamic activity discussing the roots of the atrocities committed by the Japanese, and relate these roots to other acts committed across the world. We then consider the evolution of international law regarding “war crimes,” and discuss if “victors’ justice” plays a role in determining fault.

Today brings us to one of Thailand’s hidden natural treasures, the seven-tiered Erawan Waterfall. The day begins with a discussion on Thai culture, focusing on how tourists from other nations might behave differently than Westerners. Students devise questions and set goals for interviewing Thai and foreign tourists during the journey.

A bus ride to the foot of the falls is followed by a lengthy hike. We stop at several occasions to rest and swim, and have a picnic lunch at the top of the falls. Upon returning to Kanchanaburi, students compose the first of their “stories for home” about their day, focusing on explaining their day to a specific member of their family. This guided communication practice is essential for skill development.

We wake early and travel by private bus to Sukhothai, site of the Thai capital during the thirteenth century. While traveling, we discuss what we’ve learned about Thailand and the people to this point, focusing on differences and similarities to our home cultures as well as differences between urban and rural Thailand.

The afternoon and evening are spent relaxing at our hotel and discussing Sukhothai’s place in Southeast Asia’s history. Students work with local guides and use maps of the palace ruins to plot out the best routes for the next day. This process builds ownership over the itinerary, and competency in planning foreign travel, as well as removing the barriers of the tourist/guide dynamic.

We wake early to “beat the heat” for our bicycle exploration of Sukhothai Historical Park and the surrounding countryside. This tour follows small klongs (canals) past local farming and rice paddies. We can witness firsthand the importance of the waterways to the locals’ daily lives.

Upon reaching the Historical Park, students break into smaller groups, each with its own guide, to pursue their travel itineraries. Sukhothai Historical Park covers more than 70 square kilometers with nearly 200 ruins to examine, creating an optimal environment for learning about architecture, history, and Buddhism.

We re-converge for lunch, and then take a leisurely bike ride back to our hotel. During the evening, students work on another “story for home,” writing a few paragraphs of a news article or college application essay on the events of the day.

The service learning portion of our trip takes place over the next two days.

As Envoys adopts the “Do No Harm” framework for its activities, each service learning opportunity is conducted under the express request and guidance of our local partners. We consider both the immediate impact of our work as well as the long-term disturbances in power relations and dependency when selecting projects.

Activities may include teaching local children, assisting with development of teaching materials, building and cleaning educational facilities, or assisting with fundraising materials and plans.

All activities must:

1. Be proposed by our local partners and seen as essential to improving their operations.

We do not engage in re-painting murals or any other “photo-op” projects that can be repeated by subsequent trips. Envoys students only participate in projects that result in an actual benefit to the communities.

2. Facilitate collaboration between volunteers and those that they serve.

We refuse to contribute to a culture of dependency and see collaborative projects as the best means to develop understanding and empathy.

We travel by plane and bus to Chiang Mai, the jewel of Thailand’s northern provinces. After settling into our comfortable riverside lodgings, we enjoy a meal of khao soi, a traditional northern dish of egg noodles, pickled cabbage, shallots, lime, ground chilies, and curry.

During the afternoon, we travel by saengthaew (traditional Thai transit by covered pick-up) to the temple near the summit of Doi Suthep. From there, we climb the famed “dragon steps” to reach the top of the temple. As we explore this holy place, we consider the similarities and differences to other religious sites, a key topic for the evening’s reflection and discussion.

We begin with a historical overview of the importance of elephants in Thai culture, including their use in both war and industry. A basic economics lesson uncovers the demand factors that led to the rise in poaching of elephants for ivory and meat. We then discuss recent global and local efforts made in animal conservation.

These discussions provide the context for the day’s adventure. We travel to a local Elephant Conservation Center, where students are partnered with elephants and trainers. The day is spent learning about caring for these magnificent animals, including the basics of elephant riding.

Envoys selects conservation centers based on their ecological mission, avoiding purely commercial and exploitative organizations. Combined with our series of lessons, this intensive experience fosters lifelong appreciation for the natural world among Envoys students.

This day is not for the faint of heart! We set out for the mountain jungles for a high-intensity rope and ziplining course. Students soar hundreds of meters, looking down at the rain forest canopy beneath them. This safe and high-adrenaline activity is a real highlight of the trip!

Along with building confidence and having fun, students learn about the potential for collaboration between foreign and local entities to build a sustainable enterprise. After our return to Chiang Mai, we visit the local handicraft market to see other examples of local businesses (and pick up souvenirs for our families).

Following a discussion of the rising influence of Thai cuisine in restaurants around the world, we set out for our own private cooking class. Students select 2-4 dishes, shop at a local market for ingredients, and then cook their own lunch!

During the afternoon, students are challenged to develop their own project related to the experiences that they’ve had during the trip. These may take the form of a conservation and protection campaign for historical ruins, a business proposal for an eco-tourism lodge, or a detailed plan to launch a school-based advocacy group. We close the day with presentations by each student for their plan.

We take a late morning flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok.

Students return to the learning goals that they set for themselves and reflect on their progress, making plans for maintaining connections to Thailand after they return home.

Finally, we spend time discussing the impact of the trip on our views of ourselves and the world, crystallizing the changes that have taken place and setting goals for continuing to learn.

International flights home.

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