Cultural immersion and community service in Southeast Asia
95% Rating
(14 Reviews)

Cultural immersion and community service in Southeast Asia

Backpacking with a Purpose: Apply by November 22!
If you're into cultural exchange, meaningful community service, and off-the-beaten path adventure, apply by November 22nd to secure an interview for your first-choice program!

You might’ve heard of this region’s 30 cent street pad thai, deep-fried tarantulas, and bucket-fuelled dance parties. Sure enough, all of this exists, but there’s so much more.

Thailand is a country that seamlessly blends modernity with its deeply rooted cultural traditions. Cambodians are moving past their tragic recent history to forge a brighter and more equitable future. Both countries face many challenges – Thailand struggles with ongoing political divisions and widespread inequality and Cambodia is ranked as one of the world’s poorest nations. While thousands of backpackers stream through this part of the world, few are put in touch with these realities.

Our Southeast Asia programs are designed to dig beneath the surface of how this region is commonly experienced. From dedicated activists promoting sustainable farming practices to young break-dancers empowering a new generation of Cambodians, join Operation Groundswell to discover a Southeast Asia you had no idea existed.

Highlights
  • 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 help to build a permaculture centre designed for local farmers who are combatting drought and promoting sustainable agricultural practice.
  • Volunteer at the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia, an ecotourism project that provides an alternative approach to elephant care, rehabilitation, and conservation.
  • Live with homestays in northern hill tribe communities to learn about one of Thailand’s most successful volunteer- and community-based tourism initiatives.
  • Feast your way through the streets of Chiang Mai, trying savory, sweet, and spicy delights… and everything in between!
Locations
Asia » Thailand » Bangkok
Asia » Thailand » Chiang Mai
Asia » Cambodia » Phnom Penh
Asia » Cambodia » Battambang
Asia » Thailand » Chiang Rai
Asia » Cambodia » Siem Reap
Asia » Cambodia » Angkor
Asia » Thailand
Length
1-2 Weeks
2-4 Weeks
1-3 Months
Language
English
Timeframe
Spring Break
Summer
Winter
Year Round
Housing
Guesthouse
Host Family
Hostel
Starting Price
$1,985.00
Currency
USD
Price Details
Our program fee includes all on-the-ground costs including a comprehensive program itinerary and educational curriculum focused on the issues facing your specific region, accommodations, meals, transportation, excursions, and two experienced program leaders with you 24 hours a day.

The program fee does not include flights, insurance, or personal expenses such as souvenirs. We also ask team members for a community contribution that goes directly to support our local in-country partners.

As a registered non-profit, we're committed to financial accessibility. Our Financial Needs Grant can cover 15-25% of your five- or six-week program fee and is available for anyone experiencing financial strain, including individuals from low-income households, students, and recent graduates.
Other Locations
Banteay Chhmar, Kratie

Questions & Answers

Program Reviews

  • Impact
    91%
  • Support
    100%
  • Fun
    87%
  • Value
    93%
  • Safety
    99%

Program Reviews (14)

Default avatar
Sacha
Female
27 years old
Washington, DC
Queen's University

Incredible trip!

10/10

OG is a wonderful organization that engages with tourism in a pretty unique way. This was my first ever time in Southeast Asia so I didn't want to go all by myself. Having studied international development in undergrad, it was very important to me that I travel with an ethical company that respects local cultures and doesn't charge you a fortune to build part of a school for a couple weeks and have you thinking you're changing the world. OG was exactly what I was looking for. We definitely had our share of touristy experiences, but getting off the beaten track is what made this trip special. The value for the price is excellent, considering that everything is planned out for you and how much is packed into these 6 weeks. Despite the fact that it's been a few years, my experience in Cambodia and Thailand is still something I constantly talk about (pretty sure my friends and family are sick of hearing about it). I can't say enough good things about OG and would not hesitate to travel with them again.

How can this program be improved?

More time in Thailand would have been great, but there's only so much you can squeeze into 6 weeks (especially when the Thai military declares a coup a week before you arrive).

Default avatar
Christine
Female
25 years old
Ottawa

OG is the best trip you'll ever take!

10/10

OG is such an incredible organization! We spent roughly half our time volunteering and half travelling around. Although you could definitely do SEA more cheaply by yourself, OG provides experiences you would never have otherwise. There is no way I would have spent a week on a farm in rural Cambodia if I was travelling solo. It felt like a very authentic way to see the country. OG has a great attitude towards voluntourism, which is great. I really felt that our contribution was valuable, unlike some of the problematic organizations focused on making money.
Our program leaders were also amazing. They knew so much about the area, and took great care of me when I got sick.
Overall, the experience of a lifetime.

How can this program be improved?

I would have liked to do a bit more volunteering. Due to unforeseen circumstances, one of our placements was cancelled. Not the program's fault, but still a bummer.

Default avatar
Katrina
Female
23 years old
SUDBURY

Awesome Experience

10/10

This trip was amazing! I still find myself telling friends, family, and strangers about some of the lessons I've learned in Asia. If you have a passion for the environment, animals, helping people, or just want to learn something for your own benefit, this type of program can do just that.
You'll get out of it what you put in so go in with an open mind, and a willingness to listen and learn. It's perhaps the most cliché thing to say, but the best part of the entire program was seeing that what I worked on was actually making a difference somewhere in the world.

Emily
Female
20 years old
La Porte, Indiana

This program changed my life

10/10

This program opened me into a new world where I got to experience things I never thought possible. I have been highly dedicated to volunteering for a long time, but this trip took it to a new level. I actually saw myself grow up and mature more through the course of the trip and I also saw myself becoming even more independent. The way this program is structured allows you to immerse yourself in a new culture and learn an amazing amount of perspective, but if you come onto this trip with a closed mindset you are in trouble. Being open minded allowed me fully experience everything OG had to offer and I am eternally grateful for my experience, what I learned, the service we did and the lifetime bonds I made with the rest of my group.

Amy
Female
22 years old
Smithers, British Columbia

Absoutley outstanding program!!

9/10

The amount of effort and enthusiasm Operations Groundswell put into this program is just unbeatable. I've been on Two OG(operation groundswell) programs and couldn't be more pleased with this organization. I would recommend this program to everyone and overall give it the highest rating. I've learnt so much being over seas with OG , not only about such incredible cultures but about myself and my country aswell.
I also believe that if I planned this trip by myself I wouldn't get to experience all there is that OG sets up for you. You get the chance to eat local dishes(more then you'd like) experience culture background , including the devastations, and explore places you wouldn't even imagine.
I couldn't say this enough , PLEASE go on a OG trip ! You won't regret it !

How can this program be improved?

Honestly , the only thing would be to work on a more understanding group dynamic.
Your stuck with the same people for over a month. Of course people's personalities don't click.

Default avatar
Ashley
Female
22 years old
Muskoka, Ontario
Other

Southeast Asia

5/10

It was definitely a journey that doesn't compare to any other volunteer trip I've ever done before. Things happened that you never think will happen to you but OG was there every step along the way. It was an eye opening experience for sure. It made me more educated about different issues I had no idea even existed.

Default avatar
Hannah
Female
24 years old
Blacksburg, VA
Virginia Tech

A Refreshing Perspective

10/10

Going on this trip was one of the best decisions I have made thus far. The balance of work and play was optimal: we volunteered at established and reputable NGO's that were inspiring and fun to be around. I feel that my knowledge of Cambodian culture was especially improved and I felt culturally immersed. Travelling in groups can be difficult but our OG leaders were talented at creating a positive and conscientious group dynamic. The itinerary was jam packed with unforgettable experiences but if I had to pick a favorite part of the trip it would be when we were in Mondulkiri, Cambodia at the Elephant Valley Project. We learned about everything from elephant behavior to deforestation in Cambodia. This stop, including others like the Sikkha Foundation in Bangkok and Tiny Toones in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, were representative of "Backpacking with a Purpose" (OG's slogan). This experience has altered my way of thinking about travel and has provided me with a refreshed perspective on life and an inspiration to analyze my decision-making abroad and at home. (Also my trip was from January 3-Feb 12, 2015 so the info is wrong here)

How can this program be improved?

More volunteer time in Bangkok or in Thailand in general would have added to the trip. I loved Cambodia and the organizations there were phenomenal but more than 7 days total in Bangkok doing less touristy things may have been more educational. That is such a slight tweak, though. I'm not sure that I would actually want to give up any time in Cambodia and Bangkok was an excellent place to get to know one another.

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Paige
Female
24 years old
Ottawa, Canada
Carleton University

OG knows how to do it right!

10/10

For years, I had wanted to travel to Cambodia and OG did not disappoint in any way! The program was perfectly balanced between rural, cut-off-from-everything projects and big city experiences. As soon as you started missing having running water or electricity, you headed to the big city! And as soon as you started yearning for the quiet solitude and kind people of the rural countryside, that's where we went.
I felt that every project we partnered with was actually impactful on everyone involved, unlike some volunteer experiences I've seen. Travelling with a group of people is bound to bring about some complications but overall, it brings the group closer together and adds immensely to the overall trip.
I'm planning a second trip with OG and would not recommend anyone else but them for anyone looking to travel ethically, and have fun while doing it!

How can this program be improved?

I would move the Independent Travel Time up in the program by just a few days so that when the group reconvenes, they can have a few more days together. I definitely felt that I wasn't ready to say goodbye to everyone for good, after being off on ITT for 10 days.

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Cori
Female
24 years old
Sackville, New Brunswick
Mount Allison University

Cities and Sanctuaries, Takes You Far Beyond The Tourist Bubble

10/10

One of my biggest fears of backpacking was going on a trip and coming back with the same or similar stories as the thousands of tourists that travel to SEA each year. Its not hard to do, see some beaches, party on Khao san rd, get to a full moon party and see Angkor wat. However this trip gave me none of those typical stories, yes they were a sight to see but being able to go beyond that is what makes this a especially special. Spending nights in the middle of nowhere Cambodia under the brightest stars I've ever seen, with the nearest electrical outlet hours away after planting 300 trees that day at the local school and farm is not something many people can say they did. It was clear when I was given the opportunity at the end of the trip to travel on my own (part of the trip, how awesome it that!?) that I was the envy of many other backpackers I met. The truth is we all travel to figure out ourselves and see whats out there, but truly we all want those experiences that people look at you and go 'wow you did what? you did that, really?' its the best feeling in the world and OG and Cities and Sanctuaries gives you those opportunities, truly being able to see the country for what it is and how you can help. The lessons and tips that I learned while there help me be a more explorative and adventurous backpacker on my own and i will be forever grateful for the experience and i know anyone else would as well.

How can this program be improved?

I would have stayed longer at some of the projects that we did, we could still see that we made an impact but being able to spend a few more days would have been nice. The budget estimate that the program gives you to spend when you do your independent travel time (ITT) is slightly off, for anyone in the future i would recommend expanding it by 100- 200 dollars, you would still be fine with the recommended money they suggest to bring but a little extra money would make you slightly more comfortable. And remember to always bring something a little nicer you never know when you want to go out!

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Erin
Female
24 years old
Toronto, Canada
Wilfrid Laurier University

Loved Every Minute

10/10

This trip was amazing! I have no criticism at all. I thought it was a great trip for people looking to explore a new region, but did not want to do it alone. The leaders were so knowledgeable local customs and activities.

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Sarah
Female
24 years old
Mississauga, Ontario
Queen's University

Most outstanding experience!

10/10

Overall I learned a great deal about sustainable travel including how you dress and act really make an impact. Trip leaders were extremely knowledgeable and gave excellent advice about where to go, how to get around, what experiences were worth while. The volunteer experiences were incredibly meaningful and enjoyable. I was pushed out of my comfort zone which was really rewarding. The cost of the trip was reasonable and fair and I found the experiences to be worth well more than what I paid which shows how well organized and thought out the program is.

How can this program be improved?

The volunteer experiences were great, however I wish they were longer.

Default avatar
Amanda
Female
32 years old
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Carleton University

A Backpacker Envied by Backpackers

9/10

Thousands of tourists visit SEA every year, but none of them are going to get to see Thailand and Cambodia the way we did! We eased our way into the chaos of Bangkok, mellowed out with monks and "ethical" elephants. We wandered into the countryside of Cambodia long enough to make friends, explore ancient ruins without a tourist in sight and learn about land grabbing or water shortage issues, instead of just getting a great facebook photo of a stilt house by a rice field. We partied with Cambodians in Cambodia (crazy?!?!) and were envied by all the backpackers hanging out with backpacker's when we told the tale. We sang karaoke, took the broken down bus with the locals and fit 13 people into one tuk tuk instead of four! We made unforgettable friendships and memories with the amazing break dancing leaders of Tiny Toones on the beautiful beaches of Shianoukville. When traveling with OG, I was able to experience the local side and the tourist side. We went off the beaten track, but enjoyed all the intricacies of the well-worn path too! Both sides have their perks! This trip, especially Cambodia and the smiling, resilient people, rocked my world and opened my eyes to another world - a world strikingly different at first glance, but with far more similarities than i'd imagined. A life changing trip.

How can this program be improved?

I mean nothing is perfect, but that's where we get our best stories. Right?

Default avatar
Fiona
Female
32 years old
Toronto, Ontario
York University

Such an amazing trip, I went twice!

10/10

Spending my summer traveling through Southeast Asia with OG was quite simply the best time of my life. In fact, I loved it so much that I went twice! It enabled me to explore, experience and learn about this side of the world in ways which I'm sure would not have happened without them. From spending time working in the remote hill tribes of Thailand, to facilitating leadership programs for youth in Cambodia - every experience was engaging, authentic, and unforgettable. And ontop of the unique adventures, delicious food, friendly people and (let's be honest) some amazing party nights, the OG team leaders and fellow particiapants are some of the most amazing people I have ever met. I would go again in a heartbeat!

How can this program be improved?

Backpacking around foreign lands with a dozen other people is bound to experience hiccups in the itinerary and timeframes along the way. The best thing you can do is embrace it and realize that it's all part of the experience.

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Sid
Male
24 years old
Toronto
University of Toronto

OG does Southeast Asia right

10/10

I've traveled in Thailand as a typical backpacker and I've traveled in Thailand as an OG backpacktivist. There's no doubt as to which will provide you with a real sense of what life in SE Asia is really all about beyond the beaches, tour buses, and cheap alcohol. The most memorable moment was probably hanging out with a rad group of Cambodian breakdancers and hip hop artists from an NGO called Tiny Toones that uses music/art/education as tools to empower street kids in Phnom Penh. They are so incredibly fun, welcoming and inspiring. And I really felt that the leadership retreat we collaborated on with them made an impact.Staying in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, talking to monks and spending a day learning how to cook Thai food was also very interesting and fun. The friendships you build and memories shared with your fellow travelers on the trip make it all the more amazing.

About The Provider

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Operation Groundswell is all about backpacking with a purpose. With ethical travel at the crux of our philosophy, Operation Groundswell designs financially accessible programs that tell a story, addressing key challenges unique to each region and community we work with, told from diverse local perspectives.

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