Southeast Asia

Cities & Sanctuaries

We’re building a community of “backpacktivists” that are socially, environmentally, and politically aware of their impact in the communities they travel to and live in. We work with our local partners on community-requested projects to uncover the intricacies of each place we go to.

Embrace the complexity of Cambodia and Thailand as we traverse through modern cities, idyllic countrysides, and even ancient ruins! Our Cities & Sanctuaries program is all about immersing ourselves in contemporary Southeast Asia – learning about the culture, history, politics, and challenges to development. It’s an incredible journey that aims to channel the power of travel towards creating a more equitable global society.

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40-DAY ↑

Fees + Community Contribution  

[currency_amount cad=”$3,190 CAD + $750 CAD NOW $2,190 CAD + $750 CAD” usd=”$3,060 USD + $720 USD NOW $2,120 USD + $720 USD”]

Program Dates

May 31 – July 9, 2018

  • Embrace the chaos and complexity of modern Bangkok, from its ornate temples and mouth-watering cuisine to the sobering realities of the Klong Toei slum.
  • Discover an 800-year-old ancient temple complex and get to know our friends at 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.
  • Explore the ancient ruins of Angkor, a World Heritage Site and Cambodia’s most important national symbol, comprising of a massive collection of ancient temples scattered around the landscape.
  • Hang out with Tiny Toones and learn about how this innovative NGO is using the arts, dance, and informal education to inspire and motivate the new generation.
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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, Bangkok. In a citywide scavenger hunt we’ll get to know the sights, sounds, and tastes of this modern yet distinctively Thai city. We’ll visit some of the city’s most beautiful temples while getting to know our team better. We’ll also have the chance to spend time in the slum of Klong Toei where we’ll witness some of Bangkok’s harsher realities and even learn Thai from some of the coolest kids in town!

Temples and Responsible Tourism – Banteay Chhmar

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. We’ll be sleeping in traditional homestays and eating local, seasonal food prepared by aunties and grandmas!

In addition to all of this, three days will be spent volunteering with our good friend and activist Sokha, who is setting up an organic farm and self-reliance center to promote sustainable agriculture in the region.

Volunteering with Ockenden Cambodia

Amidst rice fields and villages, we will continue to Siem Reap province where we’ll meet our friends at Ockenden Cambodia. Comprising 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’ll have the chance to take part in 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 bale gardens.

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

Temples and Mass Tourism in Angkor

After an intense couple of days of working with Ockenden we’ll head to the bustling town of Siem Reap – the gateway to the massive Angkor historical park (Cambodia’s prime tourist destination)! We’ll be in awe of this must-see world wonder as we hop from temple to temple and marvel at the feats of the ancient Khmer Empire. We will, however, also unpack the problematic, unhinged growth of mass tourism at this site and how it has compromised economic, environmental, and socio-cultural sustainability in the region.

Bat Caves and Circus Acts in Battambang

Ready for some urban comforts? While Siem Reap may be a little overwhelming to the senses, we’ll bid it adieu and head to the charming town of Battambang where we’ll take things a little slower for a couple of days. 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 though, 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.

Education, Rights, and Resistance 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. At the same time, we’ll also make sure to familiarize ourselves with the hip, modern, funky vibe that energizes this booming city!

Here, we’ll meet with our good friends at Tiny Toones, a hip-hop and breakdancing educational drop-in centre for marginalized youth. Much more than that, Tiny Toones has become a positive space for learning Khmer, English, arts, and music production. We’ll be sure to learn a couple of breakdancing moves from these inspiring kids! Our team will also spend an afternoon at a workshop with One Love Cambodia, an advocacy group promoting the rights of Khmer-American deportees and, ultimately, fighting for a more just system allowing them to reconnect with their families and loved ones.

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 favourite 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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