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Journey deep into the jungle to spend a week doing service work with Asian elephants at a world-renowned conservation center. Learn to feed, ride, bathe, and care for these magnificent animals and return home with a certificate attesting to your experience and achievements. Then, venture through Thailand on an action-packed touring expedition, exploring the best sights of the Land of Smiles.

Program Profile

Community Service Component
Next Level
Community Service Focus
Get to Know
Nature, The Sights
A Little Bit of Everything
Travel Component
Moderate Travel Involved

2015 Departures

Departs (USA) Returns (USA) Availability
June 9 June 26 Sold Out
June 16 July 3 Sold Out
June 23 July 10 Sold Out
June 30 July 17 Sold Out
July 7 July 24 Sold Out
July 14 July 31 Sold Out
July 21 August 7 Sold Out
July 28 August 14 Very Limited

Connecting Programs

Schedule two or more programs in a row to create your ideal Rustic Pathways experience.

This program connects especially well with:

  • Day 1

    Relax and prepare for a world-class trip on Singapore Airlines. Prior to your departure, you will have received your pre-departure packet, which will include your Rustic T-shirts, luggage tags and country books, airline tickets, and important contact information.

    Once you arrive at your international departure city, our Flight Liaison will help you get checked in for your international flight. Working with our Flight Liaison will be your Flight Leader, who will escort you all the way to Thailand! Our Flight Leaders are most often schoolteachers or good friends of our organization who happily fill this role for us each year. Once you’re checked in, feel free to relax and get acquainted with your new friends before boarding your flight to Thailand!

  • Day 2

    Today is lost as you cross the international dateline. Fear not – you will get this time back on your way home.

  • Day 3

    Sawat dee, and welcome to Thailand! Upon your arrival into one of the world’s most modern airports, you will immediately get the feeling that you have arrived in a place that is far different from the United States. Thailand is known as one of the most welcoming countries in the world and is affectionately nicknamed the Land of Smiles.

    As you exit the arrival hall with your Flight Leader, you will meet our team of staff. Unwind and meet new friends who have arrived on different flights or are connecting from different programs.

    In the mid-afternoon, hop on a quick one-hour flight up to Chiang Mai, where your program begins. This ancient and graceful capital is a fascinating mishmash of Northern Thai style, hill tribe cultures, and a vibrant community of non-profit workers. Almost immediately, you’ll start to notice signs of the importance of elephants in Thai culture. You’ll spot these magnificent animals making appearances in the décor, architecture, even on T-shirts, most likely before you even arrive in your hotel room. On the mountain overlooking the city from the west, you may catch a glimpse of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s most famous temple – according to the legends, the temple’s building site was chosen by the trumpeting of a sacred white elephant.

    Freshen up, rest, or take a dip in the hotel pool. After dinner, we’ll head back to the hotel for some much-needed sleep and to recharge our batteries for our busy week ahead!

  • Day 4

    Depart for the elephant camp by 8:30 a.m. From Chiang Mai, it’s a little more than an hour’s drive through the scenic mountains to the city of Lampang – your home for the next week.Once you arrive at the camp, meet the entire staff – including the elephants – and then the senior camp officials will offer an opening prayer ceremony, which is performed for good luck and to show the commitment of the group to the task at hand. With the ceremony finished, the program will be officially underway, and you will waste no time in getting down to business.

    Your first order of business will be to look the part – so everyone will receive an official mahout suit. Once you are comfortable in your fashionable new attire, you will be assigned to an elephant. Depending on the size of the group, there will be one or two students assigned to each elephant. First, master the basic mahout commands and how to interpret and communicate with these amazing animals. Before you know it, you’ll be riding your elephant into the jungle, learning its personality, and communicating with it – it’s all part of your new job as a mahout!

    In the evening, settle in to jungle life, with plenty of time to relax and share stories or maybe have an early night, ready for a dawn start with the elephants tomorrow!

  • Day 5

    The morning is truly a special time in the jungles of northern Thailand. The birds bring the forest to life and the sun cuts bright rays through the lingering mist. Rising early, walk down to greet and bathe your elephant at 7 a.m. Once your elephant is fed and cared for, head back to the camp for breakfast yourself.

    After you are well fed, hop on your elephant and ride down to the elephant show, which is designed to showcase the elephants’ skills to tourists. The show is a fundraising event for the camp and a great way to show the public these amazing creatures’ intelligence and potential. As a member of the mahout training camp, you will get a unique insider’s perspective on the show.

    Congratulate the elephants’ talents with a few bushels of sugarcane before you head to the elephant dung paper factory, where you’ll get your hands dirty learning how this useful product is made. Then ride your elephant back to the camp base and return them to the jungle for some rest while you join your mahout in some traditional Thai games. Say goodbye to the cheerful mahouts for the evening and head into the nearest town of Lampang for dinner and a stroll through the Saturday Walking Street Market.

  • Day 6

    Rising early, take your elephant down to the river again for its morning bath. Then, after breakfast, you will begin the day’s lesson – the life and practices of a mahout. Many people don’t realize that being a mahout is a life-long career. Although they don’t make much money and it is not a glamorous profession, mahouts are essential for the survival of elephants in the world today, and they are very respected in Thai culture.

    Learn about the special relationship that develops between the mahout and the elephant, the tools and skills involved, and how they communicate with one another. Then practice the training commands with your elephant, learn how to weave rope for a saddle, and find out how to strap cargo on comfortably. You will have gone a long way in developing your own relationship with your elephant by the time you release it back into the jungle in the afternoon.

    Once your elephant’s harness is complete, take a refreshing dip in a nearby swimming hole before lunch. In the afternoon, join the senior director of the school and a good friend of Rustic Pathways, Danger, for a discussion about the king’s royal white elephants and the dangers of working with an aggressive elephant.

    After dinner, join the staff to learn some songs in Thai that will help bring you closer to your mahout on your journey into the jungle tomorrow. This lesson always turns into a dance party, so bring your best moves to teach the local staff!

  • Day 7

    After the morning elephant bath and breakfast, use the skills you learned yesterday to load up your elephant with everything you will need for a night in the jungle. Then climb aboard and head toward the jungle camp, which is about an hour’s ride away.

    Once you reach the camp, give your elephant a chance to rest while you enjoy a jungle-style lunch cooked over an open fire. After taking a rest and maybe a dip in a nearby river pool – depending on that week’s rains – to cool off in the day’s heat, head into the jungle with the mahouts in search of bamboo. Craft what you find into several different kinds of products, including cups and dishes, with the help of the mahouts.

    As evening falls, throw on warmer clothes, eat a jungle feast, and play some Thai campfire games while singing and dancing the night away. For many students, this night is the highlight of the whole trip!

  • Day 8

    The sun will wake you up early this morning, and you will help your mahout bring your elephant in from the jungle where it spent the night. Then, after taking the elephants on a short walk to an area where they can munch on fresh greens for breakfast, hike back to the main camp. After a well-deserved shower and hearty lunch, learn to make a typical Thai dessert and head to a nearby market to try the local fare and grab some souvenirs. On your return, help reforest the jungle by planting trees that will eventually help shelter our pachyderm pals in their home. On your last night at the Conservation, eat dinner family-style and reflect on your amazing week with the elephants.

  • Day 9

    After the morning elephant bath and breakfast, head to the elephant hospital for a tour. Learn about the elephants’ lifespan and how injured elephants are treated and cared for here. Learn about the many elephants the camp has rescued from abusive situations and how they are rehabilitated. This will be your last chance to ask any lingering questions you have about these gentle giants before you head home, so don’t be afraid to speak up!

    It will now be time to say good-bye to your elephant, your gracious hosts, and the camp. At the closing ceremony, receive a certificate of completion for the program. In the afternoon, depart for Chiang Mai and check in to the hotel for some down time by the pool. After a nice rest, head into town for a traditional Thai massage before dinner, and take in some souvenir shopping at the world-famous Night Bazaar.

    Today, you’ll have the chance to explore a couple of Chiang Mai’s many sites of interest while waiting for the rest of the group to arrive in the late afternoon. Options may include learning the art of Thai massage at a school near town, catching one of the latest movies in a state-of-the-art movie theater, or visiting some awesome waterfalls nearby. Whichever activity the group chooses, our staff will gladly show you a great time!

    By late afternoon, meet up with your new friends joining you for the second leg of the trip. You’ll have a chance mix and mingle, rest, and take a dip in the hotel pool before heading to dinner. Be sure to share with the newest members of your group all the amazing things you learned about elephants in the week prior!

    After breakfast, the adventure begins with a short morning hike up Doi Kham, where you will learn a bit about Buddhism and take in the scenery from this seldom-visited temple. Then, head north out of the city to Tiger Kingdom, where you will have the chance to spend a little time with some adorable young tigers! Next, it’s off to one of the most impressive orchid farms in the area, followed by a trip every traveler to Chiang Mai should take – up the big mountain on the edge of town to the most famous temple in the region, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Listen closely to the amazing story of how an elephant marked the spot for the temple to be built – then head up the dragon-guarded staircase to check it out for yourself. After being blessed by a monk, ringing bells, and burning incense for good luck, take in the incredible view over the Chiang Mai Valley.

    After a short break back at the hotel, you’ll spend the evening taking in some of the country’s best shopping – and practicing your bargaining skills – at Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar.

  • Day 10

    Today, you’ll have the chance to delve into local culture with your choice of activity–learn about self-defense and composure with a Muay Thai kickboxing lesson, or opt for a more relaxing yoga class instead. You’ll also have some time to rest after your time in the jungle–it will be a busy week ahead!

  • Day 11

    After breakfast, the adventure begins with a drive into the misty mountains to Northern Thailand’s Holiest of Holies, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple. With panoramic views of the lush Chiang Mai valley below, learn about the unique religious traditions of the area, a fusion of Buddhist, Hindu and animist traditions. Hear the Legend of the White Elephant that marked this sacred spot as the location for the temple, and climb the dragon-guarded staircase to into the shrine itself. Once inside, be blessed by a monk for a happy and healthy trip before making offerings and getting your fortune read (spoiler alert!). Then, head north out of the city to Tiger Kingdom, where you will have the chance to spend a little time with some adorable young tigers!

    Next, it’s off to the center of the Old City to visit the beautiful Wat Chedi Luang, once the largest structure in the Lanna Kingdom. Take your chances on the temple’s slot-machine fortune teller or hang a golden silk banner for good luck before sitting down to chat with a local monk.

    After a short break back at the hotel, spend the evening taking in some of the country’s best shopping – and practicing your bargaining skills – at Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar.

  • Day 12

    Rise early today and set out into the stunning mountains of Northern Thailand. This is the most diverse region of the country, home to more than a dozen hill tribe minorities, each with its own distinct language, history, and culture. Following the Ping River, wind through the mountains and into the Chiang Dao Valley, famous for the magnificent mountain that towers over the landscape. The Doi Luang Chiang Dao Mountain is one of the tallest peaks in Thailand and easily the most impressive, with sheer limestone cliffs ascending to the top. Entering the Chiang Dao cave at the foot of the mountain, local guides will lead you by lantern-light to explore the many hidden passageways. This cave is an important spiritual center filled with flower-laden Buddha statues and the occasional hermit.

    This area is a treasure trove for botanists and biologists, and walking through the lush forest you will see why. Heading out of the mountains, stop at one of the many thermal mineral springs in the area to soak in the therapeutic water to your heart’s content. Settle in for the night at a country eco-resort and take in the view of mountains and rice fields as the sun goes down beyond the mountains.

  • Day 13

    Enjoy the fresh mountain air as you wake up early to give alms to village monks. After visiting the morning market for some local produce, take a walk in the rice paddies- there is no greener green! Or, if you are feeling up for adventure, trek to a nearby waterfall. As you journey from Chiang Dao north to Chiang Rai, enjoy sweeping views of the mountains along the country roads on the Thai-Burma border. Along the way, stop at scenic lookouts and get a taste of the fresh tea this area is famous for.

    Arriving in Chiang Rai we will visit two of the most unique structures in Thailand, created by two of the country’s most renowned artists. First, the White Temple, an intricate frosting-like edifice takes visitors on a journey through heaven and hell showing the karmic path away from temptation. Next we will head to the White Temple’s darker twin, the Black House. This complex contains massive teak halls where snakes and skeletons abound. Wander through the forested grounds and inside unique buildings, a fusion of Thai, Balinese and Burmese styles laden with modern paintings and ancient relics.

    In the late afternoon, we will check into the hotel to freshen up before heading out to explore the town. Walking through the back alleys and fresh markets of this charming and sleepy city, you will see what a “real” Thai town looks like.

  • Day 14

    There is a lot of ground to cover today! We will start by heading north out of Chiang Rai to the famous Golden Triangle where the Mekong and Ruak Rivers make a natural three-way border between Thailand, Laos, and Burma. In the past, this region was infamous for the opium-gold trade that provided a lucrative income for regional warlords. Nowadays, walking along the sleepy riverbank it is hard to imagine the volatile history of this region. Learn about the unique history of the Golden Triangle at the Opium Museum, before hopping aboard a chartered long-tail boat that will take you for a scenic boat ride between three countries. Along the way, stop at a market on an island over the Laos border- Listen to the distinctly different dialect as you shop for arts and crafts or bargain for tote bags and jerseys that look familiar in every way except the price tag.

    Back in Chiang Rai, take a dip in the hotel pool to cool off and enjoy a Thai massage before exploring the Night Bazaar. Hone your bargaining skills to get amazing deals on hill tribe bags, “elephant pants,” knockoff beats and all manner of cool souvenirs.

  • Day 15

    After breakfast at the hotel you’ll catch a flight down to Bangkok, the last stop on the trip. When you arrive, you’ll hop directly on a bus to see Ayutthaya, Thailand’s ancient capital, and some of the most extensive ruins in the country. Then, you’ll hop on a boat to enjoy dinner as you cruise through this historic city, before heading back to Bangkok. Get some rest for a big day exploring Bangkok tomorrow!

  • Day 16

    After a nice breakfast at the hotel, get ready to see it all in a day here in Bangkok! We’ll hop on the bus and start working our way towards the Chao Phraya River, or the ‘River of Kings.’ Here you’ll hop on a long-tail boat and go for a cruise upstream. Viewing Bangkok from the river – away from the busy streets and with a cool breeze on your face – is truly the best way to see it. After taking you past some of the city’s most famous sights, the boat will pull up at a floating restaurant, where you’ll grab some lunch.

After lunch, you’ll continue up river to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, the King’s most official residence and the home of the famed Emerald Buddha. You will have some time to wander the beautiful grounds here before heading upstream again – this time to Wat Pho, another of Bangkok’s most famous temples and home of the ‘Reclining Buddha,’ the largest such Buddha in the world. With your new souvenirs, photos, and budding friendships in tow, you’ll return to the hotel feeling like you’ve become a part of this bustling city. Catch an evening swim talking about all that you’ve seen on this memorable trip, and enjoy your final evening with your new friends.

  • Day 17

    Today, you’ll have time to relax at the pool before checking out and heading to the airport. Whatever is next for you, we hope that you always cherish the warm memories of Thailand you have made this week. Safe travels and chock dee!

    ** Please be aware that students traveling to LAX will have an overnight layover in Singapore on the way home, during which our staff will take them to a hotel not far from the airport. Students will be checked through to LAX from Southeast Asia, and the flight departs from Singapore at 9:25am. All students on our group flights arrive home on Fridays, regardless of whether they return to JFK or LAX. **

An Important Note About Schedule Changes

Rustic Pathways reserves the right to change, alter, or amend the daily itinerary for this trip at any time. Changes can be made for various reasons including changes in flight or program schedules, changes in the schedules of various external tours incorporated in our trips, the addition of new activities into a trip, or the substitution of an old activity for a new activity.

The itinerary shown here provides a good outline of the anticipated daily schedule for this program. As with any travel program, some changes may occur.

For more information, email thailand@rusticpathways.com

Program-Specific FAQs

  • There is no difference between these programs. The Amazing Thailand program and the Elephant Conservation Camp are two programs that are popular to combine, so we’ve gone ahead and combined them for you at a lower cost than signing up individually for the two programs. The program runs in the order of the Thai Elephant Conservation Project followed by the Amazing Thailand Adventure!

  • During the week of Elephant Conservation, we’ll stay in basic accommodations at the Mahout Training School within the Center. As reward for a week in the jungle, those continuing on to the Amazing Thailand Adventure will enjoy a few of the most beautiful four-star hotels Thailand has to offer.

  • Yes. Please note that each program is about a week in length, with international travel times on each end, making it 18 days total outside of the United States.

  • At the start and end of the Elephant Conservation Project, you’ll stay in a 4-star hotel in Chiang Mai – the same as you’ll stay for your first day on the Amazing Thailand Adventure, but the rest of the week will be at the Elephant Conservation Camp itself. At the Center, we’ll be in simple rooms with hot-water showers, air conditioning, and western-style beds. During Amazing Thailand, you’ll enjoy some of Thailand’s finest four-star hotels.

  • Laundry will be available to students once during the week on each program. During the time at the Conservation Center, you’ll be provided with a special Mahout suit that you’ll wear most days. Your ‘mahout suit’ is made of denim, which over the week will absorb your scent making it easier for your elephant to get to know and trust you.

  • There are mosquitoes. They’re usually not too bad, but you will want to have a long sleeve shirt and long pants in the evenings. Be sure to bring insect repellent containing DEET, which wards off mosquitoes, ticks, and most other insects.

  • Check with your doctor that all of your routine immunizations are up to date. Your doctor will also be able to give you the best advice about what precautions to take when traveling to the forests of northern Thailand.

  • You will want money to buy handmade crafts at local shops and at the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. There will be all kinds of souvenirs and fun stuff to buy, so budget accordingly. Markets and local crafts are huge part of Thai culture and a great way to support the local community. Here are some approximate, sample prices (listed in US dollars) that should help you prepare a budget: hand-woven scarf = $3; hand-woven shoulder bag = $6; T-shirt = $6; small wood carving = $5; soccer ball = $10

  • Rustic Pathways will cover all tips for guides and activities during the program, but we do ask students to budget about 1,200 Thai Baht (200 for each day of the program) as tip for their mahout at the end of the Thai Elephant Conservation Project. This is a recommended amount only, and students are welcome to leave as much or as little as they feel appropriate. Students usually also choose to leave a small gift indicative of their hometown as a gift for their mahout, who they grow quite close with during the week. The mahouts love to learn where you’re from, and a small trinket from America is a valued treasure here!

  • It is hot and humid in the day and a little cooler in the mountains at night. Daily downpours are short and give way to sunny skies. Be prepared for heat and dampness. Synthetic fiber clothes are great because they dry fast and don’t get as mildewy as cotton can.

  • Rural Thailand is still quite conservative, and Rustic Pathways expects our students to be upstanding ambassadors of our home countries. As a blanket rule at the Conservation, we ask that shorts are at least fingertip-length and any tank-top straps are at least the width of three fingers. During Amazing Thailand, there will be several days of “temple attire,” which requires your shoulders and knees to be covered.

  • Students will always have access to a phone, though we’d like to limit use of cell phones while at the Center. Internet will be available at the beginning and end of the Elephant Conservation Project, but will be available daily on the Amazing Thailand Adventure.

  • Each trip is staffed by a combination of western (American) and Thai leaders, and in most cases each team will include a nationally licensed guide, a western man and a western woman. We never have fewer than one staff member for every five students.

  • We will eat a wide variety of Thai and ethnic food, as well as the occasional Western meal. Thailand is famous for its food, and this trip will awaken your tastes to flavors you didn’t even know existed. Almost all dietary concerns can be accommodated, but please alert us of any relevant restrictions beforehand just to make sure. Vegetarians welcome!

  • We will be drinking all bottled water. Bottled water is safe and readily available.

  • The Conservation Center is under an hour from Chiang Mai’s world-class hospitals. While on Amazing Thailand, every city we visit has a hospital with reliable medical care that caters to hundreds of Westerners every year. For the short time we will be in more rural areas farther from top-quality medical care, our staff will have a clear plan and route to the nearest healthcare depending on the severity of the situation.

  • Safety is a top priority at Rustic Pathways, and for that reason we ensure that all of our staff is certified at the very least with First Aid and CPR training. Many of our guides are also qualified Wilderness First Responders, EMTs, Wilderness EMTs, or Life Guards.

  • Rustic Pathways does not make recommendations regarding immunizations. We strongly suggest that you consult with a travel doctor or your family physician for medical recommendations based on the area where the student will be traveling. You can also check the Center for Disease Control website at http://www.cdc.gov for more information.

  • This decision is best made by you, your family, and your family physician. For up-to-date information to help your decision please visit the World Health Organization website (http://www.who.int/en), the Center for Disease Control website, and consult your physician. The programs visit Chiang Mai, Lampang, Mae Hong Song, Pai and Bangkok. Most of these areas are largely considered to be malaria-free.

  • All flights departing from and returning to the United States will have flight leaders. In the event a student is connecting from another country, they may or may not have a flight leader. In such instances, we generally have coordinated with the airlines to escort the students from check-in through customs, and delivered to a verified Rustic Pathways staff member.

  • All of our programs within Asia connect seamlessly. All trips begin and end on Thursday, thus allowing for easy connectivity and convenience.

Packing the right gear (and the right amounts) is the first step to an incredible travel experience. Follow these tips to pack like a pro:

Travel light. Pack only the essentials. You’ll need less than you think!
Bring the right clothes. Pack clothes that are culturally appropriate for your destination and acceptable for service projects. This means bringing long shorts (think Bermuda and basketball shorts), t-shirts with sleeves to cover shoulders, and appropriate footwear.
Leave your valuables behind. While traveling, it’s easier for things to get lost, stolen, or damaged. Keep any prized possessions safe at home.
Check with TSA. Make sure your luggage complies with TSA regulations, especially your carry-on. Useful tip: Pack an empty water bottle and fill it up after security.
Extra paperwork? If you need additional forms filled out to get credit for your service hours, no problem! Bring these forms with you so they can be completed in-country.

Rustic Gear. Want to get all your shopping done for your program in one place? We’ve got you covered. Check out Rustic Gear and get all the essentials sent right to your door.


A school backpack is ideal as it will be used for day trips.

  • Passport
  • Photocopy of passport
  • 2 passport-sized photos
  • Wallet/money
  • Book and/or journal
  • Pen
  • Phone
  • Chargers
  • Camera
  • Ear buds
  • Change of clothes
  • Reusable water bottle
  • Medication
  • Additional community service forms
  • Outlet power converter
  • Consent to Travel form
  • Rustic Pathways emergency contacts

Checked Luggage

A 50-70 Liter duffel bag or backpack is ideal. A wheeled bag is acceptable only if it can be carried like a duffel bag over rough terrain.


  • Socks (2-4)
  • Underwear (8)
  • Pants/capris (1-2, lightweight)
  • Knee-length shorts (3-4)
  • Athletic shorts/leggings (1-2)
  • T-shirts (4-5)
  • Long sleeved shirt (1-2, lightweight)
  • Pajamas
  • Swimsuit
  • Rain jacket
  • Strappy sandals (like Tevas or Chacos)
  • Sneakers
  • Flip-flops
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat (for sun)
  • Quick dry towel


(Travel size bottles in Ziploc bags)

  • Shampoo
  • Conditioner
  • Body wash
  • Face wash
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Sunscreen
  • Lip balm w/sunscreen
  • Bug spray
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • Contacts
  • Contact solution
  • Foam earplugs
  • Personal med kit
  • Deodorant
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • Wet wipes
  • Small packs of tissues
  • Razor/shaving cream


  • Headlamp/flashlight with extra batteries
  • A bag for dirty clothes


  • Portable games (Bananagrams, cards, etc.)
  • Pictures of family and friends
  • Travel pillow

Important Reminders

  • SE Asia is a conservative culture with ancient customs based mostly on Buddhism. Dressing respectfully is very important. You will not be allowed to wear short shorts and low cuts tops. Everyone will be expected to respect the people and culture by dressing appropriately.
  • Carry-On Luggage cannot weigh more than 7 kilos (15 lbs.)
  • Check-In Luggage cannot weigh more than 15 kilos (33 lbs.)
  • If your bags weigh more than the amounts specified above, the airlines in Southeast Asia will charge you an excess baggage fee for every kilo over the allowed limit. In past years, we have had students incur significant charges for excess baggage. These fees must be paid in cash at the check-in counter (no USD accepted), so this is a situation that we always try to avoid!