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Come with nothing! Bring only what you can pack in a carry-on bag and buy additional supplies in local markets in-country. Travel to three remote villages where you will live with the locals and work with them on school and community improvement projects. Moving from northern Thailand and into Laos, you’ll take an awesome overnight boat ride down the Mekong River. Be prepared to rough it on this incredibly rewarding service experience!

Dates listed reflect travel time departing from and returning to the USA. International clients click here.

With our No-Stress Travel Policy, you cancel for any reason up until the day of travel, and escrow 100% of the program fees for up to two years from the cancellation date.

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Program Profile

Community Service Component
Community Service Focus
Infrastructure, Education
Get to Know
The People
Live Like a Local
Travel Component
Moderate Travel Involved

Welcome to one of our most intense service programs in Southeast Asia! The program name is not a joke. You can only pack one light bag, including just one change of clothes, a few pairs of underwear, your necessary hygiene items and medicines, and no more than five things you feel might be important during your trip. These might include a camera, a notebook, a tape recorder, or a book – it’s up to you. Just leave everything else at home. When you get to Thailand, you’ll be given a locally made backpack and $50 to buy clothing for the next three weeks. You’ll be surprised how far this money goes at the local market. You may also be surprised that many families in villages around the world live on less than $50 per month.

Travel With Friends, Not Things

Rustic Pathways has friends in these villages, so you won’t be a stranger. We have long-standing partnerships with these communities, and you will be welcomed like family. They have opened their homes for you to stay and learn about their culture, and invited you to work together with other locals on meaningful service projects. They are all waiting for you to arrive.

Live Like a Villager

You will visit three villages, one in Thailand and two in Laos, for about five days each. You’ll meet with local NGOs, village leaders, and respected elders along the way to give you insight into the needs of the area. Build lifelong friendships in the villages where you work, and develop skills that will help you organize service projects back at home.

Discover what it is like to live in a small village far away from the influences of modern society. Your leaders will arrange clean food and water, but expect living conditions to be very rustic and humble. People here don’t have many things, and students find their sincere approach to life refreshing, and love to spend time with these close-knit families. After just a few days, you will find that you have left behind the world you know. You will soon begin to groove to an entirely different beat here in the mountains of Southeast Asia.

A Service Voyage down the Mekong River

The first village that you’ll visit is in the mountains of Chiang Rai Province, one of the least-developed areas of Thailand. This area is home to various tribes that traditionally hail from as far away as China’s Yunnan Province and the Tibetan Plateau. Rustic Pathways has many friends here, and you’ll be received with open arms by the local villagers.

After your first village, you’ll begin a memorable two-day boat trip up the Mekong River to Luang Prabang in Laos. Expect conditions to be challenging – this is a long, rugged trip that includes an overnight stay along the banks of the Mekong. For those who are up for the challenge, this introduction to life on the river in Laos may end up being one of the program highlights.

After your two-day trip on the river, you’ll be ready to head off to your final two villages in Laos in Luang Prabang province. Here you will work with the Hmong and Khmu ethnic tribes who inhabit this area of Laos. Compare and contrast the life of these villagers to the life of the villagers in Thailand.

Go Home Rich!

This trip has a way of leaving lasting impressions and positive memories with students and villagers alike. You will likely go home inspired, with a desire to continue service long after you have left this program. The villagers will also be left with wonderful memories, and they will be grateful for all of the hard work and dedication you have put into these projects.

You’ll return home much richer than you arrived – and if you’ve used your heart and your head well, you will have given something substantial to three villages. You will not only go home a richer person in friendships and experience, but by doing your small part you will have made this world a better place. You’ll never forget this trip!

Are You Up For the Challenge?

Come With Nothing: The Mekong Expedition is an intense experience that involves a lot of hard work. Generally, students who are not prepared for the rustic conditions on this program have some difficulty adjusting.

Despite being different from what you are used to, living standards in remote Thai and Lao villages are quite clean, and staff will make sure you are well informed in each village you visit. While the rustic conditions may require some adjustment, the vast majority of our students really enjoy the opportunity to live like local people in three different locations.

However, you can and should expect your comfort levels to be tested throughout the trip. We are not trying to scare you away, but the success of this program depends on having participants who are ready for this kind of experience. If you are expecting a comfortable, relaxing, five-star holiday, you will be in for quite a surprise when you arrive. Here is what you can expect:

  • Mornings come early in rural Thailand and Laos, and you must wake up with your host family. They will be up preparing breakfast and getting ready for the day as soon as the first roosters crow and often before the sun begins to rise.
  • Personal space is very limited in many of the hill tribe villages that we visit.
  • You will find yourself in places that do not have Western-style toilets or showers for extended periods of time. You will learn to use the same facilities the villagers use – you’ll be using a “squat” toilet and showering with a bucket.
  • You will always be well fed, but picky eaters will not always have a lot of options to choose from. Students who do not eat the local cuisine (which is generally pretty simple and tasty) can expect instant noodles, eggs, peanut butter sandwiches, rice, rice soup, and fruit.
  • You will be out of cell phone and internet range for the majority of this program, and electricity may even be limited, as generators shut off in most rural villages at about 9:00 PM.

If you are up for an adventure and seeking a dramatically different service experience that will fully immerse you in fascinating cultures and places, Come With Nothing: The Mekong Expedition is the program for you!

A Note to Female Students About Dress Code:

Women in hill tribe villages dress extremely conservatively, and we require our students to always be respectful of local culture and do the same. While doing service work, you should wear comfortable clothing you don’t mind getting dirty. For times when you are in a school environment or working with children, you will need to wear a long skirt or wrap a sarong around your waist. Low-cut tops or any item of clothing that reveals undergarments are prohibited.

Although you may feel fine dressed in your normal clothes, you can quickly become a spectacle and do more harm than good if you are inappropriately dressed in these traditional places. Please respect this aspect of the culture and everybody will win!

  • Day 1 - 2

    International travel days as you leave your home country bound for Thailand.

  • Day 3

    All of our programs in Laos connect through Bangkok, Thailand, where Rustic Pathways program leaders eagerly await your arrival. From Suvarnabhumi International Airport, you will connect to a short flight up to Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, where your local staff will join you and your adventure will officially begin. Welcome to Thailand!

  • Day 4

    Today your group will prepare for the journey into the hills of northern Thailand. You will be given your local backpack and shopping money from your $50 budget to buy supplies in a local market. This is a great opportunity for you to see how Thai people do business in Chiang Rai, the trade center of this region, and put money back into the local economy with your purchases. Then, spend the afternoon exploring Chiang Rai, visiting some surreal Buddhist sites, sampling Thai delicacies, and getting acclimated to Southeast Asian culture, foods, and environment.

  • Day 5 - 8

    Leave the city behind and venture into the hills of northern Thailand to your first homestay village. For the next four nights you will be living in a rural village and working on a service project in Chiang Rai province. Here’s what you can expect:

    • Sleeping in a the household of local family with 3-5 other students
    • Eating meals as group or with your home-stay family
    • Rising before 7 AM and in bed before 9 PM
    • Between 5-7 hours of service work each day
    • Leading English language enrichment activities, working on construction projects, landscaping, farming, etc.
    • No western amenities (squat toilets and cold bucket showers)
    • Limited electricity for the duration of your village stay
    • Very little or no English spoken by the villagers
    • No use of electronic devices (cell phones / iPods / tablets)
  • Day 9

    After four days in the first village, your group will pack up and head to the border between Thailand and Laos.  As you cross over, you might begin to notice the subtle differences in clothing and food between countries, and witness the bustle of the small border town of Huay Xai as people shuffle goods back and forth across the Mekong River.

  • Day 10 - 11

    The next two days will be spent floating along the wide waters of the Mekong River on a private Rustic Pathways boat. This unique mode of transport is the perfect way to get to know your program leaders and fellow student travelers better, as well as take some time to relax and enjoy the stunning scenery. Along the way you will pass remote villages, see water buffalo grazing on the riverbanks, and fisherman casting lines. You will begin to get a sense of how central the river is to the people who live in this part of the world, stopping overnight in a small riverside town called Pak Beng. In the afternoon of your second day, you will arrive in the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, Laos, stopping along the way at the Pak Ou cave system before pulling in to the riverside dock. This evening you will settle in to sleep at the Rustic Pathways base house and regroup before your next village stay.

  • Day 12

    Rise early this morning to witness the almsgiving ceremony on the streets of Luang Prabang, when hundreds of Buddhist monks wander the streets collecting goods for the temple from the people hoping for good merit. Then, visit the morning market for a strong Lao coffee and a baguette before stocking up on supplies for your next village homestay. This afternoon you will drive three hours north to Nong Khiaw province, and spend the afternoon in this sleepy village exploring the Pa Tok caves, once the shelter for the local government during the Vietnam War.

  • Day 13 - 16

    This morning you will venture further afield to your second village, taking a boat further up the Nam Ou River and then hopping into 4WD trucks to traverse the backcountry roads. Over the next few days you will have the chance to experience life in a Khmu village through service, and learn about the history and unique customs of this hill tribe. As before, it can be hard to predict what you will experience in each village, but expect long days of service, early mornings, and simple accommodations.

  • Day 17

    Head back into Luang Prabang once again to restock on supplies and explore this charming riverside town. Your group will visit the Unexploded Ordinances Offices here in Luang Prabang, where you will learn the extent of the impact of the Vietnam War on Laos and it’s continuing effect on life here today.

  • Day 18

    Once again, you will leave Luang Prabang and head into the hills for your final village homestay.

  • Day 19 - 21

    These days will be spent in your third village in the hills one to two hours outside of Luang Prabang. By now, you may find you have gotten into the rhythm of life in this part of the world, and picked up some skills along the way! The village homestay itinerary cannot be scripted ahead of time, but the same expectations hold for all three homestays.

  • Day 22

    Today you will leave the village behind, packing up all your supplies into our vans to set out on foot and hike the beautiful countryside. This three-hour hike will lead you across rice paddies, over lush green mountaintops, and through forests on the way to the famous Kuang Sri waterfall. Spend the afternoon marveling at the seven-tiered falls as the crystal blue waters drop from high on a cliff you can climb if you feel adventurous! In the evening, you will return to the Rustic Pathways base house before heading into town to explore the night market that was once a Hmong trading outpost. Wander under the small tents to buy some souvenirs, or relax with a delicious fruit smoothie after your long days in the village.

  • Day 23

    Your final morning in Laos will be spent exploring Luang Prabang and the surrounding countryside, sitting down with a monk to discuss Buddhist life, or relaxing with a traditional Lao massage.

    After a quick lunch, your group will head to the airport to say goodbye to idyllic Luang Prabang and fly back to Thailand. All Laos programs finish with a night in Bangkok, complete with night activities down by the Chao Praya River, the River of Kings. Celebrate at dinner with your group, sharing memories and photos of all you have learned and accomplished over the past three weeks.

  • Day 24

    Laos programs connect easily with all other Southeast Asia programs, so consider staying a week or longer to explore more of this incredible part of the world!

    Heading home? You will transfer to Bangkok airport to meet up with your Flight Leader who will lead our escorted group flight back to the US.

    Whatever is next for you, we hope that you always keep the warm memories of Laos with you!

    ** All students on our group flights arrive home on Fridays, regardless of whether they return to JFK or LAX. **

    Notes about the Itinerary:

    The itinerary is different for nearly every Come With Nothing program because each group visits a different combination of villages. Typically we only visit each village one to three times per summer, depending on the ongoing service initiatives in each location. On your trip you may be invited to village ceremonies, such as weddings, funerals, or religious holidays. Trip leaders also tend to plan surprise activities for our students over the duration of the program. Generally speaking, we like the itinerary to be immersive, adventurous and spontaneous, all while being educational. You never know what may happen on a Come with Nothing program!

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.

“Optional Activities” are fully included in the cost of your program, but you can choose to not do these activities.

“Add-On Activities” are not included in the cost of your program and must be paid for separately. Add-on activities are rare, but include things like skydiving, bungee jumping, or weekend side-trips. Not every program has add-on activities.

For more information, email laos@rusticpathways.com

Program-Specific FAQs

  • Laos Come With Nothing connects well with other programs in Laos, as well as those in other countries in Southeast Asia.

  • US and Canadian citizens are issued visas on arrival to Thailand and Laos. The visa for Laos requires $35 US dollars in cash and 2 passport-sized photos. Students from other countries will need to check with their local Singaporean and Lao embassies for information. Your passport needs to be valid for at least 6 months from the END of the program date. If you are planning to connect programs within SEA it is crucial that your passport is valid for at least 9 months from the END of the program date.

  • 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.

  • Yes, the day you lose on the way over will be gained back once you cross the international dateline.

  • The program begins in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand. Students will cross the border into Laos over land before taking a private boat ride down the Mekong to visit small rural communities in Laos. The program will visit Luang Prabang and the surrounding areas in northern Laos.

  • Students will fly from Bangkok to Chiang Rai, Thailand, and back via Luang Prabang unless connecting to another program that begins in a different part of the region.

  • Each program will have leaders who are certified in First Aid and CPR. Some of our program leaders are also 
certified as Wilderness First Responders, Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), Wilderness EMTs, or Life Guards.


  • Rustic Pathways maintains a minimum of 1 Program Leader for every 7 students. Additionally, each program maintains at least 2 primary program leaders, one male and one female.

  • Bottled water is safe and readily available. We ask students to bring reusable water bottles in order to reduce plastic usage.

  • Students are allowed to bring phones on their Rustic Pathways program, but must abide by our cell phone policy. Students will not be allowed to use their phones during group activities, nor at any other time where it is disruptive to the group dynamic. If students are unable to abide by this policy, disciplinary action may be taken.

  • If you need an adapter, look for a universal adapter that will accept almost any plug and plug into almost any style of outlet. They cost around twenty dollars and are available at office and travel supply stores.

  • It’s 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 much faster than cotton can.

  • Students will be staying in traditional Hill Tribes houses that tend to be rather simple and primitive. Bamboo and wood structures are most typical. DO NOT expect western toilets or pressurized showers/shower heads. Asian style (squat) toilets and buckets showers are common. Some villages may have a common bathing area where everyone shares the same watering tank or possibly just bath in the local river/watering hole. Students will quickly learn how to use a sarong for privacy while bathing like the local people do. Students will be eating, sleeping, and socializing on the wooden floor. One of the houses will be used a general area for all students and staff. This is normally where all the cooking and eating will be taking place. There will be no A/C and fans are not common.

  • Each group will have a staff chef who is responsible for cooking healthy, hearty meals though students are also encouraged to help prepare the meals with the staff. While in the villages groups will eat family style in the home but while traveling meals will be eaten in local restaurants and food markets. Stops for snacks and drinks are frequent as well during these long road journeys. Students should be expected to try a wide variety of local food and be open to a change in their regular diets.

  • Students can expect minimal bathroom facilities, with coldwater bucket showers and squat toilets.

  • Internet cafes will be accessible in towns along the way. Also some Rustic base houses will have an Internet connection. Staff will always have a cell phone with them and students with emergency situations or justifiable reasons will have access to use these phones to call home.

  • Most times students will be doing their laundry the “local/traditional” way by hand just like the villagers.

    However our trip is designed with stopovers in bigger towns and cities, where students will have the opportunity to take their clothing to a laundry service. This can typically be done for $1-2 US Dollars per kilogram.

  • Students should be prepared to do quite a bit of walking while exploring the country. We will also be doing some swimming in rivers and under waterfalls. We will be visiting many remote locations on this trip. Mosquitoes and vector-borne diseases are present in the region, so students should consult a travel doctor before departure.

  • Please consult with a travel doctor or your family physician for immunization and other medical recommendations, based on the area(s) where you will be traveling and on your own medical history. In addition to consulting with a medical professional, please visit the International SOS and Centers for Disease Control websites for country specific information around immunizations and traveler’s health. Please let us know if you have specific questions.

  • International SOS is one of the world’s leading providers of medical evacuation and travel services. All participants traveling with Rustic Pathways will have access to International SOS benefits through Rustic Pathways’ membership.

    As a member you will have access to International SOS’ extensive travel information database to help you make informed decisions prior to travel. Additionally, all travelers who travel outside their country of residence will have access to medical evacuation support during their program. For more information please visit our International SOS webpage.

  • The nearest hospitals are located in Chiang Rai, Luang Prabang and Vientianne. Clinics are located in towns throughout Laos and Thailand.

  • Unfortunately, our Laos programs cannot handle seafood or nut allergies. However, vegetarians and gluten-free students are welcome!

  • Long sleeves and pants suggested at dusk to protect against mosquitoes, of which there are many in Luang Prabang and the villages we stay in. Insect repellent with at least 20% DEET is recommended.

  • Personal gifts, internet, phone calls, and snacks are not included. All other costs (accommodation, meals, in-country transportation, and activities) are included in the program price.

  • Students have the opportunity to have a traditional Laos massage for $8-$10, as well as shopping at local markets for souvenirs.

  • Students will be given the equivalent to $50 US Dollars to purchase all essential supplies (not including meals) for the three-week program.
    Extra expenses may include

    – additional soft drinks: $0.50 -$1.00 each
    – snacks: $0.50 – $5.00 each – souvenirs: $30 US dollars at a market can go a long way; art and precious materials can cost much more than this!
    – internet service: average $0.75 – $2.00 per hour
    – laundry service: average $1.50 – $4.00 per kilogram

  • Please refer to our Community Service Hour Awards webpage for more information on how service hours are awarded.

  • Rustic Pathways works with local community leaders and organizations to identify and prioritize the needs of each community.

    Come with Nothing is a service intensive program; in past years, students have built libraries,bathrooms, and classrooms; built or restored village water supplies; laid water piping to bring running water to new areas of the village; built community centers, constructed stairs and concrete surfaces, and built simple playgrounds. Students can receive up to 56 community service hours on this program.

When packing for this program, remember the name: Come With Nothing!

Everything you need to bring on this trip will be able to fit inside one carry-on sized backpack that you can carry on the plane. Basically what you will need to pack for this program is what you will need to get you through the first night in Thailand, plus toiletries and travel necessities. This will include one change of clothes, hygiene products, prescribed medications, and a maximum 5 personal items (camera, journal, book, etc.). The idea behind Come With Nothing is to live simply like the people we are visiting and also to learn about the value of the things we have and/or will buy. The more you let go, the more adventurous your trip will be.

After reading this list you may be thinking; “How am I going to maintain for three weeks with just one carry-on sized backpack?” During your orientation you will be given the equivalent of $50 US dollars, as well a traditional Lao-style bag, and then taken to a market to purchase all other necessary items you will need for the duration of your trip. You will quickly be surprised at how much $50 US dollars can get you. On the plane, we recommend wearing lightweight long pants, your Rustic Pathways t-shirt with a lightweight fleece/hoodie. (Southeast Asia is very hot and humid. You won’t want to be stuck carrying anything too heavy/warm after you arrive).

Also throughout the trip you will be stopping at local markets for resupplies and doing laundry either in the villages, local style, or at laundry shops while in towns.


A small bag or backpack is ideal - Items marked with a "*" don't count against your "5 things"!

  • Passport*
  • Photocopy of passport*
  • Wallet/money/ATM card*
  • Book and/or journal
  • Pens (2)*
  • Phone (optional!)*
  • Camera
  • Chargers*
  • Ear buds*
  • Change of clothes*
  • Sunglasses*
  • Water bottle*
  • Medications*
  • Consent to Travel form*
  • Rustic Pathways emergency contacts*
  • Extra t-shirt and underwear in case your bags get lost!*
  • Flashlight or headlamp

Checked Luggage

If you choose to bring checked luggage, it should be no more than 30 Liters and a backpack is ideal. Duffle bags and rolling suitcases are not recommended for this program.


  • Insect repellent–we suggest bringing a natural option AND something with DEET (no more than 20-30%)
  • Sunscreen (good quality sunscreen is expensive in SE Asia!)
  • Feminine hygiene supplies–tampons are not widely available in SE Asia. We recommend you bring what you think you will need for the duration of the summer.
  • Hand Sanitizer

Shopping in Southeast Asia can be quite challenging for big and tall people since people in Southeast Asia are smaller than most tourists. If you’d like to play it safe, here is a complete list of everything you’d need:

  • 2-3 pairs of lightweight pants or capris. Activewear/yoga pants are acceptable while being active (or while at a Rustic Pathways Base), but not suitable at the village, market, temple, etc. Many of our students and staff end up in “elephant pants” very soon after they arrive, so don’t fret if you need help in this area–inexpensive solutions await you in country!
  • 2-3 pairs of shorts/skirts Shorts and skirts for the women must go to the knees or longer!
  • 8 pairs of underwear – Quick-dry material is best
  • 3-4 pairs of socks – lightweight quick dry athletic socks are best.
  • 5-7 tops (t-shirts and sports shirts)-they can be cotton, or quick dry shirts like capilene or polypropylene. Tank tops are generally not acceptable unless for time at the pool/beach. Keep in mind you will find cool T-shirts and clothes at markets you will be visiting throughout the summer, which can supplement the tops you bring over.
  • 2-3 light, long sleeve t-shirt–breathable is best for the sun and certain areas of the region can get buggy or chilly (if you’re lucky!) at night
  • 1 lightweight hoodie–most likely needed on flights, in movie theaters, and in airports. Most people will be fine without one.
  • 2 swimsuits –for females, two piece “sporty” suits are fine but no bikinis please.
  • 1 Sarong/shawl/lightweight towel (not white!)–you can buy this in country

For those of you who would like to bring as little as possible, this is your invitation to do so! You can find everything you need once you arrive in country. Challenge yourself!

  • 4 pairs of underwear – Quick-dry material is best
  • 1 lightweight hoodie–to keep your warm on the flight over.
  • 1 swimsuit –for females, two piece “sporty” suits are fine but no bikinis please.

Most general toiletries are available throughout the region. We suggest packing all items that could leak in a plastic or ziplock bag.

Important Reminders

  • A note about appropriate dress: 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, respect the culture and respect the environment / community around you.
  • Carry-On Luggage cannot weigh more than 7 kilos
  • Check-In Luggage cannot weigh more than 15 kilos.
  • If your bags weigh more than this, 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!
  • DO NOT BRING BULKY HIKING/WORK BOOTS! These are not needed and will become a burden
  1. a
    Chiang Rai, Thailand

    Welcome to the northern tip of Thailand near the infamous Golden Triangle; where Laos, Thailand, and Burma all share one border.

  2. b
    Chiang Kong, Thailand/Huay Xai, Laos

    Prepare to cross the border into Laos and float down the Mekong on this unforgettable two-day journey.

  3. c
    Pak Beng, Laos

    Spend the night in a guesthouse in this quiet riverside town midway to Luang Prabang.

  4. d
    Luang Prabang, Laos

    This UNESCO World Heritage town is an enchanting mix of French-colonial influence and traditional Buddhist life.

  5. e
    Nong Khlaw, Laos

    A northern outpost renowned for stunning caves and adventure activities, Nong Khiaw will be the jumping off point for your second village homestay.