Over the course of the two-week spring holiday in April 2022, 20 TASIS students traveled to Thailand for the first Opsahl Global Service Program (GSP) trip since February 2020 and the first GSP trip to Thailand in school history. Led by Opsahl Global Service Program Director Danny Schiff, Global Service Program Assistant Borana Sarcevic, and four additional faculty chaperones, the students spent much of the trip working closely with OurLand, a wildlife reserve and education center located at the southern tip of the Western Forest Complex and Salakphra Wildlife Sanctuary—a region heavily impacted by habitat loss, degradation, and human-wildlife conflict. They visited three types of wildlife sanctuaries to learn about ethical elephant tourism, talked to those on the front lines of human-elephant conflict, and helped out locals when and where they could.
Check out the trip’s group journal below for a day-by-day recount of what the travelers experienced and achieved while in Thailand.
Friday, April 8–Saturday, April 9
By Mr. Danny Schiff, Opsahl Global Service Program Director
For the first time since March of 2020, 26 travelers set off from TASIS on Friday for an international Global Service Program adventure to Thailand! The excitement was palpable as we flew from Milan Malpensa through Dubai and into Bangkok International Airport. Naps were taken, AP exams were studied for, and movies were watched by all on the journey. After two years of a halted program, it felt historic to once again be on the go—fulfilling the Jan Opsahl mission of international global-mindedness as we travel to make a connection with the people and the land in Thailand!
Sunday, April 10
By Payton Clardy ’22 and Alejandra Cova ’22
We woke up today with food outside our quarantine hotel rooms but also to the news that someone tested positive for Covid, ¡POBRECITA! Unfortunately, Ms. Clardy had to stay back with the student while the rest of us got a late start to the trip.
After eating lunch on the river, we swam in it, diaper style. We saw many different animals like the ghost duck and the bird that makes a weird noise. Then, we walked to the forest and saw rain trees and mango trees.
Once we got to OurLand, we drank tea that changed color with a lime and ate “ka-pow” tofu and fried cabbage—SO GOOD.
Now at 10 PM, we are hungry, so we should definitely eat more next time.
Monday, April 11
By Nitya Dalmia ’23, Claudiyah Tolliver ’23, and Caroline Krajicek ’23
We started the day off with heart-shaped eggs and some warm breakfast, followed by a tiresome car ride where we all fell into food comas.
Our sudden arrival at Erawan National Park not only meant that we had to endure a grueling ascent to the seventh level of the waterfall but that we had to practice our amatuer bargaining skills in order to enjoy some mouth-watering Thai food! Lanterna stairs have nothing on Thai hiking, and neither does Lake Lugano compared to Erawan waterfalls!
We continued our day with community outreach by picking up litter along the trail on our way down, and we learned a great deal about perseverance, endurance, and the importance of family in Thai culture from an inspirational entrepreneur. We listened to the stories of this entrepreneur’s livelihood in sorting trash to be recycled and were even able to assist her!
This was followed by another delicious Thai dinner at the OurLand association accompanied by an eventful bonfire!
Tuesday, April 12
By Eleni Stabropoulos Velazquez ’22 and Barbara Morales Hurtado ’22
We started off the day by going to visit and getting to know a farmer and his land. We got the opportunity to ask him questions and learned about the daily struggles that he faces. He opened our eyes and made us realize that human-elephant conflict heavily impacts the people of Thailand. We were shocked by the farmer’s creative solutions and the positive outlook he has regardless of the situation.
After that, despite the uncomfortable car ride, we were able to make the best of it by having a conversation with our new friend, Nom, even though he does not speak English. We were able to have a conversation by gestures. Once we arrived at the restaurant, we sat with Nom to continue our conversation and he taught us Thai words. THE FOOD WAS AMAZING! ALOY MAK MAK!
Then we went to a market where we experienced Thai culture firsthand and crossed the historic River Khwae Bridge and got a glimpse of Thailand’s situation during WW2. The bridge led us to a temple where we learned about Buddhist religion.
Finally, we went back to OurLand and we had an amazing dinner.
Wednesday, April 13
By Laura Fernandez de Martino ’23 and Ana Loza ’23
If we were to choose a song that represents Day 5, it would definitely be “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac. (Ana wanted to choose “Who let the dogs out” because everyone’s nasty feet were out…) “Why?” you may ask. Today we had to pack our P.M.A., or positive mental attitude, and as the song reminds us, “Thunder only happens when it’s raining.”
Starting the day by learning about the tragic consequences that the cement industry has on the environment woke us up literally and figuratively. Instead of being frustrated with people, we were MOTIVATED to work on more ethical solutions. So when we headed back to OurLand to start making mud bricks, we were all eager to help. From squashing and mushing our feet into slimy mud to chucking mud with our bare hands, as a team, we made resources for sustainable housing.
While some were busy enjoying the mud, others were chopping down malicious vines that were impeding the growth of trees.
After a long day of hard work, we all cooled off in the river, where Camilla was attacked by a spider, telenovela style. Eugenia gave a much-needed haircut to a dog who had never been bathed in his life!
We enjoyed a nice treat (fresh coconuts and sticky rice) while listening to “Dreams,” like a scene from a movie. We also picked out mangoes from the trees.
Lastly, we rushed to the top of a mountain to see the sunset. We saw how beautiful Thailand is but also noticed the remarkable and horrendous amount of pollution.
Now, Fleetwood Mac, being the hippies that they are, have always highlighted the importance of the environment. With today’s lessons on the effects of mankind on the environment and on being positive, we can call ourselves the new Fleetwood Mac.
Thursday, April 14
By Ms. Laura Pearsall and Mr. Graham Pearsall
We weren’t scheduled to see our first elephant until tomorrow, but we encountered a wild one this evening.
But before any of that, we started off the day by learning about an endangered species of wild cow called Banteng. They are close to extinction, but we were able to visit Salokpra Wildlife Sanctuary, where there has been success reintroducing captive-bred Banteng into the wild.
For lunch, we ate fried rice and eggs wrapped in banana leaves. It was delicious! Fueled up and rehydrated, we headed out for a jungle walk. We cooled off by crossing a stream and prepared a saltlick for the Bangteng and other wildlife to safely consume the minerals they need but don’t get through their regular diet.
Later we headed to our hotel for some much-needed rest and relaxation after five days of a nonstop, jam-packed itinerary. Some people swam in the pool, others got massages, and some just enjoyed some time in the AC.
Then we returned to our home away from home, OurLand, for dinner, which was aloy mak mak as always. We were just putting our dishes away when Caroline came running in to say she heard something big in the jungle! The OurLand crew quickly rushed us to a room with a view of their giant mango tree. It was too dark to see, but we heard something rustling in the trees. Nom took his flashlight, aimed it at the noise, and turned it on. We all gasped. There in the circle of light was an elephant! Just 30 meters away, we could see the light of the torch reflecting in its eyes as it backed away into the jungle.
After the excitement died down, we gathered around the campfire for our nightly meeting when we talk about what will happen the next day. Tomorrow we’ll visit an ethical elephant sanctuary where visitors have a chance to feed and bathe elephants. We debated the pros and cons of elephant tourism activities like these and tried to decide what we wanted to do. Good points were brought up by both sides, and in the end we all agreed to make the personal decision that was best for each individual.
We were just wrapping things up when M called us over because the elephant had returned! We got one more glimpse of the elephant through the trees before we headed back to the hotel to collapse into our beds after another eventful day on our GSP adventure in Thailand.
Update from Bangkok: Since testing positive for Covid upon arrival in Thailand, one of our students has been quarantining with no symptoms in Bangkok. Patty Clardy, a chaperone and our designated trip mother, has remained behind to care for the student. Patty has stayed in constant communication with the student, organized Mexican takeout and burgers to be delivered, and has made sure the student is comfortable and cared for in a way only our designated mother could. We can’t wait to be reunited with them both soon!
Friday, April 15
By Esther Zaga Smeke ’23 and Andrea Attie Dichi ’23
Today was the day. Elephant day! We all were excited to see elephants and to connect with them through an ethical way so that we as humans and they as animals could find a balanced way to interact.
In the morning we arrived at the sanctuary and chatted a little about elephants before cutting some grass for them to eat. We gave them food and walked with them. We had the most amazing time being with them.
We learned from this experience and from the past days of the trip that we don’t have to be perfect but can find a way so that both worlds can match and join together stronger.
At the end of the day, we had dinner at the hotel and had the chance to interact with the founder of OurLand on Zoom. He explained a lot to us, and we got the chance to ask him a lot of questions. We hope one day that we will meet him and have the chance to learn more from him.
Saturday, April 16
By Autumn Bachofen ’21 and Carly Bachofen ’22
Today was our last day in Kanchanaburi with the full OurLand team. :(
We visited our second elephant sanctuary, the Somboon Legacy Foundation, where we had the opportunity to see the two elephants that live there and help prepare their food. Since they’re both 60+ years old, they have special food, including okra, which we planted (in VERY hot weather), and shredded grass, which we cut up.
We watched an eye-opening video that exposed the harsh reality that many elephants working in the logging and entertainment industries face, too, and then explored an interactive museum where we made paper out of elephant poop! I didn’t know this product existed before coming here, but it’s a great way to repurpose “materials.”
Our favorite part of the day was certainly watching the two elephants cool off in the river, and then eat. We felt an overwhelming sense of peace here and can only imagine how at peace these two elephants feel at this sanctuary.
Then, we drove back to OurLand (of course making a stop at 7/11) for yet another delicious dinner. We had a Thai-American fusion meal, which was a super sweet gesture on the part of OurLand. We ate around the firepit, discussing human-elephant conflict, comparing the two sanctuaries, and reflecting on the trip so far. But in the middle, we were interrupted by a wild elephant! It came super close to us, which was both surreal and scary, especially as we watched the dogs—Finley, Marley, and Beans—run right up to it.
After dinner, we said a heartfelt goodbye to most of the OurLand staff, who won’t be staying with us for the rest of the trip. We will miss them!
Sunday, April 17
By Autumn Bachofen ’21 and Carly Bachofen ’22
After over a week in the jungle, we all enjoyed a well-deserved beach day today. We drove three hours south to Hua-Hin, and the students in our van at least attempted to study for their upcoming AP and IB exams.
Once we arrived, we practically sprinted to the beach, where we spent the rest of the afternoon. Between the soft sand, sound of the waves, and coconuts, our time at the beach turned out to be quite magical and provided a bit of time to sit and absorb everything we’ve learned this past week or so.
Then it was off to the night market! The food was delicious (as always), and we all had a blast wandering around to different stalls seeing what little gems were there. Who knew Thailand’s markets were the place to find Christmas sweater dresses for 50 baht! Overall, it was a restful day, and now we are feeling HYPED to go visit our third and final elephant location.
Update from Hua-Hin: Reunited at last! After serving their mandatory quarantine and testing negative for Covid, Patty and our final student joined us today for the final week of the trip.
Monday, April 18
By Ryan Arbid ’23 and Marc Feng ’23
Today we drove to Ban Rai Kong Mun, where Linh gave a presentation on the history of Kuiburi National Park. Right before lunch, it began to rain with thunder and lightning. After we ate and it stopped raining, we separated into the two hotels. When we regrouped, we all went on a safari in Kuiburi National Park. The park is the most ethical elephant sanctuary we visited. In the two hours we were there, we saw wild elephants and cows.
Later, we made paper out of pineapple husks. The process is simple. First, we whipped the leaves to soften the fibers. Second, we boiled the leaves and then squeezed them. We poured the liquid and fibers into molds and decorated them.
Last, we ate dinner and interviewed the farmer who cooked for us. She talked about human-elephant conflict and human-monkey conflict while wildlife alarms and ping-pong bombs went off not far away (indicating that nearby farmers were dealing with elephants raiding their crops.).
Today was lots of fun.
Tuesday, April 19
By Ana Carolina Costa Pitta ’22 and Camila Tercero Salas ’22
We started our day at 6 AM with a tractor ride and breakfast with a view of sunrise. Although we didn’t start off with the best of moods, the tractor drive changed everything, being that it was something new and fun. At the end, some people were offered a chance to drive the tractor, and we SWEAR that sometimes we feared for our lives for a couple of seconds. We cannot forget how pretty the views of the field were.
Later, we learned how mulberry tea and silk are made. Then, with sweat and rain, we prepared some bags with seeds to be planted. These experiences made us learn about a variety of things that we didn’t expect to learn. The mulberry tea was delicious, the silk-making process left most people hooked, and planting seeds was renewing.
Then we returned to the hotel for lunch, and we had an interesting time learning about Thai culture by cooking a variety of traditional foods along with the staff. We didn’t make all of the food, but we tried to be a part of it. It was very nice having the food once we knew the process and after we saw the effort that it takes to make these traditional foods that we all loved.
The hardest part of the day came after lunch. If we had a word to describe it, it would be “productive.” We went to pick up rocks to build a dam. Then we went to a field that OurLand owned to weed around and mark important plants. This was very tiring because of the collective exhaustion that has been building throughout the trip (especially with the hot sun) and because of the early morning we had.
Little by little, we got some energy back after Caroline played some music on her speaker. Although the speaker quickly ran out of battery, it certainly left us with more positive energy.
Building the dam was fun because we made a line to pass the rocks and *teamwork makes the dream work.*
Finishing that dam was so satisfying because it meant that after all the hard work we had done something productive. At the end, we received some cold coconuts and sticky rice from the lovely people.
After that, we went on the safari for a second day, and it left both of us with a positive energy because it was a beautiful experience with wildlife.
Finally, we had dinner across the farm from where we had dinner yesterday. The food, as always, was delicious and we tried some fruits we hadn’t tried before.
To finish the day, we had our last reflection with Linh. It was very nice and based on the dessert, mango sticky rice. We had to pick experiences from the day that were sweet like mango, that were sticky and would stay with us, and that were like rice and would require some digesting.
After a day of hard work, we could hardly wait to head back to the hotel to rinse all the dirt and sweat off our bodies with a shower.
Wednesday, April 20
By Eugenia “G” Baz Guerrero ’23 and Ines Martinez ’23
A car day. We woke up at 6 AM again in Kuiburi National Park, exhausted from the service from days before. We hopped into vans after trying typical Thai desserts for breakfast. To sum it up: lots of pineapple and coconut.
We drove to Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), where we saw animals rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. This experience was very different from the sanctuaries. These animals are held in captivity because they can’t go back into nature. They’re not there to make WFFT a profit. Cages were used for some animals, and it was important to understand and not judge because it was the best outcome possible given their past circumstances as exotic pets or as animals raised to be used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
After the tour, we ate lunch (amazing peanut sauce btw) and set off to Bangkok. The look of our hotel exceeded our expectations. There was a pool and very nice rooms.
At the end of the day, we ate at an Indian restaurant inside a market. To finish the meal, we tried a spice that was meant to clear out your mouth…very interesting.
All in all, a good day on the road.
Thursday, April 21
By Matilde Babb Garza ’23
This was our last official day before having to leave Thailand. We began the day by visiting a temple and viewing the infamous reclining buddha. Although the weather was sickeningly hot, the stunning architecture and history made it all worth it.
After the temple we made a couple pit stops. At one of the pit stops, my friends and I savored a Starbucks before we all met up with MacKenzie of OurLand at the nearby university. The entire group heard and participated in a heart-wrenching discussion about violence toward students by the government on the campus in 1976. The conversation made me reflect on what I would do in those circumstances, and it was a conversation that continued during dinner later.
Afterward, we went on a 20-minute walk to a Chinese market. Laura and I broke into a group with Phoom of OurLand. We had boba and sat down to have a convo about happiness, corruption, and what it means to grow up.
My favorite part of the day, without a doubt, had to be the river cruise. The food gave me a break from Thai food, which I highly appreciated. My friends and I had deep convos about bullying, social classes, and how different cultures affect how staff are treated at TASIS. (We recommend the movie New Order.)
Overall, it was a very active day and the cruise was a great way to “close” the trip.
Friday, April 22–Saturday, April 23
By Mr. Graham Pearsall
Danny and Bee reminded us throughout the trip that our days would often feel like they lasted a week but that each week would feel like it lasted a day. It’s so true.
Our final day plus in Thailand has felt like a week. We toured the Jim Thompson House, ate an amazing homestyle lunch, walked as a group along the river, shopped at a market, swam one final time in our hotel’s rooftop infinity pool, packed our bags, ate dinner, held a roundtable discussion with the OurLand staff, wrote notes to each other and our future selves, presented trip bracelets to our fellow adventurers, and headed to the airport for a 1:15 AM flight back to TASIS. It was a long day packed with what felt like a week’s worth of activities and reflection. Just like the previous 13 days of our trip.
While we’ve done so much on this trip—seen countless elephants in the wild and at different types of sanctuaries, discussed human-wildlife conflict with local farmers and global associations, and experienced the food, people, and culture of Thailand—it still feels like it was just yesterday that we arrived in Bangkok.
It doesn’t feel like it’s time to leave Thailand yet, but we’re returning to TASIS a closer group, more motivated than ever to educate others on what we’ve learned and to continue to connect with people different from us, to learn from them and to serve when we can.
It’s been a transformative trip and the adventure of a lifetime.
Opsahl Global Service Program
The Opsahl Global Service Program was envisioned by Jan Opsahl ’68, who became the first international student at TASIS when he came from Norway in 1965. The pioneering program was launched in 2013 with major support from a most generous donation from Mr. Opsahl and his family to set up the Global Service Trust. This Trust, along with support from the TASIS Foundation, makes this incredible, life-changing experience for our students possible.
The Opsahl Global Service Program, which was directed by Zach Mulert through the spring of 2018 and is now led by Danny Schiff, transforms lives by providing every High School student a unique opportunity to connect across borders through comprehensive experiences that build empathy and encourage personal responsibility. Participation in the program—which is designed to awaken students to humanitarian needs, inspire them to build enduring, mutually beneficial relationships, and lead them toward a life of active citizenship and committed service—is a graduation requirement.