New Jersey Key Clubs: Tribal Issues

A serious look at issues facing tribal youth in remote areas of Southeast Asia

Unlike any other Rustic Pathways program, Tribal Issues will take you into remote areas of Thailand, Burma, and Laos and give you first-hand insight into the issues facing your local peers.  This is a powerful journey which was created by David Venning, the founder of Rustic Pathways. Through first-hand interviews, you will identify the issues facing these young people, the factors that led to their compromised situations, and the possible solutions that could ameliorate or solve their problems.  Suited for students comfortable with remote travel, deeply interested in learning about and helping improve the lives of others, and able to understand and deal with very adult issues, Tribal Issues is a bold program for young people who are deeply committed to learning about and improving their world.


In 2009, Eli Rivkin, an experienced Rustic Pathways traveler deeply committed to community service and moved by his travels in Asia, suggested a program designed to conduct first-hand interviews in the most remote areas of Southeast Asia in an effort to identify what was really happening with people his own age in these largely unvisited tribal areas.  Working together, Eli and the Chairman of Rustic Pathways developed a program called Sharing Bowls of Sticky Rice, which was offered to select returning Rustic Pathways students and a few exceptional new students with a specific interest in this subject.  The trip that ran was extremely successful and has now been renamed as Tribal Issues.

Who You Meet

During this program you will travel into tribal areas far off the beaten track and talk with your local peers. Over the past few years we’ve held meetings with young people from over a dozen very diverse ethnic groups across three countries. We slept overnight in a refugee camp and spent hours with Karen refugee high school students who were living without adequate clothing or school materials, met with a young Akha man without access to medical care trying to help his dying mother, talked to a Shan prostitute who was working to support an elderly family back home, chatted with a group of orphans struggling to legally establish their identities, interviewed Tai Yai children who had fled violence in their traditional homeland and walked for several months to seek refuge elsewhere, met with a group of Lahu students who hiked five hours to school each week in a village that has no access to clean water, talked with young monks who left home at six years old to join a monastery in hopes of gaining an education and had not seen their parents for more than ten years, met with a young Khamu hunter whose handmade rifle had exploded and killed his friend, and spoke with very young mothers struggling to raise children without any access to medical care or modern technologies.  This sampling of past interviews is indicative of what you should expect from your trip.

What You Do

This trip is all about meeting and learning from young men and women in the real settings where they live.  This means traveling into very rugged and remote areas, moving by four-wheel drive and, in some cases, chartered aircraft, getting dirty and wet, and often bearing the weight of tremendous sadness and seeing real tragedy.  With each person we meet, we will try to share a meal or, at the very least, a few cups of tea.  Our discussions with local people are usually held in a question-and-answer format where you ask questions and take notes on the answers.

This trip will snake through the heart of tropical Southeast Asia.  You’ll fill-in the blanks on maps as you venture into uncharted territories and various vistas where elephants and tigers once domineered the landscape.  Mornings will be greeted with sunrays spilling over mountains and striking through jungle canopies; Evenings highlighted with talks as the sun sets over vast plains, secluded hillside hamlets, and submerged, reflective paddy fields that leave you wondering which way is heaven.  All of these unique and breathtaking landscapes help define the people and communities you will explore.

What You Achieve

During your trip you will not only listen to the issues and problems impacting your tribal peers in these remote areas, but you will also talk about how you can help.  Where we can, we will do something to either directly help or try to address the root problems.  In the past we gave away blankets, dictionaries, and several thousand dollars worth of food in remote areas.  We also met and subsequently sponsored two young Akha orphans and funded their education so they could return to school.  Medicine for a number of people who were sick was supplied, palliative care arranged for a dying woman, English tutors arranged for students trying to climb out of poverty and gain an education, and three bicycles bought and delivered so students could access school.  We also supplied clothing to very poor students and gave away almost 1,000 bars of soap and an equal number of cans of sardines, toothbrushes, tubes of toothpaste, pens, rulers, erasers, and notebooks.  Trips have concluded in spontaneous acts of kindness by our students, as we sponsored a total of nine Hill Tribe orphans to attend school, paying for their food, clothing, school fees, books, and accommodation.

Before you sign up for this trip, please read the program description carefully. Read the comments from the group of students who went before you and consider how rugged this journey is and the seriousness of what you will encounter on this incredible journey.


Day 1 (Thursday)

“Sawasdee” and Welcome to Thailand! The program starts in earnest in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s “Emerald of the North”. Chiang Mai is the former capital of the Lanna kingdom and is a laid back city surrounded by verdant rice fields and forested mountains, blue sky and crisp white clouds. Northern Thailand is also home to some of the most unique cultures, with colorful indigenous peoples, and off the beaten track adventures. You will check into your hotel, relax and refresh before heading out to a proper Thai dinner. We’ll have a meeting about the overview of the schedule for the next few days, and then it’s time to catch up on some well-deserved rest!

Overnight: Chiang Mai

Day 2 (Friday)

In the morning we will head west through the mountains to Mae Sariang. This relaxed mountain town is home to a large number of Karen refugees who have fled Burma during the 40 year old civil war between the Burmese and Karen army. We will stay at the Rustic Pathways Children’s Home, located on the banks of the Yuan River. We will meet the Karen kids and other Rustic students and enjoy delicious home cooked food. In the evening we will hear powerful firsthand accounts from Karen refugees about life in a warzone, how it affects those on the ground and how people have been able to overcome hardship and adversity and find a new life in Thailand.

Overnight: Rustic Pathways Children’s Home

Day 3 (Saturday)

We will say sad goodbyes to the kids and staff at the Children’s Home and head back to Chiang Mai. In the afternoon we will visit the Branch Foundation, which supports sustainable community development projects and is run by Iona, one of our trip leaders. We will meet with other local NGO’s in Chiang Mai and enjoy delicious northern Thai dinner and check out the famous Night Bazaar

Overnight: Chiang Mai

Day 4 (Sunday)

This morning we continue the journey driving north into the mountains to a Shan Refugee Camp located just 2 kilometers from the Burmese border to visit one of the communities The Branch Foundation works with. There you will be welcomed with a delicious Shan lunch, followed by a tour of the camp where you will learn about their fascinating solar panel and weaving projects. You will have the opportunity to hear the stories of the young women, ask any questions that you may have and have a go at weaving yourself. In the evening we will be treated to a breakdancing performance, and you will be able to sit down with some eager students and help them practice their conversational English while you learn about their lives. Enjoy a nice dinner, learn about the Shan situation in this area, and make meaningful connections with this amazing community.

Overnight: guesthouse near the Shan Refugee camp, Piang Luang

Day 5 (Monday)

First thing in the morning, you will head back to the camp to continue our work. Now that you’re acquainted, you will witness as some of the amazing youngsters open up to share their stories with you, as you in turn share your stories with them. The youth here are marginalized in many ways, and many of them are not allowed to travel far beyond the edge of the camp. With such limited access to the outside world they will be enchanted to meet such rare visitors to their camp, and very curious to hear about your lives. You will then venture to the Burmese border to see where the Shan Refugee’s fled from, and learn why they fled. In the afternoon, we will have chance to interview a creative group of young monks that are using their social ranking to educate communities about HIV/AIDS prevention, and hear how it benefits young people in region.

Overnight: guesthouse near the Shan Refugee camp, Piang Luang

Day 6 (Tuesday)

After breakfast you will head off on a scenic drive to Chiang Rai, located on the historic overland trade route between China and India. It is also in the heart of the Golden Triangle, and opium warlords controlled the surrounding mountains until the mid 1990’s. You will hear from locals about Chiang Rai’s infamous past, and learn about issues arising from the construction of a new highway which will soon link Chiang Rai with Southern China. Here, you will stop as a group for a reflection on what you have seen thus far in Thailand before we begin the next chapter in Burma.

Overnight: hotel, Chiang Rai

Day 7 (Wednesday)

It is time to cross into Burma! You will wake up early and travel to the hustle-and-bustle border town of Mae Sai. From there it is a walk across the bridge, before we get some lunch and take our bus on the scenic ride back in time to the beautiful Kengtung valley. Our legendary Burmese staff will take us to a local school to interview students and teachers and see how life has changed for these people as Burma further opens to the outside world.

Overnight: hotel, Kentung

Day 8 (Thursday)

Today we will explore some of the many different Hill Tribe communities living in the mountains around Kengtung. We will visit Joseph's village (from the Aki clan), and Ali's family (who are Akha - totally different), both are RP Burma staff and take immense pride in hosting students for tea.

Overnight: hotel, Kentung

Day 9 (Friday)

This day begins with ride into the countryside to visit the more remote mountain villages in the area. We will hike to a village of the En Hill Tribe, who are easily distinguished by their black teeth and their uniquely long communal houses. The day trip will end with an audience with a mystical monk. Dinner will be a special meal at Chit Oo’s house, another Rustic Pathways Burma staff member (who most of you know) that comes from this area. Throughout this chapter of the trip, you’ll feel like you’re surrounded by long-lost friends as you discover Kengtung all over again!

Overnight: hotel, Kentung

Day 10 (Saturday)

It will be an early rise for the journey back to Thailand. Once across the border we will head east to the town of Chiang Kong, on the banks of the Mekong. We will get some dinner and rest up before our legendary adventure down the Mekong begins tomorrow!

Overnight: guesthouse, Chiang Kong

Day 11 (Sunday)

This morning we cross the Mekong River on a small boat to the shores of Laos, learning all about the importance of trade on the river along the way. Our group will have our own chartered teak-wood boat on the two-day, one-night trip which will introduce you to river life like you have never before seen. Have your camera and journal ready, and be prepared to see countless villages along this mighty river which have no road access at all. You will stay the night in Pak Beng, where you will interview some teenagers to learn what it was like to grow up in such a transient trade town – you may be surprised what you learn! Enjoy a feast of Lao food and get some rest before heading even deeper into Northern Laos tomorrow.

Overnight: guesthouse, Pak Beng

Day 12 (Monday)

We will begin the second leg of our boat trip first thing in the morning, arriving by mid-afternoon in the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Laos. After freshening up, we will explore the charming alleys and river quays that have made this city a must-see highlight of Southeast Asia. We will get dinner in the night market and there will be plenty of time for exploring the shops, stalls, and cafés, before having our second reflection about Burma and the boat journey to Laos.

Overnight: guesthouse, Luang Prabang

Day 13 (Tuesday)

Rising early, today we will take a fast-boat journey to Rustic staff member Su's village. This Khamu village deep in the hills of central Laos seldom sees visitors who aren’t with Rustic, yet they know us well and will welcome our group warmly. You will also have the chance to interview a couple intriguing teenagers in this village who will share their unique life stories with our group. Sadly, the village is scheduled to be flooded in a year by a dam being built downstream and this is one of the last opportunities we will have to visit. You will also interview the villagers and discuss the environmental issues that these communities face as Laos develops. You will also donate supplies here, and learn about animism, which is widely practiced in this area.

Overnight: guesthouse, Luang Prabang

Day 14 (Wednesday)

You will travel to Wong's village (RP Lao staff) on the banks of the mighty Mekong River. You will meet his family, learn about the legend of his late 107 year-old father, and continue up the watershed to the spectacular Kuang Si Waterfall. This is one of the best swimming holes in all of Southeast Asia, with cascading pools with brilliant turquoise water, complete with rope swing! Later, you will have the chance to interview some dear friends of Rustic Pathways, who will share their stories of perseverance with you. After a final reflection on the trip, the mood will lighten as we organize a festive final dinner of the trip.

Overnight: guesthouse, Luang Prabang

Day 15 (Thursday)

With sad goodbyes, it’s time to head home or on to your next adventure. Expect to be moved by what you have seen, inspired by the people you have met, and empowered to make a difference by the amazing movements you have witnessed. We hope to see you again soon!

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.

Packing List

Basic Information that you need to know:

  1. Carry-On Luggage cannot weigh more than 7 kilos 
  2. Check-In Luggage cannot weigh more than 15 kilos. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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! 

As a general rule, DON’T BRING TOO MUCH STUFF! If you’re not sure whether or not you should bring something, you’ll probably be better off leaving it at home. 

Here are some basic guidelines to use while packing

  • Southeast Asia is a hot region, so there is no need for any heavy clothing. Daytime high temperatures can be over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. A lot of our time will be spent outdoors, so plan on wearing clothes that will keep you cool. 
  • The sun can be quite strong, so all students should be prepared with a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses. 
  • Experienced travelers know that over-packing is one of the worst things you can do on a trip, and this is particularly true in this part of the world. You may want to bring one suitcase/bag for the essentials, and if you need to pick up another cheap suitcase/bag on the way home for new clothes and souvenirs you pick up along the way.
  • You are not going to the Moon!! If you forget something on the list, you can always buy it once you get here - for a lot less money than you would pay at home.  You will almost certainly be adding to your wardrobe while you are on your trip. 

Important – A Note to Female Students About Thai Culture

In terms of dress, traditional Thai culture is very conservative. Despite the hot climate, you will almost never see women with their shoulders exposed, or wearing low cut shirts or short shorts. As we seek to respect and preserve the culture of the communities where we work, we strongly urge you to dress respectfully.  This is especially true in rural villages and mandatory in temples. 

Items to be Packed in Your Checked Baggage

  • T shirts: 7-8 lightweight shirts (make sure to bring a few which cover the shoulders for temple visits. You should try to pack some lightweight, breathable t-shirts if possible. As stated above, Thailand is very hot and cotton shirts tend to hold moisture…)
  • Long sleeve t-shirts: 1-2 lightweight
  • Pants or skirt: 1-2 pairs
  • Underwear: 5-7
  • Socks: 4-6 pairs, depending on how much you like wearing shoes.
  • Shorts: 3-4 pairs (at least 1 long shorts or Capri style shorts are needed for temple and village visits)
  • Swimsuit: 1 suit
  • Footwear: 1 pair of lightweight, comfortable shoes. Hiking boots are NOT needed, and neither are high heels. Students connecting to service programs will need basic shoes to protect their feet.     
  • Sandals and/or Flip-Flops. YOU WILL LIVE IN THESE SHOES IN SE ASIA. Sandals with straps (Chacos, Tevas, Keens, etc.) are ideal. Or basic flip-flops can be purchased everywhere in Southeast Asia for around $1.
  • Hat
  • Towel, not too bulky (Don’t bring White!)
  • One nice casual outfit for Final Dinner (not too fancy or bulky)
  • Rainproof, Lightweight Jacket - If your jacket does not pack very small don’t bother bringing it! Most local people use only ponchos and umbrellas which can be bought for very cheap.

Personal Items/Toiletries

Basic items such as soap, shampoo, razors, toothpaste, etc., can be found in many places along the way on our trip.  You can bring a small amount from home but large amounts will not be necessary, it will just make your bag heavier.

  • Sunscreen
  • Prescription Medications
  • Insect repellant (1-2 bottles 35% DEET)
  • Hand sanitizer: This does not take the place of washing your hands, but you should carry sanitizer with you.  (1-2 small bottles)
  • Tampons (difficult to find in Southeast Asia)
  • Deodorant (if you are particular, otherwise this can be purchased here)
  • Lip balm
  • Contact lenses and accompanying paraphernalia - if you use contacts, bring all of your chemicals with you
  • Passport and Wallet. Travel Wallet that can be hidden under clothing is a good idea.
  • Photo Copy of Passport. 2 additional photocopies should be carried.
  • Watch or Clock with an Alarm
  • Small headlamp or flashlight
  • Sunglasses
  • Camera
  • Journal

Optional Items

  • Pictures! Make up a small album! Pictures of mom, dad, boyfriend/girlfriend, dog, strange neighbors, school buddies, etc. - People you meet will be really interested in where you live, what your house looks like, what your parents and grandparents look like, what your school looks like, etc. This is a great way to break the ice, break the language barrier, and have some fun.
  • Any fun, engaging games that are easy to explain» Musical Instrument (Guitars and Harmonicas, other portable instruments) - if you play an instrument at home and it fits in your suitcase easily, bring it along. (Frisbee, mini football, hackysack, etc. – anything fun to do and easy to carry.)
  • Thai phrasebook

**Remember, if you not sure, leave it at home.  Laundry is easy enough, and people are usually surprised at the good and cheap stuff you can find when you’re here.

Frequently Asked Questions

What will the accommodation be like?

We’ll stay at hotels, guest houses, and Rustic Pathways bases. Nice beds, Western toilets, and hot showers are available at each location. There will be one or two occasions such as the refugee camp visit in which we’ll sleep on mats and pads under mosquito nets, and showers will be bucket style.

What sort of issues will be discussed and presented?

Please read the section ‘WHO YOU MEET’ under the information tab for Tribal Issues for some examples of past issues we’ve confronted on this trip. These issues are real and unfiltered. However, please keep in mind this trip was created by David Venning, the Chairman and Founder or Rustic Pathways, who has decades of experience in experiential learning, working with teens, and traveling in SE Asia. Conversations will typically be facilitated by senior Rustic Pathways team members and/or one of our local staff with years of cross-cultural experience.

Are any of the places we visit dangerous?

There is amazingly little crime and violence in most of rural Asia. These are small, friendly communities where everyone knows each other, and they truly act in a communal fashion. Additionally, Rustic Pathways longtime aid and presence in these regions has earned a certain amount of respect within these communities and our visitors are welcomed with open arms. Many of our staff come from or have family in the villages we visit.

What do other students say who have done this trip in the past?

This has been one of our most powerful and successful trips in the history of Rustic Pathways, and has fulfilled its original mission to be the ‘eye-opening’ experience many are looking for.

Will I have access to internet and phones?

There will be days in which there is no internet, and phones are only available on an emergency basis. Phones and internet will be made available at least every few days, although we encourage our students to use the internet only for a limited time, and only for corresponding with their family and friends.

Will this program involve service?

Yes. In addition to the conversations and learning that will take place, you can expect to partake in hands-on community service projects such as simple building projects and English teaching. If possible ways to help or solutions present themselves, we will not shy away from getting our hands dirty.

How often can I do laundry?

We’ll have opportunities to wash clothes every few days.

Are the mosquitoes a problem?

There are mosquitoes. They’re usually not too bad, but you will want to bring a light, long sleeve shirt and light, long pants for some evenings. Also bring a small bottle of insect repellent containing DEET.

How much allowance money do I need, and where can I spend it?

Markets and local crafts are huge part of SE Asian culture and a great way to support the local community, so there will be opportunities for shopping in most of the places we visit. You also may want to donate some things along our trip- these things can be bought in Thailand. 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

What is the weather like?

It’s hot, and humid in the day and a little cooler 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.

How many staff members will be on this trip?

We have one staff member for every five students.

What kind of food will I eat? What if I have certain dietary restrictions?

During this trip we will be eating at local restaurants, shops and hotels. We will be eating a variety of local food as well as some western food. We will be able to cater for almost all diets. Vegetarians welcome!

What water will we be drinking?

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

How physically strenuous is this program?

Tribal Issues is appropriate for students of most physical activity levels. Students should be prepared for short hikes that may require moderate physical activity. The true strain can be emotional, as you can expect to hear stories unlike anything you have ever heard before.

Where is the nearest healthcare?

Many of our staff are trained in emergency medicine care and many places we visit will have a reputable hospital within minutes. For those places without reliable medical care nearby our staff will have a clear plan and route to the nearest healthcare depending on the severity of the situation.

Is your staff qualified in First Aid?

Because safety is our number one priority, all of our programs have staff that is certified with First Aid and CPR training. Many of our guides are also qualified Wilderness First Responders, EMTs, Wilderness EMTs, or Life Guards.

What immunizations do we need to get for trip?

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 (Thailand, Burma, Laos). You can also check the Center for Disease Control website at for more information.

Should I be taking Malaria medication?

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 (, the Center for Disease Control website, and consult your physician.

Will there be a flight leader to this country?

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.

How does this program connect to other programs?

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

Contact Us: For more information about New Jersey Key Clubs: Tribal Issues, email


  • Delve deep into the issues that your peers in remote tribal areas of Southeast Asia face and learn about their lives, the difficult situations they often face, and their hopes for a brighter future.
  • Interview tribal youth and hear remarkable stories of hardship and courage that will illuminate the issues in this region of the world and give you first-hand insight into local people's situations and how you might help.
  • Make a difference in the lives of the people you meet.
  • Meet like-minded Rustic Pathways students who are committed to community service and cross-cultural understanding.

Program Details

Ages: 14 to 18 years old

Length: 18 days from the USA

Hours: Up to 64 hours awarded

Cost: $3,295 + $740 Internal Airfare + $1,995 Estimated International Flight Cost

Departures: Students on this program will depart from John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Eligibility: You must be a Key Club member from New Jersey to attend this program


Departs Tue Returns Fri Availability
8 Jul 25 Jul Available

Dates shown are inclusive of travel time from the United States.

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