Imperial Cities of Thailand and Laos

Led by Mary Griep, Professor Emerita of Art and Art History, and Randolph Jennings

February 6–22, 2019


This program needs 4 more registrants by May 1, 2018 to run. But don’t wait until then to register — it could fill quickly! Max group size is 25 travelers.


At a time when Europe was struggling through the Dark Ages and America was yet to be visited by Columbus, the cultures of Southeast Asia were thriving. In the north of what is now Thailand, the Lanna kingdom was well established, with Chiang Mai (founded in 1296) as its capitol. To the south, the capitol of Siam, Ayutthaya (founded in 1350), rivaled European cities in its splendor until the Burmese sacked it in 1767. To the northeast, Laos was a tiny landlocked nation, periodically overrun by regional powers, most recently occupied from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries by the French, who left lasting architectural and culinary influences.

In Bangkok ― now a stunning, 21st-century city ― we’ll see impressive palaces and temples of the Chakri dynasty, established by Rama 1 in 1782. A short trip to Ayutthaya will reveal a wide range of temple architectures, from the Khmer, Burmese, and historical Thai styles. Traveling north to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, we’ll explore the distinctive mix of Burmese, Chinese, Tai (Lao) influences that inform the Lanna style.

In Laos, we’ll visit the quiet and beautiful city of Luang Prabang, with its distinctive temples and markets, and wander through side streets that send us back to colonial and pre-colonial times. Our adventure will end with a short stop in the capital, Vientiane, where we will visit the important That Luang and Haw Phra Kaew temples. Travelers may elect to add additional days in Vientiane, or make easy connections to other Southeast Asian destinations, like Siem Reap, Cambodia (Angkor Wat), Vietnam, or back to the fabulous beaches of southern Thailand.

Throughout the program, we’ll discuss Southeast Asia as a cultural crossroads, we’ll find time to visit markets, museums, and cultural shows, and, of course, we will enjoy a wide variety of fabulous foods.

Take a look at the Itinerary.

The Cities We Visit  

Bangkok (estimated population about 8 million) is an exhilarating attack on the senses. Sukhomvit’s malls and gleaming skyscrapers are just a veneer of modernity for a city firmly rooted in ancient Buddhist beliefs and traditions. Watch saffron-robed monks on their morning alms rounds, clouds of incense rising above the Grand Palace’s golden spires, and long-tail boats gliding along the Chao Phraya River at dusk to discover Bangkok’s underlying sense of calm and the spirit of old Siam.

Chiang Rai (estimated population 75,000) is quiet, provincial city of temples nestled in the mountains of the Golden Triangle. During our short stay, we will visit several important and aesthetically varied wats, as well as nearby projects related to the historic cultivation and contemporary eradication of opium.

Chiang Mai, (estimated population about 1 million) founded in 1253 as the first capitol of the Lanna kingdom, has become a dynamic and modern city. It successfully combines its rich history and traditions with an exploding economy. Chiang Mai has cultural riches, bustling markets, fantastic handicrafts, delicious food, and is home to many natural treasures, including the stunning mountainside temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

Luang Prabang (estimated population 55,000) is nestled in a slim valley cut by the Mekong River, surrounded by lush, green mountains. The city has an air of tranquility and casual grandeur. The region was an isolated mountain kingdom for more than a thousand years, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Luang Prabang is endowed with ancient red-roofed temples and French-Indochinese architecture, some of the country’s most refined cuisine, its richest culture, and its most sacred Buddha image, the Pha Bang.

Vientiane is the largest city in Laos (estimated population 760,000), located across the Mekong from the Thai city of Nong Kai. It was established as the capital of a regional kingdom in 1563, and has been overrun, looted, and razed several times since. Vientiane was the administrative capital during French occupation. Today, the city is the home of two of the most significant national monuments: That Luang and Haw Phra Kaew.

City descriptions adapted from Lonely Planet, Thailand Guide, and Rough Guide.

Program Leaders  

Mary Griep, Professor Emerita of Art and Art History, and her husband, Randolph Jennings, led St. Olaf’s Term in Asia program in 2000-01 and 2003-04. Between programs, they remained in Chiang Mai, Thailand from 2001 to 2003, where Mary held an appointment as Artist-in-Residence at the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture, and Randolph served as a program director in the international study office of Payap University.

Mary’s long-term Anastylosis project, a series of large drawings of 12th-century sacred spaces took its initial shape during her artist residency in Chiang Mai, with drawings of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Thatbinyinyu in Burma, and a number of wats (temples) in Thailand. Through this work, she developed a deep appreciation for the religious, cultural, and architectural influences that have shaped the region.

Through their extensive travel across Southeast Asia, Mary and Randolph enjoyed the hospitality and civility of the region, the sense of pride in national histories, and the marvelous architecture. They also enjoyed an unbelievable number of really great meals. They look forward to continuing their exploration of these dynamic cultures, and to sharing the excitement with a lively group of fellow travelers.

What to Expect  

Most of our movement will be by air-conditioned private motor coach. Movement within each city and at cultural/historic sites will be on foot, by tuk-tuk, or by water taxi. You should be capable of walking up to five miles per day over possibly uneven terrain, of climbing stairs that may not have handrails, of climbing in and out of various types of transportation, of keeping pace with an active group of travelers on long days of traveling (including in the crowded and noisy Chiang Mai night bazaar), of dealing with the emotional highs and lows that can occur when experiencing different cultures, and of traveling with a group for several hours each day.

Hotels will be tourist class (four star or superior rating) with private baths, air conditioning, and English-speaking staff.

Temperatures and potential rainfall throughout the program should be reasonably consistent. Averages in February for each stop are:

  • Bangkok: high 92º F, low 76º F, rainfall 2 days/.8 inches
  • Chiang Rai: high 88º F, low 57º F, rainfall 2 days/.5 inches
  • Chiang Mai: high 90º F, low 61º F, rainfall 1 day/.3 inches
  • Luang Prabang: high 87º F, low 60º F, rainfall 2 days/.7 inches
  • Vientiane: high 86º F, low 65º F, rainfall 2 days/.5 inches

You should plan on seeing your family physician or a travel doctor at least four to six weeks prior to departure, preferably earlier, to talk about routine vaccinations. For more information on travel health, visit or

Program Fee   

The program fee is $5,194 per person. Based on double occupancy, it includes discussions led by Mary Griep, assistance by Randolph Jennings, a dedicated national guide, accommodations, breakfast daily and group meals as listed on the itinerary, admissions for group activities, visa fee for Laos, ground transportation during the program (except initial and final airport transfers), internal program flights, gratuities to group guides, drivers, and meal servers, and some limited medical coverage while overseas. For single occupancy, add $1,284.

Airfare to Bangkok and from Vientiane is not included. Participants are solely responsible for all expenses not specifically included in the program fee. Examples of excluded expenses are: Airfare from your home town to Bangkok and from Vientiane to your home town • Airport transfers • Any passport fees • Any recommended immunizations or vaccinations • Baggage insurance • Trip cancellation insurance above $2,000 lifetime coverage • Beverages at most group meals • Tips to housekeeping staff • Laundry • Dry cleaning • Phone charges • Room service or other items of a personal nature • Expenses incurred during free time or non-group activities • Lunch and dinner, unless specifically included on program itinerary.

A $500 per person deposit is required upon registration. Register now or see the full Payment Schedule.

Making Your Travel Plans   

Do not purchase non-refundable airfare until we announce that this program is an official go. If you register, you should note that the arrival and departure cities are different: you should plan to depart the U.S. on Wednesday, February 6, 2019 in order to arrive in Bangkok on Friday, February 8. Plan to depart from Vientiane, Laos on Friday, February 22.

For some general tips, see also Booking Your Flights.

More Program-Related Information and Documents   

Immunizations: For the latest information on recommended immunizations, visit the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Entry Visa: An entry visa is required for Laos, and we will be applying for a multiple-entry visa for Thailand, in order to remain flexible with our itinerary options. More information about applying for these visas will be given to participants closer to departure.

See also a variety of Resources, including frequently asked questions, general health information, included travel insurance, safety overview, and more.

Helpful Documents

Payment Schedule
Terms and Conditions
Release and Waiver

Register Now