Migration and Rural Change in Thailand- A cross cultural research expedition

Latest update July 29, 2019 Started on July 1, 2019

22 students from the University of Vienna and Chiang Mai University, in partnership with Raks Thai Foundation, head to Chiang Mai province for three weeks of co-creation and fieldwork on the linkages between rural change and migration.

July 1, 2019
Expedition's summary cannot exceed 240 characters


Did you know that the National Geographic Society is currently offering Explorers a variety of funding opportunities in the fields of conservation, education, research, storytelling, and technology? To learn more and apply for a grant click here.
If you're not interested in applying for a grant, click continue below

On Monday of this past week, the group reassembled in the TAO office in Mae Suk to say farewell to the student’s homestay families and thank the Mae Suk sub-district head for his generosity. Watching the students get dropped off by their host parents, leaping off the beds of pick-up trucks to photos and hugs, brought a feeling of coming full circle from the first apprehensive moments as everyone left on their fieldwork journey. Along the way back to the city, the countryside felt almost familiar as it rolled past the car windows. This week marks the final days of the excursion, and an opportunity to reflect on the past three weeks of lessons learned and knowledge gained.

After we returned to Chiang Mai we spent several days in workshops, processing the fieldwork experience and organizing the data collected. The next steps for the students include putting together a final report due in September, and the instructors are planning to use the data collected in potential forthcoming papers. It was great to see the continuity between the initial workshop sessions and the wrap up, in particular the intercultural exchange and causal mapping exercise. As bookends to the actual fieldwork, both of these sessions allowed for us to see some real growth and knowledge gained. In the intercultural exchange session, the students were able to share back what they had found working in the field, including the unanticipated language difference between Karen and Thai, and confirmed cultural differences in gender roles and clothing expectations. While these were salient across many groups, there were a wide range in degree and in kind between all the villages, despite their proximity to each other. Additionally the initial concerns expressed about bugs and spicy food were not substantiated, as each group reported excellent meals and no one got severely bitten except for myself.

It was also great to see the causal chain diagramming exercise returned to in the workshop sessions. This was something that the Vienna instruction team had undertaken in the context of the AGRUMIG project in June, and sharing it with the students was a lesson for everyone in how useful it can be to approach problems from a structured perspective. In mapping out their causal chains, each group was tasked with laying out ‘states of existence’ along a linear pathway describing their research question (for instance starting from the presence of return migration and ending in change of agriculture practices). From there, they identified supporting, offsetting, and blocking mechanisms that might affect this casual chain. When the students returned from the field, they had the opportunity to return to their initial causal chains, to adapt and share back changes from the hypothesis stage to the empirical analysis stage. Many students reported that this was a very helpful tool for them in approaching their research, and one that they will return in the future.

The final night concluded with the lovely coda of a group dinner at the same restaurant where we began. As the rain fell on the tin roofs around us, we were treated to impromptu speeches from the students and faculty. While every speech was heartfelt and eloquent, Yanin from CMU moved everyone by going one by one through the Vienna team and speaking of their personal qualities that struck her, all while holding her son Marco on her hip. It was a deeply empathetic moment that showed the connection and diligence of the Thai team in hosting and supporting both their own students and the Vienna team.

For me as somewhat of an interloper to both teams (I am interning with the AGRUMIG project from UC Berkeley for the summer) and the only American along for the ride, this has been a window into both the benefits of cross cultural education, as well as the rich and incredibly complex world that is Northern Thailand. I have many takeaways from this expedition, but I think the most salient one is how vital it is to constantly push your own boundaries. Whether traveling from Europe to Southeast Asia, or Chiang Mai to Ban Mae Yod, getting out of your comfort zone is how you learn and grow the most.

Thank you to all the students and faculty at both universities, as well as the amazing staff at CMU, Raks Thai and Sopon for working so hard to facilitate this experience. In Thai and Karen: Kap Kuhn Kah! Ta bluh! Ta bluh!

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1
In The Field

NAME OF STUDENTS: Agung Wicaksono, Dewi Oktamasari Yasintia, Adrianus Venda Pratama Putra

RESEARCH TOPIC: Social Preparation in Migration and Participatory Mapping


FIELD ASSISTANT: Satapron Srimoon, Mookthawa Nuttaphol

Over the course of this expedition we were also joined by a research team from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta Indonesia. The team was posted for the ten days of field research in Ban Huay Bong, a village perched at the top of the road that leads down to Ban Na Klang and Ba Na Klang Nuea. Their group consisted of team lead Agung, a colleague of Gunnar’s, and two of his students undertaking their own thesis studies on migration and development. While I did not have the opportunity to sit down with the team in the field, I visited with Agung back at CMU to get his perspective on the field site and learn more about their work. The two students from Gadjah Mada, Okta and Venda, will remain in the field for another week and a half to complete their research instead of coming back to Chiang Mai.

Agung spoke with me about the team’s research goals and priorities, especially the process that each member had to go through in adjusting to the local contexts and circumstances. Both students had to make course adjustments along the way due to feasibility constraints with their initial proposals. Okta is now investigating the in situ (or in place) social preparation that goes into the migration decision for migrants in Ban Huay Bong, and Venda is working with Agung on his own topic of participatory mapping. Agung and Venda are particularly interested in this topic due to the availability of the community-based GIS project we encountered in Mae Suk. The Mae Suk Portal is a just launched initiative between several civil society organizations, the local municipal administration TAO, and the villagers living in the sub-district. The goal of the portal is to map and track the previously unenumerated landholdings of the farmers in the communities in order to provide them with a certificate of their landholdings and open source access to the agricultural land use changes over time.

The Indonesian team is interested in understanding primarily how this process was undertaken, and what stakeholder narratives were utilized to bring the portal to fruition. This is of particular interest because of the strong differences between the Mae Suk and Indonesian experiences of participatory mapping. In Indonesia, Agung spoke of the barriers to successful community support for participatory mapping projects, due instances of corporate entities using the GIS information for land grabs, and inter-farmer conflicts between differing economic interests. In interviewing farmers and other stakeholders involved in the Mae Suk Portal process, Agung and Venda hope to gain insight into how the community support for the project was strategically built and why that support was able to flourish.

Additionally, when I asked about the field experience overall, Agung spoke of his own assumptions about the village life being challenged, and the visible differences between the Karen communities we were located in and some of the rural Indonesian communities he has worked in previously. He mentioned the wellbeing of the communities they were living in, their general health, nutrition and lack of poverty. The team experienced welcoming and curious community members, who warmly accepted them and the work they were doing. He was also surprised by the degree of global connectivity present in Ban Huay Bong, with some young people from the village studying in China, indicating a surprising degree of global networks among the community.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

NAME OF STUDENTS: Christoph Kiss, Kristijan Istodorovic, Parichart Chawiwong

RESEARCH TOPIC: Return Migration and Agricultural Impacts


FIELD ASSISTANT: Krittaboon Krahomyong

Christoph, Kristijan, Parichart and Krittaboon are located high up in the mountains of Ban Mae Yod- a remote and beautiful village where the team is researching the personal decisions of return migrants and their impacts on agriculture. While all of the villages where the students are posted are located in the mountainous low land rice fields of Mae Suk, Ban Mae Yod truly feels as if it is on top of the world. From the kitchen of their host family’s bamboo and wooden house, you can peer out across the entire valley and see the other Karen and Hmong villages dotting the mountainside. Like Ban Na Klang, this village is still very remote compared to some of the others- over an hour’s drive from the central TAO office. When we arrived, the team greeted us cheerfully, though both Austrian students were looking slightly more sunburned than when we left them a week or so ago. They brought us into their host families newly built living/cooking space where we all sat cross-legged on the raised thatched platform and shared jackfruit and herbal tea from bamboo hewn cups. We spent an afternoon there with the instruction teams from Vienna and CMU to learn more about the work the team has been doing during their time in the mountains, and also to meet with Sawang about some of the coffee production in the region.

The team’s biggest takeaway thus far is the knowledge that they can “live among all the nature” as Kristijan put it- their days have begun early at 6 or 7 am, after being woken by ‘natures alarm clock’, or the remarkably consistent cacophony of animal noise that marks the start of the day. Thus far, the team has had success working during the morning finding interview partners and conducting interviews and then spending the afternoon and evenings organizing their notes and reviewing their findings. Their research focuses on the motivations of return migrants, and the impacts of these return migrants on agricultural practices- so far they have completed seven interviews and a Participatory Rural Appraisal cause and effect diagramming exercise. They have found a high degree of migration experience among the villagers, mostly for education and work to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, to the north of Chiang Mai. The largest impact of return migration on agriculture that they have identified is the new presence of chemical input use in cultivation that has been introduced by some returnees. They spoke of one return migrant in particular who completed a university degree in agriculture and is now seen as the “pioneer” in the village in introducing new cultivation practices. These sort of networked practices of innovation are crucial to information dispersion, and identifying these leaders and gatekeepers of agriculture practice change can help researchers understand how the change process is either stalled or facilitated. Christoph and Kristjan were eager to talk about the complicated interaction between farming practices, the economy of maize production and the influence of the Royal Project, a development foundation founded by Thailand’s late King, on the village livelihoods. Like other groups, they have been deeply impressed by the complex political ecology to each of these factors at both micro and macro levels, all of which converge on the lives of these rural smallholders.

After meeting with the research team, Sawang and the CMU student Chip met us at the house to discuss coffee production with some of the community members and we all shared a beautiful lunch of fried pork, vegetable omelets and mountain rice. It is worth noting that the rice we have eaten over the course of these ten days is some of the best I have ever tasted- small grained and round, earthy and light at the same time.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

NAME OF STUDENTS: Dominika Teluchova, Jan-Niklas Janoth, Worayut Takaew

RESEARCH TOPIC: Knowledge Transfers and Land Use and Land Cover Change


FIELD ASSISTANT: Tanchanok Ninlapat

Jan and Dominika, along with their Thai colleague Worayut and field assistant Tanchanok, are researching the impact of knowledge related transfers from migration experience and their impacts on land use and land cover change. They are posted in Ban Huay Kee Per, a village about twenty minutes down the road from Ban Mae Yod, where Chris and Kristijan are located. Compared to some of the others in the area, Gunnar observed that Ban Huay Kee Per is primarily a “street village” as it is located directly alongside the main road up into the mountains. The team has been staying in the home of one of the three main village shopkeepers, and as such, they have a unique entry point into the village culture. In many ways because of this location, they are porch-side to the entire social network of the community. Jan and Dominika are first foreigners to ever visit the village, and report having to work to gain trust in entering the community. When they first began household surveying, two or three households in the village initially believed them to be representative of some corporation or government entity intent on taking their land, and it took some time for them to become known and trusted enough to do interviews.

We spent some time with them at the shop where they have been living, buying snacks and drinks after a long drive and chatting with the team about their experience. On our way into the village we ran into Dominika and Tanchanok walking down the road wearing traditional Karen dresses, and they both hopped into the back of the truck to accompany us back to their homestay. When we arrived the rest of the team were working on the low slung picnic tables out front, with maps and notes spread out. Jan and Dominika were quick to begin discussing what they had found so far, including their experiences regarding gender difficulties with research in the village. They have observed that engaging with the women is more difficult than the men; the women are often more reserved and closed off, and men often answer questions that were directed at women. They also sought advice from the instructors on how to deal with “saturation points” in information gathering, where after multiple days of interviewing they begin to hit a ceiling in terms of new knowledge gathered. The instructors suggested focusing on creating depth in the interviews by developing elaborative questions on value chains in agriculture or the omnipresent middlemen grain purchasers. Additionally, it was offered that the group could do face to face interviews with individuals who have contradictory narratives, in order to observe how differing information is resolved and understood.

When asked about their main takeaways, both Jan and Dominika offered thoughtful answers regarding their experiences and changing expectations during their field work. “I was surprised by how much I could learn from people here” Jan stated. “There is so much knowledge about the land and agriculture and history”. Dominika spoke of the reflecting she will do when she returns home to Austria, especially on the stark differences between lifestyles, and the lessons these differences offer about what we value.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

NAME OF STUDENTS: Pia Feiel, Veronika Furnsinn, Panitan Srilimpanon

RESEARCH TOPIC: Land Use and Land Cover Change


FIELD ASSISTANT: Pranee Weryyerkoc

Fifteen minutes up the road (or rice field in this case) from Ban Na Klang Nuea is Ban Na Klang, technically a part of the same village that Vincent and Carolin are posted in, but seemingly worlds away in terms of development. While the northern village feels as if it is still deep in thick jungle, with people living their lives in public spaces crowded with chickens, barefoot children, and campfire smoke, Ban Na Klong has a feeling of relatively managed orderliness. The two undergraduate students from the University of Vienna, Pia and Veronika, have been posted there during the excursion, staying in the home of the village head. From the porch outside their house one can see the nexus of the two main village roads, and community members pass by often, most recently to look curiously at the newcomers intently jotting notes at the table out front.

This teams research question focuses on remittances, and they are both investigating how remittances affect agricultural practices and land use change (or LUCC). Their proposal acknowledges the complicated relationship between remittances and agricultural practice, whereby remittance sending can lead to agricultural intensification via technological investment, or to agricultural disinvestment through new livelihood strategies. Though Pia and Veronika are the youngest members of the Univie team, they have opted for a measured and considered approach. After taking the first few days to settle in and get a feel for the village and its daily rhythms, they have been able to strategically gather interviews in the evenings once people come back from the fields. During the day the entire team has joined the villagers in the fields, working multiple shifts on rice, maize, and fruit cultivation. Like many of the other teams, they have discovered that the migration experiences in their village is primarily related to work and education, and is directionally internal to urban centers like Chiang Mai and Bangkok. They have also found that remittance sending has fluctuated historically due to economic circumstances, and as such they have broadened the time line of their research question to include past remittance experience as well current remittance sending.

On my most recent visit, they had just returned from planting passionfruit, and the Austrians were jokingly attempting to master the Thai “r” roll to correctly pronounce the fruit names. We played a few games of homemade Uno cards, and the whole group spoke with me about their main takeaways. Like many of the other teams, working with the language barrier has been a challenge, Pranee the team’s translator mentioned that they spent the first series of interviews struggling with one question in particular due a translation error. Once acknowledged and edited collaboratively, the group had much more success with their interviews. It is reflections like this one that offer insight into the challenges and opportunities of working in cross-cultural contexts. While in many academic settings, failures are judged according to a rubic and scored, it is impossible to quantify the knowledge dividend from learning how to successfully communicate across three different languages in a completely foreign environment. For some of the students, adjusting to the fluidity of these expectations has been a challenge in and of itself, but simply practicing how to communicate effectively outside of ones comfort zone would be enough to take away from this experience. I know that I have learned this as well.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

NAME OF STUDENTS: Vinzent Hillbrand, Carolin Biberger, Patsawut Nantarata


NAME OF VILLAGE: Ban Na Klang Nuea

FIELD ASSISTANT: P’Sawang, Chanathip Chanbang

One of the least accessible of the field sites is Ban Na Klang Nuea, where the student team comprised of Vinzent, Carolin, Patsawut, Chanthip and Sawang is located. Also referred to as “the southern village” of Ban Na Klang, Ban Na Klang Neau is only reachable by four wheel drive, down a steep and unpaved road passing above impossibly green rice paddy’s laying several hundred feet below. We were driven down by the head of the sub-village, a kind and funny man who is hosting half of the student group in his home. Standing in the sun in the back of his sturdy Toyota pickup while barreling down the mountainside was a highlight of the entire trip so far.

Vinzent’s research focuses on youth aspirations around agriculture, and how these aspirations shape young people’s decisions to migrate. Of particular interest to him is how modernity and modern politics impact the future visions of young people in these rural areas. By chance Ban Na Klang has a rather unique context compared to the rest of the villages, and this has presented somewhat of a challenge for both him and his Viennese counterpart Carolin. This village in particular is home to an extremely closeknit Karen community, and is reported to actually have grown in number of households over the past generation, while exhibiting little long term out-migration. Vinzent has found that youth here marry very young, at sixteen or seventeen, and have a strong connection with the village identity itself. “We do not have worries here, if corn does not work we have animals” he reports one young man saying. Of those that do migrate, he has found that young women, rather than young men, tend to move more. Young women also appear to exhibit a stronger preference for education, expressing a desire to train as nurses for example. Like Ban Huey Pak Kood, this village also has elephants present and is adapting to the tourism revenue that these animals can bring. Many of the households, including the students host families, are looking to begin offering homestay’s to foreigners. This has manifested most obviously in the installation of a brand new western toilet in the hosts home, offering a strong juxtaposition to the general state of development in the rest of the village.

Carolin’s research is focused on translocality and the impact of telecommunication technology like cell phones on “skipped generation” households- or households where grandparents and children remain in sending communities and parents migrate. However due to the remoteness of Ban Na Klang, which does not have internet access, and the lack of migration experience, she has opted to work alongside Vinzent doing the household surveying and gathering demographic data. Despite not finding relevant interview partners, this arraignment still works for her to practice her interviewing skills before she leaves for the remainder of her Phd work in Udon Thani next month. The entire team has clearly bonded with each other in the long days of rural life. I had the opportunity to stay the night with them in their homestay, and we spent the evening drinking Chang’s and chatting about everything from local politics, to the village demographics, to hip-hop music in the traditional bamboo house by the river. The Thai members of the team are a wealth of knowledge about their country, and it was fascinating to learn more about modern Thailand from their perspectives.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Halfway through the expedition! Today the instructors and the students met in Ban Huay Pak Khod to reflect and provide feedback on the trip thus far. The meeting was held at the village community center, and all of the students received transport from their host families early in the morning, some of them traveling for over an hour by mountain road. There were all smiles throughout the parking areas, with students reconnecting and sharing the experiences of the past few days with each other and the instructors. Once the group was assembled, our entire group sat in a large circle, filling the community room almost to the brim. At 36 people all together, we are ourselves the size of a small village.

The program for the day was intentionally flexible, beginning with each team sharing out their findings and reflections. The diversity of student experiences was evident, with wide variation in the availability of interview partners, the apparent presence or absence of migration, and the culture of each village. There are clear patterns of migration in both the villages where Dominika and Jan, as well as Kristijan and Christoph’s are staying. This contrasts to some of the others like Vincent and Hannah, who are living in communities without current strong migration experience. Across all of the villages however, there is maize farming, along with the unique politics of agriculture here- the presence of royal projects that shift crop production and influence markets, the contrast between NGO sponsored organic farming and pesticide spraying on the maize plantations. Additionally, the strong Karen culture in Northeastern Thailand is shaping the students research, both in terms of the language difficulties it can bring for the Thai-English translators, as well as the distinct mobility patterns that are found in some Karen communities.

The meeting concluded with breakout sessions among each of the Vienna professor supervised research groups. Student teams were able to get additional proposal specific feedback on their current approach, and troubleshoot issues with their peers. Marion advised her group somewhat poetically to consider how, when evaluating the review research process “there are always several doors- you can choose which doors to open, and which doors to leave closed”.

To wrap up, we all shared bagged (or in this case banana leaf wrapped) lunches as the rain began to fall over the valley. Just down the dirt road from the community center there is a beautiful wood built coffee shop with locally produced, organic coffee. Though it is usually only open from 7-8 every day, as the owner himself works in the fields, somehow news of our group made its way down to him, and he opened for us to enjoy an afternoon espresso before dispersing again for the reminder of the excursion.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

NAME OF STUDENTS: Hannah Platt, Patricia Hartl, Namwong Chakkaphor

RESEARCH TOPIC: Remittance practices and their effects

RESEARCH ASSISTANTS: Faikham Harnnarong, Seeawuth Pratheepsaw

NAME OF VILLAGE: Ban Huay Pak Khod

Hannah and Patricia are both Master’s students at the University of Vienna, and are beginning their diploma thesis work during this excursion, with Namwong joining them on the initial fieldwork. They will be extending their stay in Thailand after the expedition is over for two additional weeks, and because of this, intend to use this first trip to understand the context of their sites before diving deeper into potential impacts later on. They are taking a dual approach to the topic, both working on different aspects of the research question, which broadly asks: “what are the effects of remittance practices using an intersectional framework”. Patricia is focusing on remittance practices regarding education, and Hannah on remittance practices around gender. Across both thesis’s, they intend to apply an intersectional conceptual framework, looking at that ways that race, class, and other identities affect and differentiate remittance practice.

The village where they are staying is Ban Huay Pak Khod, one of two ‘elephant villages’ that the students are located in. This village is home to a robust eco-tourism industry around the forest elephants, and there are many “farangs” (or foreigners) who come here to volunteer with the elephants and stay in homestays with local families. The Karen people who live here have been using elephants as part of their livelihoods for generations, first in timber production, and then after the logging ban in the forests, as tourism generators. As Hannah and Patricia have discovered, the profits available from the elephant tourism has created an evident “pull factor” back to the village for some young people who have migrated for education, and perhaps dampened long term out-migration and remittance sending. This factor has created some concerns about the viability of their research question, but as with others, the instructors have encouraged adapting too, rather than discarding, any contradictory findings to their initial research questions.

Ban Huay Pak Khod itself is truly beautiful, and the students host family’s house overlooks the entire valley. Chaya pointed out the “typical Northern Thai red soil and tin roofs” dotting the hillsides when we arrived. We were greeted by the group’s ebullient translator Faikham, who made us boiled coffee and tea in the open air kitchen over a stone and wood fire. We sat around the rolled mat for several hours discussing the students plans for the remainder of the expedition, which include more data collection, as well as developing a PRA (participatory rural appraisal) exercise with the villagers to draw a timeline of the village. Given their findings so far, especially the impact of the elephant tourism present, Patrick suggested undertaking a “livelihoods timeline map” to understand what changes have occurred around migration in the villages history.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

NAME OF STUDENTS: Barbara Panny, Carina Wagner, Atcharawan Supaka

RESEARCH TOPIC: Livelihood Diversification and Migration


Field assistant: Jiraporn Chandee

Barbara, Carina and Atcharawan are posted in Ban Na Hong, one of the largest and most developed villages among the six field sites. In Ban Na Hong there are many shops present, including agricultural feed depots, convenience stores, and small roadside restaurants. Well fed animals wander lazily across the streets, and dogs have to be coaxed out of the way of oncoming traffic. Upon initial arrival, the students were formally introduced by the village head to the entire community, and report that since then they have been welcomed with open arms. Despite some setbacks, including Carina leaving early due to unforeseen circumstances, and Barbara experiencing a foot injury few days into the expedition, the team has proven to be extremely resilient and are enjoying their time working together.

Their research topic is migration and livelihood diversification, and their thesis question specifically asks what “farmer- led innovation, agro- and soft-tourism and rural non-farm enterprises (RNFE) in rural areas of Chiang Mai province can be found”. To that end, being posted in a village with quite a bit of off-farm activity has been an asset to them. Their host mother herself participates in diversified economic activity, working as a middle person in the maize purchasing supply chain for the village.

So far, the team has already begun mapping the village and collecting data, and one of the main findings of note is that migration is perhaps more of a subtext to agrarian change than a main driver in the minds of local people. Local level policies, such as taxes imposed on hired migrant labor for fertilizer spraying, are associated with migration, but explicit linkages between migration factors such as a remittances and entrepreneurship are less visible. Gunnar Stange from the University of Vienna encouraged the students to assess what questions they have been asking, and perhaps find ways to hone in on the more subtle ways that migration is present and pursue those as avenues of exploration. Often times in exploratory research, the answers are not necessarily easily accessible, and finding ways to listen closely and adjust to the subtext of what is being said for clues can be a challenge.

When asked about the main group takeaway, the students responded overwhelmingly that they were surprised by how welcoming and willing to talk to them everyone in the village is. Barbara mentioned that seeing the village through the eyes of the local children was especially useful in providing perspective; several days ago they went on an informal transect walk (a semi-structured route intended to be undertaken with a community member) alongside their young host siblings. In doing so they were treated to an in depth analysis of which yard guard dogs were the friendliest, in addition to more concrete questions of who lived where.

In the coming days, the team plans on undertaking more formal transect walks, continuing data collection by interviewing the other shop keepers in the village, and incorporating the feedback from their instructors regarding interview strategies.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Day 4: Arriving in the Field

On the first day of fieldwork, we all departed from Chiang Mai early in the morning, crowding into buses and onto the windy mountain road out of the city and into the Mae Chaem Valley. The valley itself lies about two and a half hours outside of Chiang Mai, and the road traverses through two National Forests. The mountains are a rich green and blue, with farming terraces set back among the steep hills. Many farming communities still live in the forest, existing among the context of land right struggles, government cropping programs and the encroachment of urbanity.

After a brief stop in Mae Chaem to fuel up on snacks and any last minute field needs, we arrived in the Mae Suk subdistrict headquarters. We were welcomed by the subdistrict head, Mr. Santi Chatyingsinwat, who presented the students with an overview of the villages, their relevance to our work, and some local tips- reminding us to respect the elephants and the power of the rivers. We also heard some more from Raks Thai about the geographical work being done in the sub district and were introduced to a newly launched community based GIS project called the Mae Suk Portal, an initiative of the subdistrict in partnership with the village communities to map their lands. Parts of the portal will be public facing, and allow researchers and stakeholders to better understand and track changes to the Mae Suk villages and farms. As a community funded initiative, this project represents one of powerful ways that mapping can empower people living in rural communities in claiming space- both digitally and physically.

Finally, the students assembled their PRA kits and printouts of the village maps, and were ready to leave to begin their work for the next ten days. Their homestays hosts filtered in one by one to pick them up and everyone departed for the evening and headed out into the field. We received some great photos in the LINE group of students on their first evenings- some enjoying beers with their hosts and others attending temple.

I had the chance to sit down with Marion, Chaya and Yanin later to chat with them about what best part of the expedition has been thus far. For Chaya, it was getting to see the more technical GIS trained students interacting with qualitative methods and broadening their experience in human geography. For Yanin, it was the methods training in Chiang Mai, especially witnessing the students collaboratively working on their conceptual mapping. For Marion, it was watching the students interact with the empirical nature of their work, and unspooling the theoretical into the something understandable and measurable.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

More photos from our three days in Chiang Mai!

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Preparation in Chiang Mai: Days 1-3

The joint expedition began with introductions from both the CMU and the Univie team, as well as a presentation from Raks Thai on their work in the Mae Chaem region. Raks Thai is a deeply important civil society organization doing work in communities all over Thailand, and from them we learned about the forestry management and community based adaptation issues facing the areas that we will be working in. From Chiang Mai University, we learned that their faculty cover a diverse and inspiring collection of research interests from GIS to human development geography, and that CMU is home to the first Geography department in Thailand. Patrick from the University of Vienna spoke about the history of the Univie Department of Geography and the work of the AGRUMIG project. After these formal introductions, Yanin from CMU led us all through a lively competitive icebreaker, filling the room with laughter and clapping. After the first joint student presentations of their research proposals, the day wrapped up with Thai dancing lessons and jasmine.

Over the course of these past few days, the Univie students have all worked very hard to adjust not only to their new teams and on their research projects, but also to immerse themselves in Thailand and Thai culture. We have had several great opportunities to exchange cultural knowledge and learn about the diverse sociological and ecological contexts of the field sites. Chaya Vaddhanaphuti from CMU presented takeaways from his thesis work with rural farmers on their perceptions of climate change, including cultural practices around food and clothes, as well as the nuanced ways that ethnographic research requires humility and awareness of one’s position and power.

Sopon as well has been an invaluable asset to the team- providing everything from help with SIM cards to GIS and census information about Mae Chaem. On the first and second days, he led us through an overview the field sites, and the students were introduced to the villages where they will be posted for the duration of the expedition. Each village has its own distinct characteristics, and the field sites represent a diversity of livelihoods and socio-demographic profiles. This includes ethnic Karen villages, villages supporting tourism enterprises and villages growing distinct crops like organic coffee and maize.

On the last day, the students met with their translators and had the opportunity to brainstorm field roles. After that, they continued finalizing their methodological plans, adjusting expectations as a group with their translators, and strategizing for the field work with the new information they have gained over the week in Chiang Mai.

This research project represents the first time that the two Universities have come together to take students jointly into the field, and as such, we are all in the process of creating something new and exciting. For many of the students it is their first time working with translators, and their first time traveling to Southeast Asia. For many of the translators, it is the first time they will have worked with the students. This practice of co-creation, where everyone is simultaneously novice to the process but an expert in their own cultural context is already a rewarding experience. Tomorrow we head to the field!

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Arrival: Chiang Mai

After an overnight train from Bangkok, the instructors (and your correspondent) met up in Chiang Mai to strategize with the research leaders Asst. Prof. Liwa Pardthaisong, Yanin Chivakidakarn Huyakorn and Chaya Vaddanaphuti at Chiang Mai University. CMU is a beautiful campus, set back in leafy trees and white modernist buildings with dogs sunning themselves in the tropical humidity. The instruction team sat for several hours and discussed the preparation schedule before the fieldwork. Besides icebreakers and breakout sessions to co-present the research proposals, over the next few days the students will work collaboratively on structuring causal/impact chains, sharing knowledge about cultural expectations, and preparing for their days in the field. The Viennese student proposals have been submitted to their Thai research partners, and now the teams will spend their preparation time getting to know each other and deep diving into methodology and practical considerations before leaving for the villages on Friday.

Our Thai colleagues at CMU took us for a delicious lunch of traditional Thai food, and we wrapped up for the work day with full bellies and ready for some strategic napping before meeting the students.

Later in the evening, the entire team of Vienna students and researchers, along with our Indonesian colleagues, convened at the hotel for some introductory remarks from Patrick Sakdapolrak from the University of Vienna before heading off to the official first dinner of the expedition! Sopon Naruchaikusol, who has worked with Patrick prior to this expedition and is assisting with our trip, graciously explained the Northern Thai delicacies we tried, including the seasonal mushroom soup and spicy Thai sausage.

Meet the team from Chiang Mai University:

The team leaders at Chiang Mai University include Professors Liwa Pardthaisong, Head of the Department of Geography at CMU, Yanin Chivakidakarn Huyakorn and Chaya Vaddhanaphuti

The students from Chiang Mai University include Worayut Takaew, Panitan Srilimpanon, Patsawut Nantarata, Atcharawan Supaka, Chakkaphor Namwong and Parichart Chawiwong

Meet the team from Gadjah Mada University:

The team from Indonesia includes Adrianus Venda, Dewi Okta and Wicaksana Agnung.

Meet the team from the University of Vienna:

The team leaders from the University of Vienna include Professors Patrick Sakdapolrak, Marion Borderon and Gunnar Stange.

The students from the University of Vienna include Dominika Teluchova, Jan-Niklas Janoth, Pia Feiel, Veronika Furnsinn, Vinzent Hilbrand, Carolin Biberger, Carina Wagner, Barbara Panny, Hannah Platt, Patricia Hartl, Cristoph Kiss and Kristijan Istodorovic.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1
Expedition Background

AGRUMIG "Leaving something behind" - migration governance and agricultural and rural change in "home" communities.

Under the banner of the AGRUMIG consortium project, this field expedition will take 11 students from the University of Vienna and pair them with students from Chiang Mai University. Over the course of three weeks, the student pairs will work together on finalizing the Univie student proposals, and then undertake the initial fieldwork in Chiang Mai province. Upon completion of the fieldwork, students will analyze and present back their team findings at Chiang Mai University. In partnership with Raks Thai Foundation, this research seeks to inform the background understanding of the complex interplay between rural change and migration, and contribute to the ultimate goal of AGRUMIG.

AGRUMIG works in seven countries (China, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Morocco, Nepal and Thailand). The project seeks to understand a range of economic, institutional, cultural and agro-ecological factors that mediate the outflow of labor from rural areas; explain how demographic changes feed back into reshaping rural transformation in these places; and challenge our thinking on what are the best policy and practice approaches to governing migration in these contexts. Our emphasis is away from regulating the movement of people to harnessing flows of knowledge and finance as a result of migration to help leverage more equitable agrarian change, including tackling structural constraints and stresses on economic development, such as gender inequality and youth exclusion. Our overall aim is to identify policy and practice interventions that harness migration processes and outcomes to stimulate more sustainable, inclusive and equitable growth in rural areas, and reduce the distress so often associated with migration decision-making.

Funded through EU H2020 [grant agreement number 822730]

image-1 image-1

Contribute to this expedition

Email Address
Number card
Postal Code

Review Your Contribution

You have chosen to contribute to expedition.

Confirm your details:

  • Name:

  • Email:

  • Last 4 digits:

Click below to proceed.

Thank You for Your Contribution!

Fundraising Details:


Tell us how raising these funds will impact your expedition
You're almost there, we just need to know three more things:
Is any part or component of your project funded by the National Geographic Society or a National Geographic Society Grant?
Is anyone on your expedition/project team affiliated, either currently or in the past, with the National Geographic Society?
Did you apply for a grant/funding from the National Geographic Society for this project?
You have a goal to raise by for:
How will raising these funds impact your expedition?
Is any part or component of your project funded by the National Geographic Society or a National Geographic Society Grant?
You’ve responded:
Is anyone on your expedition/project team affiliated, either currently or in the past, with the National Geographic Society?
You’ve responded:
Did you apply for a grant/funding from the National Geographic Society for this project?
You’ve responded:

Thank You

Fundraising is almost live!
Thank you for applying to collect contributions! We will review your request and follow up with next steps via email.
Feel free to email us if you have any questions. openexplorer@natgeo.com