Our last stop in Southeast Asia was Thailand!!!!! We knew that there was going to be jammed packed days ahead for us here. So Liz and I are going to describe our experience here while being hosted by Mahidol University International College. This University did an efficient job at allowing us to see so much of Thailand in so few days! Today was our last day to spend in Kunming, China before heading off to Pattaya, Thailand. The stay in China was so awesome because we stayed in a hotel that was central to several markets, eateries, and small shops. The hotel was also located on Yunnan University, making it much easier to wander around the campus during our free time to compare the University with universities back home in the States. This morning in Kunming, some of us took the opportunity to sleep later than usual while others got up early to do last-minute sight-seeing. A few of us decided to eat breakfast at a small café on campus. I must say I can never get enough of kaya toast and passion fruit tea there!!! A little before noon around eleven o’clock, everyone carried their bags downstairs for check-out. After lunch at noon, we boarded the bus to prepare for the ride to the airport. It was bittersweet because we were going to miss the friendly, hospitable Yunnan University students while at the same time eagerly awaiting the adventures and excitement in Thailand.

After the short two-hour plane ride, we arrived at the Bangkok airport to meet Mr. Brian Phillips, a member of the MUIC staff who will be showing us around Thailand. We were all somewhat tired after the flight, but we slowly awakened in time to board a bus that would take us to the Natural Park Resort in Pattaya. Packing the bus was an adventure because we did not realize how much luggage we acquired while on the trip. The bus was packed with suitcases and bookbags, but many of us managed to doze off during the ride to Pattaya. After unloading the bus very late at night, we were all starved and many of us decided to check out the nearby restaurant which had delicious food and soothing music. We were also greeted by the MUIC students who helped carry our luggage to our rooms. The resort was so attractive with a swimming pool close by for us to hang out by the restaurant. Being that we could enjoy the beach so close to the resort, many of us students put our feet in the water to relax and soak in the concept of actually being at a beach in Thailand! It was all so surreal. It was a very tiring day that consisted of a lot of traveling, so we all went to bed and prepared for tomorrow—our first day in a new country!

Tues July 11, 2006-The Environmental Program at the Beach

I can only think of one word to best describe this day—FANTASTIC! It was truly a day at the beach that was comprised of a lecture and hands-on experience in the water. Wayne Phillips shared a lecture about his coral reef research. He and his students at MUIC were studying ecology and how human actions and behaviors were negatively affecting the livelihood of reefs. During his briefing, he mentioned how pollution and debris, intervention from jet skis and boats, and feeding of fish all interfered with the longevity of corals. It was quite interesting to learn about the many different forms of coral growth while snorkeling in the water to identify the reefs. Around noon, we took the boat to eat lunch at another nearby island. We enjoyed some delicious Thai food at a restaurant near the beach; many of us ordered fried rice and chicken that was accompanied with spicy sauce and cool cucumbers to balance out the taste! There were a couple of shops on the island to purchase shirts and wrap-around skirts, key chains, hats, and other interesting souvenirs at a great price. Some of us opted to relax in the lounge chairs by the beach while others decided to collect seashells and get our feet wet in the water. Thailand had some of the most beautiful pebbles that were unlike anything else I have ever seen in the United States. There were also several other people, foreign tourists and natives to the region, who congregated by the waves and the beach shore. Shortly afterwards, we headed back to the boat and stopped in the middle of the water to do more hands-on research in the water led by Mr. Wayne Phillips. Our task was to divide up into groups of about three people to survey different animals and foliages in the water. We found this environmental project was a great way to teach us how to properly care for the ocean and preserve the coral reefs. After our research, some of us enjoyed swimming in the cool blue water and taking a break before traveling back to the hotel. We were given about an hour to freshen up before dinner, which was held at the resort by the swimming pool. We were accompanied by the MUIC students at the buffet-style dinner. The food was amazing, and I was tempted to fill my plate a second time with the variety of desserts—from fruits like watermelons and pineapples to sweet pastries. The cultural performance was a fun way to perform 5-minute impromptu skits/shows in front of Mr. Bryan Phillips, Mr. Wayne Phillips, the MUIC students, the UNC students and faculty, and onlookers. It was fun to show our creativity and acting skills. I really enjoyed dinner, especially when two MUIC students came to perform Thai kickboxing, an activity they have been practicing for several years. One of the boys who were performing was the student body president at the University! It was quite an honor to have all of the students from MUIC to take time to make us feel so welcome. Just when we thought the day could not get any better, there was one last surprise for us that night. The students hosted a special ceremony for us referred to as a Thai Welcome Ceremony that is traditionally given to all new students/freshmen who are beginning their first semester at the University. This ceremony was dedicated to us to show how we will always have a place to call home in Thailand. Not totally aware of what was going on at first, we sat around in a circle and candles were lit in front of where we sat. Each of us was given about four or five strings that were tied around our wrist. By the last one, the strings formed a single bracelet. It was a very sacred ceremony because we could see how sincere the MUIC students were in wishing us success and prosperity in the future. In my opinion, the students were like family to me because we had bonded with them for a couple of days so far. It seemed like everyone was touched and emotional afterward the ceremony, feeling appreciative of the good experience thus far in Thailand. Many of us took dozens of pictures of the MUIC students before going back to our rooms for the night.

Wednesday July 12, 2006-Forget the MRT Train Station, We Rode Elephants Instead!

At the beginning of the day, we had the choice of sleeping in or getting up early to soak in our final day in Pattaya. I went to the beach to collect seashells and saw some of the other UNC students as well. Other UNC students used the free time to reflect on being in Thailand and traveling to the extraordinary places. We checked our luggage out around eleven o’clock and traveled to Ayutthaya, the former capital of Thailand. It took about two hours to arrive into the city on the travel bus. Many of us dozed off while listening to a collection of familiar songs on the bus. We were seriously pushing for karaoke on the bus! The hotel in Ayutthaya was in the center of several shops and hawker centers. There were many American foods like familiar pizza restaurants, McDonald’s, and other fast food chains. We were greeted by the welcoming staff at the hotel that served us a fruity drink that helped to quench our thirst from the long ride. We quickly set our luggage in our rooms and went to grab lunch before we had to leave the hotel for an excursion. I, along with other students, walked to McDonald’s down the road passing by small shops that sold trendy clothing and shoe apparel. At McDonald’s, I noticed a lot of school-aged children looking at us partly because we were in a hurry and also that we were noticeably foreigners. Feeling like celebrities, we smiled at everyone we saw. Our meal at McDonald’s was brief but tasty nonetheless—reminding us of back home. I was surprised to hear how much English was spoken here in Ayutthaya at the hotel along with some outside shops and restaurants. We quickly arrived back at the hotel to meet the rest of the group to head off to ride elephants!! We were so excited, not knowing what to expect it. The Elephant Village was a few minutes from the hotel but we still traveled on the bus to get there. My first reaction was that they were all huge!!! Everyone in the group was taking endless amount of pictures of the scenery, the ruins we passed on the ride, and of the elephants themselves. It was truly an unbelievable experience. Many of the students like my twin sister and I were sandwiched in between two elephants posing for pictures and were surprised to see how well-trained these animals were. Our next excursion was to the Wat Phra Si Sanphet which is the former site of where the original Grand Palace was located. We observed several ruins that showed the history and culture of the city. We ended the day on a river boat in Cha Praya Ma Reow eating a Thai-style dinner. It was a great and relaxing way to see a large part of the city and houses along the water. In passing, we observed many other party boats leisurely traveling as well and waved at many of the residents.

Thursday July 12, 2006-Cabbages and Condoms

Early this morning we went to see Ayutthaya ruins and the Nhae Phramen Temple. The Buddha found in the temple was the only one that was able to avoid destruction from Burma. The temple was designed very nicely and has been preserved and restored several times to promote upkeep. We saw nuns outside the temple and monks who sprinkled holy water on us. It was a special experience to witness being in the presence of a monk. Afterwards, we returned back to the hotel to check out our luggage. On the bus, we traveled to River View Place for a buffet-style all-you-can-eat lunch. Then we departed for Bangkok to the Novotel Hotel in Siam Square. On the same evening, we had the honor to listen to Senator Mechai Viravaidya, founder of the Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant. We ate dinner in a private room with two MUIC students who were from the United States and Canada. They were very friendly in explaining their experience at the University and how it is different from back home. This restaurant works in collaboration with businesses and sponsors to educate others about safe sex in reducing the number of those affected with HIV/AIDS. It was inspiring to hear how the entire community was involved in the efforts. He was so down-to-earth and a very good speaker, willing to answer questions that we had about his restaurant and programs. We arrived back at the hotel for the night to rest before visiting MUIC the next day.