Where to begin? I could probably sit here and write for hours just presenting a recounting of everything that we did in Thailand - but I hope that a few select memories will suffice to offer you a brief insight into our groups’ experiences during this portion of our summer travels. Thailand is a beautiful country with a very visible and fascinating history and culture. I believe that this part of our trip (for many people one of their favorite) provided a wonderful fresh opportunity to learn about a new culture but also served as an important time to reflect back on the country and culture we had just left behind (Singapore). The contrasts, the similarities, the way we as Americans reacted to the different countries, all of these points are significant - SE Asia is a large and dynamic area which is something we all came to learn this summer - and I believe this section of our trip was a critical point in developing this realization.
Our trip to Thailand began on July 7th and was mixed with an excitement to be heading off to a new country, but also for many a farewell to Singapore and the places and friends we had grown to know so well during our stay. Our trip to Thailand was only 1 week so when we arrived at the airport in Bangkok we immediately set out for Ayuthaya, which proved to be a wonderful introduction to Thailand. Upon arriving at our hotel we met up with a group of Thai students from Rajabhat University. The students first took us to a museum to help us get a better understanding of Ayuthaya’s history and then took us to what was to be the first of many amazing temple ruins that we saw during our trip. That evening we ate with the students at a local street vendor area and then me and several other people from the group went and visited some more ruins that were a short walk from our hotel. The next day we visited many more ruins such as Wat Chaiwatthanaram, Wat Phananchoeng, and Wat Phra Sanpet and did other activities like RIDING ELEPHANTS! (sorry - despite the fact that it was touristy I have to admit I was excited about the elephants). The next day we traveled to the Bang Pa-In Summer Palace on our way to Bangkok. This bus trip, as with all of the bus traveling on the trip, provided a good opportunity to see what the countryside looked like - which I have grown to believe is an important window into beginning to understand a country (we did actually stop on the way to take a look at some of the rice patties which were so abundant along the side of the road). Our subsequent 4-5 days in Bangkok consisted of more visits to amazing sites such as the Wat Pho and the Grand Palace, several very rewarding visits with Thai government officials and non-profit organizations working on issues such as aids and urban poverty in Thailand, and other side trips such as a visit to the Suan Dusit Culinary School. In short - it was a busy, rewarding, and absolutely fascinating trip which I can firmly say a great many of us would have enjoyed extending. Hopefully my friend Dan will write a bit more in detail about some of our experiences in Bangkok - but if any one would like to know more - feel free to drop me an email.
All right - now I would like to briefly reflect a little on how I feel our time in Thailand fit into our overall experience this summer. There are several events such as a friendship/induction ceremony which the Thai students organized for us at Mahidol International College outside Bangkok and that first dinner in Ayuthaya which I mentioned earlier - which I feel serve as a good means of addressing how I experienced Thailand and how that experience ties in with other countries like Singapore. I have a picture of that dinner firmly set in my memory - me, Dan, and a Thai student sitting at a table in the open air street market eating spicy Thai food made by the man standing at the stall right behind me looking at the temple across the river and watching the fishing boats go by - why am I sharing this memory? - because I feel it captured for me a lot of what my introduction to Thailand felt like. Just sitting down and eating my meal I felt totally and completely surrounded by another culture and way of life. The key word in this sentence is felt - I knew and felt I was in a foreign place experiencing new things and that realization hit me at the turn of every corner during the entirety of my stay in Thailand. I believe that for many if not all of us - it was at some level this sense of newness and a rich and very visible culture which made Thailand so attractive. But this realization poses a question which I feel many of us (including myself) were compelled to address - namely how do you travel and experience all of these different countries and not fall into the trap of reflecting your own personal values and judgments upon their cultures. How do you open yourself equally - even if you personally are more drawn to one more than another? Many people on the trip - some in my presence and many more no doubt without my knowledge - found time in our busy schedule to discuss these and other questions which out experiences in Thailand raised. From simply seeing the sights to reflecting on some of the larger questions our summer travels posed - 0ur trip to Thailand was an amazing experience - both standing alone as a introduction to a peoples and culture few of us knew much about and as one comparative window out of several which we were offered this summer into SE Asia.