Singapore Summer Immersion Program

Thailand is very different from Singapore. As much as I liked Singapore I am happy we are now in a place that actually has a little dirt and everyone doesn’t speak English. The Thais we have encountered are all very nice. Thais almost always smile whether they are happy or not and are a very laid back people. Even traffic regulations are laid back in Thailand. Right of way appears to belong to whoever is largest, which makes being a pedestrian a challenge sometimes. Especially for people like me who, back at Chapel Hill, make jaywalking a part of everyday travel.
In Ayuttaya some of us experienced the excitement of tuk tuk travel. A tuk tuk is a very small 3 wheeled truck with no tailgate and bench seats in the back. We packed 6 people in the back of two tuk tuks and headed for the night market one evening. The drivers seem to like having tourists and they decided to put on a bit of a show by racing. It was quite a ride.
On the topic of interesting transportation we went on an elephant ride. I named my elephant Trunky because I’m a huge dork. The guides were cool and let us ride on the head of the elephant instead of just the seats. I spent almost the entire ride on Trunky’s neck. Our guide at first stayed near us, but later he seemed to wander off some, which made the ride more exciting. Especially because Trunky was hungry, every time food would be coming up on the trail, she’d start hustling and push past the other elephants. It was cool seeing ruins from the back of the elephant. It was so interesting I almost forgot that elephants are really smart animals and they should not be kept in captivity.
After the ride we saw an amazing snake show. I have never seen anything like it in the United States…probably due to insurance regulations. We were all perfectly safe 3 or so feet away from the up to 8 foot cobras, because we had an impenetrable barrier of at least 10inch tall plastic between us and the snakes. I wasn’t that worried because they milked the snakes, which meant there was probably anti-venom somewhere around. Also I have a childhood fantasy of being one of those crazy animal show hosts that grabs angry snakes on camera. Reactions among the more normal people on the trip seemed a bit more critical.
We saw a ton of ruins and temples in Ayuttaya. It is amazing to see a culture with so much more history than our own. I got some amazing pictures, and learned some Thai history as well. I also found that there is a group of paparazzi-ish photographers that hang around tourist areas. They hide in the bushes or something and take your picture, and then when you leave you find your picture posted on a commemorative plate. I felt obligated to buy mine just so no strangers can see it…flattering angles are not the photographer’s specialty to say the least.
After leaving Ayuttaya we went to a royal palace. I had extensive and very well cared for grounds. The highlights were a traditional Chinese style mansion and an observatory. The mansion was mostly red with gold trim. It was filled with amazing wood carvings. I personally would never want to live some place that nice, I’d be afraid of breaking something. The observatory had a huge spiral staircase and the view from the top was amazing. I was touristy enough to take pictures from every angle and make a panorama. Both the stairs and the railings did seem to be a bit steep/short to fit with U.S. codes. It’s kind of like everything seems to be in Thailand; you are safe if you pay attention.
We took lunch at a restaurant next to some water that had huge fish you could feed. The menu was quite good with amazing variety, we had chicken, fish, a vegetable dish, some soup, prawns, and we even had watermelon for dessert.
On the way to our next destination we pulled off on the side of the road and saw a rice field. It was very big and probably full of snakes. The rice looks so green and alive you just feel alive as well. I love the nature here in Thailand. As much as I love cities it’s nice to have some time in the country.
We pulled up to a craft village later that day and the sky looked like it was about to just open up. Fortunately it ended up holding off for awhile. We saw a traditional Thai house, but in a slightly odd style that no one actually lives in. It reminded me of our HDB tour, where you see a house that represents a real one, but actually isn’t. Fortunately you had the option of seeing houses that real Thais live in at the village as well. Craft villages have been created to employ the rural population and to promote traditional Thai culture. The village had a huge parking lot, an access trolley shaped like a little train, and there was not a hedge out of place…so I am a bit skeptical to its historical authenticity. We walked around from shop to shop buying touristy things reminiscent of Thai culture, which I don’t mind because we are putting money into the local economy. We still wanted more handicrafts so we went to some sort of craft warehouse. Afterwards having tired of handicrafts and being loaded down with presents that seem like they are expensive, but actually aren’t at all, we headed to our evening lodgings.
We spent a night at Mahidol University International College. All of the students were amazing and they taught us Thai icebreakers. They are similar to American games like Red Rover, in that they are always fun, but once you are big you can easily hurt yourself playing them…especially when they are played on a hard floor with the traction of a roller rink. One of the games involved making a two giant Congo lines and having them chase one another. It represented two snakes eating one another. The other game was basically Thai duck duck goose, but with people posted around the circle to try and grab you as you ran.
Dinner was buffet style and what I, as a non vegetarian, would describe as amazing. Sadly the chefs put meat into what was supposed to be 3 vegetable only dishes. We got to try amazing Thai coconut ice cream, although it freaked me out on the first bite because it looked like vanilla. After dinner we had a kickboxing demonstration. Kick boxing is infinitely more interesting than regular boxing.
After dinner we put on skits. The students gave of Thai words, but wouldn’t tell us what they meant. So it was kind of like mad lib drama. Steve got to be a rampaging panda and stole the show, although Joey’s portrayal of a washing machine was heartfelt as well.
We then experienced an initiation ceremony which involved sitting in a circle and having the Thai students come around attaching string to your wrist. Each student added a piece and wished you well. At the end you have a luck bracelet that you are supposed to leave on for 7 days. I felt so good afterwards; I think Thais should patent the ceremony and export motivational speakers.
Some of the Thai students were in a band and they put on a show for us. It was mostly hard rock, but it was still really cool. They even let some of us come up on stage and sing with them. Sadly all nights must come to an end, and this one was no different. At bedtime we had a lesson in social positioning as the students went home, the program leaders went to a hotel room, and we got the floor of a classroom with shared pillows. I personally enjoy sleeping on the ground, it makes me think of camping, but others in the group seemed to mind.
I got up early with Dylan, Anna, Dana, Justin, and Joyce to scout out pre-breakfast with a couple of Thai students. In Asia people often eat like 5 times a day at least. It’s healthier than the practice of eating a couple big meals. Although for someone like me that eats once or twice a day usually, I end up having to order multiple dishes at lunch and dinner. Although I can’t complain, I love all the food here. We went to a traditional Thai market, which was really cool. I have never seen more duck in one place than at this market; sadly it was breakfast so we couldn’t try any. We picked out a bunch of Thai desserts for breakfast and for some reason like four huge bags of guava…even though no one really likes it. The Thai students were nice and almost anything we looked at for even a second was purchased.
We split up into groups and were taken around Bangkok. Each group did something different. My group was lead by Ann, a Malaysian student studying at the University, and a professor from MUIC. We went to see the royal barges. They are kept at the end of a series of really really tiny allies. We were surrounded by poverty and waste then all of a sudden we got to gold plated boats. It’s interesting to see the distribution of wealth in such contrast. After that we had what seemed to be brunch along a river. The food was really good as it always is.
We ate dinner at Cabbages and Condoms. The idea is to make condoms as common as cabbages, which is a lot better than what the literal title implies…them handing you a condom and a cabbage. Cabbages and Condoms is an amazing organization that is part of the profit arm in a partnership between a non profit organization and corporations whose profits go towards funding the non profit arm. We heard an intriguing lecture about the value of businesses training the poor to work for themselves. The most valuable idea I think is giving the poor credit with their labor as collateral. That allows the poor to jump start businesses. The lecture was very informative even if it came off a bit preachy at times.
The next morning we woke up bright and early to head out to Wat Po, one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Thailand. It is the home of the second largest reclining Buddha in Thailand. It’s 47 meters long and gold plated. I would describe it as impressively shiny. It really would better promote contemplation and reflection if it wasn’t surrounded by enough tourist photographers that you think you are on a red carpet. The temple has 4 pagodas representing kings Rama 1 though 4. In one of the alter rooms we witnessed a monks ordination. We were struck by the difference in conception of sacred space for Buddhists compared to Western religions. A group of Asian tourists could not walk in on a priest’s ordination.
We then went to the Grand Palace. Which looks a little like Disney at first, but it is real and there are guards posted at the front with a 50 caliber machine gun facing the sidewalk. Guards in Thailand don’t seem to have very strict regulations as far as gun care goes, most of them a very scuffed up. The more important buildings have guards with M-16s, and the less important ones have guards with Ak-47s. The palace was quite large. The buildings varied in style from being as glittery as Vegas to being plain white walled European styled. The highlight of the tour was the emerald Buddha…actually made of jade. He has 3 outfits and only the king or a member of the royal family is allowed to change them. He sits a top a tiny thrown, very high in the air and is one of the most venerated statues in all of Thailand. Kneeling there watching the Buddha you can easily realize why much of the rest of the world thinks Americans are insensitive jerks. There was an American lady with a reverent look on her face praying to Buddha with her legs stretched out towards him. That is the equivalent of a Buddhist praying while holding a bible and then throwing it against the wall. You just want to beat her with your shoe, but of course being an American with at least a bit of a clue you left them outside…so you ask the Buddha for his deference and leave with a little less faith in your fellow countrymen than you already had.
The afternoon was spent on the opposite side of Thai culture from the Royal palace, a Bangkok slum. After getting over our feelings of voyeurism, pulling into a slum in a tour bus and getting off in the clothes we put on to tour a palace, we walked through the neighborhood. I get the feeling it was not the worse slum in the city, because this slum has a great organization taking care of it. There is cheap childcare, and other services. We learned about the evils of free trade and the corruption within Thai government, from a university professor that worked in the slum. Everyone was really emotionally affected and some people donated money, whether the affect will last when we get back to UNC is yet to be seen.
We left the slum to go learn about free trade from what we thought would be the other side. What we actually got was a more articulate attack on the concept of free trade from a Senator, than even the professor in the slums managed to give. Both presentations made me happy because I have always hated free trade and it’s nice to find people that actually are experts in what they are talking about that agree with you. The Thai farmers are especially hard hit by free trade and the influx of cheap foreign produce. The only Thais that benefit are the upper classes, who sadly control government. Also it was nice hearing the senator speak because I was actually in the middle politics wise, he seemed to want some sort of socialist rural utopia. I usually am the crazy socialist guy, so it was nice to feel moderate for once. I wish he was our senator though; it would be nice to have a leader that cares to much for the common people rather than too little.