As an engineering student, I never expected to travel abroad with the University. Sure, it would be an excellent opportunity, which I looked into more than once; but, with my engineering course load being so vast and knowing I would begin my fifth year in the fall, I had accepted that I would not be able to travel abroad during my undergraduate career.
Fortunately, Tickle College of Engineering promotes Global Initiatives, with alternative breaks including places like Mexico, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and more. Judith Mallory had marketed such a trip for the upcoming summer which fit perfectly into my internship plans. This trip was not in any of the South American countries where she had previously taken groups; instead, the trip was to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Of course, I had to inquire! I remember thinking to myself: Lauren, this is your chance to experience traveling abroad. This is your chance to step 8,600 miles outside of your comfort zone. And, so I did.
We traveled 8,600 miles, 24 hours, and through eleven time zones to Chiang Mai, with a layover in Seoul, South Korea. At first, I felt like I had teleported to an alien planet – it was nothing like anything into which I had ever been emerged. Everything was exotic; the people, food, culture, and especially their language was all vastly different from the United States. I was very apprehensive about being able to navigate my way through the airports and Chiang Mai, because Korean, Chinese, and Thai language is presented through characters not letters, like English and European languages. To my surprise, almost everything on signs was additionally written in English. We were extremely fortunate to experience this language accommodation. Through this immersion and feelings of anxiety, I realized the US does not bridge the language gap for foreign travelers.
Once we landed, we were greeted by two bright, smiling faces – Aun and Aor, our guides; they were such a gift! Upon arrival, and throughout the trip, they answered all of our questions, addressed cultural differences, and even cracked jokes. The following day we learned to speak some simple Thai, explored the city, and learned about the Thai way of life; albeit very jet lagged, it was incredible, nonetheless. That night we went to a night market, similar to the Farmer’s Market downtown, but 30 times larger; it engulfed over a mile of street space! While this was a neat souvenir opportunity, I found it more fascinating to take in the various tourist and native peoples, inhale the savory pad thai aroma, inspect the jungled mountain behind the city scene, and hear the foreign conversations surrounding me.
The following morning, we sped off to a local temple to chat with a monk. At first I imagined that “chat” was such an inappropriate word to use when speaking to a monk but once we arrived and had a dialogue with the novice monk, I understood why “chat” was the chosen verbiage. It was very informal – it was indeed a chat. We spoke of Steph Curry, his education as a monk, our education in the States, the things that bring us happiness and even our religious beliefs and differences. He was much more relatable than I had ever expected, and I realized if we could all connect with someone so different in a distant environment, I could connect with individuals at home in the same way. No, I should connect with individuals at home the same way. I should help to make the College of Engineering an inclusive and welcoming environment for all students, not only for the College, but to continue to expand my own horizons. Safe to say, speaking with a novice monk allowed me to explore the abysmal edges of my comfort zone.
The next day, we hiked up the 306 steps of Doi Suthep, a mountain upon which perches a very popular temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. After we all caught our breath, I was immediately taken away with the stunning view of the entire city of Chiang Mai and the glistening golden temple awaiting our greetings. During our trip here, we participated in circumambulation, whereby we circled the stupa, or shrine, three times, and finished by placing our flowers and candles at the base to celebrate the temple.
Afterwards, we visited a local hill tribe, Doi Pui. The view here was just as stunning as there were gorgeous botanical gardens, jungle vegetation, and obscure housing which all overlooked the city of Chiang Mai. At the top of the mountain, a small coffee shop awaited tourists like us. This part of the trip was most extraordinary – with our favorite drink in hand, we all took in this magnificent view, which was like nothing I had ever seen before.
One of my favorite days was visiting the Thai Elephant Sanctuary. We fed the elephants bananas as a tasty treat, helped with their main course of corn stalk, walked amongst them through to jungle for exercise, and cooled them all down with a nice bath in the river. This experience was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity that I will never forget. There were three larger female elephants, two of which had babies. As the baby elephants, T Noi and Nam Chock, climbed all over each other to play, you could tell they were definitely best buds! The American manager of the sanctuary purchased most of the elephants from logging companies. Using elephants to log is now illegal in Thailand and domesticated elephants cannot be set free into the wild, as they will certainly perish, so the owner purchases them to maintain a good life, as most elephant owners in the area do.
On our final day, a group of us traveled to the Tiger Kingdom outside the city. We got the chance to meet two beautiful small white tigers named Whipped Cream and Coconut Milk. Rightly so, I was a little anxious to meet them but after we all petted Coconut Milk it was like hanging out with a domesticated house cat! They were like any other playful feline.
Afterwards, we asked our Tuk Tuk driver to take us to a specific waterfall, which we learned was an hour away! This situation tested our communication skills as our driver spoke broken English with a thick Thai accent. He advised us to go to the much closer waterfalls of Mae Sa, part of the National Park at Doi Suthep-Pui. These ten beautifully cascading falls were breathtaking at every stop. The pathways up the hike were also so unique. Hiking this mountain was one of the most dazzling experiences of Chiang Mai.
Enough about the things we did as tourists! In addition to all of these amazing adventures, we also had the wonderful opportunity to use our engineering skills to install a fence at a children’s orphanage. When I first heard orphanage I honestly felt sympathy for the kids as I assumed “orphanage” meant parent-less children. In Thailand, this isn’t exactly the case! There are many Hill Tribe people in northern Thailand; in the tribes, there are no formal education systems in place. Many of the parents want better for their children so they send them closer to the city where live with guardians and 20-30 other children. These kids have the opportunity to learn subjects similar to American schools. In addition, they begin learning English at a young age. Thanks to this, we could speak a little with the kids! We also had a lot of fun playing some games with them. We had the opportunity to say goodbye to the parents of the home towards the end of the trip, too.
Leaving Thailand was extremely bittersweet. I came to love everything about the Thai/Buddhist culture in Chiang Mai. I even learned a great deal about myself through this adventure. I learned how to further expand my comfort zone, how to connect with people from all walks of life, and, most importantly, I learned to take in the most beautiful things here at home. Thailand was so gorgeous everywhere, but I realized that America is just as beautiful in its own way. I flew home with personal growth of appreciating beauty in my surroundings regardless of the location.