— The Land of Smiles

I’m done with classes, I’m done with 15+ page papers, and I’ve payed all my school fines. The time has come that I must leave Chiang Mai. When I was leaving the U.S., six weeks seemed like such a long time. I was excited, anxious, and above all frightened. This city is so warm and welcoming that I couldn’t help but feel at ease. I owe everything to the friends that I have met here. They are the ones that made this experience unforgettable. I had the opportunity to learn within the classroom but also within the setting. In the U.S., it is so easy to here things, imagine what it must be like, and then forget about it within in 15 minutes. Here in Thailand, I was constantly bombarded with real life examples of my studies. Whenever you travel there never seems to be enough time.

I am excited to go down to the south for the next week but I leave with a sad heart. My connection with Chiang Mai goes beyond expected parameters. The city holds all the memories, friendships, and emotions that I have experienced while in Thailand. Through my classes I have experience the lows in Thailand, oppression of migrant workers and abuses within the sex industry, but through taking part in the Thai life I have fallen in love with the endearing qualities of this country and its people (that being said, I still think Thai music is god awful). I came here planning to be an observer but quickly I realized that if you try to learn from an outside perspective you end up only finding the information which reinforces your previous perceptions. But by actually living within your surroundings, you learn more from every language barrier issue, every late night clubbing experience, every cultural faus pax you commit, and every chance encounter with a new friend. I love Chiang Mai and it will always hold a place within me. I say goodbye, but hopefully not for long.

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While at Payap University, I became great friends with a St.Mary’s College of Maryland student named Monica Gillis. She is a rising junior and an Economics major. Since our time here, Monica has been very vocal about the mistreatment of animals around Thailand for the purposes of tourism. I had no idea how bad the situation was until I went to a Elephant riding camp and saw the mahouts repeated hitting, hooking and screaming at the poor animals. Once I saw that I refused to participate in the ride and have never been back to an elephant camp since. Since Monica has much more experience with the subject, I asked her to write this blog post and hopefully inform some of you potential Thailand tourists on the widespread mistreatment of these animals.

Monica Gillis!

When most people visit Thailand, one of the first things they want to do is spend a day with elephants. Generally, “spending a day with elephants” involves riding them, watching them perform a show, and possibly playing with them. And from the perspective of a naïve tourist, this seems like good clean fun. It can’t be exploitative if every tourist who has ever been to Thailand does it. If it were bad, we’d know.

Like any other traveler to Thailand, I did not know about the truth of elephant camps. Naively, I went to an elephant camp and rode on an elephant for an hour with my friend. I did look at the organization’s website beforehand, to check on the humane status of the institution, and the few lines stating that the elephants are treated well and only give rides when they feel up to the task comforted me enough that I did not feel uneasy. Even during the ride, I did not notice anything to make me question the website’s statement. I conveniently did not pay attention to the young elephant who was chained so that it could not roam on the mountainside. I did not put much thought into the hook the mahout (elephant rider and trainer) would “tap” the elephant with to make it walk forward. I especially did not think about whether this poor elephant wanted me on its back, if it wanted to lug me around. I was the carefree tourist that these elephant camps appeal to.

About a month later, I was walking down the streets of Chiang Mai with my mom. We were looking for some sort of day trip we could go on, trekking or kayaking or something equally as overdone and mundane. We passed a building that was the headquarters for an elephant camp. I initially did not want to go in because I had become uneasy about the whole elephant riding situation. When the intern was trying to convince us to spend the ludicrously large sum of money to see elephants, I was extremely skeptical. Every elephant camp claims humane treatment. But soon, I realized this place was different. There was no elephant riding, no hooks, no chains. This elephant camp, the Elephant Nature Park, was founded by a woman nicknamed Lek (meaning small), who spends her life saving elephants from domestic work. My mom and I did end up paying for a day trip, and the next morning we were picked up and taken to the camp.

There I learned the stories of so many elephants, and my eyes were opened to how cruel the world really can be. Traditionally, elephants are ripped away from their mothers at around 4 or 5 years old, when they are still young enough that they had never spent a day without her before in their lives. Then, they are forced into a small bamboo cage where they are tied up and brutally stabbed and hit with hooks. Mahouts and their young sons tend to aim for the most sensitive parts of the elephant’s body; its inner ear and soles of its feet. These elephants, too young to know what is happening to them, try in vain to fight back, to escape for this confined space.. However, they are kept in the “crush” for about a week, a little less for female elephants, being “trained”. After the crush, they are led into the village, being beaten if they try to escape or if they refuse to walk. This walk becomes a daily ritual until the elephant can make it without fighting back in any way. And thus, the elephant’s sole has been broken down; it lives in constant fear of its mahout. The elephant now spends its life trying to please its mahout, doing almost anything to avoid being beaten.

At the Elephant Nature Park, I learned the stories of many elephants who were mistreated throughout their lives. I learned the stories of elephants who actually ended up dying at the park from internal injuries or drug addictions (some elephants, mostly involved in the illegal logging industry, are force fed amphetamines so they will work 24/7), and I saw the physical suffering of elephants who were still being affected by their maltreatment. Jokia, a beautiful older female elephant, is now blind because her previous owner forced her to drag logs even while pregnant. She had already been blinded in one eye, due to mistreatment by the same owner, but she lost her vision in her other eye when she gave birth while climbing up a steep hill. Her newborn calf fell to its death. Jokia refused to keep on walking, devastated by her loss. Her owner beat her to get her to begin walking again. She did not. He ended up using a slingshot, shooting small rocks at her eye from a very short distance. This was the day she went blind. A blind elephant cannot drag logs. Jokia was sold to another owner to give rides to tourists, using her trunk as her only way of knowing what was in front of her.

Lek saved her, right before she was going to be killed and used for her ivory, because nobody wanted to get a ride from a blind elephant. Jokia, along with about 32 other elephants, now reside in the Elephant Nature Park, living a life free of logging and giving rides. I spent the day feeding, bathing, and watching the elephants. I learned a lot about how tourism negatively impacts elephants. Young elephants are sometimes used for street begging, which leads to elephants being overwhelmed by city noise and malnutrition because they are fed only a few bananas that are paid for by tourists. Elephants are also forced to give rides to tourists in climates they are not accustomed to leading to dehydration and exhaustion. They are also forced to do shows where they put themselves in awkward positions that are uncomfortable and are seemingly impossible considering their bone structure. Some elephants even become addicted to drugs. By far, spending my day at the Elephant Nature Park was much more fun than riding the elephants. Seeing a happy animal is much more rewarding than riding on an abused animal.

However, the solution to elephant abuse is not so simple. Elephants need a job. They are domesticated and would have a lot of difficulty surviving on their own, and to compound this problem, most elephants provide the entirety of a family’s income. Without elephants, families would have nothing. Therefore, we can’t all just stop going to elephant camps. It is very hard to get angry with the tourists who do support this industry, because the issue is so complicated and not very well understood. All I know is that I refuse to ride elephants, and I try to tell as many people I can about the truth of Thailand’s elephant camps.

Elephants are an endangered species, but under Thai law, domesticated elephants do not have any special rights. They have the same protection as cows and pigs. Who is going to look after them? Deep seated cultural beliefs are what is driving the abuse of elephants, and seemingly the only way to change that is by changing the way tourists interact with elephants. So, if you’re ever in Thailand or any other country with elephant riding, make sure you check out the place beforehand. There are a lot of places were elephants are treated humanely. The use of the hook is still widespread, but a good mahout will not use the tip to physically injure their elephant. Elephants need work, but only by demanding good working conditions for them will the culture of elephant abuse change.

Also, please take a look at the Elephant Nature Park website. Read the bios of the elephants! http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/index.htm

Thanks for reading!

— Monica

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This past weekend we went on an excursion to Bangkok and Pattaya in order to make some first-hand observation about the workings of the sex industry. None of us actively participated in any form of sex tourism, we all just observed the areas were it is most prevalent. We also met with some NGOs and a CBO who are working to reduce stigmas associated with sex work as well as the diseases that plague the industry. I’m 99% sure that there are some grammar and spelling mistakes but bare with me. I only have two more weeks left in Thailand. This summer flew by!

Seeing Patpong and Pattaya Walking Street first hand was an eye opening experience. Our readings practically came to life when I saw the venues, such as Super Pussy and Kiss Kiss Kiss, the consumers of said establishments, and the goods and services that they were pedaling. Through my observations from this weekend, I was able to witness the industry from an outsider’s perspective and yet still recognize the allure and attractiveness that millions of tourists find in these dingy and seedy districts every year. In this reflection, I would like to address what surprised me most when seeing the industry. Although there is much to be said about the stereotypical old white customers and the expected sleazy go-go bars, I want to recount the unexpected because that is what I learned most from.

The iconic Super Pussy bar in Bangkok's Patpong Night Market.

First and foremost, I had no idea the amount of people that counted on these areas for income. There are bar owners, bar tenders, dancers, music acts, bouncers, street performers, sex show solicitors, souvenir salesmen, flower salesmen (mostly children), street beggars, taxi drivers, fish spas, drug dealers, masseurs, 7-11s, hookah bars, and fast food restaurants, all of which benefit from the inflow of tourism that the sex industry creates. The culmination of all these suppliers transforms these districts from sex hot spots into authentic Thai night life experiences. For example, over Patpong there looms a massive Super Pussy sign and yet you see countless European and America families enjoying the market place and restaurants with young children. Also in Pattaya, walking street boasted a street magician, a shark tank, and even a toy salesman selling dancing sesame street look-a-likes.

Are these families oblivious to the stripper dancing in the window above the beloved magician or to the posters of naked women next to the toys their children are examining? I doubt it. Leaving bad parenting aside, there is a more interesting factor at play here. These places are not just centers for sex tourism but they are centers for party tourism, shopping tourism, food tourism, etc. In a previous paper I commented on my issues with being non-judgmental in the face of what many call the world’s most immoral industry. Seeing the hot spots of the industry makes it even more difficult for me. Anyone can see how the sea of neon lights, the varied live music acts and numerous other attractions can appeal to any kind of tourist looking to experience Thailand’s night life not just those pursuing sex. This fact makes it only difficult to differentiate on whether the sex industry is a part of Thai culture or a western construct and also if the industry is more of a necessary evil that supplies multiple types of people with a bit of income.

A CBO we met with in Pattaya which works to promote safe sex practices and education to the Transgender sex worker community.

Another observation that surprised me was the power that a foreign male has in such places. I saw this best when I went out in smaller groups both in Bangkok and Pattaya. Both times I was in a group of about 4-7 with me being the only male in Bangkok and one other guy accompanying us in Pattaya. In Bangkok, we started by walking down the main drag of Patpong. We made specific rules only to go to open air bars because all the places behind closed doors offer more than we were willing to see (and pay for). As we walked down the street, I was in the back of group because I was looking around for a cool tank top.  I was a prime target for all the men trying to solicit sex shows, many of which looked more like super-human abilities rather than turn-ons. The girls ahead of me every once in awhile would get asked but I was solicited by almost every man with a white card in a mile radius. It was incredibly annoying but I was also intrigued by the amount of attention I was generating. I was the center of attention, not because I was any more important or deserving than my friends but because I fit the stereotype that is most willing to pay up for these kinds of shows.

Another example was when we went out in Pattaya. On our back to the hotel, we stopped at a bar to ask if we could use their bathroom. They were just closing for the evening so they let us in. One of our friends waited for us outside since he did not have the use the bathroom.  While we were waiting a couple transgender sex workers came out of the bathroom and talked and laughed with us. They seemed like they were just having a good time but when we went outside our friend told us how he was uncomfortable because they were hitting on him. It was obvious that since we were a group of four girls and one boy and he was alone outside, the workers must have gotten a little friendlier with him than us. From these examples it is obvious that due to our demographic, my friend and I were more likely to engage in sex shows and sexual activities. We fall into a category that many of those who work in (or whose work is related to) the sex industry see as willing to pay. Going into this excursion, I expected to be hassled more intensely than the girls in our group but what I did not realize is the feeling of importance and self-esteem that it provides.

A NGO we met with in Chiang Mai who advocates the equality of sex workers within society and under the law.

There are many people in my life that I love and who love me just as much. In those connections I find the importance that my life holds. After witnessing Patpong and Pattaya Walking Street, I now understand much better what is being exchanged in the sex work industry. It is not only pleasure but also the importance and love which many of the consumers are missing in their lives. What I have learned most from this experience is before I make judgment on a man or a woman engaged in sex work, as either a consumer or supplier, I must think back to times when I felt most lonely. Was I looking for a sense of value or importance in those situations and what would I be willing to do in order to fill that void?

I am the luckiest person in the world to have the family and friends that I have. They keep me on track to do what I want to do in life and to become the person I wish to be, but I must also realize I’m part of a vast minority. By transposing my situation onto the lives of others, such as sex workers and their customers, I’m forcing them to live within my specific set of life experience. I know nothing about life because I can only live one. Out of the infinite paths of choices we can choose from birth to death, I can only followed one. Therefore, all I can do is respect people for the life they chose and try to help dismantle barriers that block those from becoming the person they want to be. For the women, men, girls, boys and transgendered who are stuck in the sex industry and trying to find different opportunities, my heart goes out to you, but for those of age who actively participate in sex work and are happy with their lives, I am happy for them and glad that they are proud of what they do.

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This week we just started our class on the Economics of the Sex Industry. For on of our assignments we were suppose to write a reflection paper on how our reactions to the sex tourism since we have been in Thailand. This reflection is very similar to my blog posts so I thought I would post it for you guys to read.

Since I arrived in Thailand, I have witnessed a few examples of sex tourism in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and even cities as secluded as Pai. I cringe every time I see an older white male with a much younger and much livelier Asian female. I consider myself open minded and I detest when people make judgments based on the normalcy. What is normal? How can any one person determine a universal and enforceable code of conduct when there are over 6 billion different personalities all with unique sets of life experiences, unique moral codes and unique ways of thinking? Even at our most basic level we are made up of a biological code distinct for any other living organism. My belief is that the concept of “normal” is non-existent, and yet I still on countless occasions find myself holding these menup to standards that I find worthy.  I want to appreciate people for who they are, not so much what they do but it is always so difficult, especially when their actions involve hurting or exploiting another human being. Individualism is important but the fact is that we survive as communities and I have an extremely adverse reaction to peoples’ attempts to damage that community. But for me, all the foreign men that I see taking part in prostitution and exploitation, are not individuals. It’s strange because they all look the same (older and very unattractive, obviously past their prime), and act the same. Frankly, their actions disgust me.They make me ashamed of my nationality, my gender and, even more so, my race.

Pai, a very small city to the North of Thailand

I was in Pai last weekend at a tiny little tea shop called “Art of Chai”. It was a nice little place with a max occupancy of probably about 12 people. There was one table inside and two tables outside and since it had just stopped raining, Monica, Martha and I decided to sit outside. At the other table there was a European man with two Thai girls. The man looked around mid-60s and the girls maybe early 20s and late 20s. Their conversation was rough and sporadic. You could tell nothing was really getting through to either side. Then he just stopped talking all together. He just sat there in silence sipping tea. Then when he paid the bill, he just got up and they followed him. The possibility that that was just a really bad date is very slim. It was not until after we got back to the bungalow that I started getting really angry. To have to cater to an older, very unattractive man who knows nothing about you or your culture is hard enough, but then to be completely ignored is another thing. People are entitled to equal amounts respect, whether you are Barack Obama or a New Delhi street beggar. Even beyond that, they were offering him a service and he was not at all thankful. I think that is the main thing that bothers me about the men that part take in this industry. I actually believe that they are superior to their escorts and that it is more of a privilege for the worker when it should be the other way around.

When it comes to my view of the industry and sex-workers themselves there are plenty of mixed emotions. I have always believed prostitution to be a necessary evil. It is a source of income for many men and women who have little or no other opportunities mostly because they were left behind by the rest of society. They are the causalities of the constant pursuit of economic growth, efficiency and societal advancement. Also I know there are a few sex workers that actually enjoy what they do. Finding a job you love to do is incredibly hard nowadays, so props to them. But the main issue comes in maltreatments and degradation that sex workers have to deal with day in and day out. For the time you are hired, especially if you are in desperate need of money, you literally assume the role of a slave, a concept we thought to be eradicated centuries ago. I have seen some documentaries on prostitution in the U.S. and the workers always talk about how they have boundaries that they never let clients cross. Those boundaries are a privilege that many in this industry cannot afford and my clients are more than willing to exploit that fact.

Now, as I walk around the streets of Chiang Mai, every time I see an older white man as sick feeling hits my stomach. I want to get angry at myself because it goes against all the times I have stood against judgment, but I have witnessed first had the destruction that these men can inflict. I have never seen a white male physically assault a sex-worker, but I have witnessed what emotional damage they can do. It also has had the effect of undermining a lot of (even though there was not much to begin with) respect I still had for my gender. I see these men and always think about how my father or my uncles react to all this. Are any men immune from the feeling of power and superiority over these women? Are there any men that would rather respect the integrity of their employee instead of exploiting their desperation? I have no qualms with the industry itself just the way the business affairs are handled.

Until next time – Bobby

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According to some Thai newspapers apparently today there was suppose to be a military coup. After the results of the election this past Sunday, I can say I would not be surprised. Thailand has been getting a lot of international attention recently because the recent July 3rd elections were one of the defining events in Thailand’s history because the result (and more importantly how the  military institutions will react to the result) will determine the trajectory of not only partisan politics but also the basis of the political system itself. The importance of the elections weighed heavily on the atmosphere here in Chiang Mai. The day that I was at the hospital for a stomach virus I called a Song tao driver and it took him over an hour to pick me up. When I ask why, he said it was because there were over 100,000 people at the Big C (Thailand’s Walmart) trying to register to vote and traffic was horrific. Then on Sunday night after the polls had been closed an fireworks filled the sky, and when news agencies started predicting Yingluck Shinawatra as the winner there was literally jubilation in the streets of Chiang Mai. I was back at school about 2 kms out of the city writing a 20 page paper but I could see the fireworks and even some students were talking about going into the city to celebrate.

In case you are a little fuzzy on your Thai political history, here is a crash course in everything you need to know to make sense of this general election:

*I don’t claim all of this information as my own.

1. FIRST AND FOREMOST, the King is the main man. He is the head of state and, barring Brunei, the monarch with the most political sway and political power in the world. Also there is a strict policy against criticizing the king, so when you analyze Thailand politics you must be very careful not to commit lese majeste. It warrants 10-15 years in prison.

2. 1997 the Asian Financial Crisis hit and people were losing money by the day. The Prime Minister at the time was very reluctant to do anything to protect people’s finances. The public was angry and when the next elections came around in 2001, they were looking for change.

3. In 1998, Thaksin Shinawatra appears on the political scene. At the time he was widely known as a very successful Thai business man with some experience in politics. Thaksin started the Thai Rak Thai party (Thais loving Thais) and promised to make change and get things done.

4. In 2001, Thai Rak Thai won a landslide victory and Thaksin was declared Prime Minister. He followed through on many of his campaign promises, such as 1 million Baht for every village, policies to assist small and medium sized businesses and a regulated 30 baht charge for all hospital visits. He also is championed for wiping out all IMF and World Bank debts owed by Thailand.

5. Thaksin became a leader of the people, but he was not without fault. He instated a massive war on drugs and gave enforcement vague orders on conduct. The war on drugs resulted in over 3000 extrajudicial killings and many more instances of judicial neglect (guilty until proven more guilty). Thaksin also appointed many loyalists into powerful positions in the military, the police force and the election committee.

6. In 2005, the Thai Rak Thai party won 374 seats out of 500. Having friends in the election committee helps. For the elite, the political arena was starting to get tight around the collar.

7. In 2006, Thaksin sold his entire stock in the Shin corporation to a Singaporean businessman for over 1 billion dollars. Many cried foul play and charged him of corruption along with “selling an asset of national importance to a foreign entity.” This scandal lead to a Military Coup on Sept. 19th 2006.

8. Thaksin is sent into exile. A pro-Thaksin party wins election in 2007 and yellow shirts (anti-Thaksin protesters) begin to protest and eventually take over the parliament building, not allowing anyone inside. The military did nothing to help. One year later, pro-Thaksin party is dissolved by the court system because the Prime Minister was charged with corruption for accepting payment for being on a cooking show.

9. From 2008 to 2011, the Military sets up an interim government with Abhisit Vejjajjiva as Prime Minister. Red shirts (pro-Thaksin protesters) protest the government as being a military puppet government. The military repeatedly stepped up to combat red shirts.

10. Parliament was dissolved in 2011 to make way for new elections. The main candidates are Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, who is seen to be directly influenced by her brother, and Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the democracy party and is known as the military candidate.

For many Thais that I have talked to, the election of Yingluck represents the return of civilian power in the Thai government. One of the party’s first objectives is to provide amnesty to Thaksin so he can return from exile which will be very tough for the military to allow. It is going to be super exciting to see what will happen in the coming weeks. We also must never rule out the king because his influence it so revered that only a very tiny group of people go against his word. A prime example is how even the red shirts, who strongly advocate pro-civilian power within the government, ostracize and remove any members that promote the dethronement of the King. It is a wonderful time to be in Thailand and who knows maybe I’ll even live under military rule for a couple of weeks. It would certainly be a new experience. As for today, I think Yingluck can sleep easy tonight, but tomorrow and everyday after that is a toss up.

I hope you found this informative and not too incredibly boring. Until next time!

— Bobby

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Yesterday we left Payap University and Chiang Mai on an excursion to Mae Sot, a city Southeast of Chiang Mai which is located on the Thai-Burma border. Here is Mae Sot there is a huge population of Burmese migrants, some are migrant workers, some are refugees, and many are living illegally in Thailand. Along with the migrant Burmese, there are a lot of organizations in the city dealing with a myriad of Human Rights issues that effect not only those living in Burma but also the unfair working and living conditions experienced by Burmese migrants throughout Thailand.

Since we have been here we have toured and talked with many of these amazing organizations as well as had conversations with the extraordinary individuals that run them, all of whom have won countless awards for there bravery and compassion in helping ease the pain of people suffering great pain and infringements on their rights. I hope to write separate posts on each one of these organizations because they all deserve specific recognition for what they do and for taking time out of their incredibly busy schedules just to talk with us. Tomorrow we will visit the refugee camp and speak with individual refugees about their flight from Burma. It promises to be another greatly moving day.

Until next time! — Bobby

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Last Friday, right before I got incredibly ill, the former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Ambassador Sichan Siv, came to Payap University as a guest speaker and gave a talk on his life story (growing up under the Khymer Rouge, his entire nuclear family along with 15 members of his extended family being killed by the regime, escaping from a labor camp through the Cambodian Jungle, and living in asylum) all of which culminated into his appointment by George W. Bush as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N..

The lecture mostly centered around the Ambassador’s fairly new memoir, Golden Bones. It became apparent very early that the Ambassador wasn’t going to give away any of the emotional details of his story (“which you can find in the book” was a commonly used phrase) but we did get a basic framework. His story is very inspiring and champions the notion of the human spirit but what I enjoyed most from the talk was when he stepped back and commented on the role that his past now plays in his present.

“No matter what happens, never give up hope”. The Mother of Ambassador Siv often used this saying in times of hardship or darkness. His mother, along with many other members of his family, was killed under the Khymer. The Ambassador continually relied on these words to get him through life. Whether it was trekking toward Thailand for 3 days in the jungle with a severely injured leg or getting off the plane in America with less than two dollars to his name, in his mother’s honor he promised never to give up hope. The Ambassador’s story is at times heartbreaking, at times uplifting, and at times a little saturated with the “america saved my life” kind of stuff, but the comment that touched me the most was when he said “This is not my story, its the Human Story”.

That quote is a great soundbite for anyone trying to sell a memoir, and I’m sure someone in the marketing crew came up with it, but, in this situation it does hold weight. We are an extraordinary species and stories like this demonstrate our potential as individuals and our potential as a community, not only our potential for good but also our potential to promote pain and hate. The KR’s Cambodia, Than Shwe’s Myanmar, and Hitler’s Germany all demonstrate the human being’s potential for hatred, but, even more numerous, are the stories like Sichan Siv and Halima Bashir where strength, bravery, hope and compassion explain the power behind a human community based on respect for the individual and universal equality. I guess it just depends on each of us, as individuals, to choose where we want our own story to land on the spectrum of hatred and respect.

Meet Ambassador Siv was a sure highlight of my trip so far. He is an extraordinary individual and has done a lot for both Cambodia and the U.S.. I also got his business card and will definitely try to use his connections. On a personal note, I have gotten better but I’m still somewhat ill. Hopefully I will be 100% in the next few days. I’ll post again soon I promise!

— Bobby

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First, I want to apologize that the comments sections on my posts were disabled. I think I fixed the problem but if it is still not working then just shoot me an email.

My first week in Thailand is almost over and I am finally getting over jet-lag. Sometimes it can be really hard to get through the day when you wake up at 4am, but this morning I slept all the way until 7 which I am very proud of. For the past couple of days, I mostly have been exploring the campus and the city while getting acclimated to a foreign place and a new routine. I understand that daily routines are something overtly American and that for many (backpackers especially) the main reason people travel is to avoid their daily routine at all costs, but I am not here to travel, I am here to learn and a routine has really helped me to overcome any issues with culture shock.  That being said, other than troubles with communication, I really haven’t had any major episodes of culture shock. Our program directors have been quite effective in teaching us the essential dos and donts of Thai and Buddhist culture which takes a lot of stress out of my everyday interactions. There is still tons to learn but knowing the basics helps a lot.

In this post I want to give a little overview about my school and the city of Chiang Mai. A little history lesson you can say. I’ll start with some background information about the school. Since Thailand was never colonized, there isn’t a strong western legacy of colonization within the country. Therefore, the first long-term interactions with westerns where through missionaries. I haven’t done much research on the subject, but from what I was told, unlike missionaries in Africa or South America, missionaries in mainland SE Asia where much more focused on the development of region as opposed to the enforcement of Christianity upon the indigenous . Therefore, those who converted where much more likely to do so on their own accord and because of the good they saw missionaries perform. This is also why you see such a smaller christian population in mainland SE Asia as opposed to other non-western regions.

Payap University was first funded by missionary aid but it wasn’t accredited until 1974 due to a Thai law banning the establishment of foreign private universities. Payap University now has two campuses. one within Chiang Mai, which is the original campus, and one about 5 minutes outside the city, which serves as the main campus and is where I live and take classes. The school is a Christian university but its main emphasis is on respect with open acceptance no matter one’s religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or other lifestyle choices. There is a mandatory dress code but that is a uniform (pun intended) regulation among most schools in Asia. The school also has a mandatory English immersion program for Thai students, so all undergrads have some degree of English proficiency.

Another thing that I have noticed while being here is that the university has an intense legacy of hazing. For example, when I first arrived the new laws students where being forced to chant, dance and then jump in this gross muddy river. Also every time you walk around campus you will surely see some sort of hazing ritual, whether it be a bunch of freshmen interlocked in a huge huddle shouting or the new english majors doing a choreographed dance for the upperclassmen. I find this very interesting because nowadays hazing is so seldom seen in the U.S. due to university restrictions.  But here it is openly accepted. I can only postulate that is has something to due with the cultural precedent of respect to one’s elders, but that is just me brainstorming.

Life at Payap is also strongly connected to the city of Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is the second largest in Thailand but it has only 1/6 the population of Bangkok. The city is known internationally and locally as Thailand’s R&R destination, where life is much slower than the hustle of Bangkok and where one can reconnect with nature. Chiang Mai is beautiful and the horizon boasts many serene mountains and landscapes but you cannot relate it to the Montana of the U.S., or the Fredericksburg of Virginia. Chiang Mai is still a very busy city based on Western standards and there are plenty of seedy parts of town. Tourism is a huge portion of Chiang Mai’s economy and along with foreign money always comes foreign influence which can be especially detrimental in a country like Thailand where sex tourism and “party tourism” is so prevalent. Although foreign influence can sometimes have negative effects, Thailand, and Chiang Mai specifically, has very little anti-farang, or anti-westerner, sentiment (other than street vendors’ dualistic tendencies to have Thai prices and White people prices). This maybe due mostly to the absence of a colonial legacy but that is also just me extrapolating.

This post is getting quite lengthy so I’ll save the rest of my thoughts for another time. My Human Rights class is incredible so far so in my next post I promise to fill you guys in on what I am learning. Until next time! — Bobby

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This post is originally from June 18th, 2010. It took me a couple days to get internet so I couldn’t post until today.

I am finally in my dorm room at Payap University with my new roommate, Tom! The journey was long and quite exhausting but,technically speaking, everything went smoothly. Last night, around 10:15, I arrived at the Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok. Suvarnabhumi is hands down the nicest airport I have ever been to. There is a unmistakably futuristic vibe to the place. It seems the airport was built solely out of metal, glass and advertisements. After my arrival, I went straight to the hotel and passed out. I figured that if I stayed awake for most of the trip and then slept when I got to Bangkok it would speed up my assimilation to the time difference. My planned kind of failed because now I’m just exhausted no matter what time it is.

The hotel was far nicer than what I would expect for $50 or 1500 THB a night (The currency exchange is also something that is going to take me awhile to get used to. Being an American, it is really hard for me to give away a bill with the number 1000 on it and due to this fact I must apologize to all the thai people that I have severly under-tipped so far). I got to airport early this morning so I could finish all my reading for the first day of class (but mostly because the place is so awesome) and took a Bangkok Airways flight up to Chiang Mai. I was kind of surprised that almost the majority of people on my flight where westerners, when my flight from Tokyo was almost entirely Thai people. Now, after a short ride from the airport to the University with Kai (who is awesome and speaks English very well), I am at my dorm room and in my bed. My roommate, Tom, is an utmost gentleman and has already allowed me free range to all his belongings. His also is an avid fan of the Eagles, American country music and plays bass! Communication wise, His english is very limited (about 102 level) and my thai is non-existent but body language wise, it seems like we are getting along. In about 2 hours, Kai is taking me into the city to visit the night market so hopefully I can get a couple hours of sleep in before then.

Until next time! — Bobby

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It has been a frantic past couple of weeks and my mounting excitement only made the days longer and the wait more unbearable. Today at 12:26pm, I will leave behind the cool and calm Virginia summer days for the beautiful (and HOT) kingdom of Thailand. I cannot honestly say I know what to expect but I am more than ready to get out there. Now, only a 20+ hour plane ride separates me from 7 weeks in Southeast Asia. Huzzah!

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