Student Adventures Around The World

John S., Australia / Asia

John

John is a junior Hunt Scholar majoring in marketing and minoring in photography. He's currently (spring 2007) studying in Perth, Australia, as part of the SMU-in-Australia program. The program includes a three-week tour of Asia followed by a semester of study at Curtin University in Perth. John recently won several awards from the Texas Intercollegiate Press Association including first place for Feature Photo and Sports Feature Photo and a third award for Sports Action Photo.

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THAILAND

Thailand proved to be equally as adventurous and fun as China was. In fact, I probably had the most fun I had on the entire trip while I was in Thailand. While in Thailand I visited Bangkok, Khao Lak and the island of Ko Yao Noi.

BANGKOK

Before going to Bangkok, all I really heard were bad things about it—dirty, polluted, etc. However, what I found in Bangkok was much different from what was told.

A Little Shopping
Our first day in Bangkok was a free day, a day to run around the city and explore. I decided to visit the Chatuchak weekend market. This market is massive to say the least. You could very easily get yourself lost wandering around the maze of stalls selling anything from dogs and cats to knock off designer clothing. There has got to be over a thousand different vendors all smashed into a relatively small amount of space and navigating this area is a daunting task. Anything you could ever want from Bangkok was sold in this market as I picked up a few knock off t-shirts and gifts for people back home.

My next stop was to a shopping building called Pantip Plaza. This 6 story shopping mall was the equivalent of the markets I was just at—only with electronics, lots of electronics. You’ve gotta love copyright infringement in Thailand. This mall also hosted various bootleg DVD, CD and software stores. I wandered around and picked up every movie that I have wanted to see for the last 2 years for about 3 US dollars a piece. Even movies that were still in theatres or not out on video yet were readily available. At the time this meant Borat, Blood Diamond, Babel and Casino Royale. I also was continually offered in broken English “Boom Boom DVD’s” which I respectfully declined. I’ll leave it up to your imagination what “Boom Boom” DVD’s” are. Bags full of all the copyright infringed material I could ever want, I headed back to the hotel.

Bangkok Icons
The next day, our group went and visited the Grand Palace and the Marble Temple—two of the icons of Bangkok. The grand palace was one of the most beautiful palaces that I visited while on the Asia study tour. Inside the palace is a jade statue of Buddha and one of the most treasured and valuable possessions of Thailand. All around the courtyards were intricately designed statues, gold enshrined roofs and detailed paintings. The pictures do it better justice.

The marble temple is famous for the various marble statues of the Buddha in multiple poses. When we were there, we had the good fortune of seeing the initiation ceremony for new Buddhist monks. These monks have the famous bright orange dress and we got to mingle with them in the courtyard around the statues.

Cultural Immersion at its Best
That night was probably one of the best nights of the trip for me. A friend and I decided that we would just stay up the entire night and run around the city exploring. With no real plan, we just started traveling around. We decided we had to go to Patpong, the infamous red light district of Bangkok. No, we didn’t go to any of the “shows” that they had. We went for the cultural experience and just to say we went. Walking down Patpong Street, I found that everybody loved me. Never have so many people shouted out “I love you” to me in such a short period of time.

Realizing that we were probably going to get a disease by default if we walked down the street any further, we went in search of the Bangkok flower market. The flower markets are only open in the wee hours of the morning from around 4-6 am. The markets at this time are comparable to watching an ant hill. Hundreds of people are running around, pulling carts, unloading trucks, and getting things ready for the day. It is a very organized chaos. It is here that the flowers, fruits and vegetables are prepared and then brought out to other areas of the city for sale. As we were by far the only Westerners in the markets, I was surprised by the very kind reception that we got. We just went around saying hello to everybody we met and in turn they tried to converse with us. Each seller usually gave us some of their product and when I got back to the hotel I had more fruit and flowers than I ever cared to have. I was the best cultural experience that I had on the trip and one that I am not sure too many tourist to Bangkok get to have.

One thing that is worth noting is the modes of transport we used that night. One mode of travel in the city is known as a “tuk tuk.” These are three-wheeled, over-glorified golf carts that you sit in the back of and pray your life doesn’t end in a fiery head on crash with a truck. One tuk tuk ride in particular was hell sent as our tuk tuk driver thought it would be cool to show us what kind of stunt capabilities his vehicle had. As we did wheelies down a busy Bangkok road, I checked to make sure my insurance card was still in my wallet—yep it was there. You would think this was bad enough, but our other form of transport was even more fun.

The motorbike taxis are some of the most fun you can ever have in a taxi. They are basically small motorcycles that you hop on the back of and away you go. Designed to hold 2 people, we somehow got 3 people on the back of it and then roared off doing 100 km/h down the street. With my friend hanging halfway off the back of the bike and me smashed against the driver, we somehow weaved in and out of traffic and got safely back to the hotel. I must have done something good in my life, because I survived Bangkok.

PHUKET/ KHAO LAK

Our next stop in Thailand was the island of Phuket and the area north of that known as Khao Lak. When people think of the 2004 Tsunami, they usually think of Phuket as being the worst damaged. However, Khao Lak suffered much more damage. As we drove to the town, we passed multiple resorts that once offered exotic getaways to tourists from around the world but now have nothing more than skeletons of buildings left. I realized how powerful the tsunami really was when I saw a large police boat that had been washed onto a hill almost 2 km inland from the ocean. It remains there as a reminder of how deadly the Tsunami was. The town of Khao Lak itself has been coming around and is now more of a backpacker’s town. A small, unpaved road runs through the center of it and the beach is empty. From my hotel balcony, I could see the police boat that washed ashore and the multiple “Tsunami Zone” signs warning us that we were in a danger area if a Tsunami did indeed strike.

Scuba Diving for a Cause
This sobering aspect aside, our main reason for visiting this town was to go to the Ecotourism Training Center. The center is a nonprofit, grassroots organization that was started by a Californian after the 2004 Tsunami struck. The center takes victims of the Tsunami who have either lost their home or family and trains them to be scuba diving guides. This in turn gives the victims a huge opportunity to get a good paying job and get their lives back on track. The center, despite being one of the most honest and good intentioned charities, never received any aid from the big relief organizations. It relies solely upon the donations of individuals and organizations like PADI, a scuba certification agency. We visited the center and met with Reid, the founder and all of his students training to be scuba guides. Reid showed us a video that he shot the day after the tsunami that really put things into perspective for us. Just across the street from where we were sitting was a tent where over 600 victims of the wave were put. The video showed scenes that looked like they were straight out of hell—and all of this happened no more that 100 yards from where I was sitting. It was a very, very sobering reminder of just how devastating this disaster was. It’s one thing to sit halfway across the world and hear about it on the news; it’s another thing to be sitting hundreds of feet away from where the tsunami actually happened. Meeting the great people that were actually affected by this was an even more sobering. It really had a huge impact on me and I see things a lot differently because of it.

However, all this behind them but not forgotten, the students at ETC have a great attitude and really work hard to make their lives better. Very generously, we got to go scuba diving the next day with the students off the coast. We boarded “long tails” which are big wooden boats what have basically a car engine on a big pole with a propeller attached at the other end. The driver stands at the back of the boat much like an Italian Gondolier does and steers the boat by moving the engine on a stick from side to side. We got out to our dive site—the ship wreck of a tin boat that sank during a storm back in the day. We did our dives and saw all sorts of the usual marine life. It was a great time being able to dive with the students and share their insights into the ocean that they grew up on.

As we left Khao Lak, we decided to collect donations from all the SMU and Curtin students to donate to the center. Our trip leader promised to match any donations that we made. When it was all over, we had scraped together over $3,000 to donate to the students and their education. It was probably the most confident I have ever felt donating money as I knew it was being put to a good cause and I could physically see how well the money was spent. If you want to know more about the ETC, you can visit them at www.etcth.org .

KO YAO NOI

Our final stop in Thailand was the island of Ko Yao Noi. In order to get there we had to take a 1.5 hour boat ride. Before we got to the island, we had the chance to stop and do some sea kayaking with a company called Paddle Asia.

 

The Beginning

My decision to study abroad was pretty simple. What could be better than going to Australia for 5 months in addition to spending 3 ½ weeks in Southeast Asia? Even before I got to SMU, I knew I was going to do the Australia program. So, on January 13, 2007, my time had finally come. However, this time was threatened by a major ice storm moving into my hometown of St. Louis, MO. As I watched rain slowly freeze to trees and my car, I knew I had to get out of St. Louis a day early. I got on the first available flight the next morning and narrowly avoided getting stuck in St. Louis. No worries though, I got to spend a day thawing out on the Los Angeles beaches while my family froze back in the Midwest.

The Flight

After spending a day in LA, it was finally time to catch my flight. This is something I thought would be fairly simple. But no, this was LA and nothing seems to be simple. The international terminal of LAX is pure madness. Take about 20 people from every country in the world and put them in a terminal and you have LAX. The international terminal is also one of those places that you have to wait in line, to go wait in line, to go wait in another line to then finally get to wait in line. My line waiting skills that I learned in 2nd grade were of great use. I knew grade school was good for something. But anyway, I finally was able to get on the massive 747 bound for Kuala Lumpur. 22 hours, 6 movies, a couple hours of sleep and a few drinks later I was in Kuala Lumpur. However, we were only to spend a night here before starting our Asia study tour which would take us to China, Tibet, Thailand and Malaysia.

Kunming, China

Our first stop on the tour was Kunming located in Southern China. Not exactly known as an international tourist destination, we found that we were some of the only Westerners there. This is exactly what I was hoping for. We were immediately immersed into the Chinese culture and were ready for some great experiences.

Kunming was the site of our first case study—the rise of Chinese wine consumption. In recent years, the Chinese have gotten into the wine industry. Still a very young market, we studied ways to increase sales and get wine to appeal to Chinese sensibilities. We had to opportunity to visit a Chinese winery known as the Yunnan Red Wine and talk to the higher ups in the company while sampling different wines.

Another highlight of Kunming was the stone forest. The stone forest is basically what the name implies—a bunch of large monoliths of limestone scattered around for hundreds of acres. The pictures do it better justice.

In Kunming we also had our first flavor of Chinese cuisine known as a “hot pot” dinner. Imagine a big boiling pot of broth in the center of a table and then throw anything and everything into it at enjoy. This night, we had mushrooms. Not just one mushroom type, but around 16 mushroom types-- Very interesting, not so much appetizing.

The culinary delights did not stop there. 2 nights later, we were on our own for dinner, so we just walked into the first crowded restaurant we saw. After ordering (we didn’t exactly know what we ordered), the server brought us a big bowl of pork bones. No meat, just bones a bit or cartilage. After much confusion, and a game of charades with the waiters, we found out that we had to pour some broth into the bone, get a straw and suck the broth and bone marrow out of the bone. Before you puke on your computer screen, I’ll let you know that it actually was not that bad. It is amazing the things you might like if you just try them. Maybe my mom can start making that meal for me when I get home…

A final highlight of Kunming was waking up at sunrise in the mornings and joining the locals in their daily routine of Tai Chi. I’m sure it was comical for them to watch a bunch of SMU students attempting to follow along to the martial arts like movements, but the experience was a truly rewarding one. The Chinese are such a friendly people and were very willing to help us out. This memory is actually one of my favorites that I will remember for a long time.

Lhasa, Tibet

After Kunming, we flew west to the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the main city of Lhasa—home of Tibetan Buddhism and former residence of the Dalai Lama. Just flying to Lhasa was a good enough experience for me. Below us were the massive, snow-covered Himalayan Mountains. These mountains are truly something to see and put any Colorado mountain to shame.

When we finally reached Lhasa, the effects of its elevation were felt. At 12,500 feet, it is one of the tallest cities in the world (Everest just a couple days drive away). Every morning, I woke up with what felt like a massive hangover multiplied by 10. I am one of those people that is afraid to take more Tylenol than is recommended on the bottle, but I figured it was time to step outside my comfort zone. 5 Tylenols later, I was ready for anything.

While in Lhasa, we visited the Potala Palace, built in the 7th century by the great 5th Dalai Lama (see pictures), the Drepung Monastery, once home to hundreds of thousands of monks and the Jokhang Temple—the most sacred temple in all of Tibetan Buddhism. The Jokhang Temple is basically the Mecca of Tibetan Buddhism and we happened to be there during pilgrim season. Thousands upon thousands of people paid their respects outside of the temple and circled it in a clockwise pattern. It was quite a site to see. At the Drepung Monastery, we had the chance to see the Tibetan monks convene for their afternoon prayers and also got to sit down on the steps and talk to some of them as best as we could.

Tibet was by far my favorite part of the trip which can be evidenced by the bag full of stuff that I brought home from its markets including the 20 meters of prayers flag. However, losing my ATM card somewhere in the streets of Tibet was a bad idea…

Shanghai, China

Ah, Shanghai. It was quite a stark contrast to Tibet. Nevertheless, this massive city was quite the attraction. With a lot of European influence, the architecture of the city is one of contrast. On one side of Shanghai’s main river you have the completely modern TV tower (see pictures) and on the other you have European influenced buildings. I sometimes questions whether I was in China or not.

Shanghai is a city that keeps growing and growing and growing. There is a museum of urban planning that has a scale model of the city that is almost the size of a football field. I doubt this model is even relevant anymore as the city doesn’t stop expanding.

While in Shanghai, we were able to take an elevator to the top of the TV tower as the sun was setting over the city which provided for some great views. We also had the opportunity to have dinner with Australian ex-pat business officials who gave us their prospective on working in China. To tell you the truth though, Shanghai was my least favorite of all our adventures. Had there not been Chinese written everywhere, I would swear I was in a Western city. It just shows how very modern this city is and how very well developed it is.

My next post will highlight my visit to Thailand, which coincidently was one of my favorite places that we visited.