Adventures in Thailand: Students study ‘Pacific Worlds’

Mikaela M at Summer Palace

Junior Mikaela Morcombe visits Bang Pa-In Royal Palace in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photos courtesy of Morcombe and Gary Darden)

Editor's note: Ten undergraduate students and two faculty members from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham Campus traveled to Thailand over winter break in January 2016. The 12-day trip was the culmination of Pacific Worlds, a class taught by Gary Darden, associate professor of history and chair of the social sciences and history department.

“This history program, as in the previous East Asian trips, sought to capture the historical, cultural, and landscape assets of a nation over the course of two weeks, while enjoying the local cuisine and performance art,” says Darden.

The group spent “two nights on a floating hotel on the River Kwai. With no electricity, students went off the social network grid and enjoyed the company of their fellow travelers by kerosene lamps, slept under mosquito nets, and enjoyed the stars from the bamboo decks outside their thatched rooms,” he adds.

Darden group ruinsJunior Mikaela Morcombe, double-majoring in criminology and psychology, with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience, reflects on the trip:

Jan. 5 – Day 1: We arrived in Bangkok after 18 hours of air travel. One of the first things I noticed was the hot climate. The second thing I noticed was that the city was just like any other, with large buildings, lots of traffic and crazy drivers, but they drive on the opposite side of the road!

Jan. 6 – Day 2: Breakfast was interesting, since it was a combination of Western and Eastern foods. I was perplexed by the rice and noodles, but tried them nonetheless. I also indulged in the fresh fruit every morning including pineapple, watermelon and dragon fruit. I’m convinced Thailand has the best mangos in the world!

We visited a few sites in the Ayutthaya district, near Bangkok. Ayutthaya was the second capital of Thailand, destroyed in 1767. We went to the Bang Pa-In Royal Palace, also known as the Summer Palace. Vit, our fantastic tour guide, explained that there is a dress code for those who wish to enter this palace and most others. Women must have their shoulders covered and wear a skirt that reaches their ankles. I admired the respect they asked us to show while on royal grounds.

The architecture of the main Summer Palace building resembles the classical European style, which surprised me. When I think about royal palace architecture in Asia, I think of a red building with pointed roofs, dragon decorations and gold leaf detail. I learned that style of architecture is more popular in China, but not in all Asian countries! Today the palace is only used for banquets and special occasions by the present king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX of the Chakri Dynasty.

Mikaela M at Ayutthaya ruinsNext, we went to an active yet ancient Buddhist temple called Watyaichaimongkol. All the Buddha images were draped in a bright yellow covering, and multi-colored flowers surrounded the grounds. I was excited to see the Buddhist monks, but they had been summoned to lunch. It was moving to see how dedicated and respectful Buddhists are to their religion, and in an open fashion.

Next we visited an ancient wat, or temple, called Wat Phra Si Sanphet, which is currently not active. I wish I could have seen the temples when they were originally built. Next to the ruins was a modern Thai-style building that housed a large golden Buddha. Vit explained that this Buddha image was in the Thursday position with his legs folded one on top of the other and one hand facing up. The Thursday position is the most common and most popular depiction of Buddha.

Lunch was the first time I really tried Thai food. I knew I had to sample local cuisine while I could, and so I ate fried fish with sweet and sour sauce over rice. It was filled with flavor!

That evening, the group attended a traditional Thai dinner and classic dance. I was excited to eat sitting on mats on the floor. Dinner included a selection of classic Thai dishes: a green curry, sea bass, prawn soup and my favorite, fried vegetables, with a traditional side of rice. The Thai dancers wore detailed and colorful costumes in purple, red, green and blue, and headpieces with gold leaf. It was mesmerizing watching the female dancers bend their hands almost completely backward. Vit said that it takes years for the women to stretch their fingers that far back.

Jan. 7 – Day 3: We visited The Grand Palace in Bangkok, which was built in 1782 by King Rama I to serve as his residence and as a site for administrative offices. The renowned Temple of the Emerald Buddha is also located on the palace grounds. All the buildings were made with gold leaf and colorful stones. Vit explained that the blue stones represent sapphires, red stones represent rubies, and green stones represent emeralds.

My favorite building on the grounds is the Charkri Maha Prasat, built by King Rama V in 1882. Today, the throne hall is used for receiving foreign ambassadors and for banquet ceremonies. The architecture of the building is Victorian, with a classic Thai roof. Vit said King Rama V wanted to demonstrate to world powers that Thailand could build in the Western style; the Thai roof represents Thailand on top because they were never colonized. I was inspired by the explanation, which revealed the passion the Thai people have to preserve their culture. The Charkri Maha Prasat building was one of my favorite sites.

Darden train ride

That night we traveled to Lampang via train for 11 hours! The sleeping cart was tight and close together which allowed the group to spend some quality time with each other.

Jan. 8 – Day 4: After arriving in Lampang, I felt the movement of the train for the entire day, which made me feel uneasy. It was also cooler and not as humid as in Bangkok. I enjoyed being in the rural areas of Thailand compared to the bustling city. It was beautiful and surrounded by mountainous terrain.

We traveled to an active Theravada Buddhist temple called Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. The view there of Chiang Mai was breathtaking, and made me feel like we were floating in the clouds. This was also my first time really seeing Buddhist monks. They all had shaved heads and wore brown or pink robes. They walked with peaceful purpose.

Next, we went to the Baan Tong Luang to see the Karen Hill tribe. The Karen tribe originally came from Tibet and moved to Burma. Later, the tribe moved to Thailand. The area was rural with dry land, except for a large rice paddy field with an intricate watering system. The thatched roof houses were lofted on large stilts to prevent flooding. Some women in the village wore gold rings around their necks, and Vit explained that they are rented from other countries that still allow this practice to live with the Thai tribes as tourist attractions. Seeing the village made it easier to comprehend the nearly extinct traditional Thai culture.

Mikaela M tiger visit

Finally, we went to the tiger kingdom. I couldn’t imagine turning down this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! The experience of being next to one of the world’s deadliest exotic felines — and cuddling, petting and playing with it — was exhilarating. This was one of my favorite experiences!

Jan. 9 – Day 5: Free day! We stopped in various stores including an umbrella factory, a wooden shop, a lacquer shop, and a Thai silk shop. We ended the day at the mountainous Chiang Mai Zoo to see panda bears.

Jan. 10 – Day 6: This was the day that most students, including me, were waiting for: we rode Asian elephants! They were kind and craved sugar cane treats. “Elephants are important in Thai history,” said Vit. “They ensured the Buddha’s survival while he meditated under a tree to reach enlightenment.” 

Mikaela M elephant rideAfter the elephant rides, we traveled down the Ping River on handmade bamboo rafts. It was peaceful and scenic. The villagers propelled the rafts forward by using a large piece of bamboo to push off the bottom of the river. Their strength was impressive. We were given a chance to try and were shockingly successful! 

We rented bicycles to ride around ruins of the first capital of Thailand, Sukhothai. The capitol’s name translates to “dawn of happiness.” Not much is known about Thai history prior to Sukhothai, which is why it’s celebrated as the first capital. It was impressive to realize how long ago these ruins existed, and how much of them remain intact with their original detail and beauty, despite centuries of war.

Jan. 11 – Day 7: We spent the day traveling from Phitsanulok to the floating jungle raft hotel, in Kanchanaburi. On our way to the floating hotel, I became increasingly excited. Spending two nights with zero connection to the outside world, by the light of kerosene oil lamps, seemed relaxing. Before bed, some of us spent what seemed like hours stargazing. I had never seen such a beautiful and clear night sky before. With this peaceful setting, it was easy to rid myself of all worries.

Mikaela M at Hellpass

Jan. 12 – Day 8: On our first day of visiting World War II sites, we started at the Hellfire Pass museum, which opened in 1996. We walked along the path where the railway used to be. It was built by 60,000 prisoners of war, 12,800 of whom died, and 200,000 Asian forced laborers called Romusha, 90,000 of whom died, when the Japanese occupied Thailand. Workers were forced to work 18 hours a day in the dry and monsoon seasons. Standing there sent chills down my spine as these events became real for me.

Jan. 13 – Day 9: We started the morning on a solemn note, at the Kanchanaburi war cemetery filled with POW victims who died building the Burma Railway. A majority of the people buried there are young men, who were only teenagers or in their twenties when they died. At a museum dedicated to the railway victims, the most significant artifacts for me were the sections of the railway with large iron nails sticking out of them. Each section of wood represented a different nationality and each nail represented 500 people who died.

Next, we went to the bridge on the River Kwai. The original bridge was blown up by the Allied powers. Vit explained that the bridge we went to was a replica bridge donated by the Japanese. Riding the train over the bridge made me feel guilty for using a railway, even if it wasn’t the original that so many innocent people died to build.

Jan. 14 – Day 10: On our last day, we went to the National Museum in Bangkok. Originally, the museum was known as the Palace of the Front, constructed in 1782, and used as the residence of five viceroys. Declared the National Museum in 1934, it contains Thai handicrafts, art/archaeology, and historic monuments. It was fascinating to see when the artifacts were made and how many centuries they have endured. There was a gilded lacquer manuscript cabinet from the Ayutthaya time period — it survived in one piece for up to 400 years!

Next, we went to the Teak mansion, the residence house for King Rama V, who is thought of as the greatest king of Thailand, according to Vit.

Our last excursion was to the Jim Thompson house. Thompson was an American born in Greenville, Del., in 1906. He was sent to Asia as a military officer, fell in love with Thailand, and decided to live there permanently. Thompson is most famous for his contribution to the Thai silk industry. He disappeared in 1967 while visiting friends in Malaysia. To this day no one knows what happened to him. Now his house is on display, and a museum of some of the artwork he collected.

Postscript: This trip opened my mind to the Thai culture. Before the trip I was nervous, but I left Thailand wishing I didn’t have to. I learned that reading about history allows a person to understand an event, but seeing where the history happened generates a personal connection. The personal connection and appreciation I have developed for the Thai culture is the best souvenir I could have wished for.