May Term Thailand FAQs

Family and friends of May Term Thailand participants have asked us many questions about this trip. Questions such as what we’re going to do, how we’re going to stay safe and healthy, and why we’re going to Thailand are some of what is asked of me. These are very important questions for friends and family, knowing that we’re going so far away to a country that is so different. So to answer some of these questions, I have compiled a little FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) post here. If you have any further questions, please feel free to comment on this post, and I can answer those questions as well.

What is the purpose of this course? Why do we do this?

The main purpose of this course is to introduce students to the concept of global citizenship. Students have exhibited great passion for doing meaningful service in the developing world. Dr. Ingle and I created this course to channel those passions into a structured, faculty-supervised service-learning opportunity that incorporates both a service component along with cultural immersion. We believe this course is a great introduction to students interested in international service, but do not have the experience or skills. This structure allows students to ease into international service in a less intimidating atmosphere.

But the concept of global citizenship goes beyond just international service. It also encompasses cultural literacy, citizen diplomacy, communication skills, global activism and reform, political consciousness, civic engagement and other skills and knowledge necessary to thrive in a transnational, global environment. Regardless of the career direction the student takes, these skills are a fundamental requirement if one is to succeed in this new global era.

Because this is a service-learning course, the students are not the only ones to benefit. This trip truly does make a difference in the villages we visit. You can see it in the faces of the children we help. And this is the beauty of service-learning; the students learn while giving so much to the Thai kids. The act of service is a learning experience in itself.

It sounds cliche, but many of our students from last year have told me that this was a “life-changing” experience. And it is. Some of the students who participate may decide to enter a career in international service and development. But even if they don’t, an experience like this will certainly enrich the student’s lives in many other ways.

We believe that this is a very unique opportunity for students, one that is not easily replicated anywhere else outside of Westminster College. Dr. Ingle and I are very proud of this course, and we think that any student who attends will come away from this experience with an education that cannot be duplicated in the classroom.

Who is this trip for?

Well, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I want to be immersed in a completely different culture from an insider perspective?
  • Do I want to learn about global development models and how to effectively implement them in the developing world?
  • Do I want to learn the most effective forms of service for the developing world?
  • Do I want to understand the complex health issues that a rapidly developing country experiences?
  • Do I want to observe a unique rural education model?
  • Do I want to visit ancient temples and cities that are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites?
  • Do I want to immerse myself in a large, bustling megacity like Bangkok or Chiang Mai?
  • Do I want to eat the most amazing Thai food I’ve ever eaten?
  • Do I want an experience that will profoundly change the way I view the world?
  • Do I want to learn how to effectively function in today’s global society?
  • Do I want to make new lifelong friends?

It you answered “yes” to any of these (and many more questions), this trip is for you! So it’s really for just about anyone! First year to senior, any major, anyone! We’ve even taken grad students in the past!

The course is listed (tentatively) as Public Health, Education, Honors, and Nursing. However, if you need these credits for your major, you can still work out an arrangement with your major advisor to adapt the assignments to meet your needs. And starting this year, participation in May Term Thailand will count towards your WCore Engaging the World requirement.

Of course, this trip will have challenges. We purposely push your limits, stretch your comfort zone, challenge you so that you can grow. That means you’re going to be uncomfortable for parts of this trip, mentally, physically, intellectually, and even spiritually. You’re going to be completely immersed in a very different culture, which will disorient you as soon as you arrive in Bangkok. You’re not going to be able to communicate as well, or get around as confidently, since you won’t know much Thai. Most of you will be a minority, surrounded by people of a different race. You’re going to be challenged with completely different institutions than what you’re used to, whether that is federal and/or local government, education, healthcare, or religion. You’ll encounter cuisine very different from what you’re used to, and even different than the Thai foods you’re used to in the US. You’re going to be completely disoriented by the sheer number of people, cars, buildings, noises, energy, and the aura of Bangkok and Chiang Mai. You’ll have to deal with heat and humidity that you may never have felt before, bugs larger than what you’re used to, and even showering using a bucket.

However, if you bring an open mind, a sense of adventure, a desire to push and challenge yourself, and the ability to absorb and experience all the amazing sensations you will feel, you’ll thrive and grow on the trip. This can be a life-changing experience if you are open to it!

Why Thailand?

Thailand was chosen for several reasons. First, it is a rapidly developing country, and one can see not only the needs among the poor, rural population, but also how economic growth can also create unique problems. Issues such as urbanization, the rise in chronic disease, lifestyle and culture change, distribution of wealth, and many other problems that arise from rapid industrialization can be seen in Thailand. For example, not only is undernutrition a health problem here, but so is overnutrition, stemming from the changes in diet and lifestyle. The country is a laboratory where one can literally see the transition from a poor, agricultural economy to a wealthy, industrialized economy as it happens.

Second, Thailand is a very different culture when compared to American culture. One of the challenges of working abroad is acculturation, so we want our students immersed in a culture as different from ours as possible. We believe Thailand allows students to experience a culture that in many ways differs from Western culture in very fundamental ways, a language that is completely different from Western languages, in a geography that, for Utahns at least, is dramatically different than ours.

Third, Thailand is a safe country for students. The people here are wonderfully accommodating towards foreigners, particularly in the rural areas. The crime rates are very low. The political situation is relatively stable. And finally, the Thai health care system is world-class, so if there are medical issues, we can be sure that students will get the best care without having to evacuate to a third country. In fact, Thai hospitals openly cater to Western “medical tourists”. Many people from North America, Europe, the Middle East and East Asians now come to Thailand for medical procedures that are often much less expensive than in their home countries but are equal in quality.

Finally, Dr. Ingle and Dr. Kim have a familiarity with Thailand that gives this trip some unique advantages. Dr. Kim have been to Thailand 15 times in the last 9 years, and have many contacts and friends in the country. Our dear friends Noi and Doug Barker arrange all of our experiences to the last detail, and since Noi is Thai and lives part of the year in Bangkok, it gives us an ability to arrange unique experiences that no other group can do.

What will you do there? What is the typical day like during the trip?

Because this trip was meant to be an introduction to the concept of global citizenship, we varied the itinerary quite a bit to provide a variety of experiences for students. So there is no “typical” day that I can describe for this trip. What I can do is describe in general what we’ll be doing during each stage of the trip.

Our first stop after leaving Bangkok is the Mechai Bamboo School in Buriram Province in Northeast Thailand. This is an innovative model for rural education and rural village development run my Mechai Virivadya and his well-known NGO, the Population Development Agency (PDA). We will spend two days there touring the school and touring some of the model villages in the area and discuss sustainable economic development models in rural areas.

In the first village we stay in, each pair of Westminster students, along with a Thai nursing student, will be matched up with a family in the village for the homestays. The accommodations vary from relatively modern to very traditional. We will use one home (our friend Subin’s parent’s home) as a home base, where we will have all meals and meetings. Each morning, students will wake up, eat breakfast with the family, and prepare for the day. What we do during the day will vary; on one day, we will plant rice, on another day, we will participate in a traditional ceremony to welcome the rainy season and wish for a successful planting, and on another day we will spend with the children at the local school. During the evening, all the students will help prepare traditional Thai foods and of course, help clean up, before heading back to their host homes for the evening.

The experience at the second village will be similar. We will again be staying in local homes. We wake up early, and after breakfast, we immediately begin working on our projects. These projects include health assessments of the school children, public health assessment of the village, and educational activities with the children. We typically stop at around 5 or so, and after dinner, we can play with the children, and socialize with the villagers and school teachers.

Between the times spent at the villages, we will have one day visits to the HIV/AIDS hospice, where we will spend some time with terminal AIDS patients, visit the Mae Tao Karen refugee clinic to witness the results of the atrocities committed by the Burmese government against the Karen minority, and do a one-day service project at a Karen refugee school. We will also have the opportunity to do some sightseeing. We will visit Sukhothai, the capital of the first Thai kingdom, tour Phanom Rung, part of the Khmer empire from Cambodia, visit temples and sites in Bangkok, and explore the many attractions of Chiang Mai, such as the Night Bazaar, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, and Wat Chedi Luang. We even get to ride elephants at an elephant conservatory/hospital, because what trip to Thailand is complete without an elephant ride?

The final few days will be spent on a beach in Ko Samet, a small island about 3 hours from Bangkok. There, students will have free time to relax on the beach, or participate in other activities such as snorkeling, swimming, sailing, or just laying on the beach. And students will have some time to shop as well, since Thailand is a shopper’s paradise.

As you can see, we do a LOT in 4 weeks. It keeps the students interested and allows them to really experience and learn as much as possible while we’re here.

What are the accommodations like? Where do you stay?

The accommodations, like the experiences during the trip, vary widely. When we’re in the villages, we try to have the students really experience Thai culture, and also experience what international service is like. So in the first village, each pair of students are assigned to a family in the village. The homes vary, from relatively modern homes to very “traditional” Thai homes. Some may have showers and indoor plumbing, but others won’t. Some will have to take bucket showers, and squat to do their business.

When we’re not in the villages, we stay in hotels. While not luxury hotels, they are very comfortable, with air conditioning, western-style bathrooms, restaurants, internet access, and security. And some of the hotels we stay at ARE luxury hotels. The resort we stay at in Ko Samet is right on the beach, and by any measure it is a four star resort. The hotel we stay at in Sukhotai is similar, with a wonderful pool and spa. And while one step down from the other hotels, the one we stay in while in Kampaeng Phet is also very nice.

How do you get around Thailand?

We travel to and from Thailand typically via China Airlines (more than 24 hours!). We layover in San Francisco/Los Angeles and Taipei, Taiwan on the way there, and Taipei and Los Angeles on the way back. While we’re in Thailand, we will be traveling mostly via minivans, driven by professional drivers that I have personally known for the last ten+ years. The minivans are modern and comfortable, with air conditioning and audio-video entertainment systems (we can even do karaoke in them!) The drivers, as I said, are well known to me, and are very safe.

We will also ride in other modes of transit while we’re in Bangkok. We will have the opportunity to briefly ride in tuk-tuks, a water taxi, and even an elephant. We will ride in the back of 4×4 pickup trucks to get to our second village, and ride a speedboat to get to the island and beach. But whatever the conveyance that we use, we make sure they are as safe as possible.

What do you do to minimize risk for the students? Should I be worried?

Of course, friends and family worry about students when they travel so far away for so long. Being a parent myself, I know how much we worry about the safety of our children. But please be assured that student safety is our primary concern on this trip. We take several measures to minimize the risk for our students. First, all students attend orientation prior to the trip, during which safety and health issues are emphasized. We cover topics such as vaccinations, personal safety, first aid kits, eating healthy, simple prevention strategies (e.g. using mosquito repellant, eating safe foods, sunscreens, staying hydrated). As you may have noticed, many of these topics are also highlighted on this blog.

Second, we have extensive supervision during the duration of the trip. We will always have at least two Westminster College faculty to supervise our trip, as well as several Thai guides (at a minimum three, and usually five or six) that accompany us at all times. These guides also include professional van drivers who I personally know and are very safe. And this May, we will also be traveling with Thai nursing students and two Thai nursing faculty members, giving us even more local guides who are familiar with the country, the culture and the language and can assist us if necessary. We will stay in accompanied groups 95% of the time. Students are not allowed to explore on their own on this trip without supervision.

Third, during the village stays, we are the guests of the village/school/school district/local government. This may seem to be trivial, but to a Thai, being the host is a very significant responsibility. Our hosts will always assure that we are comfortable (sometimes to a fault) and will go out of their way to assure that we are safe and secure. We are literally the center of attention, and everyone in the villages will feel responsible for our comfort and safety.

Next, all students are issued a personal Thai cell phone with their own number. This allows them to call any of us if they need assistance (e.g. students often call Noi to assist in translating for them). It also gives us the ability to call anyone in the US, and for anyone in the US to call us. Cell phone coverage in Thailand is excellent, much better than here, so we will always be in contact (with the exception of a few days at one of the mountain villages).

We pay close attention to the student’s personal safety while on the trip. All the hotels that we stay at are secure, we always stay in groups, the vans we travel in are modern and driven by professional drivers, and we are always accompanied by Thai locals. We will also avoid any political demonstrations or other events of that nature.

Finally, we take a number precautions to minimize health risks. All food that is served to the students is hygienic, as is the bottled water. We have a first aid kit with us at all times, as well as first responders (I am a certified EMT-B) that know how to use it. And as I have mentioned before, the Thai medical system is excellent, and we will always be close to a medical facility if needed.

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