By Kagan Culliton, Maclay Class of 2017
I spent two and a half months traveling through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia while my classmates finished their last semester of high school. My adventure started in getting off of the airplane in Bangkok, which was a huge shock for me. Even though my plane landed in the middle of the night, it was still hot and humid in the airport. It had taken me 32 hours of traveling to get from my driveway in Tallahassee to my hotel room in Bangkok. Everything was so overwhelming for the first week because of all of the little differences I kept noticing. There was no air-conditioning or hot water in the hotel, there were hardly any stop lights, and motorcycles zigzagged in between cars. I was a little stressed out about my new environment, but I was really excited for my new adventure.
After only a day or two in Bangkok, my group headed to Sukhothai, the ancient capital of the Thai Empire. We took a train through the countryside, passing right through rice paddies and going by memorial billboards for the late king. I soon learned that the king's death in October shook the nation. He had been ruling for over half-a-century and was greatly loved by the people of Thailand. Currently, the country is in a year of mourning for him and many people wear black ribbons or armbands to show respect. When we got to Sukothai, I took a bike ride through the ruins of the ancient city. Surrounded by the crumbling temples, my group received a lesson on Buddhism and the middle way, which reminded me of the story of Siddhartha from Mr. Camarda's World Civilization class. Buddhism is the main religion of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia and there are "Wats" and "pagodas" all throughout the cities and along the main roads.
After Sukhothai, I spent a long time in Chaing Mai. The city was alive for the Chinese New Year and the flower festival celebrating the end of the "cool season". In Chaing Mai, we went rock climbing and caving and took a Thai cooking class. Curry and Pad Thai are staples of the cuisine here, and I learned how to make it from Yui, a self-taught chef.
Next up in the adventure was a week of volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP). ENP was established to create a safe haven for abused domestic elephants. Elephants that were injured in the illegal logging trade or working in the trekking industry were saved from their abusive owners by Lek, the founder of ENP. Lek brought them to the park to receive treatment for their injuries and start a new life out of chains. I volunteered in the kitchen the most, unloading truck-fulls of fruit and pumpkins and making rice balls for the older elephants that don’t have teeth to eat. I also did other activities like harvesting corn. ENP made a huge impact on me. Tourism is a huge part of Thailand's economy and things like elephant rides and circuses sound like so much fun, but the tourism industry is rough on the elephants and there is very little legislation protecting them.
Next on the list was a meditation retreat up in the mountains. We learned more about Buddhism from the teaching monk and we practiced meditation. Moving up through the country, we visited the White Temple on our way to the Laotian border. The White Temple is a Wat that was purchased by an artist who renovated it and made it his life's project. Overall, Thailand was a great place to start my adventure and to get used to all of the new culture.
After Thailand, I traveled to Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. I did so many things from helping students with their English in Cambodia to building houses in Kampot. Along the way, I learned all about the history and culture of the places I visited. I learned about the modern political climate of communist Laos and Vietnam and how the clothing industry of Cambodia impacts the lives of the average citizen. I visited countless religious monuments and temples as well as ruins from the ancient civilizations that flourished and fell thousands of years ago. It was amazing.
Traveling to a place so different from Tallahassee, Florida was such a great experience for me. My travels taught me to appreciate the comforts and opportunities that I have been gifted with. I can't wait for the opportunity to travel the world again and do what I can to make the world a more globally aware place.