Image of Buddha under a Bo tree

Cambodia/Thailand '13:  Leadership from an Eastern Perspective

Dr. Rob McManus of the McDonough Leadership Program and Dr. David Brown, in the Biology Department, are leading a 3-week trip to Cambodia and Thailand in May of 2013. Four students will be staying on for an additional 23 days to conduct research on shrimp aquaculture in Thailand with Dr. Brown. The student research projects are supported by an ASIANetwork Freeman Fellowship grant. 

May 14-15:

The trip to Bangkok was relatively uneventful, but very long.  After starting out from the McDonough Center at 5 AM on Tuesday, we drove to Columbus to meet the rest of the group, then flew to Washington DC, then a 13 hour flight to Tokyo, Japan and finally a 5 hour flight to Bangkok.  We arrived at our hotel in Bangkok a little before midnight on Wednesday.  The photo below is of most of the group in the Narita Airport in Tokyo - they were still looking bright eyed and animated at this point.

in the airport in Tokyo

May 16:

The plan was for today to be a chance to acclimatize and learn a little bit about Thai history and culture.  We visited the National Museum first.  After looking at the displays we got lunch at the museum restaurant.  This was our first Thai food outside of the hotel and everyone seemed to agree that it was good.  At about 35 to 45 Baht (less than $1.50) for a meal it was also a good value.

Lunch at National Museum

After the National Museum we continued on to Wat Po.  Wat Po is the location of the oldest university in Bangkok.  A century before Bangkok became the capital of Thailand, a monastery was founded here that taught traditional medicine.  Monks still practice herbal cures and the massage school is famous.  The other highlight of Wat Po is the reclining Buddha.  This 150 foot long statue is covered in gold and photos do not do it justice.

Reclining Buddha

Normally the reclining Buddha steals the show at Wat Po, but this time some of the students also had a great experience of seeing and hearing monks chanting at one of the back temples.  We were walking around the complex and started to see monks all walking in the same direction, so we followed them.  We ended up sitting in the temple while they chanted for about 15 minutes before we had to leave.  The picture isn't very good since I was trying not  to be obvious and just pointed the camera in the general direction and didn't try to make any adjustments.

Monks at Wat Po

May 17:

We went to the Grand Palace, along with what seemed like the rest of the population of Bangkok.  It was a hot day and it did clear out somewhat after we had been there for a while.  All of the buildings are decorated with mosaics and statuary.  It is a little overwhelming.

New temple guards Wall of garudas

May 18:

Today was an experience in contrasts.  We started the day by going to a meditation center for a class and practice meditating.  On the way to the center we saw a parade.  We later found out that this was the beginning of a week long celebration of the date on which Buddha was born, obtained enlightenment and died (the day of the full moon in the sixth lunar month of the year).   The celebrating will culminate on Visakha Bucha Day, the day of this month's full moon, May 24.  We will be in the northern Thai village on this day and we are looking forward to being there for the celebration.

Parade - Visakha Bucha Day

We eventually made it to the meditation center where we meet with Manit, a volunteer at the center.  He talked to us about meditation and more generally about Buddhism and Thailand.  Later in the morning we practiced both walking and sitting meditation.  

Meditation Center

After spending the morning concentrating and calming our minds we went to the Chatachuk Weekend Market.  This is a collection of over 8,000 vendors that sell a little bit of everything; from food to clothing to pets.  

Fruit vendor at Chatachuk Market

May 19:  

Today was mostly a travel day.  We left the hotel in the morning and took taxis to the train station.  It was a little bit nerve wracking when the train didn't show up when scheduled.  The train finally arrived 40 minutes late, but we did make it to the airport on time.  The flight to Chiang Mai was relatively short and uneventful.  In the evening the students went out to get dinner at the weekend night market.  The Chiang Mai weekend night market is a huge event where they close off traffic on about ten blocks of the city and vendors set up their wares.  They offer a little bit of everything, including massages.  We opted to wait and get a massage somewhere other than the sidewalk.

Night Market massages

Night Market -2

Woman washing the Buddha to gain merit.  A Buddha statue is set up at each of the main street intersections of the market.

Night Market

Statues of monks with stocking caps?

May 20:

Today was a full day.  After breakfast at 7:30AM and a reflection meeting we went to Chiang Mai University to meet with two faculty that taught us about Buddhism, Thai culture and some survival Thai language.  This was in preparation for our home stay in a village that will begin tomorrow.  We will be in the village for four days, so there will not be any internet access until Saturday.  

Today we added to our list of modes of transportation that have been used on this trip.  Along with airplanes, taxis, boats, tuk tuks, the Sky Train, the subway and trains we can now add songthews to the list.

We will not have internet access for the next four days.  When we get back we should have good pictures of our experience working with children in the school in the village.

May 21 - 25:

We are back from the village.  We had a lot of wonderful experiences over the past couple days.  The community was very welcoming and made us a part of their lives for the past four days.  We taught in the school two days, helped the school with some work, hiked to a waterfall, participated in the Visakha Bucha ceremony, watched hot air lanterns float into the night sky and helped build check dams.  I have posted some of the pictures below, but there were so many more experiences.  Once I have access to a faster connection I will post more.

Planning for teaching

Getting the lesson plans coordinated.  

Drawing and vocabulary

Kindergarten group

Kindergarten group and their students.

On Visakha Bucha day there was no school, so instead of teaching we helped with some projects around the school in the morning.  In the afternoon we hiked to a waterfall and then attended a ceremony at the village wat.

May 24 near the wat in the village

Biking home from the morning ceremony

Biking home after the morning ceremony at the temple (wat).

May 24 - visit to the waterfall

The children from the village that we had in classes for the previous two days really enjoyed splashing us at the waterfall.

Evening at the temple

Evening at the temple - Visakha Bucha evening.  After the ceremony we had a surprise.  Thais normally use hot air lanterns during celebrations in the fall, but they surprised us by lighting them and having us launch them after the Visakha Bucha evening ceremony.

May 24 - launching lanterns

Check dam we built

Check dam that we helped build.  The village uses these to slow down run off during the rainy season.  Water pools behind these small dams and has a chance to soak into the soil.  This helps the vegetation to grow better and also helps to prevent erosion and by slowing down the flow of water helps to prevent flooding.

Group and host families

In the picture above, notice the beautifully stained teak sign at the school.  This was our main project on Friday.  

We left the village after lunch and headed back to Chiang Mai.  It was difficulty saying good bye to our host families.

When we got back to Chiang Mai we took a taxi out to Wat Umong.  Wat Umong is a temple that has a meditation school and is associated with the forest monks.  It is a beautiful location just outside of the city, but it seems much further away from the hustle and bustle of the city.  We met with Tawachi, a monk at Wat Umong, who answered some questions that we had about Buddhism and meditation.

May 25 - talking to Tawachi at Wat Umong

We also had a chance to walk around the grounds and see the tunnels that the wat is known for and the main chedi.

May 25 - Chedi at Wat Umong

May 26:

The main activities today were going to the elephant camp and then catching the evening train to Ayutthaya.  After most logging was outlawed to prevent deforestation there were a lot of elephants that were out of work.  Elephants were used in logging to move the cut trees around and without logging they were no longer needed, but they couldn't be released.  Many of these elephants have been taken in by camps that provide them with a place to live and things to do and also act as a tourist attraction.  We went to the Maesa Elephant Camp to the north of Chiang Mai.  This camp has 71 elephants, including the newest addition a baby that was born recently.  After the show we road elephants.  Elephants are really high and the ride is like a mostly gentle rocking.  Going downhill was a little bit disconcerting since the rocking was more intense.

May 26 - baby elephant

May 26 - on an elephant

Later in the day we got on the train for the 13 hour ride to Ayutthaya.  Ayutthaya was the capital of the second kingdom of Thailand.  Its main influence stretched from around 1350 until it was overrun by the Burmese in 1767.  The city has numerous archaeological examples of the architecture of the time.  Unfortunately, when the Burmese invaders entered the city they damaged many of the Buddha images, but they left behind a lot for us to see.  Tomorrow will explore the city and some of the ancient temples, but it is also planned to be a relaxing day to help us recover from the train ride.    

View of ruins from the park

May 28:

Today was a travel day.  We left Ayutthaya late in the morning by train and headed for the airport.  We then caught our flight, just barely, and arrived in Phnom Penh about an hour later.  We took taxis/tuk tuks to the hotel and to releave the stress of a day of travel we got a taste of home for dinner.  

May 29:

Today was a difficult day.  During the semester the students learned about Pol Pot as an example of bad leadership.  However, there is something different about actually seeing what happened as opposed to reading about it in a book.  We started the day off by going to Tuol Sleng, one of the torture centers that was set up in an elementary school in Phnom Penh during the rule by the Khmer Rouge.  

Meeting with our guide

Meeting with our guide at Tuol Sleng.

After getting lunch at a restaurant that helps street kids to learn a trade and get off the streets we continued on to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek.  If a person that was tortured at Tuol Sleng confessed to being a spy for the KGB or CIA they were sent to Choeung Ek to be executed.  When this area was "liberated" in 1979 it was quickly discovered that there were mass graves and over 9000 bodies have been exhumed, with more mass graves left undisturbed.  If you didn't know what happened here you might think that it was a peaceful park.  

The killing tree

Choeung Ek memorial

The photo above is of the memorial that is at the center of Choeung Ek.  It contains many of the skulls from the bodies that were exhumed from the mass graves.  Each May 20th there is a memorial that is held at this location to remember the 2-3 million people that died during the four years that the Khmer Rouge were in power.  We missed this memorial service by about a week, but we were able to learn about what happened through the audiotape guides that we had.  

May 30:

There is a misconception that Cambodian food is just like Thai food.  The reality is that Cambodian food is from the Khmer culture, which predates Thai culture.  So, it is really more appropriate to say that Thai food is copying Cambodian food.  Today we learned how to cook two Cambodian dishes and we started the process by visiting a market to get some of the ingredients.  

Class in a Cambodian market

After we had all the ingredients we headed back to the cooking classroom, which was located up three flights of stairs on the roof of the building.  It was a great location with good ventilation and a roof to keep the sun off of us.  

We started out by making vegetarian spring rolls.  These were made with grated taro and carrot and wrapped in rice paper, then fried.

Class cooking spring rolls

Taking the finished spring rolls out

Pat concentrating on scooping the finished spring rolls out of the oil that they have been frying in.

The next dish that we prepared was Fish Amok.  This is a traditional Cambodian dish.  The first step in the preparation was to take some Kaffir lime rind, galengal, lemon grass, turmeric, garlic and shallot and grind in to a paste in a mortar and pestle.  Then we added chile peppers and chili paste and coconut milk.  This was then mixed with the fish and put into a bowl that we made out of banana leaves and it was steamed for 20 minutes.

Preparing the spice paste for fish amok

spring rolls - almost readyFish amok

Our reward was to be able to eat what we had made for lunch.  Several people said that it was the best meal that they had on the trip, or at least the best meal that they had ever made.

May 31:

Today was mostly a travel day.  We were picked up from our hotel in Phnom Penh in the morning and taken to the bus station.  From there we had a 6-7 hour bus ride to Siem Reap.  We arrived at the hotel a little bit before 3 PM.  The highlight of the hotel seemed to be the pool for most of the group.  It was a nice way to wind down after traveling.  After dinner we walked to the night market for a little bit to show the students around a little bit.

Hotel pool

June 1:

Today we visited one of the archaeological wonders for the world.  We decided to get up to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat.  This meant getting up at about 4 AM to be picked up by our van at 5 AM.  It was a very early start to the day, but I think that I speak for everyone when I say that it was worth it. 

Angkor Wat at dawn

Angkor wat

After looking at Angkor Wat from a distance we got up close to look at the bas-relief carvings that cover the 1/4 miles of the outer wall.  These show the stories of the king that built the temple and several of the lives of Vishnu.  Our guide helped to explain the stories that were presented.

Guide at Angkor Wat

After Angkor Wat we went to Ta Phrom, one of the temples that is still engulfed by the jungle.  

Ta Phrom

We are standing in front of the roots of a tree that is growing on the wall behind us.  It is amazing to see trees that are probably 300 years old.  That was about the time that these ruins were abandoned. 

We took a couple hours off during the heat of the day and went back to town to get lunch.  We returned to the ruins in mid afternoon to visit the Bayon.


On June 2 we traveled back to Bangkok by minivan.  The day of travel wasn't very exciting, which is generally good.  Well, we did get lunch at the "Cowboy Love Coffee Shop" which was sort of interesting.  It was a open air restaurant along the highway that had a cowboy theme.

June 3 (Monday):

Our last day was a free day.  The class met at breakfast and for reflection and dinner, but the rest of the day was open.  All the students received a cash distribution that they could use for lunch, for sight seeing and they were given suggestions of places that we hadn't visited in Bangkok that might be interesting.  After a day on the town we met for reflection to talk about experiences from the trip that had an impact on us and then went out to get our last meal of the trip at a seafood restaurant.  

Dinner at seafood restaurant

June 4 (Tuesday):

Most everyone packed last night and we got up way too early this morning.  Everyone was in the van and ready to go to the airport by a few minutes after 3 AM.  Their flight was scheduled to leave at 6 AM local time and they should almost be to Chicago now.  They will be arriving in Columbus a little bit after 6:30 PM.  

For four students the trip will continue until June 25 as they work on their research projects.  You can learn more about their projects and their experiences in Thailand here.