Alumni Outlook Magazine

Cover Story

LEFT Leah Dunbar surrounded by the photos that she shot during her explorations in Thailand. All photos in this article, on the table of contents page and on the cover are provided by Dunbar
A voyage to Thailand leads to contemplation.
Text condensed from the travel journal of Leah Dunbar, a senior studying art, who studied abroad in Thailand in 2003.


The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes,but in having new eyes.

Marcel Proust, French Writer, 1871-1922

After the longest period of time I have ever spent in an airplane, we descend to a place I have dreamt about. I remember that in my dreams I saw a land of lush green mountains, clear blue seas, and gracious Thai smiles. A bit fog headed and heavy-eyed, I look out of the plane window and see my first glimpse of Thailand. It looks so untouched. The mountains and rolling hills are covered with lush plant life. I have been waiting so long for this adventure and am delighted to finally arrive in Chiang Mai.

We are in the northwest part of the country. To the west we would find Burma and to the east Laos. I settle in to my room at The Holiday Garden Hotel. It has been a long journey but I am eager to go explore as much as I can my first night in Chiang Mai. I venture out to the main street just in front of the hotel. It is night, yet still hot and humid. Bad diesel fumes heavily weigh down the air. I don't mind that for now because I am way too excited for the adventures that are ahead.

Chiang Mai

Too often…I would hear men boast only of the miles covered that day, rarely of what they had seen.

Louis L'Amour, American Writer, 1908-1988

Late last night I had my first Thai massage. The dark lit room smelled of menthol and musk. I got into the paper-thin wrap that lay on the mattress, which was directly positioned on the burnt orange shag carpet. A tiny old woman came in and started working on my back. Wow, did she really knead me. She actually got on top of me, and used her body weight and limbs to maneuver my muscles all around. She pushed, pulled, and poked me. She stretched me as far and as much as my body would allow. She intertwined her legs and arms with mine, and moved me in a way that bent and twisted me all up. Eyes closed, I didn't really know exactly how our bodies were linked, but I didn't care because of the relief I felt after it was all through. The experience was strange because she touched me in a way that I was not used to. At points in the massage her touch seemed very personal, exceeding the imaginary boundaries that the American masseuse does not dare to cross. She was a hard worker. I paid my 300Baht and left thinking of all the energy this tiny little Thai woman deposited on my body. I was grateful.

During the day I wonder through the streets of Chiang Mai. With wide eyes I take as much in as possible. The people are all so incredibly small. Not only short and skinny, but also small framed. Their small bone structure, narrow shoulders and hips, seemed almost unnatural. Thai's are the definitely the smallest people I have ever been around. In America I am small, but here I feel like an oversized gal outweighing the general population. I have a feeling it will be difficult to find clothes that fit.

The friendly man with the wide brimmed hat and cart tries to sell me some of his treasured menagerie. I refuse with a smile and notice all the motorbikes zooming around me. People of all ages fleck the streets on their motorbikes. Small children sit on laps while other children squish between adults. They try to fit as many bodies as possible on the banana style motorbike seat. The motorbikes scurry here and there behind the black cloud of the open back tuk-tuk's and red cabs. In Thailand this is the main form of transportation. Cars here are extremely expensive. It could take an average earning Thai several years to save up for one car. Motorbikes are far less expensive and are financially in reach for majority of the people.

Venders line the streets with goods to sell. I am overwhelmed with the amount of activity all around. The sun is setting and I am relieved because the daytime heat was so incredibly fatiguing. It remains hot and sticky but much more comfortable than during the day. Everyone comes out for the night market. People are everywhere, buying, selling, and entertaining. Venders sell traditional crafts as well as designer fakes. You can get stuff cheap in Thailand and the markets are where you can get it. The juxtaposition of a hand made weaved purse crafted by a little old lady from a hill tribe and a fake Louis Vuitton handbag is odd to me. The impression of wealth through the artificial seems to be a phenomenon here. In a country where labor is cheap and things are expensive, tourists are delighted with their findings at the night markets.

The air smells of food cooking, candy, fruit, and incense left to burn for Buddha. The energy level is high. I stumble upon a local karate group comprised of both young and old people performing in the street. The crowd gathers around while they carry on their routine. A teenage boy takes a running start and flies through the air kicking apart a board. The crowd is amused. I also stumble upon an all blind band playing instruments, a man unable to walk dragging himself through the street by his hands holding up a cup for change, and a woman singing into a crackling old amplifier sitting by her companion who is severely deformed and unable to move. People hurry by here and there.

It's so amazing when you meet people in this world who give so much of themselves to others in need. The New Life Center is not for Thai girls, but exclusively for ethnic minorities in Thailand. There are many minority girls who are vulnerable young women. This is because the Thai government makes citizenship extremely hard to attain if you are not a Thai person. With full citizenship you can get educated, work, travel, and own property, but without it, your options in life are limited. Access to an education is rare and if you are fortunate enough to complete your education you can't even receive a diploma because you are not a citizen. Minority group women are subjected to life's cruelty at a young age. Many are at risk of labor exploitation (factories, abusive domestic labor, sex trade), trafficking, and being sold all because citizenship is so hard to get. Through education, introducing a vocation, and helping them attain papers, the Center gives young women a chance for a new life. We visited the Center on a day new girls arrived. The girls all seemed so young and happy. They had looks of hope. They were all smiles. It was hard to imagine all the unjust behavior they had endured to make it this far. The problems of the world are too numerous to mention but with people like those at the New Life Center, differences can be made. Located a couple doors down from a local prostitution establishment the New Life Center is a touch of hope, humanity, and a small gift of empowerment to the many young girls who are lucky enough to pass through.

My absolute favorite thing about Thailand is the food! Pad thai, tom kha gai, chicken satay, and mango sticky rice are all tasty sensations that I can't get enough of. Thai's take such care in presenting their food in a beautiful way. It is common that every meal be eaten outside the home. There are many vendors along side the roads to grab food at. It’s the Thailand fast food. Unlike American fast food, the Thai options are a lot better for you and are made from whole fresh foods, not preservation filled processed foods. I tried not to think of the cleanliness of the kitchens and just tried to focus on the food. This was sometimes difficult. One day I noticed a woman squatted down in a back alley butchering a chicken right along side the gutter. I couldn't help but think that she must be going to serve that chicken in her restaurant that day. In Thailand a certain amount of "ignorance is bliss" comes in handy when thinking about the kitchens your food is prepared in. I anxiously looked forward to each meal and tried to taste something new every time regardless of how sanitary I thought the conditions of its preparation might have been.

The idea of passing on the gift seems so logical. Heifer's mission is to assist poor people by providing livestock to communities, then educating them on being the most resourceful with the animal. The community then gives offspring from their Heifer livestock to other communities to pass on the gift. Heifer responds to individual needs of communities. This is such a proactive organization that makes incredible sense. I wish our government could tackle some of our poverty issues with this long-term approach. It seems that in America we are so caught up in instant results and never really take time to target the problem at the source. Heifer's circular approach to helping communities is smart and productive.

Mae Hongson

Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were king.

Joseph Conrad, Russian-born English Writer, 1857-1924

Finally, after 1,864 curves in the road, sitting in the back of a pickup truck, we are out of the city and find ourselves surrounded by absolute beautiful mountain scenery. Mae Hongson is a small town extremely close to the Burmese border. Things are different here. The town is small and rustic. The people move slower and keep more to themselves. There are a couple restaurants to eat at and hardly any shops. Few tourists venture this far north. Our accommodations are quaint and unexpectedly delightful. Our little hut with the bathroom off the back deck overlooks a rushing creek surrounded by exquisite vegetation. The birds sing and bounce from tree to flower. There is such lovely smells in the air. Magnificent colors seep out from everywhere. I am glad that I am in the country.

On this extremely hot day we visited two mountain tribe villages. First was the Red Lahu where I saw lots of western clothing and beetle nut chewing elders with stained lips and teeth. The village is a bit unkempt. There is litter lying about. The people were very interested in us and came down from their homes to gather upon our arrival, they had been expecting us. One girl with her face painted yellow had a baby wrapped in a sling around her body. I loved the way they carried their babies, so close and snug to them. The paint was a natural sunscreen to protect the skin from getting too dark. Lighter skin is admired and considered attractive.

The Lahu have a very ordered village. There are people in charge of certain duties and gain status depending on which job they are in charge of doing. Children are raised and cared for by many. The elders of the village are very important and respected. The people of the village work together keeping the best interests of the community in mind.

The second village we visited was the Lua. This village was just over the nearest hill but differed in many ways to the previous village. Christian missionaries long ago originated this tribe on the Burmese border. After too many problems with the Burmese and stronger ethnic groups, they moved out and got slowly pushed into Thailand. Because the village is Christian there are many western influences. They have more western looking buildings and front yards. The highest level of education in the village is an associated degree. The village produces soybeans, corn, patty rice, and garlic. It is a well-kept village overlooking a lush farmland and towering hills.

The two villages although slightly different were similar in the sense that they were incredibly rustic to our standards. The people wore hand-me-downs that they had to wash by hand, food was grown to eat, and meat was scarce and eaten only once a week if that. The strong community values and respected social order was to be admired. I will be sad to leave the mountains and their peaceful people.


I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move.
R.L. Stevenson, English Writer, 1850-1894

Sunday afternoon in Bangkok is hot and sticky. I am in a concrete jungle again. Bangkok is home to the Mercy Center an AIDS hospice and school. This place has real magic about it. I have yet to know how greatly this place will affect me. Once again I am taken back by the humanity of the people and the place. It's spectacular.

Mercy Center is located in a very slummy area of town at the end of a road. I enter the building with no real expectations in mind. The building has an open-air plaza that allows fresh air to always be circulating, and sunlight to shine in. It is a sad and happy place all at the same time. The AIDS hospice has 25 beds for adults. Those 25 beds give mercy to 25 dying people who otherwise would be dying alone, without medication, and without care. There are extremely sick people all around. They lie in beds wearing diapers, barely breathing and staring off into the distance. The medication available to them is not nearly what they would receive in an American clinic, but still gives them some relief from their daily suffering. Food is the most important thing for the sick. The Center is equipped with a full kitchen and provides food for all who need it. For those patients who are able, there is an art room available. They are encouraged to paint and draw. There is also a computer room for those who want to acquire computer skills. We are told that some come here and get better, healthier, and some don't.

Attached to the Mercy Center is a school for poor children. These kids have been physically and sexually abused. They have been mistreated and at such a young age and given nothing but the short end of the stick. These kids are survivors; they gleam with excitement as we approach. The kids bring such energy and life to the Center. All around us are tiny children, bouncing with happiness. Some have HIV and some don't. They all go to school together. By caring for these children the Mercy Center hopes to help the future. With small steps, they help one at a time.

In retrospect I think about how "real" the Mercy Center visit was. I was right there next to someone who may have died right after my visit. Beautiful children who have struggled each day of their existence surrounded me. There was no escaping it. The problems exist and they were right in front of me. Seeing someone suffering can affect the way you view life. It can cause you change how you act and interact with people. You can be forever affected by the experience. Let the goodness spread through to others.

Thamkrabok means opium pipe. This Buddhist temple, drug rehabilitation center, and Hmong refuge resides in the shade of a mountain just outside of Bangkok. The power and energy of this place overwhelm me. Giant statues of Buddha sit in a semi-circle with the jagged mountain in the background. For 25 years there have been Hmong people waiting for admittance to America. They were promised relief from the US just after the Vietnam War. Hmong people who allied with America during the war have no place to live. They fled Laos during and after the war, they cannot return or they would be shot. Some have found their way to Thailand, but the Thai government doesn’t want them either. Thamkrabok is their only hope, as it is their refuge in Thailand and their gateway to America.

Some may also consider Thamkrabok to be their last stop on earth. The severely addicted come from all over the world to meet under this mountain. They come here when everything in their life is over. Upon arrival, they are given a new name, stripped of their clothes, and placed under lock and key in a detox room to begin the process. They go cold turkey and are given liquid mixtures to make them vomit. They are faced with only one decision, choosing to live or choosing to die. One in every group will die. In three months the survivors are taught to believe in something. Thamkrabok has a 70% success rate with drug abuse and 100% success rate with alcoholism. Through meditation they begin to take control.

Monk Gordon says that, "Every day is new and exciting, the people met on this journey have made it so moving, so special." He spoke the simple truth.

Some words of wisdom from Monk Gordon:

    Plant the seed of positive thinking, humans have the power to change the mind
    Let your seed grow with faith
    Do things from the heart
    Stop by a church and just sit, you never know what will come of your thoughts, or where they might take you
    Sit down
    Fill your heart with love
    Always keep a secret; he who has no secrets becomes an open book
    Be good to the Hmong
Thamkrabok is an amazing place. It exists to help people. The power of the place radiates and energizes the environment. When people come down from the hills Thamkrabok takes them in. The dogs cry in the hills at 7pm every night. It is thought to be the cries of the people who died before they reached Thamkrabok.


Travel is more than the seeing of sights,
It is a change that goes on,
Deep and permanent,
In the ideas of the living
Miriam Beard, B. 1901, American Writer

I know Thailand affected me deep and permanent. I met people that simply amazed me with their compassion and graciousness giving. I saw with wide eyes young people who smiled on the surface but deep down suffered in misery. I gazed upon vast landscapes of incredible magnificence. I saw devout souls who bowed their heads with respect every time they passed a Buddha. I learned that each person on this earth matters so much and to help another is the greatest gift you can give. I have seen lush green mountains, clear blue seas, and gracious Thai smiles. I learned that to give someone a bit of comfort before they die is the most merciful thing I have ever seen. I learned that to love someone when no one else does feels good. Life is so hard at times. People suffer too much. We all must love as much as we can and show compassion to those around us. I experienced Thailand.