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Riley Leonard - Thailand and Spain

Riley Leonard

Thailand and Spain

Location: Thailand and Spain

Program: NSE

Thailand. A country of mystery, poverty, Buddhism, world renowned cuisine, pristine beaches and the world’s longest serving monarch. I knew little about this Southeast Asian country when I originally chose it as my study-abroad location. However, after seven months navigating the streets of Bangkok, traversing the country via train and experiencing some of the most magnificent temples on the face of the Earth, I left Thailand with a new found respect for Thai people, language, culture and history.

Mahidol University is one of the premier institutions in Thailand. Established by the monarchy in 1888, the campus is filled with luscious gardens, covered walkways, small coffee shops and delicious food stands. Ideally situated just 20 kilometers outside of Bangkok, the campus provides a respite from the crowded streets and chaotic traffic. There were about 120 study abroad students and I was the only Alaskan. Since Thai students outnumbered us about 100 to 1, we quickly formed a tight-knit community as the “falangs” (rough translation is guava or foreigner).

Although the academics were interesting and Mahidol offered a variety of classes unavailable at UAS (History of Genocide, Thai Culture and Society), the most memorable adventures occurred while traveling. One of the best features of Southeast Asia is the ease and affordability of traveling and all the falangs took full advantage of this opportunity. In northern Thailand, we found winding rivers leading to majestic waterfalls. In Laos, we explored one of the largest caves in the country via inter tubes, swam in the historic Mekong River then shopped at a local market full of ancient relics and mysterious food. In Cambodia, we took a moment of silence to remember the bloody genocide that occurred just forty years ago during the Khmer Rouge regime before continuing to the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat. However, no location illustrated Southeast Asia’s beauty as much as the beaches and islands in Southern Thailand. I will never forget watching an Indian Ocean sunset while eating freshly made Gang Massuman Moo (pork Muslim curry).

Everyone tells you that an exchange changes your life. It’s true. While in Thailand, I experienced events and places for which words are not appropriate. The best and the worst of the world happens before your eyes, just slow-down and watch. I saw two young girls playing and laughing while their parents sold them to an older Australian gentleman. People spat at me as I walked to the store or bus stop. However, for every sad act, there was a multitude of kindness and generosity. I quickly made friends with the local restaurant owners and our cleaning maid – who later invited me to attend her son’s conversion-to-a-monk ceremony – and they shall forever link me to this fabulous country.

My international adventure continued after the seven months of Thai beauty concluded. I flew to London and toured parts of rural England. I spent three weeks visiting quaint British towns, admiring 1500 year old churches and following the same path that William the Conqueror took when he conquered the island in 1066.

My final my study-abroad saga took place in Oviedo, Spain. Situated in the northern province of Asturias, Oviedo’s history is rich with conflict, religion and cider. Oviedo was the capital of the Christian kingdom during the Islamic occupation of the Iberian Peninsula and has numerous churches that date back to that period.

I studied at an international center and improved my Spanish immensely. I also participated in a home-stay experience. Excursions were a part of the academics and many weekends we spent traveling the countryside.

The Camino de Santiago is a religious pilgrimage starting in various villages across Europe, webbing together over hundreds of miles and finally culminating in the magnificent Catedral de Santiago. One weekend, the international students visited the cathedral and attended a pilgrims mass. During the mass, a giant incense thurible was used to purify the pilgrims and (historically) mask the smell that accrues after months of walking. The cathedral is a landmark from the Middle Ages and is a magnificent site to behold.

My time in Spain was brief and exciting. Happenstance brought me there during one of the worst economic recessions Spain has ever endured. With unemployment at roughly 26% there were daily protests and even a city-wide march that brought riot police to monitor the crowds. I will never forget the delicious Spanish meats, cheeses and fruits, nor the incredible architecture and natural beauty that Northern Spain has to offer.

I highly recommend a study-abroad experience for each and every student. I spent about 90% of my time completely out of my comfort zone, but as a result, that comfort zone expanded and I was able to manage challenging situations that previously would have been too daunting to even attempt. Now, I’m excited to continue traveling and experiencing new cultures and lifestyles. The world is shrinking with increases in technology and it’s getting easier to travel to foreign, exotic lands. Go and experience them!