Ian Pelfrey Thailand 2015

STEP Reflection: Thailand

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My Step project was a cultural experience combined with an artistic endeavor.  I traveled to Thailand with a college age tour group for fourteen days and took pictures to create a blog of the experience later.

After my experience in Thailand I’ve come to see several things differently. There are a lot of street vendors in Thailand, in the cities and out in the countryside. I spent a lot of time talking with the few I could find who spoke enough English. They made their living selling whatever they could, in America they would be living in poverty. But in Thailand things are different. Universal healthcare benefits everyone and these stall vendors only had to make a small amount of money every year. It’s easier to be poor in Thailand, you don’t pay taxes on what you sell and what you make, and because of the Buddhist foundations of the country there were always temples to go to and sleep in to get back on your feet. There’s more community help, families still live together and support one another. I always thought the American way of life was the default, but there are more viable options than just grow up get a job and retire.

I had also been to the tribal lands in the west of the country and whatever they couldn’t trade for they made themselves. The near self-sufficient village life is something I had never seen before in America and it was refreshing to see people so free of the systems that our society relies upon.  It was these village people that made me realize this world is so much more diverse than I had previously thought.

Also in talking with my local guide about the history of Thailand we got to talking about the Vietnam War from the Thai perspective. Thailand fought with us in the war until the end. But while the US pulled out Thailand was still right there and had to suffer insurgencies and conflict for many years. The fallout of our American wars has always been a topic of discussion here in our country but to meet people who lived in fear of communist guerrillas when they were kids made think more about America’s role in the world today.

Additionally, I had never really thought of Buddhism as a world religion before I traveled to Thailand. I had known that it existed and was popular but I couldn’t comprehend how a non-theistic religion could actually be so large. While in Thailand our group explored several of the holiest Buddhist shrines. In Chang Mai I met a monk at the great temple there who told me a great deal about Buddhism in Thailand. Thailand’s population is overwhelmingly Buddhist and its tenets of reincarnation and the role of monks as a way to purge negative karma from oneself are found throughout the country. After my trip I have a lot more knowledge and respect for Buddhism.

This was a very valuable trip for me in a number of ways. I think the perspective gained on my life in the United States has been the biggest change. Traveling to Thailand has allowed me to frame my existence in this world. When someone asks, do you know that you are living in the richest country in the world? Before my trip I could say yes I realize this but once you have been to the other side of the world or really to any other developing country with a growing population there is this realization that I really have been taking everything for granted. Clean water and a world class education and a stable society are almost given to me and it took traveling to Thailand and meeting people who knew they would never get to see that to realize it. Also that just because you don’t have everything the west does doesn’t make you unhappy. People can read this and think, ‘Yeah I knew this already,’ but it’s different to experience it firsthand.

A lesser change has been my relationship between the camera and me. This trip was partially an exercise of my photography skills after I had taken the intro photo course here at OSU. Most people don’t think twice about bringing a camera with them on vacation, how else are they supposed to remember it? Taking photos of an event has become synonymous with actually experiencing that event. The camera becomes a buffer to the outside world, pictures come through the aperture and imprint upon our digital memory. I came to resent needing to take all the photos. I had to constantly have an eye out for good shots or parts of Thailand I thought others should see. I realized what I really wanted was to abandon the camera and just immerse myself in the experience. Some people enjoy that hunt for the best shot or the right lighting. I know myself better now in that for me to truly enjoy a place I don’t want photos of it. I don’t want to brag online about it. I just want it to happen.

My future as a chemist won’t be greatly affected by my time in Thailand. In subtle ways it might, I could better empathize with coworkers form different places, and maybe some small effects from my greater knowledge of eastern Asia. But I feel my future as a person has benefitted from my time in Thailand more. I honestly believe meeting people from a culture entirely different from my own and seeing just how similar people are despite their circumstances has made me a better person.  I also have figured out how I want my relationship to my camera. On true vacation the camera is superfluous for me. But as a tool to make art I still value the camera now that I have had this experience to hone my skills at photography.


A Link to my experience blog: https://ianthailand2015.wordpress.com/