Sept. 22, 2011Vol. 42, Issue 1

A Summer’s Exploration in Chiang Mai

by Rob Burton, English

The nine-unit program—team-taught by Professors Lee Altier (Agriculture), Tony Waters (Sociology), and Rob Burton (English)—was an exercise in interdisciplinary cooperation, as students examined the cultural and environmental context of agricultural systems in Thailand along with the social structures of Lanna Thai culture (of northern Thailand) and a range of literary texts from classical to contemporary Thai literature, both sacred and secular.

The program offered far more than your average farang (Westerner) experience.

Chiang Mai is a scenic 13th-century city, surrounded by mountains and terraced rice paddies, close to the famed Golden Triangle. With long-established trading routes to neighboring countries China, Laos, and Myanmar (Burma), Chiang Mai boasts vibrant street bazaars, riverside restaurants, pampering spas, and more than 300 glittery Buddhist temples with their sloping roofs and iconic Buddha statues.

For eight weeks, the entire city served as a classroom for Chico State students.

They didn’t just study concepts of sustainable agriculture: they sowed rice, harvested peanuts, and ploughed behind water buffalo. They didn’t just read about social issues such as gender identities: they observed the gender role-playing of ladyboys. They didn’t just visit temples: they participated in regular “monk chats,” discussing with saffron-robed monks everything from hip-hop music to the source of dukkha (suffering). Even language learning (beyond the simplistic greeting of sawat-di) was challenged by the daily necessity of hailing a tuk-tuk or songtaew (ever-present public transportation services) or bargaining for crafts, fabrics, and jewelry at the popular tourist markets. Indeed, by the end of the program, most students learned to abide by the Thai custom that everything should be sanuk or fun, an opportunity for social cohesion and a smile.  

An important part of the program was for Chico State students to integrate with students at Chiang Mai University. They did this in three ways. Initially, they collaborated with Thai students in classroom activities, fieldwork, and team research projects. These first three weeks helped students establish relationships which lasted throughout the program. They also joined with an English-learning class for English conversation and cross-cultural communication. Finally, on July 9, the students joined Chiang Mai University’s entering freshman class (called “freshies” in Thai) on a 12-kilometer hike to the magnificent Buddhist temple at Doi Suthep overlooking the city from its mountain perch.

There were other learning opportunities beyond Chiang Mai. Students went on a three-day visit to a rural village close to the Laos border where they observed first-hand sustainable farming techniques. They spent a weekend with missionaries in Phrae who are helping to preserve the cultural integrity of the MlaBri tribe, while also studying their language. They made a trip to Pai, a resort town in the highlands of Thailand near the border with Myanmar.  

Above all, they learned that study abroad can enhance cultural competency—in communication skills, intercultural understanding, and knowledge of the world beyond our borders. One student, Hailey Vincent, reflected: “Thailand opened my eyes as it did my heart. It opened my heart to strangers, it opened my heart to loved ones, it opened my heart to foreign cultures, it opened my heart to my native culture, and most importantly, it opened my heart to myself. I no longer wish to seek answers about life; I wish to question the answers given to me.”

For more information about the Cross-Cultural Exploration program, contact Altier at

In Their Own Words

As a course requirement, students wrote blogs to share with families and friends as well as interested readers from around the world. A sampling can be found below, along with the program’s website.


Photos by Evan Dabreo