LREC Thailand 2018 Article by Associate Professor Lee Pennington and Associate Professor Rick Ruth

What’s what in a wat? Why should you wai? Is “same-same” the same as “same”?

Photo on left: Associate Professor Richard Ruth discusses the historical significance of Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew with MIDN Prescillia Truong and MIDN Alana Phillips. Photo on right: MIDN Precillia Truong and MIDN Will Adams atop an elephant at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center outside Chiang Mai, Thailand (Both photos by Lee Pennington).

These are just some of the mind-bending questions that confronted six USNA Midshipmen traveling on the LREC cultural immersion trip “Thailand: Crossroads of Southeast Asia” during Summer 2018 Zero Block. The Mids spent two weeks exploring Thailand’s rich Theravada Buddhist heritage, historical preservation, and vibrant Southeast Asian culture. They learned the functions and customs associated with Buddhist temples (wat), mastered the etiquette of the socially-charged personal exchanges that begin with hands pressed together for a gentle bow (wai), and practiced bargaining for handicrafts and textiles in the world’s largest and wildest weekend market (where the Thai phrase “same-same” does indeed mean the same as the English word “same”).

Midshipmen at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, Thailand (left to right): MIDN Prescillia Truong, MIDN Emily Louie-Meadors, MIDN Will Adams, MIDN Alana Phillips, MIDN Cedric Bevis, and MIDN Chris Pham. (Photographed by Lee Pennington)

And they did a lot more. Guided by Professors Rick Ruth and Lee Pennington of USNA’s History Department, the Mids trained at a muay thai boxing camp, rode elephants through a northern forest, cycled through a city of ancient ruins, learned how Thais make antivenin from deadly cobras at a Red Cross hospital, experienced a traditional nerve-touch massage, and even cooked up a few tasty Thai dishes at a culinary school in Chiang Mai. And when not riding mighty pachyderms, the Mids learned how to navigate their way through this diverse and developing Asian kingdom using all forms of local public transportation, including rides in the open-sided truck-taxis known as songthaew. They became savvy in the ways of exotic street food and adept at identifying a surprising array of unfamiliar snacks found at Thailand’s ubiquitous 7-Eleven shops.

Midshipmen and their muay thai boxing instructors at Lanna Muay Thai Boxing School in Chiang Mai, Thailand. (Photographed by Lee Pennington)

Leaving the rainy chill of a quiet Maryland morning for the stunning heat and unrelenting traffic blare of a Southeast Asia metropolis was jarring for all. Flying twenty-six hours to the other side of the world can give anyone a major case of jet lag, but jet lag is a great alarm clock for anyone interested in waking before dawn to learn the routines of Buddhist monks and the communities that maintain them. During the day the group spent time in temples both ancient and new as they learned about the myriad of functions that each Buddhist wat provides to the community. They explored forest temples, mountain temples, cave temples, urban temples, and teaching temples. A highlight for the group was the day spent exploring the ruins of Ayutthaya, a city that had presided over the most powerful empire in mainland Southeast Asia for four centuries.

Visiting Wat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand. From left to right: MIDN Alana Phillips, MIDN Cedric Bevis, MIDN Emily Louie-Meadors, MIDN Prescillia Truong, Associate Professor Richard Ruth, MIDN Chris Pham, and MIDN Will Adams. (Photographed by Lee Pennington)

The sum of activities on this trip supported the basic mission of helping Midshipmen develop into capable and confident Navy and Marine Corps officers. Mids developed morally through a comparative examination of Buddhist ethics; they improved mentally by studying historical, political, and cultural sites; and they tested themselves physically by boxing, cycling, and hiking in the oppressive humidity of a tropical monsoon season. And they gained something about the mindfulness that Thai people rely on to get through trying circumstances. Moreover, the Midshipmen brought a lot back from Thailand. Among the many Buddha amulets, wacky t-shirts, and silk scarves that they acquired on this LREC trip, the most treasured souvenir was perhaps the most abstract: greater appreciation for the friendship and support of their USNA shipmates.


Lee Pennington

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