Thailand is a kingdom of unusual mystique, and possibly one of the most interesting places to study the tensions between politics and economics in a country that claims to be democratic. My month in Thailand was a great capstone on my Augie education and a reminder of the quality of people you find at Augustana.

Let’s set the scene. Thailand’s King Rama IX is the world’s wealthiest reigning monarch and perhaps the most active constitutional monarch. Receiving around 30 percent of Thailand’s annual budget, the Royal Family is a major shareholder in Thai businesses and development projects.

In the last 81 years, there have been 18 coups. Amidst the communist sweep of Asia, Thailand avoided this fate guided by an active military and monarchy.

Today, Thailand faces ongoing government corruption, steady economic growth and plays an important role in the global export market.

One of the reasons I wanted to go to Thailand was to have a non-western experience in a developing country. Some of the most interesting moments of the course were the times we saw convergence between the eastern and western worlds. Take the opium trade, for example, which flourished in northern Thailand for much of the 20th century. The West played an important role in supporting the drug trade including alleged drug trafficking by the CIA to support Chinese Nationalist (KMT) forces.

Our own western ideology about sex trade was challenged by Thai scholars and citizens who embrace this practice.

Western tourists are increasingly making Thailand a preferred destination for its “sun, sand and sea,” as one of our guides liked to say.

Thai medicine is advanced and affordable making medical tourism a booming industry, as well.

Meeting Thai people and talking with them gave real context to the course. The “land of smiles” was exactly what the slogan suggests. Thais showed incredible hospitality as they taught us about their temples, made us tea and shared their views on Thai politics.

At Wat Pho, one of Thailand’s most famous temples, our guide, Pi-Guy, told me a few of his favorite stories depicted in the temple’s murals. Reverence for the Buddha and attention to detail and beauty are all important parts of Thai identity.

Being abroad with 10 other Augie students and one of our professors for the month made me appreciate even more the type of people you find at Augustana. We learned, we played and had the time of our lives together. We also learned a lot from each other and the diversity of majors and minors among the group.

Anyone who has ever been abroad knows how transformative the experience can be. Being in a place and opening yourself to its people and culture changes how you look at the world we have created. More importantly, you start to think more about your role in it.

And as great at traveling abroad was, it feels good to be home at Augustana.