Daniel Bittel is a senior biology major at William Jewell College. Over winter break, he put his Journey Grant to use, traveling to northern Thailand.
“We heard about a trip to Thailand and thought it sounded awesome so we talked to Jeff Buscher about it,” said Bittel. “The group that they partner with in Thailand is called the Upland Holistic Development Project, or the UHDP. Their main endeavor is to help out the marginalized hill tribes in the mountains of Northern Thailand. Most of these people are refugees that come from surrounding countries like Myanmar, Laos or Cambodia. They fled their countries for various reasons, usually political unrest or military complications.”
“These people are allowed to live in Thailand, but they don’t have citizenship, they don’t have rights, they don’t have healthcare,” said Bittel. “They kind of get a similar treatment to the way that we treated Native Americans. They are placed on infertile land that has been slashed and burned, so they struggle to grow their own food. The UHDP aims to better their lives in all facets. They work on things like sustainable agriculture, citizenship issues, women’s empowerment – stuff like that.”
Bittel reached out to the organization, which had expressed an interest in his knowledge of aquaponics.
“I’ve been working on aquaponics systems for a couple of years now,” said Bittel. “Aquaponics is basically a system which uses plants suspended in water and then you add nutrients. You use fish, and when the fish waste gets nitrified by bacteria, it becomes useful to the plants. So it is an enclosed system where you can grow and eat fish and grow and eat vegetables as well. These people are tight on space and have limited resources, so they have a great need for aquaponics. A lot of them already cultivate their own fish, so it was a good fit for them.”
“Before going to Thailand, we took a seven-week prep class through the village partners program,” said Bittel. “The main point that they were trying to drive home to us was that there is a right way and a wrong way to go about service work. We learned about how service trips can often be devastating to the indigenous cultures that they try to help, either by disempowering them or creating dependency. That was a huge thing that we kept in mind during our trip. We tried to help these people in a way that was sustainable, in a way that they could take what we taught them and they could reproduce it and teach it to other people in the surrounding areas.”
“We were there for two weeks,” said Bittel. “We spent all of our time living in a bunkhouse in the project center, about three hours north of Chiang Mai. The center is set up like one big representation of what an ideal self-sustaining village can look like in Northern Thailand. The project center is also used as a demonstration area, where they educate people from surrounding villages.”
Bittel didn’t spend his entire trip working. He also got to experience some of the tourist attractions of Thailand.
“We spent two nights in Chang Mai which is the second largest city in Thailand,” said Bittel. “One night, we went to a Buddhist temple considered the second holiest place in Thailand. It’s up on top of a mountain, right near the border between Myanmar and Thailand. You climb up to this giant temple and the top overlooks the entire valley of Northern Thailand. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. It was surreal. That place is absolutely nuts.”