Nava in Thailand

Nava in Thailand
Nava in Thailand


I was one of the three fortunate South African students who got to go on a journey across the world to the Kingdom of Thailand for the AC21 International Graduate Summer School. I was exposed to this opportunity by our faculty administrator, who was boasting that our professor, Alan Brent, will be presenting at this prestigious conference, and that students could apply to go too… of course I was keen!

I applied with a motivation letter followed by an interview. The summer school programme had been up on the website, so I was able to identify the lectures that were most attractive to me and how these were beneficial to my studies. I was very excited to go to an international summer school where I would meet people, in my field, from around the globe. We were awarded R10 000 each by Stellenbosch University to buy our ticket to Thailand, while local accommodation, food and travel was covered by AC21 for the duration of the conference.

In preparation to go for this trip, Jan-Willem from SU met with the three of us students who were going. This was the first time I met the other two students I was going to represent Stellenbosch University with. Corneli asked of the dress code, something that hadn’t crossed my mind at all yet as I was just excited to go. I’m glad she asked, because how one dresses is very important in terms of being culturally appropriate. We were asked to dress “politely” which involved wearing skirts and pants no shorter than our knees, shoulder-covering shirts, and closed shoes. I kept on thinking, how can open shoes be “impolite” in such a hot climate? On my final day in Thailand, after being there for 3 weeks, I finally put two and two together: In Thai culture, it is very offensive to point your toes to someone, especially to someone’s head. So having open shoes, exposes these rude toes that can easily cause offence if you are not careful. Formal clothing is also quite important, so when you go, make sure to take some formal attire.

Thailand is at least a 12hour flight away from South Africa: allow yourself travel time. We were advised us to take malaria medication and from reading a blog from the previous year, I was also aware to be careful if taking homeopathic meds because they could be mistaken for drugs. Drug smuggling was a large fear I had in preparing to go to Thailand: I was worried that someone might sneak drugs into my bags and I would get locked in prison. I made sure to have bags with one or two zips that I could always lock and when I travelled after the conference, I was vigilant with my bags.

I am a Swazi citizen, and my passport had expired before this trip. Swazi citizens also need a visa to enter Thailand. The University offered to pay to send my passport to Pretoria for the visa. It is quite an effort for me to get a passport, and while being in the area, I opted to do this myself: the visa application was R600 and this payment needed to be made electronically no more than 5 days before visiting the embassy. Proof of payment was needed on application. The Thai embassy is very organised. I contacted them by email and they sent me three documents with their requirements, working hours and holidays. They are open to receive applications in the morning until 12pm and visas will be ready the following day between 2 – 4pm, provided all documents are provided and including 2 passport photos. They are very efficient.

I booked my flight through which is a very useful website, showing a variety of fares and routes, and with very good online support. Finally, I was ready to go to Thailand.

Summer School:

I had a wonderful stay in Bangkok for the AC21 International Graduate Summer School. We were hosted by the 3 major local universities of Chulalongkorn University, Kasetstart University and Nagoya University. We were taken immaculate care of: Every last detail was well considered and we, as the participants of the conference, had absolutely nothing to worry about as we were in incredibly considerate and generously hospitable hands.

Upon arrival, we were welcomed by an AC21 escort as well as the warm humid air of Bangkok outside the air-conditioned airport. The hotel arrangements were thoughtfully prepared where each farang (foreign) student was paired with a local Thai student as a cleaver catalyst for cultural exchange.

Green Science and Technology for a Sustainable Future was the theme of this year’s summer school where I attended the subtheme of Agricultural Sciences and Food Production.

Our summer school started with an opening ceremony, where Nobel Peace Laureate in Chemistry, Dr. Ryoji Noyori, gave the plenary speech. He spoke of chemistry and the importance of science for shaping the future and therefore sustainable innovations. We were spoilt with amazing local cuisine and traditional Thai cultural dance performances.

The presentations were made by professors from the attending universities. They were very specific to the professors’ research topics and were given in considerable detail. There were a few presentations arguing for the use of GMO to enable food security. This is the opposite of my experience as a student at the Sustainability Institute at Stellenbosch University. This is because GMO plant varieties prove to have a very weak ability to reproduce and make good seeds – which causes (often poor) farmers to be dependent on expensive laboratory prepared seed. They also run the very high risk of pollen pollution which undermines heritage seed varieties’ ability to procreate and thus threaten food security and food diversity at a very fundamental level.

There were also a few presentations on rice production. This was very interesting to me as I had read about rice being one of the three major grains produced and consumed globally. This made the importance of rice quite real to me. We also had rice at every meal during our stay at the summer school, and sometimes for desert too.

The conference was sponsored by a conglomerate of supportive and eager-to-employ companies, one of which was Toyota. We were taken to Toyota’s Thailand factory where I enjoyed visiting their on-site eco forest where they said they had planted a million trees in a year. For a company that is contributing so largely to pollution, I would be encouraged to see them create an eco plantation annually in their efforts to take on social ecological responsibility seriously. They produce 1000 new cars daily in Thailand alone.

In all, I feel very fortunate to have been chosen to take part in this conference. Meeting peers and researchers from around the globe was truly remarkable, and being exposed to a larger variety of thought, that often challenged me, was really beneficial. Being in the beautiful hot Thailand, where people are so polite and very helpful was lovely, and to be able to be exposed to South East Asia within local institutions and individuals was a great privilege.


Of the 80 students who attended the summer school, and the 40 of which were foreign international students, only the 3 of us South African students stayed for an additional extended period of time. We each stayed for 10 days extra AT LEAST in the Kingdom of Thailand, eager to see more of the country.

I stayed because I didn’t anticipate being able to go back to Thailand anytime soon again, and I was thirsty to see the beauty the Kingdom offered. I could also afford the time, and travelling wasn’t very expensive. I went to see old ruins close to Bangkok, and then travelled south to visit the three main islands in the Gulf of Thailand. I then travelled far north to the old capital of the country, Chiang Mai on a combination of overnight trains, ferries, busses and vans. Transport infrastructure is remarkable in this country, and travel is comfortable and very easy. I was also fortunate to meet up with old friends from 10 years ago who also happened to be in Thailand while I was there. They were doing Baha’i volunteer work in the little village of Omkoi. I visited this village-town with them, and through this, I had some exposure to rural farming. I would have liked to be able to have stayed more to visit the villages in the region to get some insight into the lives and realities of the farmers.

Returning to the international airport in Bangkok, I took the very easy and convenient, air-conditioned train to get there (it is hot and humid throughout the country). I advise anyone who passes through this airport to do their last shopping and final meal outside the airport, because prices triple as soon as you cross over immigration.

When I returned to South Africa, I expected to get straight back into my work and my studies. This was not the case. It took me approximately two weeks to get past my fatigue and to reacclimatise to being back in the Southern Hemisphere. The time difference is 5 hours, and I found the long air travel slightly difficult.

I experienced Thailand as quite safe – the only type of crime there, apart from drug smuggling, is non-violent theft and pick-pocketing. Coming back to South Africa, I was confronted with an attempted break-in to my house and a friend was hijacked while visiting me. It was very unsettling for me to return to what felt like an aggressive, unsafe country, from a peaceful friendly, while also strict place.

This trip made me aware of the diversity of the globe we live in and the layers in which I can contribute to social transformation and equality. I am very grateful for having been able to go to Thailand and the AC21 conference. It made me more aware of how different and diverse the world is. Cultures, beliefs, attitudes, lifestyles, clothing, worship, architecture, food, research, cities and towns – these are different everywhere in the world. It’s wonderful to see how we humans are so diverse, while still being part of one human race where we are able to relate to one another as people.

I am now travelling to Ethiopia on a 10 month exchange where I will be doing the research for my master’s programme in sustainable agriculture. I am thrilled to have broader world exposure equipping me to be more effective in my field while also being more empathetic to diverse cultures.

(I have put cultural photos I have taken from my trip on my personal photography blog: