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Mantim Lee: All-American Swimmer Finishes University of Chicago Degree at Sea: Asia

Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay, Myanmar with the world's largest book and 729 marble tablets with scripts on them.
Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay, Myanmar with the world's largest book and 729 marble tablets with scripts on them.

Four-time swimming All-American and economics major Mantim Lee finished his academic career at University of Chicago on the water as part of the Semester at Sea® program this spring.



Lee and his friends traveled together in Kobe, Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto. Japan marked one of the countries in the route Lee had been to before, giving him a sense of familiarity. “It was great to have Japan as the first overnight port as it was easy to travel around and helped prepare me for the future ports, which were much harder to navigate,” Lee said. 

Photo: Arriving in Kobe, Japan for first overnight in port.

Lee relayed a story that showed the language barrier he faced in Japan. “My friend and I were trying to order one bottle of sake in a restaurant, but the servers didn’t speak English,” he said. “We ended up being served four bottles!”

Mantim Lee Semester at Sea photo gallery

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Other visits in Japan included an all-nude hot spring, 3.5 hours of food hunting in a Japanese food market, shopping in Shinsaibashi and Dōtonbori, Universal Studios, Nijō Castle, and Fushimi Inari-taisha, the iconic head shrine of Inari in Kyoto.  

Photo: Deer at Nara Park.

Two of the most memorable events Lee thought were comical. “My friend and I were traveling from Osaka to Kyoto on Chinese New Year’s Eve. Google map indicated that it should be a one and one-half hour trip, but it took us more than three hours,” he recalled. “Carrying some heavy luggage and feeling hungry and cold, we were still trying to find the hotel when it was midnight. That was a special way to step into a new Chinese year!”

On a trip to Nara Park, Lee noticed that the deer would approach and repeatedly bow to people for food. “They looked adorable, but were very aggressive,” he said. “I was holding a Kit Kat bar when a deer approached from behind and bit me in the butt.”

Photo: Boat in West Lake, Hangzhou.


China was a very familiar stop for Lee, being from Hong Kong. “It was super crowded wherever we went because it was the Chinese New Year holiday, but it was good to be there during one of the most celebrated festivals in the country” he remarked.

Lee essentially became part-time tour guide for his non-Chinese friends in China. “A Chinese friend and I led eight others on a three-day trip to Hangzhou and Suzhou, though I had never been to either of them,” he said. “The two of us organized hotel booking, transportation, and sightseeing. I was glad to have introduced part of my culture and some good food to my friends. They were surprised to try some special Chinese liquors and to find that there was no Facebook, Instagram, or Google there.”

“Traveling allows people to bond and to get to know each other so much more, the good and the bad,” Lee continued. “There is a saying, ‘make sure you travel with your other half before getting married,’ and I agree with that. I’m glad to have traveled with such a big and fun group at such an early stage of the journey. Many of the closest friendships I developed on this voyage turned out to be with friends in this China group.”

While in Hangzhou, Lee and his friends visited Lingyin Temple and West Lake, which had temples, pagodas, and gardens. Suzhou, among many other attractions, featured a lion forest garden and the Humble Administrator’s Garden. “The beauty of these cities is best described in a Chinese saying: ‘In heaven, there is a paradise. On earth, there are Hangzhou and Suzhou.’”

Lee’s group also walked around the city in Shanghai, visiting Yuyuan Garden, The Bund, Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center, and Shanghai Power Station of Art.


Photo: Lee and friends at West Lake in Hangzhou.


The voyagers spent five days in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City is the most populated city in the country with extensive use of motorbikes as a form of transportation. “Crossing the road was an absolute adventure every time,” Lee stated. “The only way to do it was to start walking as if the motorbikes weren’t there, and the traffic would stop for you.”

Photo: Lee at a fishing village in Vietnam.

Lee and three of his friends paid a three-day trip to Mui Ne, a coastal small town. Attractions they went to included White Sand Dunes, Red Sand Dunes, Fairy Stream, Mui Ne Fishing Village, and a 49-meter reclining Buddha (the longest in Vietnam) on Ta Cu Mountain.

Perhaps the most unforgettable part of Vietnam for Lee was a simple bus ride that turned into an adventure. The group took a night sleeper bus scheduled to arrive in Mui Ne in 5.5 hours. A night sleeper bus is a double-decker bus with a reclining chair for sleeping, somewhat similar in structure to a bunk bed.

“The seat was kind of cramped and I could barely straighten my legs. My seat was on the upper deck middle section, and the only thing that prevented me from falling off was a seat belt and two armrests on the sides,” Lee remarked. “With some not-so-great luck, my seat belt buckle was broken to begin with. I tried to talk to the guy who checked our tickets, but he didn’t speak English. I gestured to him to indicate that the seat belt was broken and that I was in trouble. He looked at me for a good 10 seconds trying to understand my gesture before laughing and walking away.”

Instead of 5.5 hours, the bus trip took fewer than four hours. “The bus was basically flying the whole time, occasionally making some sharp turns that woke me up and almost threw me off the upper deck,” added Lee, who had salvaged the broken seat belt the best he could by tying up the seat belts with a tight knot. “We got off the bus around 3 a.m. only to realize we were in the middle of the road with literally just trees and dim streetlights around us, in a completely foreign country. I checked Google Maps to discover our hotel was 10 miles away. My friends were looking at me and were like 'Perfect so what do we do now?.”

After a much-needed cab passed by 40 minutes later, the group eventually reached their hotel around 4 a.m. before beginning their tour at 5 a.m. to catch the sunrise in the sand dunes and visit a fishing village. Lee and his friends returned from the tour at 9 a.m. before passing out. 

Photo: Fishing village at Mui Ne.


In every port, students had the option of traveling independently or joining Semester at Sea®-organized tours. For Lee, independent travel in a group of four people was ideal. “Although I get a lot of reflection time and would notice more things on my own, a small group is efficient, and exploring new places with different friends is always fun,” he said. “Moving around in a group of four was the most economical for splitting a cab and also relatively easy to get a table for meals.”

“I had no idea what to expect for five days in Myanmar, but it turned out to be one of my favorite ports,” Lee said. He and his three co-travelers journeyed in Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan.

Mandalay featured multiple sites of interest with Mandalay Palace, Mandalay Hill, Shwenandaw Kyaung Temple, Kuthodaw Paya, Mahamuni Paya, U Bein Bridge, Maha Ganayon Kyaung, and ancient cities in Sagaing and Inwa.

Photo: Lee at U Min Thonze Pagoda in Sagaing. He went barefoot into all temples and pagodas in Myanmar.

“Myanmar was not touristy, which was a huge plus. The attractions were less crowded and we got to really feel the local vibe,” Lee recollected. “The country was not as developed as the ports we had been to, but as a Buddhist country, the people seemed really happy and were willing to help.”

Photo: Two children at Mahagandaryone Monastery waiting for leftovers from monks eating lunch.

Lee was struck by the use of handwritten plane tickets at the airport and by Myanmar being a rather traditional masculine society. “In many temples and pagodas, only men were allowed in certain areas,” he said.


With six days in India, Lee traveled in Cochin, Agra, New Delhi, and “The Pink City” Jaipur. Visits included Agra Fort, Taj Mahal, Humayun’s Tomb, Amber Fort, Jantar Mantar, and City Palace Jaipur.

Photo: Lee and friends visiting Taj Mahal.

One of the main skills the students became familiar with was bargaining while shopping. “I actually enjoy the bargaining process, but an Indian student informed us that the initial pricing for tourists in India is especially ridiculous, up to 10 times what the good normally costs.” Lee stated. “There was a time when I found cutting down the price was way too easy, so easy that is was suspicious and made me feel uncomfortable after the purchase.”

For each class a student takes, there is a day of field class in every port. For his psychology class, Lee and his classmates visited a university and spoke with psychology students there. “We talked about arranged marriages, which is the norm in Cochin and the students were totally fine with that,” he recalled. “The mentality is that since parents have been supporting them and making a lot of important decisions for them so far, that marriage is just another decision they make. Unlike the U.S., at least in South India sex before marriage is widely looked down upon, even though it is becoming more common.” 


Photo: Monkey at Amber Fort, Jaipur.

One of Lee’s favorite moments in India was visiting an orphanage started by a woman to provide a home for about 80 children. “We got to interact with the kids, who seemed very happy without much in the way of material things. They would tell us about their normal daily schedule, and some kids were very excited to show me Pokemon cards and Marvel superheroes drawing books that they played with in leisure times.”