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2009 Student Writing Contest Runner-Up Winner

Travel and Live Abroad in Chiang Mai, Thailand as a Student

A Great but Difficult Experience

Chiang-Mai Thailand with Host Family

As a college student nearing graduation I looked back on all that I had accomplished and experienced during my four years at the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire. Was there anything that I still wanted to do? Study abroad had always been recommended to me as a great opportunity. Students had told me that it was the experience of a lifetime—something that you would never forget. I did not know how right they were until I put my fears aside and took the plunge into a study abroad experience. Up to that point, I had always been a person who preferred to have a friend with me—or at least someone I knew—when diving into something new. But studying abroad would not have been such a growing experience had I not explored it on my own. 

I traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand for six weeks from June to July of 2008 with the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s summer study abroad program.

Preparation and Advice for Studying Abroad

First of all, my advice is not to be afraid to use the resources available at your University or via the program through which you are traveling. They have done this before and generally provide plenty of valuable information. When I went to the orientation at my University, I thought, “that’s silly” or “I don’t need to do that.” But had I listened to them I would have had a copy of my check card when it was eaten by the ATM machine in Thailand and would have been able to possibly get it back! 

I would strongly urge anyone to take part in an overseas experience whether in the form of an internship or to study abroad. As I found out, you do not need a bubbling, energetic, or outgoing personality in order to have a life changing experience. You only need the courage to get out of your “comfort zone” and be willing to try anything once. Otherwise, you will never know what you are missing and probably will never have the chance to try again.  

The Decision to Go to Thailand

I chose to travel to Chiang Mai, Thailand and to study at Payap University for a 2-month stint during the summer. I think that for first-time travelers a summer program is perfect. More likely than not, you will find yourself bitten by the travel bug and want to go back for more. I chose to travel to Thailand because I wanted the experience to be as unlike that in the United States as possible. However, if you are apprehensive about the extreme change or language barrier, you can study abroad in a country such as England which is culturally more similar to the United States—and you should still have a memorable experience.

Practical Advice for Travel and Living in Thailand

If you choose to travel to Thailand you will be glad you did. But I want to share with you some advice that would have been helpful to know before I went:

Make sure that you notify your bank and Credit Card Company before you leave. I made this mistake and this may be why my ATM card was destroyed. In Thailand it is important to have a check card. Thailand is a cash-driven society and ATM machines are easy to find. Many places do not take credit cards or traveler’s checks. But I would suggest having a credit card for booking rooms in a hostel or buying bulk tickets. So, have a check card, credit card and some Thai baht. I would also suggest some Japanese yen as well if you will be flying through Japan to get to Thailand.

A toothbrush, small containers of toothpaste, deodorant, lotion, shampoo, conditioner, face wash, mouthwash, etc., and a change of clothes are good to have on the plane. Make sure you have your boarding pass, passport, and form of identification on you at all times. I know some think they look stupid but it is so helpful to have an around the neck carrier in which to store them. Also bring along a dictionary covering the language of the country you are visiting. Do not pack more than you need to. You can do laundry there. It is cumbersome carrying more than you can handle. In train stations there are no elevators and often no escalators. So, packing light is essential to make travel more pleasant.

Make sure you study the area you are going to, see a travel nurse and only get the shots needed for that area. A nurse might try to poke you with every type of shot in the book which you do not need. I would say that you do not need Japanese encephalitis but typhoid is recommended as is malaria if you are going to the very Northern region of Thailand (see the CDC Thailand website for more.).

In Thailand I felt a huge culture shock when I went to the bathroom and there was no toilet paper with just a hose in its place. Yes, it is for spraying you off. Toilet paper is not something you would think of to carry around with you. But it is something you desperately need. Also hand sanitizer is useful because you will have to visit a very upscale establishment to find soap.

For women who are reading this, make sure you bring feminine products with you. In Thailand they do not have tampons and very few pads so if you do not have any or run out its slim pickings.

I cannot stress enough the importance of learning as much of the language as you can (see websites such as www.learn-thai.com). You will go far with even “hello,” “how are you,” and “thank you.” Thai people will respect you more and you will not be treated poorly for being a furang, or tourist/foreigner. Do not be discouraged when you begin speaking and you are looked at differently, pointed and laughed at, or called names; once you are accepted they are some of the kindest people. When you do not know the language or know it very little, a smile goes a long way. Also, education goes a long way. When Thais think that you are a naive tourist or foreigner some will try to take advantage of you. But they will appreciate and respect you if you smile, are wearing a school uniform, or even attempt to say one word in Thai.

Leave your expectations behind in your home country. Exploration of a this new and very rich culture is the part that will amaze, wow, frustrate, and open your mind. Try everything, and I mean everything! I know squatter toilets, beef intestines, fried grasshopper, freshly killed chicken, or a 5-hour hike may not seem appealing to some but how do you know until you try them? Fried grasshopper is actually very tasty!

Eating grasshopper in Thailand
Eating a fried grasshopper.

Branch out. You will not experience anything if you only talk to other people who are American or who speak English. I lived in an international dorm. I met students from Japan, Korea, France, Germany, Romania, and Vietnam as well as Thailand. This gave me a chance to practice my Thai and to meet people with whom I am still friends.

Keep your eyes and mind open to opportunity—everything, no matter how ordinary, is an adventure. I felt that everywhere I looked there was a funny sign, a new fruit to try, an animal to see, or a song to hear. If you are not alert and paying attention you may lose a great photo opportunity.

Be aware of your non-verbal communication, tone of voice and actions. You do not want to give a wrong idea or impression. Sometimes this is the only way that Thai people will be able to know what you are saying. If you are saying something nice but with a scowl on your face they might misinterpret that you are saying something with mean intent.

Beware of animals; there are no pounds or humane associations in Thailand to take in stray animals, so they roam the streets. You do not know which animals have diseases. So no matter how cute they may be, do not play with them. This is especially the case with puppies; wild dogs are very protective of their puppies and will bite. If you do get a bite go to the hospital immediately to have it checked out.

You are expected to bargain at markets In Thailand. The markets offer some of the most beautiful homemade silks and other crafts, but there is no price listed on each item. It is therefore accepted and expected for you to go back and forth with them on the price. Some of the merchants are more willing than others to barter, and some will “harp” on you to get you to buy something at the price they have set. Sometimes walking away is the best idea, as merchants will often then quickly offer to bring the price down.

Monks are an integral part of Thai culture, and cannot be touched by any women. They wear orange so they can be spotted—so you do not have to worry about not recognizing them. No touching means not sitting next to them on a bus either—an American girl proceeded to sit next to a monk for a 2-hour bus ride and I thought that the monk was going to faint as he was so scared. 

In Thailand there is the utmost respect for the King and Queen. The King’s face is on the currency and his picture is all over the country. At 6 p.m. every evening they play a song for the King and you must to stand up and be silent and still. The song also is played when you go to a theater, movie, or puppet performance. You will feel and look stupid and disrespectful if you keep walking and talking during his song. I know because it happened to me.

Beware of the heat in Thailand. I traveled to Thailand during America’s summer and Thailand’s rainy season. There were times when it was extremely hot. Make sure you drink plenty of water. You will hear differing opinions as to whether or not you should drink tap water. I did, but I do not think it tasted very good. I would suggest bottled water and it cost only 5-10 baht (15-30 cents). 

Many school programs suggest that you dress modestly. T-shirts and long pants are considered appropriate, so I packed accordingly to my school’s recommendations. You do not want to represent your country wearing something that does not cover you appropriately for Thai culture. Sleeveless ribbed tank tops and capris are good clothes to wear that are both modest yet do not make overly uncomfortable. If you are going to Thailand for school, the majority of the schools have a uniform. Mine was a black skirt and white button down shirt and black shoes.

Payap University and uniform.
Payap University and uniform.

You will find when you go out to enjoy the nightlife, many Thais dress in a manner quite similar to Americans. Use your discretion. I would suggest bringing plenty of clothes with you; a lot of Thai clothes are one size fits all—which, in fact, is not the case. If you are larger than a size 6—as am I—it is very difficult to find clothes that fit.

There are two main forms of public transportation to get around Chiang Mai: tuk-tuks and Song-taews. Tuk-tuks have both advantages and disadvantages. First off, a tuk-tuk is a three-wheeled, window-less hybrid between a motorcycle and a taxi. The advantages in taking tuk-tuks are their inexpensive prices and their convenience. Fares are to be negotiated, so make sure to agree on a price before starting a journey. If a price cannot be agreed upon, find another ride, as there are plenty available. The main problem with riding a tuk-tuk is that breathing in car fumes is unavoidable. Song-taews are covered, long-bed trucks, outfitted with seats to carry passengers. The red Song-taews are cheaper than tuk-tuks, costing 15 baht per person to go most anywhere in the city. But because they pick up new customers en route to dropping off their first customers, direct transportation to a destination may not be an option, unless the driver is offered a bit more money.

The first mistake I made in Thailand is a commonly made by newcomers. If you are taking a taxi be sure you negotiate a rate for the trip beforehand or make sure your driver turns the meter on. Many taxi drivers will “forget” to turn the meter on and then charge you double what you should have been charged.

You are often warned to beware of roadside vendors. I would say to not avoid them but use common sense when perusing. If there are flies on the food, if the food has a smell, obviously do not eat there. But during my stay in Thailand, I ate many times at roadside stands with fresh fruit and meats and I found the fare to be some of the best and cheapest.

If you decide to travel around outside of your family or dorm stay make sure you take advantage of the hostels in Thailand. They are very cheap and very clean. Hostelworld is a very good site to find cheap hostels. There are many different types of hostels, some good and some bad. Make sure you research them and check user ratings on the website.

Tour operators have set up many memorable treks which you can take for a day, weekend, or longer period of time. They include waterfalls, elephant rides, white water rafting, hiking, and village stays. The hikes are long and hard but they are gorgeous and worth the effort; see Wayfarers Travel for a sample tour operator in Thailand.

Landscape near Chiang Mai, Thailand

You do not want to carry your passport around with you everywhere. You will probably get a Thai identification card—whether it is for school or an internship. This gets you the Thai price instead of the “furang” price—which is usually three times as much. Make sure you do have a copy of your passport with you at all times. And when you do decide to go on a weekend trip out of the area you are staying, bring your passport. I would not have been able to go to Burma if I had not had my passport—and what an experience that turned out to be!

There will be times when you ask yourself, “why am I here?” or “what was I thinking?” and you will want to go home. There were several times when I felt quite alone and out of place. I felt that I was a fat ugly white girl among so many tiny beautiful Thai girls. I did not know the language, it was hot, and all my friends were enjoying themselves back in Wisconsin. I am so glad that I did not listen to these thoughts and I pushed on. Would I have been able to hold a baby tiger, ride an elephant, swim in a waterfall, or go on a hike in the jungle in Wisconsin? These are experiences you may only have once—seize the moments and savor them!

Meeting a baby elephant in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Meeting a baby elephant.

The best experience in Thailand was the family homestay. If you have the opportunity to stay with a family, do not pass it up. The family homestay was at times difficult. I weeded rice paddies in hot fields for hours, did not know a word of the language, slept on a concrete floor, did not have access to hot water, and was awaken by a rooster at four, five and six in the morning. But I was truly immersed in the culture and saw how the locals actually lived. Even though we hardly spoke a word to each other, my hosts were the nicest and most welcoming people I have ever met. I did not want to leave when my homestay was over. 

Overall, I had a memorable time in Thailand. I met some lifelong friends and enjoyed going to markets, trying new foods, staying out late at fancy clubs, and singing karaoke in themed rooms. I hope you take the step to apply for a study abroad experience, which you will likely consider to be one of the highlights of your life. I hope that these suggestions will help to make your study abroad experience go more smoothly. I made most of these mistakes myself, and offer my advice so that you do not repeat them. But I know you will make some mistakes of your own adapting to life in a foreign culture, as it would not be an unforgettable and unique growth experience if you did not!

Chiang-Mai Thailand Thai Dancer