Transitioning Into Thai Culture With Help From Locals

My first week in Thailand…What can I say except “wow”? It has been a whirlwind. I met the most amazing and generous people, made my own scarf and bag from natural dyes, explored a pristine Buddhist temple, and got myself lost twice.

The Thai have their own way of thinking and it shows in every part of their society. From the way they create paper decorations to hang on their temples to the busy streets that are always buzzing with scooters and red buses. Everything is done differently here in Thailand compared to the United States, including how they get their food. Vendors line the roads, selling fruits, pancakes, chicken, rice, and much more! Perhaps the only solace an American will find here from the bustling city streets are the numerous 7-Eleven’s that dot every corner.

However, while the newcomer may be overwhelmed at first (like me), the Thai people make transitioning into the community much easier. I got lost at Doi Suthep, a beautiful, towering temple at the top of a mountain just outside of Chiang Mai city. I had only been in the country a few days, so my cell phone did not work. I had been planning to only use free Wifi to contact friends and family at home; this was quickly proving to be merely wishful thinking.

While lost, I had no access to Google Maps nor would my phone even call anyone since I wasn’t on an international plan. Pro tip: Unlock your phone and get a SIM card from one of the many cell phone shops while you are in Thailand. It’s cheap and while you can’t text, you get 100 GB of data/month for about 7 dollars a month. This includes 30-minute phone calls. This is ten times less expensive than the amount my U.S. cell phone provider wanted me to pay for an international plan. Needless to say, when I finally DID find civilization again, a SIM card was the first thing on my mind.

Micaela at Doi Suthep Temple
Micaela at Doi Suthep Temple

Until then, I had no choice but to ask random Thai people if I could use their cell phones to call a USAC advisor for help. I knew literally zero Thai up until that point, but communicated using hand gestures and to my surprise, everyone I asked for help readily agreed to let me use their phone or to help me get to where I needed to go. Thankfully, red buses (called rod daengs) were everywhere and for only a small fee, I was taken down the mountain and rejoined my group again. I was beating myself up about getting lost, but helping me seemed to be no bother to the Thai people. I witnessed this willingness to help again on campus at Chiang Mai University where at least 20 Thai students had surrounded 1 USAC student and were trying to help her find her classes through only gestures and broken English.

Students are required to wear uniforms at Chiang Mai University. This is a traditional uniform
Students are required to wear uniforms at Chiang Mai University. This is a traditional uniform

Even when we went to the Craft and Culture Tour to dye scarves and bags in natural dyes, the owner (a lovely older woman who also spoke Japanese) noticed we did not have enough handkerchiefs for everyone. We were only supposed to pick between a scarf or a bag, then do a handkerchief afterwards, but she allowed us to do both because of the shortage. I hadn’t been expecting anything except too bad, so sad!

And again, at the natural dyes farm, one student asked if he could taste the dragon fruit that was sitting in a bowl at a different table. The owners then insisted we all try the fruit and began cutting them up. But it wasn’t just the dragon fruit they let us try: They began cutting up mango and handing out lychee as well. Many people said it was the best fruit they had ever tasted. So much consideration had gone into the tour; there was even a refreshment corner for us to enjoy at any time throughout the event with two different, cold teas prepared just for us. It was an authentic and enjoyable experience; exactly what I had been looking for when I chose to study abroad in Thailand! If you are on the fence about which country to go to, I MUST suggest Thailand. Even better, USAC has two Thailand locations you can choose from. There will always be bumps in the road regardless of which country you choose, but in Thailand you are surrounded by people happy to help.

Micaela Gonino is a Central Michigan student who is currently studying abroad in Chiang Mai, Thailand.