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Any long-term traveler or expat will tell you that when they go back to their original home or talk with family and friends, no one really seems to know what to ask them about their adventures and life abroad. Either they don’t know what to say, or they just have no frame of reference for your lifestyle and don’t care. The first time I visited home after living in Thailand for about year several people asked me, “How was your trip?”. Well, it wasn’t really a trip so much as my life for the past 12 months…
While the majority of my friends and family are interested in hearing about where I’ve been or what I’ve done, I’ve met plenty of people who, when they find out I’ve been living in Thailand for the past three years, just look at me with blank stares. (There are also a number of people who don’t seem to understand that Thailand/Taiwan and Thai/Taiwanese are two totally different places and languages.) I get it – I would probably react the same way in similar situation if someone told me they had just spent the past several years in Antarctica or something.
Between my trips coming home to visit and regularly chatting with travelers coming through my boyfriend’s tattoo shop in Chiang Mai, I’ve heard the same handful of questions about living abroad and what my life in Thailand was like. Here they are:
What made you go to Thailand?
Nothing ‘made me’, I just liked it and wanted to spend more time there. After visiting the country on vacation for a couple weeks I knew I wanted to get back and travel more throughout Southeast Asia so I spent the next two years scheming. While I planned to start in Chiang Mai getting my TEFL certification and teaching for a while, I never expected I would stay there as long as I did.
Why did you want to live abroad?
I’ve always been interested in other places/people/cultures/languages and after working in London for a little while after college knew I wanted to experience not just traveling, but living in different places around the world.
Did people visit you?
Yep! I actually met up with quite a few friends, acquaintances and friends of friends coming through Chiang Mai and was able to host my parents, cousin and several close friends throughout my time there. While it is a long flight from the West Coast and a good chunk of money for a ticket, once you’re there your money goes much, much further than it would in, say, Hawaii.
Have you been to the Full Moon Party?
No, I haven’t, and I don’t ever plan on going. I also haven’t been to Phuket, Pattaya, a ping pong show, tiger temple/’sanctuary’, elephant camp or trekked to a hill tribe.
There are plenty of touristy activities and places that I have done or visited and would highly recommend – like renting a motorbike (if you actually know how to ride one!), visiting a roof top bar in Bangkok, taking a cooking course, zip lining, going to a ladyboy show, going out on Khao San Road – but the things above do not make that list for a variety of reasons (but that’s a different post).
While a cooking class may sound lame in comparison to an all night beach party with thousands of other travelers, it also doesn’t contribute to ruining the local environment, community, health and safety. Plus, I’ve had my fair share of unique, exciting (and questionable) experiences throughout Thailand that can’t be found from a brochure like finding a scorpion in my kitchen, driving a motorbike through the pouring rain and lakes of water covering the road to get to work, falling in love with a Thai tattoo artist (and meeting his family), trying to teach highschoolers who couldn’t understand a word I said, getting pulled over by the police and finding out (alone in my house) that the giant Thai cockroaches also fly.
How much did you get paid teaching?
When I was teaching full time at a private high school in Chiang Mai (about 45 hours a week), I got paid about $750 USD per month.
That was slightly on the low end of things, most other schools paid closer $1,000 a month, and you could still live on it but….yeah.
Did you like teaching?
Not really…you can read about some of experiences here and here. (That said, I would still recommend it for people considering moving abroad because it’s one of the easiest ways to be able to live and work in a foreign country. If you’re interested in teaching specifically in Thailand check this post out.)
Did you feel safe living in Thailand? What about now that the military is in control?
Absolutely. I often get questions from travelers (and their parents) about to visit Thailand asking how safe it is to travel and live in Thailand, especially as a woman. Bottom line is, shitty things can happen anywhere and for a multitude of reasons. Of course you need to be aware of your surroundings, who you’re with and what you’re doing, but I’ve never felt unsafe, threatened or in danger in Thailand. As a woman, I’m barely even given a second look by most Thai men and as a whole places (and people) are safe and welcoming. I’ve been catcalled more in the past month in the U.S. than I ever was in Southeast Asia.
Since the military took over the country in May, not much as changed for travelers or affected people’s daily lives. That’s not to say the political situation in Thailand isn’t something to consider and keep an eye on while planning to visit, or that all Thais support what’s happening, but it certainly isn’t as horrible, scary, and controlling of a situation on the ground as some foreign news reports made it out to be.
If I go to Thailand/Southeast Asia, should I be worried about getting sex trafficked?
No. I’ve actually heard this concern several times and it rubs me the wrong way particularly because it’s always come from educated, middle class white women who IN NO WAY are going to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. You just aren’t a target. Human trafficking is a major, major issue in Southeast Asia with people being sold both within the region and around the world. The men, women an children being trafficked, however, are most often poor and uneducated with little support, resources or voice.
I understand that visiting a new country, especially where everything is so different than what you’re probably used to, is intimidating and that the questions I’ve received are just from people trying to do their research and be informed about what they’re getting themselves into. But it also annoys me that some believe they may be a desirable target when they actually have so much privilege, power, freedom, wealth and independence. You should be more worried about getting attacked by the mosquitoes. To learn more about the human trafficking situation in Southeast Asia check out this article and this organization.
Did you get sick from the food?
I’ve never got full on food poisoning, but everyone seems to get dodgy stomachs from time to time. I think eating the fresh chilies made my stomach a little sensitive, but I never felt like the food I ate was dirty or made me ill and I broke all the suggested ‘rules’ including eating sliced fruit, curries and other prepared food that had been sitting out, going to places that didn’t look like they had a lot of customers, etc. I have even eaten raw crab and shrimp on the street…
Can you drink the water?
I would always drink and cook with bottled water but would brush my teeth and wash dishes with regular tap water.
Do they have coffee?
Yes…they even grow it. There are coffee shops and cafes throughout all of Southeast Asia and you can find Nescafe instant packages of coffee alongside artisan, house roasted blends complete with decorative foam art.
Do they have the internet?
Yes – in fact, there’s free Wi-Fi throughout the region…not something you can say for the U.S. and other Western, “first world” countries.
What did you like about it?
I never know how to answer this one, because how do you sum up the love you have for a place that caught you so fully you moved halfway around the world and stayed for years?
Are you fluent in Thai?
No, I’m actually really embarrassed about my Thai language skills (or lack thereof…). When I first arrived at the country I completely judged other foreigners who had been there a while and couldn’t speak much of the language. Three years later and I’m ashamed that I speak so little. I took private lessons off and on for about a year, can read Thai script and can certainly get by meeting people, with small talk, figuring out travel plans and ordering food, but I’m nowhere near where I should be for being there so long. I understand quite a bit and have been told that I speak clearly, but it’s still disappointing (even though I still understand and speak more than most of the people I know living in Thailand…).
The thing is, I still don’t really have any Thai friends. I dated a Thai guy, but beyond that I didn’t hangout with many Thai people my age so never had the opportunity to soak up the language and ask questions about what I heard. People were polite and I had plenty of acquaintances through work and being there so long, but there’s often a definite barrier between many Thai people and foreigners that can be difficult to break through.
Did you take malaria medication?
Nope. When I first moved over to Southeast Asia and was backpacking I started taking malaria meds while in India, but only for a few days before I decided to stop. Malaria is found throughout the region, but when you’re there for so long you have to decide for yourself if it’s worth taking the medication or not. Instead, I was really careful of listening to my body and going to a doctor or pharmacist whenever I started feeling ill instead of just waiting it out. (I was also more worried about getting dengue fever than malaria, particularly this past year when it was especially prevalent in northern Thailand and I knew several people who got it. No one got malaria though.)
How much did you pay for rent?
For the first place I lived, a separate section of a larger house that had a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room, I paid 4,000 baht (about $125) per month. The second place I lived was an apartment in Chiang Mai with a small living area and separate bedroom, bathroom, and ‘kitchen area’ (a counter with a sink and refrigerator) for $7,000 (about $220) baht per month which also included access to a pool and fitness center. Both places had Wi-Fi and water and utilities usually added up to about $5 total each month.
You can see an example of what you can get for $450 a month in Chiang Mai over at Tieland to Thailand.
Is Thai food in Thailand different than Thai food in the U.S.?
This is a good question and the answer is: yes and no. The Thai food available in the U.S. are real Thai dishes – it’s not like westernized ‘Chinese’ dishes that don’t actually exist in China. How the dishes are prepared and the ingredients used differs though. At a basic level, the ingredients and ways things are cooked in Thailand are more fresh – i.e. they use fresh coconut milk versus boxed and fresh curry paste instead of packaged – and all the ingredients are readily accessible. Western Thai restaurants do have to make some adjustments in ingredients, but often times it seems like the dishes and ingredients are the same, just relatively dumbed down (and the price is marked up from Thailand about a million percent…).
For example, I recently went to a Thai restaurant in Seattle where they offered khao soi, a curry soup with yellow egg noodles and chicken that’s a speciality of northern Thailand. I was so excited to be able to get one of my favorite dishes that’s more difficult to find outside of Chiang Mai, but what came out wasn’t really khao soi. It was like a shadow of what khao soi should be – the flavor was off and they didn’t add on all the usual garnishes that make khao soi what it is. I don’t know if it’s just not using a good recipe, or if they figure the majority of people eating there probably haven’t tried ‘real’ khao soi (and other dishes) so they can get away with it…
But, I’ve eaten delicious Thai food in the U.S. and I’ve eaten crappy Thai food in Thailand…and vice versa. So there you go.
Are there any foods you missed from home?
Did you cook?
I did, but it was cheaper to just eat out. When I lived by myself I made a lot of rice dishes, but when I was with my boyfriend I would splurge on western ingredients to make dishes from home since he was the expert at cooking Thai food.
Do you like Thai food?
Obviously…why would I have stayed there for so long if I didn’t like Thai food?
Did you drive/have a motorbike?
Yes I drove and owned my own motorbike. No, the traffic isn’t as insane as how some people claim it is, you do get used it, and, no, I never crashed.
Do you get nervous traveling on your own?
Not really. I definitely make some different choices and decisions traveling on my own, like where I go and stay or how late I’m out, but I don’t get nervous or scared. I’ve been lonely more often than uncomfortable in a situation.
Where’s your favorite place in Southeast Asia?
Thailand, but I’m a bit biased. I would also love to see more of Indonesia, however, and visit Burma and the Philippines.
If you like Thailand so much, why did you come back?
It’s complicated. (I know, not a very satisfying answer, but it’s true.)
Will you go back?
Have any more questions for me? Let me know in the comments below!