Five Unexpected Experiences I’ve Had Studying Abroad in Thailand

When I decided to spend a semester in Thailand, I had a few vague expectations for my trip. I knew that I’d probably eat some bugs, get caught in a monsoon rain, visit beautiful temples, make meaningful connections with the other people in my program, and of course, learn about some of the biggest globalization and development issues facing Thailand today (I had signed up for the CIEE Khon Kaen: Development & Globalization program after all). Now, over a month into my time here, I’ve not only lived out all of my expected adventures, but I’ve had an incredible amount of experiences I never could have predicted. Here are a few of my favorites:

Traveling on a bus for nine hours to spend a three-day weekend in Chiang Mai:

This adventure took place on my third weekend in Thailand. We had Friday off so the majority of students in my program and the CIEE Khon Kaen: Community Public Health program decided to travel to the large northwestern city of Chiang Mai. Just a few hours after our last class on Thursday evening, we took a taxi to the bus station and loaded onto a double-decker bus. Provided with blankets and snacks, we drove through the night and woke up in a new city. The next three days were filled with adventures—visiting temple after temple, biking around the city, and eating some of the best food I’ve had in Thailand (if not ever). On Sunday evening, along with two girls I was traveling with, I met back up with the rest of the group and we took another bus back to Khon Kaen, arriving at our apartments just an hour and a half before class Monday morning.

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Writing an entire seventh-grade lesson plan on organic agriculture in one day:

Our first unit of the program was focused on organic agriculture. We spent two weeks learning about organic farming and consumption in Isaan (the northeast region of the country), Thailand in general, and internationally. We read a variety of articles and reports, sat through several interesting lectures, engaged in a number of interviews/exchanges with local farmers and NGOs, and spent five days in the homes of organic farming families. At the end of our unit, our program group (there are ten of us) was tasked with creating an “output”—a group projects reflecting on our recently collected knowledge. Our enthusiasm and ambition resulted in our pursuing two projects. Five people worked on what ended up being a twenty-five-page report on the disadvantages vs. the advantages of chemical and organic farming and the barriers to a wider shift to organic in Isaan. Four of us (myself included) created a one-hour-long curriculum on organic agriculture designed for middle school age students. (The tenth member of our group floated between our two projects, helping with both).

We did our best to make something that was not only informative, but engaging and interactive—teaching the difference between conventional and organic produce, covering the positive and negative aspects of organic and chemical farmers’ experiences, and helping students discover how different parts of the food system (from government to soil to culture) are connected. The four of us ended up having a great time working together and by the time we finished (at 2 am after starting at 9 am) we were all very proud and content with what we had produced—something that in my experience, is a rarity when completing group work.

Following a stranger around for an hour and a half with my camera:

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Much of the work we produce on our program is journalistic. Consequently, we had two journalism workshops a couple weeks into our semester. Our first workshop day focused on photojournalism and was taught by a rather successful English photographer. After an hour or so of viewing his work and discussing photo story techniques, he announced that we would have two hours to find someone in the area to photograph. When we returned to class, we should have five pictures to present summarizing our subject’s work (including a scene setter, action shot, portrait, and detail shot). Personally, I found this task rather daunting. Many of the people in our area don’t speak much English and despite my Thai language classes, I was convinced that figuring out how to explain the assignment to someone and ask if they would mind being photographed was beyond my ability.

Despite my reservations, I ended up meeting a housekeeper at a nearby hotel that was kind enough to let me follow her around. I was able to communicate that I was a student studying photography and with some gesturing and asking of “can I?” I was given amiable consent. I spent the next hour and a half photographing her as she swept up leaves and served customers at the hotel café. Ultimately, I walked away having learned something about a member of my community, satisfied with the photos I had taken, and slightly less scared about approaching people with my camera.

Riding on a motorcycle with two other people holding a giant umbrella:

This one happened during my second homestay (one of the 6+ I’ll be going on this semester). The majority of people in Thailand get around on motorcycles and my host mom was no exception. On our first full day with her, she took me and the other CIEE student staying with her to a village meeting. It was raining pretty steadily, like it often does this time of year, so before mounting the bike she handed me an umbrella. When I opened it, I discovered that it was not only striped with rainbow colors, but was the kind of umbrella traditionally used for outdoor patio tables. So off we went, me sandwiched between my host mom and Megan, holding an umbrella large enough to keep all of our heads (and our bike) dry.

Biking through the streets of Nong Khai at midnight:

My most recent unexpected adventure, this excursion took place on another weekend trip. We (myself and four other people on my program) took a two-and-a-half-hour train early on a Saturday morning to Nong Khai, a smallish city on the Thai side of the Thailand-Laos border. Our day was spent wandering through markets, trying new foods, visiting the spectacular sculpture park, and taking a “sunset cruise” on the Mekong River (the five of us ended up being the only ones on a boat that could have held 100). We had dinner at a bustling night market then spent some time at a bar called Chilli’s, chatting with our guest house owner’s son, a few other foreigners, and Chilli himself. But by midnight we were ready for another adventure. We headed to the guesthouse and picked up the bikes we had rented earlier that day. We biked over to a convenience store for snacks, then decided to make the two-mile trip to the “Friendship Bridge” that connects Thailand and Laos. As we approached the bridge, we saw that the gates to the beach area beside it were open and the security guard waved us in as we passed through. After parking our bikes, we made our way down the muddy bank. We then ceremoniously touched one of the giant pillars holding up the bridge and dipped our feet into the river. By 1:30am we were back at our guesthouse in bed, exhausted but extremely satisfied with our insanely fun (and maybe a bit insane) day.

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About the author

Jamie Rudd

I'm a member of the Class of 2017 majoring in English and anthropology. Originally from a small town in Oregon, I'm currently the Community Service Chair of the Students Helping Honduras service group and presentation editor of the Campus Times newspaper.

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  • Were you happy with your decision to study in Thailand? How did the classes compare to classes in the US as far as difficulty level?

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