I was first drawn to Thailand for its deep-rooted culture, natural beauty and easy way of life, and while I have traveled before, I underestimated some of the difficulties of living in a new country and just how different it would be. However, after almost three months in Chiang Mai, the culture shock is finally fading and I am beginning to feel more comfortable living in another country, starting to find a ‘new normal’. As a popular holiday tourist spot, Thailand can be very accommodating and it is not hard to find some of the same comforts as home, but living outside of the tourist spots and trying to adjust to the language, food and culture while teaching, working, and living in a Buddhist temple has been a very unique experience.
For the month of October I have been living at Wat Doi Saket, the main temple for volunteers with the Wat Doi Saket project, in a district North of Chiang Mai. The town is relatively small but the community is strong and the culture is vibrant. Some of the cultural differences are small, things to eventually incorporate into daily life, and others are the major definitions between American and Thai culture.
Here are some of biggest cultural differences that I have (mostly) adjusted to:
Thailand is officially a Buddhist Kingdom, so respect for the Buddha and the King are a must. Images of the King and Buddha statues are in every government building, school, store, and most peoples homes. The King’s song plays every evening at 6 pm (TV, radio, loudspeakers, etc.) and in public you stop what you are doing to stand and pay your respect.
To the Buddha statues you Wai (bow) three times and sometimes tuk tuk drivers and people on motorbikes “Wai” to Wat’s and various Buddhist statues as they drive past. Monks are always highly respected in the community and often people from town will come and bring a gift to the monks and the Wat to “make merit” for themselves or a loved one and receive a blessing from the monk.
This is just a small part of a larger cultural standard regarding the importance of family, community structure, and social roles. Younger people respect those older than them, including teachers. Even when I am just walking around the school the students Wai to me and say “hello teacher”. This still makes me smile everyday!
Please Remove your Shoes
This one is very simple but ties into a strong part of Thai culture. In Thailand feet are considered the dirtiest part of your body and, out of respect, you must remove your shoes before entering school buildings, someone’s house, and of course the Wat’s. When you are in a Wat you must not point your feet towards the Buddha or the Monks, and it is impolite to point with your feet in a store or street market. At first I couldn’t think of any possible situation when I would point with my feet until I was at a market, drinking a coconut with one hand and carrying my camera in the other, and wanted to show something at the stall. I unintentionally pointed with my foot and the women at the stall stopped talking and stared at me and I understood how rude it was.
DO talk to strangers
Although this is the complete opposite of everything you were told as a kid, talking to local people is the best way to understand a new place and get adjusted quickly. The locals are eager to talk to you and will often go out of their way to help you. This genuine kindness was surprising at first when people in town would see me walking and stop on the side of the road to offer me rides on the back of their motorbikes, even if it was just up the hill or down the road. When I refused and got strange looks, I realized that people actually want to help you get wherever you are going. I was even offered a ride home by the masseuse after a massage because I had to wait a few minutes for her to finish with another client.
Restaurants and shop owners are excited to see “farang” (foreigners) and almost always do their best to make conversation and get to know you. For dinner one night I went to a roadside barbeque stand for grilled chicken, but the women working said she was out and would have more tomorrow. I came back the next day, not sure if she would remember me, and when I walked up she said “you’re late!” There was only one piece of chicken left on the grill that she said she was saving for me because I said I would come back.
Mai? Mai. Mai! mai. Maii.
Thai language is made up of 5 tones (high, low, rising, falling, & mid-tone) and one word can be said 5 ways with 5 different meanings. A word that sounded simple at first, Mai, which I just understood as “No”, also means “new”, “fine”, “silk” or “yes-no?”. I am far from understanding how to pronounce the different tones and language is still one of my biggest challenges, but just trying goes along way and most people will correct my Thai with a smile.
Spicy, sour, bitter and sweet with rice.
Just like the language, traditional Thai food is complex and full of many flavors at once. Most dishes are based around rice or noodles, and can be spicy or ‘Thai spicy’. At restaurants they offer chilies, fish sauce, sugar, and salt to amp up the flavor. Even something as common as pad thai can be prepared more than ten different ways, with different spices, meats, and vegetables. I am still getting used to the tangy fish sauce and just how much spice I can handle. Meals are also eaten communally, where each person has their own bowl of rice, the dishes are shared and you take one spoonful at a time. Most meals are pretty informal and the communal feel is relaxed and enjoyable.
Motorbikes rule the road
Learning to ride a motorbike has been one of my favorite things about living in Thailand. The freedom to explore other districts and small towns is addicting and driving on the highway is exhilarating. In America I would see a handful of motorcycles on the roads and thought of motorbikes for racing or on country back roads. But here motorbikes are the main mode of transportation and it is not uncommon to see whole families on one bike at a time. I hate to admit that since my first blog I have had more than one burn and a scratch or two, but this is one aspect I am fully enjoying!
Squat toilets, bucket showers, & bug netting
Since being in Thailand I have moved around quite a bit, from a hotel, to a technical college, a Buddhist temple, and now a rural hill tribe village, with weekend trips in between. Before Thailand, I had never used a squat toilet, taken a bucket shower or slept with a bug net before, but with everything else, after a few times (and some funny mishaps) I am used to them. Each place has had varying living conditions, most are without bug netting, a stand up shower and flush toilet, but at least the “how the heck do I use this?!” moments are over and I am not surprised to see a hose instead of toilet paper anymore.
Whenever I start to really get comfortable I have moments when it hits me that I am actually living in Thailand and I have something new to adjust to. I will not be fluent in Thai anytime soon and I still gasp when I see parents holding their babies on the motorbike on the superhighway, but travel is necessary to help you understand that things are constantly changing and you can find new comforts when you are open to new experiences. It is also important to know that you can move to a new country, or even just a new city and still find your rhythm and routine with a new way of life.
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By Katherine Devine