I spent the last 3 years living in Phuket, Thailand. I was there for 2.5 years before I tragically crashed my scooter and tore my ACL. Upon discovering the results of my MRI, I decided to fly back to Minnesota to be with family while I recovered. I would never knock the health care system in Thailand as Phuket actually has wonderful facilities and surgeons, it was more that I didn’t have the family or transportation available in Thailand to recover properly. I guess I didn’t see how driving to the other side of the island with a bum knee and crutches could possibly be a good idea, given the circumstances. After my 6 month stay in the States was coming to a close I went to Burning Man and fell out of our art car while riding through the desert one day. The 6 foot drop was enough to bust my knee again which resulted in a few days of sitting around camp and a very swollen knee. When I returned to Thailand a month later I found out I had once again retorn my knee, but I decided to stay for the 6 months I had originally planned and returned to the states this past summer for my 2nd (and hopefully last) knee surgery.
Now that I am starting my new chapter in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico I felt it was time to reflect on my 3 years in Thailand. What I’ve learned not only about myself but also about the people, the culture and traveling.
I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as “schedules”.
It’s like this in many 3rd world countries (Thailand is now officially 2nd world) as many travelers know, but there is something about Thailand that really tests your patience sometimes. I’ve waited 5 months for a work permit to go through, unless you want to bribe them. You can wait days or months to have someone come fix something at your business or bungalow. If you decide to take any type of tour you never really know what you’re in for. On my way to Koh Phangan via overnight ferry and minibus a few years back a Dutch friend and I nicknamed the experience “the Asian surprise” because you never know what you’re going to get. So if you decide to live here, just remember that you have to learn to go with it because if you get upset at a Thai, it will instantly backfire on you. So breathe, smile, and try your best to be patient.
Corruption is real.
Thailand is a very corrupt country. It runs on extortion and corruption and in a sense it always has. You can try to fight it and argue with the person that rips you off but it’s never going to do you any good. Thai’s strongly believe in saving face and are not ones for confrontation and if you do decide to confront a Thai in a negative way, in public, just remember that there’s more where that comes from and they can sometimes fight dirty. Not all Thais are like this of course, and I’m not trying to homogenize an entire group of people, but there are still many out there and Thais themselves will warn you. For example, Thailand has no good samaritan laws, so if you see a motorbike accident and try to stop and help as a foreigner, you will probably get blamed because they know they can extort money out of you. Even if there are witnesses that know how the incident actually happened, when the police officers arrive on the scene they will typically side with the Thais so they can extort an amount of money out of you as well. A friend of mine came across an accident at 3 AM and decided to stop and help once only to be swindled out of 10,000 baht or roughly 300 USD or she would’ve had to try her hand in court, which never works in a foreigners favor. I used to carry around 3,000 baht on me at all times just incase I needed to pay my way out of something I didn’t even do.
These are extreme circumstances and I was happy I never had to deal with it to this extent, but I had friends that have and I know that it’s something you just have to accept. It will never be your country nor can you try to change the rules.
How to be happy when you have nothing.
If you look at how happy and smiley Thai people are you’ll see something so humbling in them. If you try to speak the language and are genuinely interested in their culture they are some of the best friends you will ever make. Thailand is moving up in the world and there is more money than ever before. There is a slogan that says, “Thailand went from Buddhism to the Baht” meaning that they worship money now instead of Buddhism. Now that may be true in some ways with a booming tourism industry but there is another side that I noticed in many of the poorer classes- they are extremely honest and will give you the shirt off their back expecting nothing in return. They still find time to sit down and have family meals even though they work 16 hour days 7 days a week with barely any days off in the year. Despite all of that they do it with a smile on their faces. I can’t tell you how many nights I left my cell phone, wallet, or something else at the bar only to come back the next day and find it was still there. My Thai girlfriends used to always move my purse behind the bar and warn me that you couldn’t trust people, but I had very few bad experiences.
Thais are extremely jealous.
It’s embedded in the culture. I’ve always believed jealousy was a weak emotion but in Thailand it is a very real and very prevalent one. I learned quickly that just because I come from a Western country where it’s normal to have male platonic friends, sleep at their houses and even sometimes in their beds, it isn’t this way in Thailand. So be careful and respectful, especially when dealing with a Thai female because she may think you’re trying to steal her boyfriend. Until she gets to know you she may be a little standoffish, but this is just how it is in their culture and something you need to respect so you don’t cross any lines.
Ladyboys and sexworkers are an essential part of their society.
Whether or not this is acceptable in your country, your moral code, or your religious beliefs, you’ll have to leave it on the plane when you arrive. Sexworkers kicked off after the Vietnam war and it has become a booming industry. We now have sex travelers that we call “sexpats” and an entire tourist industry based around ladyboys (katoeys in Thai). You will find them predominately in Bangkok, Pattaya and in Patong Beach in Phuket but also scattered throughout the rest of Thailand although not as prevalent. It is a spectacle and it’s simply something you have to get used to. In Thailand ladyboys are basically considered a third sex. It isn’t something to be ashamed of and the money that they make goes back to their small towns and helps build new additions to the house or a new truck for Dad. I’ve made many ladyboy friends and sexworkers over the years and in the beginning the feminist in me was screaming. After getting to know them and realizing how much they valued their bodies and themselves I learned that their job was just another way to use your body to make money, like a construction worker uses his body for labor, the sexworker uses hers/his. As long as they are happy and feel safe and respected then it isn’t my place to judge. So leave your judgements at home or it may be hard for you to travel this country. I wrote a blog shortly after arriving in Thailand regarding this topic, if you’re interested check out An Exotic Illusion.
I learned that I’m naive.
This is a blessing and a curse. Part of it stems from my ability to always want to see the best in people and on the other side is naivety in my surroundings because I trust that no one would want to do me harm. When you travel you have to have a good head on your shoulders and your wits about you. Even though you may trust everyone you have to learn to be a bit wary as well. This wasn’t something that came natural to me in the beginning so I had to learn to put my guard up a little bit. I stopped engaging with everyone I met on the street and had to learn sometimes that it was just better to keep walking. It’s all about balance and trusting your intuition. But don’t be cold, open yourself up to people and experiences, after all those are sometimes the most amazing interactions. So talk to the people in the shops, at the restaurants, and make local friends you can have some drinks with. It’s only then that you’ll start to understand the culture and country for what it is. Not to mention, it’s always a good things to have the locals on your side.
I learned that I was scared of love.
I didn’t want to get hurt. I didn’t want to start a relationship only to decide I wanted to travel more, and the more I tried to run from it all the more wildly complicated it got. I learned that what I needed was to focus on me instead of trying to find someone just for the sake of having someone. I learned that I was scared to love and that it was okay to be scared. I learned to love myself and be honest with myself. I learned that when I’m ready, I’ll know and that I didn’t need to feel guilty about not being ready. Mostly I learned how full of LoVe I actually was, full to the brim with a love of the world and a burning desire to meet everyone in it. I learned in Thailand that every day gave me a new chance to fall in love all over again. With the diving, the people and the experiences that this country provided me with. I learned all of those things were okay and it was here I found where my true passion lay.
I learned how strong I am.
Thailand was my first real journey. It was complicated, frustrating, and battering but it was also beautiful and life changing and eye opening. I learned that I could endure and how strong I actually was. I blossomed in Thailand and I fell apart in Thailand. In the end of it all I walked away knowing that I could move anywhere and do anything that I wanted. Thailand gave me the confidence to believe in myself and know that no matter what challenges life throws at me, I can overcome. Thailand taught me what traveling was all about, and it showed me that I can’t possibly live without it.
I absolutely loved Thailand. I loved the Buddhist culture, the food, the people, the beaches, the diving and all the expats and travelers I met along the way. It is a beautiful ethnically diverse culture with a lot of changes coming in the next few years. I know I will always return home to Thailand because it is so ingrained in me. It was hard to leave but it was time to go. It was always hold a special place in my heart. Ka pun ka, Thailand. Chan rak khun. ❤ ❤ ❤