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Thailand: Same Same, But Different

    By Lily Nazareno. January 30, 2015 - 2:10 pm

Sukhothai - Sukhothai Historical Park

I come from a strange perspective—at least, it’s strange compared to most international students here. I’m seeing things from the point of view of both a Hawaii local and a Filipina. Having already lived in beautiful tropical climates and a veritable stew of Asian cultures, I see many more familiarities than many other Americans might. That being said, it isn’t as if I feel bored by my recent experiences during my time as a study abroad student in Thailand –far from it!

“This is amazing! But it’s probably nothing to you,” I’ve been told by other international students, when we visit a gorgeous beach on Koh Larn, or go for a lush green hike like the one into Phrayanakhon Cave in Hua Hin.

Hua Hin - Phrayanakhon Cave

Hua Hin – Phrayanakhon Cave

Of course, this is in the same world where I’ve been living my whole life, but now I get to see it from a different angle, mediated by different practices, things, and people. Recalling a phrase locals often use with farangs (foreigners) here, Thailand is “same same, but different.”

When studying abroad, we students might consciously think of how this experience can help us broaden our horizons –whatever that might mean to us individually. We might want to explore the academic differences in universities, or participate in “voluntourism” –in which visitors volunteer for a local cause. But for the most part, I’ve been constantly reminded to keep myself open.

This isn’t new advice, either. It’s such a simple thing to do; it doesn’t even have to be a completely conscious thought. As someone who grew up in a small town in a developing country, and as someone lucky enough to have hardworking parents who moved to the United States, I grew up with the idea that it’s difficult to act upon wanderlust.

Unless traveling out of necessity, travel is only for people who have a lot of free time and money on their hands, or so I thought. With a bit of work and a dash of courage, it is absolutely possible for someone like me to escape my bubble.

Sometimes it’s just a fleeting feeling, just the shyest whisper in the back of your mind, that impedes a dream. I am keeping myself open, and in turn I am letting the world open its doors to me. This is how I lived in Thailand.

Bangkok - TuktukOnce I became accustomed to riding songthaews (open truckbed taxis) regularly for a couple of months, I stopped thinking about how this would probably be considered completely unsafe back in the states. Once I got accustomed to meals that cost 35 baht, or about a dollar, at almost any local restaurant or street vendor, I stopped thinking about American fast food. Once I learned to stop panicking whenever a taxi driver would take both hands off the wheel while speeding past a temple and wai (place palms together and bow), I too found myself at times turning and watching Buddhamonthon Park pass by.

Once I settled in, I began to forget that I should be taking more photos and videos to show my family and friends. I would sit back, take a few deep breaths of the countryside air, and watch the sun set behind the lush mountains of Chiang Mai. Everything began to feel so close that I would rather reach out and hold it all close to myself.

I remember anticipating the moment I can swing my camera by its strap around to my side, light my loi krathong (floating lantern on water), carry the lantern to the river, and watch the khom loi (floating lantern in the sky) without a viewfinder obscuring my vision. Sometimes I had to make the decision to forgo bringing my camera at all so I could simply breathe in the aroma of street food in Bangkok’s Chinatown, dive into the pools of the seven-tiered Erawan Falls in Kanchanaburi, or watch the city lights wink at me all along the Chao Phraya River as I stand at the top of Wat Arun (the “Temple of Dawn”).

Chiang Mai - Thai girl holding on to a khom loi (floating lantern)

Once I learned how to take the bus and ask how much it costs to get home, I began to wonder what “home” means.

It can’t only be measured by the length of time that I’ve spent somewhere, of course, but could it be defined by how much of an area I’ve seen? Or by how well I know a particular part of that area? I do my best to experience a place both horizontally and vertically, but maybe there’s not enough time. Maybe time doesn’t matter when you’re here, or when you’re home.

Same same, but different.

Nakhon Pathom - Buddhamonthon Park reflecting pool and Office of National Buddhism

Nakhon Pathom – Buddhamonthon Park reflecting pool and Office of National Buddhism

Weekends are spent walking around the ancient capital cities of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, late nights on Khao San Road in Bangkok, long afternoons exploring the neighborhood in Salaya, and I still feel it isn’t enough.

Question lightly, but ask the right questions. It’s hard to ignore the rampant problems wherever I go. City planning, infrastructure, loose or absent laws on human trafficking, animal neglect or abuse, and health and sanitation regulations all catch my attention as areas which need improvement.

Not unlike Hawaii, tourism has had dire effects on the fabric of the cultures found here as well. There are dozens of elephants living together in spaces too small, scantily-clad women grabbing male tourists on Pattaya’s infamous Walking Street, and begging amputees, mothers, and children practically being stepped on along city sidewalks. I can cuddle with tigers and leopards, but they are heavily drugged before they can interact with tourists. This slew of problems are, sadly, nothing completely new. Same same, but different.

Elephant riding is one of the most popular items on tourists’ Thailand to-do lists. I’ve found out that while these majestic creatures can carry immense loads on its neck, the same cannot be said for its back, which at most can comfortably bear only about 330 lbs. The necessary accoutrements to carry even two tourists is often significantly beyond this weight.

Chiang Mai - Elephant Nature Park

Chiang Mai – Elephant Nature Park

But such problems, like those in other places I’ve lived, are being addressed. For instance, the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai offers visitors and volunteers several opportunities for voluntourism. The park does have booking fees, but as one of my friends said when we visited, “Think of it as a donation.”

It’s the least I can do, since I hardly think elephants need us visitors’ help bathing in a river or picking up fruit with their trunks. In any case, there is always a first step to everything.

I do not offer this article as an instruction manual on studying abroad. There isn’t a single, comprehensive guide to this kind of experience. You probably won’t have the same experience as I have had, and no one is expecting you to. You make it your own, and this is only my piece of advice on how to start looking at a whole world that is open to you. When you keep yourself open, you not only let your surroundings engulf your mind and spirit. You allow yourself to reach out for it all. When I return home, I will still be Lily, but a better version of myself.

Same same, but different.

Hua Hin

All photos by Lily Nazareno.