This summer, I attended a UC San Diego Global Seminars program in Bangkok, Thailand for five weeks. Though the UCSD Study Abroad Office and International Study Abroad Program provided numerous resources and well-prepared me, a few days before my flight, I was suddenly afraid of the whole experience and worried about any possible issues: money exchange, roommate disagreements, paperwork, or figuring my way around the country. Since I did not want my mom to be worried, and I had already paid for the fees, I pretended that I was excited for the program even though I felt sad to leave.
My first impression of Thailand was not great — the moment I landed in Suvarnabhumi Airport at 11 p.m., I immediately felt a rush of humid heat engulfing me. I then stayed an extra three hours at the airport waiting for another classmate when I was already deprived of good-quality sleep. Heading to our living accommodation, located in Nana, I was initially shocked to see the lively nightlife and the amount of sex workers walking around the streets. However, I did not care much; I just wanted to sleep. I thought I had set myself up for disappointment and boy, was I wrong.
The two classes in the program were anthropology courses about sex, gender, and HIV prevalence in Southeast Asia. Due to the theme of the courses, my class and I visited several health clinics aimed to serve the LGBTQ+ community. One of my most unforgettable moments was my visit to Wat Phra Baht Nam Phu, also known as AIDS Temple, where I spoke to several HIV or AIDS patients and learned about their experiences —- some patients voluntarily entered the temple to escape society’s stigma of contracting HIV while others are abandoned by their families from a young age. The lectures and conversations I had were invaluable and gave me another perspective after seeing the struggles of people living under constant scrutiny. I am extremely grateful for Dr. Dredge Kang and Resident Director Aaron Clark who both actively took care of the class by continuously introducing and teaching us the cultures and norms of Thailand; I truly believe they contributed to how happy I was with my study abroad trip.
Several friends and I went to Chiang Mai for a few days and that was definitely the highlight of my Thailand trip. The mini vacation began with miscommunication, leading my group and I to enter the wrong taxi which ended with us arguing with the taxi driver about the fare. The next day, I fell ill but still decided to go jungle trekking. The jungle trekking experience left me with over 40 mosquito bites, arms full of hives, and a strong sense of feeling that my life would end that day. Nevertheless, I visited a themed Elephant Sanctuary and got to pet a couple of elephants! Temples (“Wat”) are well known throughout Thailand, and my favorite is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep for the stunning overview of Chiang Mai. Compared to Bangkok, Chiang Mai is vastly different in terms of culture, weather and food. A common rickshaw transportation known as “tuk tuk” in Bangkok, was nowhere to be seen in Chiang Mai, and the nightlife is not as lively. However, I was glad I was able to take a break from the busy, populated Bangkok.
Classmates-turned friends created a big difference for how I felt toward the program. Without my friends, I would’ve never enjoyed the other half of Thailand. Because we were all in a similar situation where none of us speak Thai, we often hung out to get food before or after class. I am very fortunate to have gotten to know most of my classmates and to have built strong friendships. By the end of the program, several of us missed American foods like pizza and burgers, so there were many night visits to McDonald’s and KFC. We even tried Mexican cuisine in Thailand. It was not the best, but I valued the conversations and experiences with my friends over the quality of the food we ate.
Food, almost everyone’s favorite topic, cannot be left unsaid. My favorite had to be the vast amount of colorful fruits offered: mangosteen, rambutan, longan, and pomelo to name a few. Meals in Thailand are generally affordable — $1 to $3 landed me an enormous plate of khao pad gai (chicken fried rice), pak boong (morning glory, a spinach-like vegetable), or pad thai. What surprised me is that most restaurants do not offer complimentary water, and I had to pay a small amount for a bottle. Street foods are common and often clean and delicious; my dearest meal came from a convenient hot and steaming noodle stall, located in the heart of a red light district. I visited so often that a week before I left, the owner of the stall recognized my face and usual order.
Thailand gave me a tremendous number of memories that I will cherish for a lifetime. All the friendships I made, cultures I encountered, material I learned, and food I ate made me realize that there are many other place in this world I have yet to visit. Hopefully, my passport is ready for more stamps and visa stickers for my upcoming journeys!
UCSD Thailand Global Seminar started a GoFundMe campaign for Wat Phra Baht Nam Phu’s patients. If you would like to donate, please visit www.gofundme.com/fulfill-nee039s-dream-to-help-others