Learning Thai

In addition to my public health and community health classes, I’m taking a Thai language class. We have three classes a week and a peer tutor one night a week. Learning the language helps with my everyday life in Khon Kaen and will help me communicate with my host family once I am in the community.

At the beginning of our first class, our “ajan” (professor) gave us a disclaimer that the past few years she has had someone run out of the first class crying. Luckily, our class was the exception but I quickly realized where the frustration came from. The class is setup very different from how I taught Spanish. All the words for the day on the board are in Thai writing and the ajan doesn’t translate the word or phrase to English at all. Instead there is a picture that they point to and we write down the phonetic translation in our books.

The Thai language is different in many ways from English. One of the biggest challenges is Thai being a tonal language. There are five different tones – rising, falling, middle, high and low. If you use the wrong tone with the same pronunciation of a word, it means something completely different. For example, “gly” in falling tone means near and “gly” in middle tone means far.

I thought that already having learned another language would help me with learning Thai but it has actually caused confusion for me. When I am trying to speak Thai, I’ve noticed many times that the first thing that comes to mind is the Spanish word. It’s like my brain knows that I’m not trying to speak English so it chooses what it knows next best. I didn’t think I still knew so much Spanish until now. Even with these challenges, learning the local language has made me feel more welcome in Khon Kaen and helped me connect with my roommate.


Chiang Mai

This past weekend I spent three days in Chiang Mai, a city in the mountains of northern Thailand. The trip was planned by CIEE and our transportation and hotel were already paid for by the program cost. So everyone in the program left Khon Kaen Friday afternoon together for our flight to Chiang Mai.

There was only one thing planned the whole weekend with the program so we had time to go off and do what we wanted. I walked around and visited temples in the city Friday afternoon. For dinner I was craving something other than pork and rice or some variation of that. We went to a fun Thai restaurant and took full advantage of the drink menu, which doesn’t extend beyond Chang or Leo beer in Khon Kaen. Friday night we went to Zoe in Yellow, a popular bar for backpackers and foreigners.


Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Saturday morning we drove to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a temple in the mountains around Chiang Mai. It was a 45 minute drive along a windy road in the back of a hot songthaew but the beautiful temple and views of the city were worth it. Later on a few of us took another songthaew ride to Bua Thong “sticky waterfalls”. We got there late in the day so we had it all to ourselves. It’s called sticky waterfalls because the rocks under the water aren’t slippery and you can climb up. The top of the falls gave an amazing view of the jungle, which pictures don’t do justice.


Climbing up “sticky waterfall”

Sunday we wanted to get back into nature and the plan was to go to Doi Inthanon national park and do some hiking. We got up late so our songthaew driver suggested something closer was more realistic. We went to Mae Rim, a district north of Chiang Mai. Our driver brought us to the top of a mountain, which overlooked the hills filled with farms. A few of us decided to explore and went on one of the trails. We bushwhacked a little (whoops) and found ourselves a secluded area with just the views of the mountains and the sounds around us.


Viewpoint in Mae Rim

My flight back to Khon Kaen was Sunday afternoon. The trip was a nice getaway to enjoy things I couldn’t get in Khon Kaen but it’s nice to be back in our city, little known to tourists.


Land of Smiles

Before coming to Thailand I knew that it was a welcoming country, known for the locals’ smiles. Everyone that I talked to who had traveled to Thailand told me that the people were some of the nicest they had encountered.

Within my short time here, that proves to be true. The Thai people have a genuine desire to be friendly and accommodate. Walking down the street and having everyone I pass by, smile at me is now a normal part of my day. On my way to the gym, instead of zoning out like I usually would I make sure I’m returning the smile. When we are at places where Thai isn’t spoken, they will just give a smile and try and find someone who does speak some English to help us.

The Thai have a saying that is said frequently, “mai pen rai”. It means “it’s okay” or “no worries”. This saying conveys how a lot of Thai live their lives. They tend to not stress about much and will throw this phrase out after a mistake or miscommunication. For myself, I find this attitude refreshing. I say no worries all the time and I already appreciate the laid back lifestyle here. This attitude also shows in other parts of their everyday life. Our program administrators warned us during the first few days that the Thai are known for being late, which I’ve learned quickly to be true. The gym that I go to says it opens at 10 a.m. but I have yet to see it open that early. I’d say 11 a.m. is the earliest so far. I’ve also realized that when I have plans to meet someone, it’s not unusual for them to show up 30 minutes late. Just have to smile and say, “mai pen rai”.


The Beginning

It’s been almost a week since I arrived in Khon Kaen, Thailand, my home for the next four months. But after many goodbyes, 26 hours of traveling and everyday filled with many “firsts”, if feels like it’s been much longer. From my first few hours in this new city I felt completely unprepared and out of place. Despite feeling like this, this is why I came here and is exactly where I want to be.

After meeting the rest of the students in the program, a lot of the anxiety and uncertainty about the coming semester went away. I was with a group of like-minded students who valued adventure, our education and giving a hand wherever is needed. We quickly covered everyone’s names, where we were from, what schools we went to and then bonded over what made us chose a program as unique as this, what our past travel experiences were, things we wanted to accomplish this semester and how we would deal with homesickness. The excitement of everything finally caught up with me. It still seemed (*seems) surreal that I’m here but after these conversations it hit me that I was finally living this experience that I’d thought about for years and planned for months.

This past week was orientation week. I discovered what my semester studying public health would be like here academically. But what I was really focused on was orientating myself to this new city. Khon Kaen is in the region of Isaan, the poorest region in Thailand and it is explicit throughout the city. It’s a place where people other than the KKU (Khon Kaen University) students rarely speak English.  This made getting something to eat a challenge within itself, involving lots of hand motions, pointing at pictures and the Thai laughing and smiling because they have no clue what we’re saying. In fact, there is little American influence here. There isn’t a burger or ice cream place in sight and the other day, some Thais were taking pictures of our group. I asked my Thai roommate later and she said it’s very rare for them to see Americans around here.


Getting around the city in a songthaew, the usual city transportation

One of the best ways to discover a new city is to try the food. With dinner around 1-2 USD a beer 1 USD, you can’t go wrong. Isaan region has the spiciest food in Thailand. For someone who considers mild salsa having a big kick, I’m proud to say all the food has been delicious. Everyday we’ve tried a new restaurant, been to a few of the popular bars near our dorm and checked out the university’s night market, which sells even cheaper food (30 cents for dinner but food poisoning beware!) and clothes. The bars here are full every night of the week with live music. I am looking forward to getting further along in Thai class and learning more than “My name is..” so when we ask for a few shots of rum we don’t get a whole handle.


 Most of the students at the bar during the first night out

It’s been a whirlwind of a week, so much so that us students decided we would sleep in this morning and leave our Saturday morning open to relax. The days have been constantly stimulating, with everything being new and getting through the day without knowing the language. I have never been in a situation as unfamiliar as this for such an extended time but I can say that I’m starting to feel settled here in Khon Kaen. I am looking forward to many more weeks of “firsts” and fully taking in this authentic and exhilarating semester in Thailand.