Week Exchange in Bangkok

Overview//

On February 6th-20th, 2019, I did a week exchange with YES Abroad student Chloe in the Thung Khru district of Bangkok. I lived with her host family, attended her school briefly, and followed her schedule.

Daily Life//

I had been to Chloe’s house once before in October, but I hadn’t seen her since then. Kru Nok and her family drove me to Bangkok, as they had an AFS meeting there anyways. We had a fun road trip as always. At the end of our car ride there, we were caught in a traffic jam outside of a school and there was Chloe! Sticking out like a sore thumb as a farang (Thai for foreigner) with her school uniform, white skin, short curly black hair, and being taller than everyone around her. I spotted her and texted her immediately that I saw her from the car to see Chloe look up from her phone completely in shock, scanning the streets for me. Kru Nok and I burst into laughter and my heart was jumping just seeing her again. However, traffic resumed before we could pick her up so we agreed to meet at her house. I opened the door to her house and was greeted warmly by Meboon, Chloe’s cat. Chloe’s host mother appeared seconds later. I wai-ed to her and we all made our way to Chloe’s kitchen table where we made friendly chit-chat for about ten minutes. I was so beyond elated when I heard Chloe arrive and saw her in the doorframe taking off her shoes. The second she entered the house we screamed each other’s names and jumped into a massive hug, laughing the entire time. We pulled away for a second to look at each other and to say each other’s names as if we weren’t real before collapsing into laughter again and hugging each other more. Seeing Chloe after so long felt like a breath of fresh air, like I wasn’t doing this all alone. Then Kru Nok gave Chloe a hug and we all sat down at the table, Chloe and I still giggling. We had som tam and talked for a while before Kru Nok gave me a big hug and said goodbye. Chloe and I raced upstairs with my suitcase to her room. I jumped up on her bed, turned the very necessary fan on, and we caught up for a while. Chloe’s house was very much still Thai but a bit more modern than mine. One of the bigger differences was that she didn’t have air conditioning in her room, a luxury I had been accustomed to in Kamphaengphet. Not to mention the insane heat that radiates through Bangkok making it a very uncomfortable few weeks for me.

We only attended school for a few days, as the term was just about to end. We got up at around 6:00 am, showered (which was necessary every morning and night due to the heat), and put on our uniforms that Chloe ironed for me the night before as I couldn’t figure out how to use her iron either. I remembered my school shoes this time, avoiding the small humiliation I faced in Nan. We took a taxi (either motorcycle or car) to her school. I loved taking motorcycle taxis beyond belief. We walked out of the gated community, which takes about ten minutes, went under a bridge, and then crossed a very busy street to hail the taxis, men with orange traffic jackets on. If we were running late or not many taxis were available, Chloe and I would both squeeze onto one motorcycle, with my feet occasionally grazing the ground as we drove. Usually we avoided this. The sun shone gently over us in the early morning as Chloe and I zoomed over bridges and through the cars & bustling streets of Bangkok, smiling and waving at each other when we caught up to one another. I enjoyed casually chatting with the driver in Thai, making me proud of how many topics I could handle. I drew the eyes of all the Thai students and commuters, completely in shock by my blonde hair. Thung Khru, though a part of Bangkok, is not exposed to many foreigners. If not by motorcycle, we would get to school by taxi with Chloe’s host cousin (who was more like a sister as she lived in the house too), Nadia. It took about fifteen minutes to get there.

We arrived at her school, The Islamic College of Thailand, with just enough time to greet her teachers very fast in the front of the school and put our backpacks upstairs in the AFS office. We said a quick hello to her advisor in the adjoining room and then made our way to morning assembly. It was located in a dome area like my school’s, except it also served as their basketball court. Morning assembly was the same, with the exception that they said a Muslim prayer instead of a Buddhist one.

After, we returned to the AFS office. It was the same size of my school’s AFS office but hers was much more minimalistic and less colourful. The AFS office at my school was teeming with life and had lots of drawings, books, and kids in it making it feel like a home. We even had a little mattress in the corner with blankets and pillows that I could curl up with if I was tired, bored, or just too hot to focus. Chloe’s office was lovely but very clearly an office space. We normally sat in the conference room area at a long sleek white table. There were no windows and the walls were blue, making it a pretty great workspace. There was also air conditioning, thank goodness, though we frequently had indirect arguments with another “exchange student” by switching the temperature from freezing cold to just comfortably cold.

The other “exchange student” was a Saudi Arabian-Thai boy around our age. I use air quotes because he had lived in Thailand for his whole life but refused to adjust to Thai culture. He didn’t attend morning assembly, didn’t really speak Thai, and didn’t care about the rules. He sat across from us at the white tables and occasionally made conversation with me (in perfect English with almost no accent) and not really Chloe, who was nice to him but had already had a few disagreements about politics with him. He was very passionate about politics and social issues, specifically about Saudi Arabia, and enjoyed heated discussions sometimes based solely on opinion and not fact. We tried our best to stay clear from that. The only other foreigner in the office was a Ugandan man, who didn’t really spend a lot of time there. His wife, Maureen, was living with Chloe’s family in their living room for reasons unknown to me. They were nice enough but I only ever had awkward conversations with them to be honest.

In the office, Chloe and I would play childish computer games like Webkinz or Poptropica, watch YouTube videos, read books, and study languages. Sometimes we would just sleep on the floor using our backpacks as pillows, which was as uncomfortable as you can imagine. We didn’t really have classes considering almost all of them were out of session. We would go down for lunch in a small, enclosed cafeteria area. This was rather different from my school’s huge, open cafeteria. I had ramen noodles with vegetables and egg every day, which I really liked. I couldn’t really have noodles at my cafeteria because they were made with blood or chicken stock. We sat by some of her classmates sometimes or alone. We would get fruit for dessert and head back upstairs until school end.

One day, she gave me a tour of her school, which was radically different from mine and most Thai schools. It was both an Islamic school and a boarding school for boys, though plenty of girls also attended. It was smaller than mine, which makes sense considering it was in Bangkok. We got tea from a small stand near the basketball court and explored. The most notable places we went to were a beautiful fountain in the middle of her school, a museum devoted to Her Royal Highness Princess Sirinthon, the King’s daughter, who had visited the school in 2006 and the Arabic learning center. Unfortunately, Chloe couldn’t really make use of the learning center as it was all in Thai but there was a museum area and prayer rooms, which were very cool to visit. There was also a garden area filled with roosters, chickens, hens, and all sorts of birds both free and caged. We didn’t really know what to make of it to be honest. Chloe’s advisor joined us for parts of the tour, like the Princess’s museum, and it was rather interesting to hear her commentary.

I even attended Chloe’s last day of school & graduation ceremony, where we joined the Matthayom 6 students on a makeshift stage at morning assembly. We wai-ed to all the teachers and were given flowers. I was really nervous and reluctant to do this in front of all of the students, especially considering I had only been to their school for no more than four days. However, I was pushed into it by Chloe’s advisor and Chloe, who didn’t want to do it alone.

We normally took a taxi home at around 4:30 pm. We would usually change out of our school uniforms, which could get so uncomfortable under the sun. Then, we would take a motorcycle taxi to the market near her house. Then we took a green songtaew (a Thai open air taxi that has specific routes) for only seven baht ($0.23 USD), which would take us to the Drip House Cafe, where we got really good smoothies, teas, or iced cocoa. It was on the expensive side, being about 80 baht per drink ($2.60 USD), but the environment was so nice and the drinks were always high quality. We sat in the corner of the cafe on a long leather couch and Chloe did online classes while I read Harry Potter. I started re-reading them all on my Kindle when I went to see her and I eventually finished them. We were at the grocery store in a strip mall only five minutes away from the cafe when I was at the end of Deathly Hallows and I sat at a small table inside reading in suspense and exclaiming about everything to Chloe, who waited and agreed with my commentary in excitement. Chloe sometimes worked out at a nearby gym she had a membership at but it was too expensive for a guest pass (500 baht or $16.23 USD, keeping in mind that a full meal on average is 25 baht) so I sat in the cafe and read until she finished. Twice, we went to the upstairs area of Drip House (though we had to pay a bit extra) to visit the cat cafe area, where there were at least eight kittens you could play with and lots of equipment for them to jump around in. I love cats so much so this was lots of fun, even though I knew we had Meboon waiting at home for us.

We often went to the strip mall, namely the grocery store. I got bubble tea in the grocery store (my kryptonite) and the woman at the stand eventually memorized my order. I always got an apple milk bubble tea and Chloe’s favourite was taro though she frequently mixed things up. There was more Western food in the store than I’d ever seen in Thailand. Sometimes I would go a little wild and splurge on comfort food like bread, macaroni, or soup for dinner, which I never had access to in Kamphaengphet. Chloe and I were responsible for all of our meals. We would get fruit often from the store. One day, we decided to make Mexican food, namely quesadillas and guacamole. Chloe was in charge of the guac and she did an excellent job. I worked on the quesadillas, finding tortillas and some cheese and messing around with the microwave until we were satisfied. More often than not though, we would take a songtaew and go to the night market (where all the motorcycle taxis are located in town)

 

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A Thung Khru bridge over the streets. There are many bridges in Bangkok so pedestrians can get across without any risk of getting hit by speeding cars or motorcycles.
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A Thung Khru bridge at sunset.

There, we picked up some cheap som tam, which is an unripened papaya salad, (25 baht or $0.81 USD) and sticky rice (10 baht or $0.32 USD) to go. That was my favourite Thai food by far. The women who ran the stand became our friends fast and it was a highlight of our days to chat with them in Thai and sometimes English while they made our food. We waited on a bench on the side of the market for open motorcycles. If the sun was still up, we would have to wait a little while. However, we usually came home at dark around 8 pm and then we would be first in line. We sped through the dark, quiet, and secluded streets, over the bridges and past all the local stores, my feet dangling over the side of the motorcycle. It was usually hot but there was a breeze from how fast we rode along. I memorized all the side streets on our way home, using all the turns and markers, like a little statue of a dog outside a store which meant we were five minutes away. I sipped my bubble tea and kept my eyes mostly on the moon, which I always find stunning.

When we got home, Chloe and I would say hello and goodnight to her host mother, Nadia, and Maureen, who enjoyed chatting while watching TV. Sometimes we would help Nadia with her English homework. We went upstairs to Chloe’s room, laid on her floor, the fan blowing in our faces, and ate our dinner while watching Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act on Chloe’s computer.

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A rather unflattering photo of Chloe (sorry!) eating her som tam on the floor. The caption means when you say “a little spicy” but they make it very spicy.

We also watched The Good Place, Criminal Minds, and other shows we both enjoyed. Sometimes we would both just read books for a while and I borrowed some from Chloe’s bookshelf. We took showers and went to bed at around 11-12 pm usually though sometimes we would stay up late talking. Meboon would slink in and out of her room. If she had the doors closed, he managed to jump through her window. I saw him somehow unlock and slide them open twice. He would sometimes jump through her window and onto her bed in the middle of the night, scaring Chloe and I to death but also making me laugh so hard. I vividly remember our battles trying to keep Meboon out (so he wouldn’t be locked in at night) through doors and windows though that sneaky cat certainly won a lot of them.

Weekends or free time//

On our weekends or free time, we did sightseeing and volunteering. Chloe was a very active volunteer at a refugee school that taught about twelve or thirteen kids mostly from Sri Lanka and Pakistan. They ranged in age from about eight to eighteen years old. Unfortunately, the commute was rather long. We got up at about 6 am, walked out of the gated community for ten minutes, and took a motorcycle taxi at the side of the road for another ten-fifteen minutes. Then, we walked for about fifteen minutes to the bus stop. The bus system in Bangkok is erratic and I quickly mastered it with Chloe’s help. She was a pro at this point and I greatly admired her courage, as I was unsure how long it would’ve taken me to get to her skill level of getting around BKK had I been in her situation alone. You could wait on a bus for anywhere between five minutes and several hours. Thai people would get visibly annoyed as time passed. Another fun part of taking the bus is that they don’t necessary stop at the designated stops. Most times you have to run after them to catch one, sometimes for a street block or two. Sometimes we would have to run into the middle of a Bangkok street, along with several Thai people, to catch it in the traffic. Once we were on the bus, it was usually really cheap, ranging from 13 baht ($0.42 USD) to 22 baht ($0.71 USD). It took us an hour and a half, sometimes less or more, to get to our next stop. We sometimes could sit together and read our books (I remember reading Bel Canto by Ann Patchett during this time) or listen to music (Ariana Grande’s new album mostly). Other times, it was so crowded we would have to wait over forty five minutes for even one of us to get a seat. Standing was rather difficult, as the bus took crazy routes and frequently made sharp turns or stops. I accidentally slid and stepped on people’s feet twice, leaving me apologizing profusely in Thai with onlookers laughing at me.

We stopped at an MRT station, Bangkok’s subway, and took that for another half hour or forty five minutes. Then, we would get to a small market area or Starbucks where, if we had time, we would get a bite to eat. After, we would make our way to the refugee school, a small building on a side street. It took about twenty minutes to walk there. We arrived at around 10 am or 10:30 am if the buses ran late. I was a bit frustrated by this taxing journey. However, I enjoyed being there once I was there. We taught English class from 10-12 pm and 1-3/4pm. I taught one session and Chloe taught the other. We had to prepare our lesson plans the night before based on their textbooks. We tried to keep things fun and interesting but it could get boring or hard easily. Chloe also taught them life skills like making emails. Some of the students, most all of the girls, were dedicated to the lessons and very reserved people. The boys were a bit more rowdy. They acted like one big family though, all joking with each other and play fighting even sometimes. All of them were respectful to Chloe and I and the owners of the school and were rather responsible. They were all proficient in English to begin with but needed help with grammar.

At lunch time, Chloe and I ate in the kitchen while the students ate in another room. The students or a woman who co-owned the school with her husband made their traditional food for us. We would chat with the owners unless they were busy. The food was always delicious and like nothing I’d ever had before, plus it was mostly vegetarian. After lunch, if there was still free time, we would play games from their countries. Some were far too complicated for me to understand and involved running across the room and tapping each others shoulders to get someone out. Needless to say, I was one of the first to be out and sat and watched usually. I liked all of the students a lot and hoped they would be successful in their goal to legally immigrate to other countries. I only did this twice with Chloe but she went a few more times alone while I was staying with her when I had other things going on. I was really amazed by Chloe, who had coordinated this entire experience herself and devoted countless hours to it. After volunteering, we would sometimes go into the center of Bangkok for Western dinner like Mexican food and then take the bus 21 home in the dark. This took about two hours and we arrived by the strip mall, then took a songtaew and motorcycle taxi home.

On the weekends, we explored Bangkok or stayed in Thung Khru at cafes. The days I loved most were going into the city, as I had never really seen Bangkok before. The commute was less bad going directly into the city, maybe taking an hour and a half. I quickly mastered the BTS or Skytrain, Bangkok’s train system. We often went to the malls, namely Siam Paragon, CentralWorld, and Iconsiam.

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Siam Paragon, next to the BTS station.

They were absolutely enormous, bigger than you can even imagine with countless floors and stretching to what must have been entire street blocks. However, by the end of the year, I could navigate them with ease. At the mall, we would browse through the Western stores, despite being able to afford next to nothing. I bought some clothes on sale that I had been searching for since I arrived in Thailand, not being able to find any in Kamphaengphet, like leggings and shorts. I was surprised to find they didn’t sell any bras at the Victoria’s Secret stores, which I guess goes to show that Thailand can be rather conservative sometimes. The one store I could justify spending money at was the bookstore, Kinokuniya Books, in Siam Paragon. They had a Valentine’s Day sale so I picked out a beautiful hardcopy Humans of New York book for only 200 baht ($6.49 USD). I poured over it and finished it in one night, devouring the stories of Americans just like me both happy and sad and of everything under the sun. It made me feel a bit homesick but not in a bad way necessarily, just a reminder of how amazing the country waiting for me to return was. After the bookstore and browsing, we got Western food, normally Mexican food, for lunch. One day, we got pancakes at a make-your-own restaurant.

 

 

Chloe’s favourite from here was an apple cobbler special.

I got strawberry & chocolate pancakes, which were the closest thing I’d had to both breakfast food and dessert all year. Plus, strawberries are an absolute rarity in Thailand, making fresh ones all the more delicious.

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My pancake!

They were expensive for sure but definitely worth it. People always ask me what I missed most about America and I honestly have to say: the food. Okay, okay, I missed my family and friends most of course but I knew they’d be happily waiting for me to return. Now, eating the exact same meals every day seemed like it would last an eternity. I missed the diversity of food readily available in America at the drop of hat. 

 

 

One of my favourite less-touristy places to go to in Bangkok was Little India, also known as Phahurat Market, which is a very small road with a lot of cool sights. First, we went to the India Emporium, a four-story mall full of gorgeous fabrics and garments for special occasions. There, Chloe and I explored the stores and bought headscarves. Then we visited the Sri Guru Singh Sabah Temple, the second largest Sikh temple outside of India. It has a beautiful golden dome outside of it and the inside is less decorated. We went to the second floor, where we observed people praying and musicians & singers performing devotional poetry. We left after about half an hour.

Me outside of the temple.
Me outside of the temple.
The Sikh temple.
The entrance to the Sikh temple.
The Gurdwara directions.
The Gurdwara directions.

For dinner, we went to my favourite restaurant, Punjabi Sweets, which is located just a few minutes away in a very secluded Soi (or side street in Thai). It is incredibly easy to miss and the environment outside is not the cleanest. It is at the end of a dark, even gloomy, narrow street with some vendors. Inside, it is tidy and there are several tables hosting mostly only Indian men eating while watching sports on small TVs. The place is run by some nice women. Chlo and I were normally guided to the second floor, which is usually empty. Everything on the menu was vegetarian and I was in heaven with my inexpensive and delicious meal that came with an interesting but really good sweet.

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My vegetarian Indian food at Punjabi Sweets.

We visited Punjabi Sweets twice, once when we went to Little India and again after a trip to Chinatown or Yaowarat Road (the high street), only five minutes walk from Little India. Chinatown is far more frequented by tourists & Thai people and there are more attractions. There were lots of little shops as well as a marketplace area selling tons of trinkets and street food, though I couldn’t eat most of it and it was a bit more expensive than Little India. There was a lot of traffic in this area which makes it a bit harder to navigate.

The streets of Chinatown.The streets of Chinatown.The streets of Chinatown.

We visited a Chinese temple and cruised the streets for an hour or so.

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The Chinese temple.
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The Chinese temple.

After Chinatown or Little India, Chloe and I would have to catch a fairly difficult bus home. We ran across extremely busy streets to get it, often accompanied by other Thai people who would chat and laugh with us as we made our way home. I was again impressed by Chloe’s street smarts, as the bus was not included on any maps or tourist guides.

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The street where we caught the bus.

Another day, we visited Terminal 21 mall, near the Asoke area of Bangkok which is a bit further from the other malls. It was airport-themed, meaning each floor has a different world city theme including London, Paris, Tokyo, Rome, and Istanbul. We, again, didn’t buy anything but I loved seeing the creative ways the mall established their theme.

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The Golden Gate Bridge hanging over floors four and five.

Not even a five minute walk from the BTS stop that took us to Terminal 21 was a little second-hand bookshop, Dasa Books, that I found through some Googling. It quickly became one of my favourite spots in Bangkok. The bookstore was run by both expats and Thai people and it was also a small coffee place where you could get any basic drink. It had three floors, full of books in every language but most in English. I was ecstatic to find and buy Thai for Advanced Readers by Benjawan Poomsan Becker, who wrote the Thai learning book AFS gave us at the start of the year. I also got several nonfiction books. One of the best parts of Dasa Books was that you could resell the already inexpensive books to them or books you had already for half price of store credit or slightly less in cash. I must have visited Dasa Books at least five times in the year, loving the environment and amazing selection of cheap books.

My experience living with Chloe for so long was far different than the first time I stayed with her. For a start, we were allowed to go out and explore, even to Bangkok’s center if we wanted. When I first visited, our curfew was 4:30 pm and we had to be accompanied everywhere. I loved this new freedom and I got a real feel for Bangkok quite fast. Though I am from Chicago, Bangkok was a whole different type of city. It could be chaotic and mixed both Thai and foreign cultures. I quickly fell in love with the whole vibe, despite it being overwhelming sometimes. Another new factor was that Chloe and I were inseparable for weeks, naturally leading to both a lot of bonding and arguments. I truly experienced a taste of Chloe’s life in Thailand with both the good and bad. I really admire Chloe’s strength in being independent in one of the craziest cities I’ve ever been to and I feel really lucky to be her friend.

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