From March 11th-27th, Sydney Chesta and I stayed in Phatthalung, a province in the south of Thailand. We briefly attended a local school, travelled the province, and formed a deep connection to our lovely host family.
Journey to Phatthalung//
Sydney and I jumped into Teacher Vicky’s pick up truck with our bulging suitcases and started down the road to Phatthalung with her and her assistant. We chatted with Kru Vicky about her life and our experience in Krabi before taking a five minute stop to 7/11 to pick up cooked to-go rice and huge bottles of water. After eating, Sydney and I were completely drained. An hour later, I found myself abruptly woken up by the sound of a car door loudly shifting open and Sydney shaking me to snap back into it. The heat and exhaustion from literally hiking up a mountain had left me in a lazy stupor. I had slept so deeply that red marks stretched across my arms from the gymnastic position I had dozed off in. I had a cracking headache and could feel the dehydration settled in the back of my throat. Unfortunately and remarkably, Sydney and I had already cleared out one huge water bottle. I had no time to waste with water though, as Kru Vicky was frantically giving instructions to Sydney, who then relayed them to a still half-asleep me. We were parked on the side of some highway and I immediately noticed how dark it was. The concept of time was completely lost on me and I had no idea what was going on. Following Sydney’s lead, I got out as fast as possible and we snatched up our bags and suitcases. Our original plan was to be driven to Phatthalung, but an extenuating circumstance arose and we were being passed over in a rather haphazard way. Luckily, Sydney and I were now accustomed to a complete lack of control or information so we just rolled with the punches as best as we could. We were told we would be taking an unofficial “bus”, though it was a van, for the rest of our journey (which I later discovered would be about an hour and forty minutes), completely packed with older Thai men. Teacher Vicky started explaining our situation in Thai to the van driver and the men, namely that we were exchange students who had no idea where we were and “couldn’t speak Thai.” Sydney and I quickly tried to stop her from revealing this potentially sensitive information to no avail. We were painted as helpless kids to a group of strangers in the night and, rather alarmingly, there would be no record of how we got to this place or who took us in the van. We knew Teacher Vicky interpreted this interaction to be protecting us, asking the strangers to watch over us. Regardless, Sydney and I couldn’t help but feel very uneasy though there was no alternative. After we said quick but grateful goodbyes to Teacher Vicky, we reluctantly sandwiched ourselves in the quiet van. We made a pact not to fall asleep considering our vulnerable position and despite both of us being absolutely exhausted. We looked out the window mostly, listened to music, and squeezed each others arms if we noticed any signs of one of us drifting into sleep.
Sydney and I arrived safely at around 9 pm and breathed a sigh of relief that our plans were now on track again, with people we trusted waiting to take us home safe. Teacher Rumravi, my coordinator’s friend and our new temporary advisor, and her twelve-year old son Faruk greeted us with a smile. She put up a friendly facade but was clearly on edge as well. She explained to us that just that day, Phatthalung had been bombed nine times, including nearby the local police station where the attacks were being investigated, in public parks and grocery stores on the very street we were driving on, and once outside of a local kindergarten. There were no casualties but a spike of fear and caution was now woven through the community. Everyone was visibly nervous about future attacks, which police were both expecting and warning against. This was timed alongside other attacks in southern Thailand that did have fatalities. Many at the time suspected these bombings were by certain radicals in political parties, as they were timed to the upcoming election, the first since 2011 after a coup in 2014. On the historic election day, the town was still afraid and my host dad, who usually encouraged exploring Phatthalung, did not let Sydney and I leave the house because of the safety concerns.
We arrived at the town’s night market to eat dinner and the normally lively streets of Phatthalung felt heavy that night. Already, people prepared to close their stands, significantly earlier than they usually would. Teacher Rumravi guided us to the end of the street, where one of her friends and colleagues sat. We chatted for a bit and they ordered us some roti, a snack made of light fried dough with condensed milk, banana, and light sugar, and Thai tea for dinner. Sydney and I were quieter than we perhaps would have liked to appear as we were taken aback by the new information, drastic scenery changes, and pure fatigue. The two women noticed our polite panic and offered to let us join Faruk on his quest around the market street to find something to eat. I passed by huge pig’s faces and other meat, fruits and desserts, rice, and more, but nothing caught the attention of my appetite. In truth, I was mildly hungry but too distracted by the multitude of things going on, as was Sydney. We joined the teachers again and drove to a nearby street, where one of them lived. Faruk surprised us by taking his motorcycle (a twelve-year-old can drive that?!?). There, we waited to meet our host father for the first time. Sydney and I sat on the curb by our suitcases and felt truly disgusting from the travelling. The street was vacant and eerily silent aside from the sound of wild dogs howling and strutting in packs nearby. I looked up for a second, trying to cram as much fresh air into my lungs as possible to calm down, and noticed the power lines above and around us completely covered in birds. I tapped Sydney’s elbow to draw her attention and she astutely pointed out that they were not birds, but rather, bats. I had never seen a bat before, much less what must have been hundreds of them right above my head. Another surprise. I dug the palms of my hands into my eyes until swirling shapes and colours collapsing on each other appeared under my eyelids.
A truck braking and headlights flashing caused me to lift my head up and my new host dad, Paw ( พ่อ, the Thai word for host dad), stepped out of the driver’s seat, heaving our suitcases in the back, and saying, “Hello! Welcome to southern Thailand.” This is one of our Thai host father’s favourite expressions and it embodies the unfaltering kindness and hospitality he exudes. We wai-ed at him and we all exchanged friendly words with the teachers in Thai before he motioned for us to get in the car. As we drove, he questioned us on our trip and if we were hungry, which we sheepishly answered, explaining our tumultuous journey that even surprised him. We drove up a hill to a secluded side street and he stopped outside to open the gate blocking our entry. Our new house, with its land area and two large floors, was huge for Thai standards. Towering palm trees surrounded the property and the garden had some flowers and plants with a beautiful wooden bench in the middle. The entire house was made of a mahogany wood and mostly open air. This natural, calming aspect would likely be seen in a polar opposite light when it came to monsoon season in October. However, for now, it was a treat. Our shoes crunched down on the rocks and dirt road that led to what would be our living room and kitchen. Here, we were met by our new host mother, Khun Meh (คุณแม่, the Thai word for mother), a teacher at our temporary school, as well as a little pomeranian dog. We were guided upstairs to a balcony area where we sat and discussed our plans for the next day and preferences. Sydney and I reached down to gently pet the puppy, who we were told was named “Dtun.” He enjoyed being petted for a few seconds but randomly, the dog snapped and lunged for my hand, barking maniacally. I immediately pulled back and looked up at my new host parents with horror but they laughed it off. To be honest, in this moment, I felt as if I were in a crazy fever dream that I just wanted to wake up from. The travel, anxious community, new environment, and crazy dog– it was all too much. Our host family sensed our eagerness to sleep and showed us to our new room, which was rather big, and had its own bathroom, kettle, and fridge. We had two mattresses that were put together. I slept on the one closest to the bathroom and furthest from the door, as it made me feel more secure. We both took rapid showers and changed into our pajamas before collapsing on the beds.
Our Daily Routine with Family//
The next day, I woke up extremely late (around 10 or 11 am) and slid open the door to the balcony where we had the meeting with our new host parents the night before. Palm trees were still a phenomenon to me, despite living in Thailand for about eight months already.
I walked down the stairs to find Sydney and Paw sitting at the dinner table chuckling over some vegetable fried rice, fish, and more dishes. In the light, the house looked less like a house and more like a home, especially with Paw’s easygoing nature brightening the environment. I sat down and grabbed a plate while we all chatted and I felt a tickle under my feet. Thinking it was the demon dog, I pulled my feet up instantly. However, when I peered under the table, it was a fluffy grey cat snuggling up to me. Around him were at least six other cats, who I found out were all our family’s pets. I was especially drawn to a little black cat named Si Dam (สีดำ, the colour black in Thai), also known as “Dumpy,” who quickly became “my” pet. Every day, the first thing I did was search our house for my sleek and beautiful little friend. I played with him, ate all my meals with him on the chair next to me, fed him his dinner, and more. Sydney claimed the wispy grey cat that had nuzzled up by my feet. Sydney grew to love and appreciate Dtun (perhaps partially motivated by my apprehension) but my reservations remained pretty much until the last day of my stay.
Our host family was rather large. Our group was composed of Sydney and I, Paw, Khun Meh, Yaai, Auntie, P’ Rainbow, P’ Tong, and P’ Manaow. We spent most of our days with Paw, as he is a retired police officer now and was happy to spend time with us. Sadly, we only saw Khun Meh at dinner because she was a teacher and then ran activities at school until later in the evening. After school, we would hang out a lot with P’Tong, our host sister who was the same age as us. Auntie and her daughter P’ Rainbow, who was about twenty years old, accompanied us for many dinners and all of our outings. P’ Rainbow’s real name was “rainbow” in Thai, though she was adamant that we said her name in English. Paw always teased her by asking us to call her by her Thai name. P’ Rainbow would giggle but then disagree as strongly as possible. Yaai, our grandmother, would tag along on some of our activities but I never really had the chance to get to know her. Manaow was P’ Tong’s best friend, also around our age, who was visiting from Songkhla, her home province two hours away. We all became very close quickly. In fact, initially, we were only supposed to stay in Phatthalung for about a week. However, when Sydney and I were offered to take another trip in the south two weeks later, we were unsure if we should return to our distant provinces or find somewhere new to stay. Paw heard of our dilemma and happily agreed to host us for another two weeks. This extra time allowed Sydney and I to integrate into their family and daily life even more.
Paw routinely woke up at 5 am to exercise and read. He always had a fresh, hot, and tasty food ready on the table when I came downstairs. Sydney, an athlete, would sometimes join Paw for an early morning run or bike ride. Unfortunately, I was having difficulties sleeping at the time and I am not sporty so I typically started my day later.
In the north of Thailand, the culture values a slower life, with less emphasis on timing and productivity and a greater respect for leisure and mindfulness. Paw, our representative of southern Thailand, made it evident with his schedule that life in the south is a bit different and at a faster pace. One core part of my life with my host family in Phatthalung was our meals, starting with that hot breakfast with just Sydney and Paw.
We ate every other meal usually with other family members too and never with any distractions like phones or television, unless used to illustrate something about our lives using photos. Paw is the best chef I’ve ever known and he could remarkably whip up some incredible Thai dish at the drop of a hat. He was very considerate of my vegetarianism and always ensured there were options for me. There was one incident in which he and Teacher Rumravi accidentally gave me a bao, or a little dumpling, with chicken in it. After I had one bite and realized it had meat in it, I momentarily freaked out, but it was okay. I was really scared of eating meat and getting sick from not having had it in so long. We typically ate those baos (now always egg and never chicken), watermelon, mango, eggs & vegetables, fried rice, and more.
If we were not doing activities with our family, Sydney and I were allowed to borrow Paw’s bikes. We rode down the giant hill and busy road that led into town, where we would usually go to cafes. One was Sydney’s favourite because it had better internet connection and she always ordered coffee, which came with free tea. I liked a closer one, where I could order a special toast and delicious mango smoothies. We alternated between the two, sometimes compromising and stopping by both if we had too much time. By the time we got there about fifteen minutes later, I was always exhausted, either from the summer sun or Sydney’s fast pace on bike (though I later mentioned it and she slowed down so we could ride together.) There, Sydney and I would order our drinks and write our blogs for hours.
The trip downtown wasn’t a pretty sight to see, what with countless cars and motorcycles flying by constantly. Once, as we were crossing the largest street, I saw a truck filled to the top with live pigs, struggling to move. My heart broke seeing the lack of compassion for the animals. Nobody in America really sees how their meat is made and processed unless they look online, so seeing this truck came as a shock for me, though I knew this happens everywhere. It served as a sad reminder of why I am vegetarian. I far preferred the ride going back home usually around 5 pm or just before dark. By that point, the roads were less congested, the weather was cooler, and we could see faint mountains in the distance highlighted by the setting sun.
Sometimes in the evenings, Paw would take P’ Rainbow, Sydney, and I out to a valley by a lake to run. I was usually too tired to run but I walked alongside the lake and sat on rocks, admiring the view.
After school or our day’s activities, Paw would pick up kanoms (ขนม, or snacks) like banana or egg roti or khao niew mamuang (ข้าวเหนียวมะม่วง, or sticky rice with coconut milk and mango). We developed preferences, such as loving crispier roti or my hating the coconut milk with the mango while Sydney loved it. Paw discovered Sydney and I never cooked with our host families and took it upon himself to teach us. Every night, we put on our pink chef’s aprons and followed Paw’s simple instructions to make delicious Thai food. One of us cut the vegetables and one of us started frying rice or other ingredients. Sydney then tossed things into our frying pan and looked to me for recognition of the new aromas, as my sense of smell is pretty dull. Whenever I got a whiff of garlic here or a hint of sugar there, we had a mini celebration.
This is one of the dishes Paw taught us how to make: fried brown rice, snap peas, diced yellow peppers & carrots, egg, garlic, and lime.
Here is a dish that Paw brought to breakfast one day and said it was a traditional food from southern Thailand. Sadly, I cannot figure out what on earth it is. It was the most eclectic mix of flavours that somehow balanced each other out perfectly. It was chewy and a bit like a salad but also had rice in it. We ate it with a sauce that was sweet and a bit salty. I loved it and am hoping to locate it again one day.
In the evenings after dinner, Sydney and I said goodnight to our host family and pets and retired to our room. After showering, we usually hung out until around 10 pm. We worked on our blogs, sang songs (usually by our recent obsession, Mahmood, the Italian artist), and watched movies or TV. I watched “The Beach,” featuring Leonardo DiCaprio once and Sydney, who had already seen it, joined me in discussion whenever something crazy happened. It was fascinating to see the beach I had been so close to idealized on the big screen. We often made hot cocoa and talked for a bit or called our American cohort or European friends. Because our Phi Phi Islands camp trip was cancelled from the bombings, all of the camp plans had been thrown to the wind. Sydney, Luke, and I knew we would be attending the Khao Sok camp later that month. Chloe and Sofia arranged to go to a spontaneous second Krabi camp in lieu of the Phi Phi trip being cancelled. The next upcoming camp was the massage camp in Ayutthaya, which I had been waitlisted for. I didn’t mind not going thaaat much because I felt a bit uncomfortable with the idea of massaging others. However, as time passed, I did feel a bit disappointed that I would be the only one of the Americans left out of a trip that was so close to our departure from Thailand. Luckily, after both external conditions and careful organization from the YES Abroad gals, I was added to the list for massage camp. The massage camp was unique in that no AFS representative was directly supervising us. This meant we had more freedom to design our schedule. Sydney, with her impeccable travel planning skills, found a lovely hostel in the center of town that our fellow AFS-ers all agreed to book too. We had many calls trying to organize our upcoming trip with everyone. Sydney usually went to sleep early and I unfortunately couldn’t. I typically spent my time catching up on old blogs.
We were absolutely spoiled every day by Paw, through our food and spontaneous adventures. I felt even selfish being so happy and doing nothing to “earn” it. In America, I kept myself on a rigid schedule of studying and working towards college. I saw taking breaks to do fun things as weakness. My life revolved around productivity and my future, which can be good, but I was already developing a common American mindset of valuing work and independence over everything. We try to grow up so fast: driving at only fifteen, working long jobs in addition to school at sixteen, and trying to be self-sufficient members of society at just eighteen. In many other countries, this would seem absurd. In Thailand, especially in Paw’s home, I was just a teenager. My priorities were only to be happy, to make others happy, to learn new things, and to grow every day into a better person. Being selfish, or being a teenager depending on how you see it, was the greatest gift I ever could’ve received from Paw, our host family, and Thailand. It was a break from the insane self-imposed standards that I can credit in part to my education system and culture back home. I had a realization I think many people have later in life but always know to be true in their hearts. Simple meals, shared by loved family and friends, or little personal breaks to follow passions like art or music, bring us true joy in life more than anything else. Appointments, upcoming deadlines, daily chores… these are just things that clutter and distract our lives. Yes, of course they have to get done, but at what cost? That is the beauty of childhood, to live blissfully without the burdens of reality. Getting a taste of that again shifted my thinking immensely and now I aspire to live my life with a balance, being present in moments to truly appreciate them but also accomplishing my long term goals.
Sydney and I had both already finished our school terms and my coordinator had framed this homestay as solely a vacation. This made the two of us shocked when we learned upon our arrival that we were expected to attend school for some time in Phatthalung as well. However, we knew that as foreigners, especially American girls on scholarships, we would be a source of pride for the town. Most importantly, by going we would be honoring our host parents, as they were both pillars in the community as a teacher and a former police officer respectively. We were given two days to relax after we arrived and then started going with our host mother to school. It was much more laid back than our real schools, as we didn’t have to wear any uniforms aside from the school teachers’ yellow shirts (the colour to respect royalty) and long pants.
On the first day, to our chagrin, we were put through the standard speech in Thai in front of the entire school (another 3,000 people!). We then were introduced rather hurriedly to many teachers, all requesting we stop by their classes. At the end of morning assembly, the school director stopped by to meet us, which is quite special in Thailand. The director pensively listened to our host mother talk about us and our day’s activities in Thai and looked at us curiously. He then paused to think and began speaking in fairly good English with a lot of effort. Sydney and I were momentarily stunned, as school directors exclusively run the higher level operations of schools that don’t require English. Because of this, neither of us had ever met a director who spoke English. We then jumped into excited and genuine conversation, rather than the extremely careful, overly polite small talk in Thai that we usually reserved for directors. He expressed to us that he wanted to learn English and we immediately encouraged him, complimenting his hard-earned language skills. After a few minutes talking about Thailand and his life, the song played to signify the beginning of class. Sydney and I were ushered into various classrooms throughout the day to do interviews with the students, starting with the younger kids who asked us silly questions and ending with the older kids who didn’t really care that we were there.
In the middle of our tour, we met an English teacher named Mohammad, who took interest in our lives. He was half Malaysian and Muslim, representing two minorities in Thailand. Our visit to his classroom was unique, as he was determined to make his students actually learn something about our culture from our interviews, instead of just pointless facts about Sydney and I. He encouraged his students to ask us complex questions about our country’s schools, government, popular culture, and values, interjecting with his own queries as well. Mohammad also had the excellent idea of having Sydney and I pass around our American change and small bills around the class. This was fascinating for the students, as our paper money is only green, has pictures of our presidents or government buildings on it, and is worth significantly more in Thailand. We even looked up the exchange rate, making the students gasp. In Thailand, their paper money is different colours and sizes and only has pictures of royalty on it. Thai coins are often used to buy full meals or other goods, whereas in America, change is almost insignificant and people do not keep track of it. If Americans drop change, they sometimes do not even bother to pick it up. We also passed around our state IDs and discussed age laws, like being allowed to drive at sixteen and vote at eighteen. In Thailand, plenty of kids drive motorcycles (something unheard of in America) but are not permitted to drive cars until they are eighteen. When it was time to change classes, Sydney and I were a bit disappointed, as this was the most productive we’d felt all day. However, Mohammad also felt that our interesting discussion was not over yet and he took us out to lunch. We hopped in his air conditioned car, which was our saving grace as the southern heat was unbearable. We went to a small restaurant nearby, where we snacked on iced tea, banana roti, and rice. He told us all about his travels back to nearby Malaysia, where he takes groups of students every year to expose them to a new culture, and about his life educating in Thailand.
When we returned, we were greeted by the security guards at the school gate. Mohammad introduced us to them, though they did not speak a word of English and their southern dialect of Thai was difficult for Sydney and I to understand. We sat down and listened to Mohammad chat with them when suddenly one of the men pushed his oversized sunglasses onto my face. We all burst into laughter at the silliness of how I looked.
I rocked the man’s sunglasses until it was time for us to go back to class. Though it was a small and weird moment, I remember it to be funny and a happy interlude in the school day.
A More Serious Aside//
Unfortunately, Sydney and I’s experience at this school was not always fun and light. Once, as we walked through the halls, we saw a large group of boys staring, pointing, and laughing at us. I knew this can never mean good. As we awkwardly walked past to get to our next class, we overheard them singing a Thai song I had never heard before. I walked away feeling weird and I noticed Sydney looking both outraged and a bit uncomfortable. She explained to me that the song was popular in her area. Though on the surface it is only about fruit, it is actually all about objectifying women’s bodies.
Shortly after this, we met a teacher who asked us to attend a class briefly. We walked into the room to find the highest rank of students working hard on homework and preparing for exams. After we introduced ourselves, the class didn’t say another word to us for the next hour, though we didn’t mind at all. The hour finished and we returned from out of the harsh sun into the air-conditioned teacher’s office, where we were told earlier we could stay in our free time. Though we had no requirement to stay and even our attendance at school was not mandatory, the teacher who invited us to class immediately condemned us for leaving the room. He threw unwarranted personal insults at us and made rude comments about our country without any basis. Sydney and I were forced to return to the classroom, fuming about what was said to us. We eventually called Mohammad, who understood our situation and took us home for the day. We did not return to school after this.
In my own town, I had a few similar experiences with one teacher, though I rarely had class with him. Once, I was somewhat forced to participate in a Thai dance show with some of my classmates on about a day’s notice, without any sort of rehearsals or lessons on Thai dance. This was in front of many important people in our town and I was really nervous. Before the show, my female teachers put heavy makeup on me, though I choose to not wear any makeup every day. I found it uncomfortable but I agreed in order to please my teachers. I rushed to the bathroom to take off my makeup– mere seconds after my performance– and this teacher stopped me to berrate me with insults that focused on my makeup, but extended to my character. He attended the show and knew my situation exactly, but he seized upon a moment where he could make me feel inferior. I was furious. I didn’t want to do this performance and I certainly didn’t want to wear makeup, yet I did it for the school’s benefit. In return, I was humiliated and taken aback by such harsh words, almost driving me to tears.
This is not to say that the climate towards women in Thailand is harmful. In fact, I think Thailand is a wonderful, progressive, and safe place for women to live and travel, even alone. However, I do want to share my experiences holistically and acknowledge how I was treated differently in Thailand than in America, as both an exchange student and a girl.
As an exchange student from America, people were rightfully curious about me. This sometimes led me to friendships, but sometimes others’ curiosity was manifested in equally curious ways. At my home in the north, schoolmates I had never met before frequently screamed my name and compliments from rooftops to get my attention or took and posted photos of me just doing random daily things. These were well-intentioned acts and very common for exchange students. On good days, it was fun. Everyone knew who I was and always wanted to talk to me, making an effort to say hello to me or make me feel welcome. I felt like I was a part of a community. On bad days, I acted the same in public but felt completely different behind closed doors. I hated seeing videos or pictures of me doing embarrassing things, like tripping on stairs or saying something wrong, online later for all to see. I spent so much time learning Thai and I felt hurt on the rare occasions when I was intentionally excluded from conversations with a quick switch of languages, talking fast enough to maintain secrecy. I felt uncomfortable when people talked about my body openly, discussing if my skin was clear, what my hair looked or felt like, my makeup, if my weight had changed, everything. I didn’t–I couldn’t– say anything. This sort of direct confrontation would certainly offend and affect others, like my family. What really bothered me, more than whatever remark a classmate or teacher would make about me, was that my feelings were not considered in the first place and were not held to the same standard of importance.
A vital part of my exchange program was not just understanding another culture, but showing other people part of my own culture. Slowly, I learned what bonds people all around the world, like a good meal or a fun sports game. These common joys transcend language, culture, or any barrier. However, for people who didn’t take the time or effort to get to know me, I never stopped being an “other,” and too different to relate to or empathize with. These hurtful actions carried no meaning for them.
The thrill of being an exchange student is to be completely out of control. You are just learning as you go, taking each day as it comes. This experience in Phatthalung illustrates the other side to being out of control. In America, there was no chance I would allow people to talk about my friend and I in such a demeaning way, I would surely stick up for us and give them a piece of my mind. If a teacher took issue with my actions, I would be able to explain them. If any adult at all were to insult me, I could respectfully defend myself.
Here, I felt frustrated but composed myself and carried on. I would not argue with it, in fear of the repercussions of small town talk– how it would reflect poorly on my host family, my teachers, my friends, my program, and even my entire country.
For these boys, it was a couple odd remarks amongst friends about the new girls, who surely couldn’t understand what they were saying. I wondered: Would people still talk about me like this if they knew I could understand them? How many times have they without my knowledge? What would be their response if I could speak freely and defend myself, as I would without question in the United States? For the teachers, it was well within their rights to question and correct my behavior. I was a student, an exchange student, and a girl, making me unquestionably subject to criticism, regardless of its motive or legitimacy. Have these men ever been spoken against? Have they ever had consequences for actions demeaning to young girls? I will never know.
Paw was extremely dedicated to showing Sydney and I the best of Phatthalung and he was always beaming with pride about living in southern Thailand. He was an avid traveller and was very open to new experiences.
Upon hearing we had only ever been to this one country in Asia, he tried to arrange for us to take a short trip to Malaysia with his family. International travel outside of my host country was permitted with my program under certain circumstances. However, we didn’t want to risk any potential mishaps with our re-entry visas, especially because Sydney and I’s respective immigration offices were in our own provinces miles and miles away. Though we couldn’t go, Sydney and I were still appreciative that Paw would put in so much effort to make us happy.
One day, we took a long trip starting super early in the morning and we were told it was to visit the nearest mall. Sydney and I later found out, after already travelling halfway there, that the real reason for the trip was to take Manaow back to her family– in Songkhla. Songkhla is one of the provinces affected in parts by the South Thailand insurgency, which made Sydney and I concerned. The U.S. government warns against travel there. However, we were not told any of the circumstances of our trip beforehand so there was no way we could avoid it. None of our family seemed concerned at all and it made me consider the context of the situation more. Of course our host family, who loved and cared for us as if we were blood relatives, did not see any issue with taking us there. This is a trip they have been making for years— this is their home and daily reality. It took us about two hours to drive there and Paw made a special stop upon seeing a Chinese Buddhist restaurant specifically for vegetarians so I could have a good breakfast. Besides this refreshing break, I felt rather carsick from the horrendous heat and being stuffed with at least six other people in a car with little air conditioning. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the mall, I got very sick but I felt better shortly after. Then, we split up into small groups to explore the mall. Sydney and I stopped in all kinds of little shops, finding deals on things like stationary or household items. We then had some lovely gelato (though it was really ice cream) until we met up again with Paw. He showed us the mall’s ice skating rink, the first I’d ever seen in Thailand. Sydney is a competitive ice skater so we were really excited by this discovery. Paw offered to take us again later that week but we were hesitant thinking of another taxing four hour car ride. Our final stop of the day was to Manaow’s house, where we met her parents and her beautiful and huge husky dogs. We sadly said goodbye to Manaow and made our way back home.
In our own province, our family went on mini trips daily to new cafes in town, waterfalls, mountains, and other popular spots. Sydney and I always rode in the back of Paw’s truck, as it was the best way to fully experience the scenery and feel truly alive. I consider these moments to be some of the happiest and most fulfilling in my life.
One of the first trips we ever went on was to Napokae (or นาโปแก, the rice fields of the ancestors) with almost our entire family.
This site is most renowned for its extensive rice fields and the exhibits detailing the process of harvesting and manufacturing rice.
As we walked around, our family explained each of the items on display and took lots of photos of us.
Sydney and I’s favourite part was, by far, the miniature petting zoo. Our family bought food for the animals and we made fast friends with a sweet little goat we named Shaun.
At the end, we stopped by the gift shop and I found a diamond in the rough: beautiful coconut bowls for only a little over a dollar. This price was far better than any I’d seen even in the street markets, so I was quite pleased about it.
One cloudy evening, Paw drove us to Phatthalung’s hot springs, which were completely surrounded by cliffs and mountains that captivated me more than the actual attraction. When we were in the parking lot, Paw immediately warned us about the masses of monkeys who were eager to commit another act of thievery. Even with the warning, I was still astonished to see more monkeys strolling the streets than people! The theme of the little park was centered around them with statues all around.
In actuality, the hot springs were not exactly what Sydney and I had in mind but still fun. It was geared more towards children, with warm pools of water that went up to our feet. We splashed around and explored for about half an hour before driving back home.
We took a trip to Thale Noi (or ทะเลน้อย, the small sea or lake) Waterfowl Park to look at the viewpoint. It took us about an hour to drive there but the view was well worth it. We walked along the bridges alongside the lake with our entire family. Sydney walked ahead with our cousin and sister, whereas I kept pace with Yaai so she didn’t walk alone. I tried to talk to her in what little Thai I knew but mostly I was just keeping her company. Paw walked in between our two groups before he decided to usher me ahead to the next attraction and take my place hanging out with Yaai.
The next site we went to in the park was a viewpoint tower, which required a cumbersome trek up sets of stairs. P’ Rainbow, P’ Tong, Sydney, and I thought the 360° view was worth our trouble and the cool wind calmed my tired body. I couldn’t take my eyes off the vast rice fields and countless lotus flowers in the lake below.
After what must have been about fifteen minutes or more, the three of us raced down the stairs with newfound energy and ran down the bridges until we saw Paw and the rest of our family. They asked us enthusiastically what we thought and wanted to see our photos. Then, we took a shortcut back to the parking lot and Sydney and I jumped in the back of the truck like always. We drove just outside of the park to take a photo by the entrance way with huge chicken figurines. Sydney and I couldn’t stop laughing as we tried to pose like the large characters, making Paw chuckle too.
After photos, Paw asked us if we were in a hurry to get home, as he said he wanted to show us something nearby. Paw had always ensured that Sydney and I had a wonderful experience so we trusted him and excitedly took him up on the offer, having no idea what to expect. He circled completely in the other direction and drove rather fast, likely to beat a race against the setting sun. There were virtually no cars on this stretch of land and even the classic palm trees were scarce. Eventually, we stopped sort of in the middle of nowhere on the side of the road. We had stumbled upon a city of clouds, blended by mountains so distant we weren’t sure they even existed and a hanging fog. The last glimmers of pale orange sunlight bounced off the still lakes, illuminating the dark mist slowly consuming the sky. It seemed insane to me that humanity, with its now seemingly pointless street signs and road blocks, could exist in tandem with this unearthly paradise. However, the divisiveness I felt between this breathtaking sky and the present now was shattered by the sight of garbage scattered down below, nearby the lakes. I was disheartened that anyone could see this idyllic scene just as I had and still give themselves the power to destroy it in a small, but incredibly meaningful way.
We walked a little closer to the mountains and saw what I’m sure made Paw mentally bookmark this site: a herd of Asian water buffalo grazing in a small pen. I had never seen anything like this before and these creatures were massive. I can see how some people would even be afraid of them but up close, they were gentle, slow, and beautiful.
I felt a singular sereneness coursing through my body and soul, as I absorbed this overwhelming beautiful landscape and the kindness of my newfound family. I loved these people and I loved this country and I loved my life and nothing else mattered.
Almost every day, Paw and our family took us to another one of the province’s namdtoks (น้ำตก, or waterfalls in Thai) for the afternoon. Sometimes we would stop at cafes on the way to the delight of Sydney and I, who were always keen to have an iced tea, cocoa, or fresh smoothie.
After arriving at the park, we typically had to hike through a little wood and over unsteady bridges to get to them. P’ Rainbow and P’Tong ran ahead with their giant floaties or picnic materials, with Sydney and Auntie trailing behind taking in the scenery.
When I was a child, I played a little game my parents called, “Pick Up Sticks,” every time I went outside. The name is fairly self-explanatory. My parents thought it was cute but increasingly grew tired of pulling me along every few steps. I was meticulous, inspecting every stick to decide if it had enough merit to be gathered in my hands until they overflowed and scattered. I found myself playing into my old watchful game, replacing sticks with plastic straws, though I refused to let any go this time. This time, Paw took on the role of my parents’ and walked by my side slower than the rest, watching curiously and chuckling as I tried to quickly scoop up the straws and catch up to the girls. Again, like at the park, I was baffled by how people recklessly destroyed nature when it would be so easy to just take their garbage home. By walking past litter, I considered myself to be part of the problem so I tried to leave the parks better than I found them.
When we finally reached the waterfall, we got in the pool of cool water to swim at the bottom. We tried to swim as close as we could to the end of the waterfall, though the light current would push us back almost every time. Only once did Sydney and I reach the end. In the two seconds we remained by the falls before being pushed back to our family, we were elated and proud, laughing at this arbitrary accomplishment. We also played shark vs. minnow games with teams. Sydney and P’Rainbow faced off against P’Tong and I, swimming as fast as we could to get away from each other. Here are some photos from our various trips to waterfalls:
After the fun and games, Paw and Auntie would call all of us for some fresh watermelon, which they had somehow carried over the water to the other side of the river. This, and Paw’s remarkable knife skills, astounded me. I had grown to love watermelon, perhaps only because it was the typical food that accompanied happy times. Sydney found it hilarious watching me attempt to eat the big slices that dripped red juice down my skin and shirt, temporarily staining them until I washed off in the river.
The lovely picnic and the fading excitement from our games made us all a bit more mellow. Sydney and I sat on rocks with our legs dangling in the water and talked about everything. We admired the peaceful environment until Paw called us some hours later to go home.
We didn’t always go to waterfalls that were in local parks. Paw, being friends with almost everyone in town, occasionally took us to waterfalls or lakes that were considered private property. These were typically owned by restaurants or nearby construction sites. After we left these locations, we would say thank you to the owners by having a meal at the restaurant or stopping by people’s workplaces. Here are some photos (some edited by Auntie!) of us after swimming:
Sydney and I loved any time we went out of the house, as it often meant we would sit in the back of Paw’s truck, giving us a perfect view of Thailand. The two of us could easily get lost in thought and captivated by the palm trees, wild animals, birds, warm sun but cool breeze, mountains, and Thai daily life.
If we weren’t silently letting the environment wash over us, Sydney and I blasted our favourite songs and sang at the top of our lungs, laughing until we collapsed. Then, we laid down and watched the day fade into a starry sky, oblivious to our location until the car stopped seemingly hours later.
Here are some photos of a pretty sunset one night when we were driving home after swimming:
One night, Paw asked us if we wanted to do another detour home and we, of course, agreed. We drove to the Lampam Floating Market.
To our surprise, Paw walked straight past the crowd of visitors and stands of vendors, what we thought was the purpose for the detour, to a more secluded area of trees that eventually led to the sea. Sydney and I sat on a half-made bridge made out of wooden logs that were just waiting to fall away into the sea. We climbed up despite the present risk of falling straight into the water. There, we watched the sky explode with shades of yellow, pink, blue, and purple before night crept up on us. On our way home, we stopped at another market and picked up our favourite Thai food for another amazing family dinner, making the night even more special.
Island Day Trip//
On one of our weekends, Paw planned a family trip for us to visit some islands nearby in another province, Trang, though I don’t recall the names of the exact places. We embarked on our journey at around 9 am, driving for a good hour or two before arriving at a dock. Sydney and I changed into our swimsuits, and though we had checked with Paw a few days prior that it was okay for us to wear our bikinis, I was still a bit nervous that we would offend. Luckily, nobody minded at all, perhaps because southerners are a bit more accustomed to seeing foreigners in swimsuits than northerners. Sydney and I lathered ourselves with sunscreen, taking extra caution after seeing horrendous burns on our last island trip. Then, we met Paw and the rest of our family on a sleek, long wooden boat that was ours for the day. We put on lifejackets and were introduced to our guides for the day, a young man and a teenage boy who knew the seas like the back of their hands. We all talked for a bit and then we were on our way, ripping through the waves with a perfect view from the front of the boat, which was luckily in the shade. P’ Rainbow called our attention, handing us crackers and some fresh fruit to start off our day. Syd and I had had only small breakfasts so it was perfect timing. The boys steered our boat, jumping from one side to another with extraordinary ease. They sometimes made us move around to ensure our weight was evenly distributed, something I had never considered. We talked to them and Paw about the sea and I was very curious of what creatures were lurking underneath the water. We semi-jokingly talked about sharks and the boys assured us that nobody had gotten hurt from sharks in that sea in years. I believed them but was still fascinated, so I looked it up and was astounded to see the variety of sharks and other marine wildlife that had been spotted in the very sea we were in. Just as I had finished sharing my last-second research, my trust in the men and the waters was tested as they stopped our boat for an adventure: caving.
I was taken aback by this idea, even wondering if the group was joking. I peered out of the boat and, sure enough, a cave with a giant black opening was looming nearby, with a few smaller groups of tourists floating around as well. We all got out of the boat and swam closer to the entrance of the cave, when the boys told us to get into a line, holding the lifejacket of the person in front of you. Somehow, I was first in line, after the teen boy guiding us, with Sydney behind me. At first, I was feeling super relaxed and cool. I mean, I can count the people I know who’ve been caving on one hand. I already couldn’t wait to tell my parents all about it. We were guided in by a thin rope along the side of the cave entrance. There were plenty of people around us and lots of light from outside and tourists’ flashlights. However, as we swam deeper inside and the water grew colder, my heart began to jump. Maybe there was a reason not many people I knew had gone caving…
The inside of the cave was pitch black and I held on tightly to the shoulders of the boy in front of me. It was eerie, with deafening silence except for the light crash of waves and the wind echoing through the cave chambers. It was perfect timing for me to remember the story of the boys’ soccer team who were trapped in a cave in Thailand just a week before I arrived in the country. I couldn’t imagine how terrified they must have been and I pushed any worst-case scenarios in my situation out of my head. We soundlessly swam along only with the company of our thoughts for what felt like forever. Really, it was probably only about fifteen minutes. When the first glimpses of light appeared, I was immensely relieved and even felt a surge of adrenaline. My feet sunk into the warm, damp sand and I turned to Sydney, the two of us giddy with laughter and shock from the adventure. We had stumbled upon a tiny square of paradise: a sunny, secluded beach with cascading cliffs and whistling tropical birds whipping through the wind overhead. I was elated, playing in the sea and warm sand with Sydney and our host siblings like children. We took some photos with our family next to a sign I couldn’t read, presumably revealing information about this hidden cove. The beach was pure nature, untouched by photos, garbage, and anything resembling the outside world. While the cave took my breath away for fear, here, I exhaled and felt completely centered. There was no doubt that, despite the decieving outside, this was a place that radiated only joy. My mind was clear and I greedily soaked up as much of this happiness as I could in fleeting minutes. I etched the memory of the beach, or rather how it made me feel, into my mind as best as I could before wading back into the deep, dark cave.
Our next stop was for lunch, where we found a small beach and picnicked on noodles and some fresh watermelon. We continued exploring different islands and taking lovely swims. At one point, I asked Sydney what her “perfect” day would consist of (a question I ask many people out of interest) and we discussed some of our favourite places ever. In retrospect, I would definitely consider that day to be as close to perfect as I could get, spending quality time with my best friend, new family, and the beautiful nature.
On one of our last nights in Phattalung, our host family treated us to a special dinner and some of their friends joined us as well.
The restaurant was very unique with beanbags as seats, lots of Western food on the menu, and a gorgeous view of the sea.
Our host family started ordering all kinds of wonderful food. We started with a huge fruit salad served in a hollow melon and also got incredible fresh fruit smoothies.
It was a mix of Western and Thai food, with dishes like vegetable fried rice and pizza. Dinner was fantastic with lovely conversation and wonderful food.
Sydney and I were excused a little early to sit on the edge of the restaurant, watching the moon and the stars. It was serene and beautiful, making us wish we could just run out onto the beach. We talked for a while until Paw called us back to go home and we said goodbye to everyone.
Sydney and I were heartbroken leaving Phatthalung. Despite only living together for a few weeks, we truly felt like we were a part of our host family. Paw taught us so many things about Thai life and culture, as well as about how to live a meaningful life, making every day an adventure. I will never forget the kindness and happy memories that my host family shared with us and I can’t wait to visit them again one day.