From April 1st-10th, I attended an AFS optional Thai massage camp in Ayutthaya with all the YES Abroad girls and our European friends. I attended massage classes for several hours each day and eventually became certified in Thai massage. In my free time, I explored the city with my friends and relaxed in our hostel. This was by far my favourite AFS camp and one of my favourite experiences in Thailand, as I got to connect with Thai culture and I made lifelong friendships.
The First Days//
Sydney and I got off our overnight bus from Surat Thani to Mo Chit station in Bangkok at around 7 am. We met up with our friends again and freshened up in the bathrooms, all watching each other’s suitcases. Mo Chit station is hectic with buses, vans, taxis, and cars constantly arriving and departing carrying hundreds of people, flooding the station at any given moment. This environment is perfect for things to go missing from the many pickpockets in Bangkok or for people to get lost, as my friends and I did soon after arriving. After getting a speedy breakfast from 7/11, we said goodbye to most everyone as they lived or were staying in Bangkok. Enrico came wandering around the station with Sydney and I because he had to catch a bus somewhere else as well. There was a group chat for everyone going to the massage camp and we found out that Alice from France and Gonzague were also in Mo Chit, also to take a bus to Ayutthaya as Sydney and I had planned. We wanted to meet up with them but after walking in circles for at least half an hour and continuously receiving contradicting directions, we got nervous that we wouldn’t find our transportation or them. Eventually, we stumbled upon Enrico’s bus, minutes before it was scheduled to leave. We gave him huge hugs goodbye and made some silly faces until his bus pulled away from the parking lot.
Sydney and I were on our own. My phone battery, our only connection to Gonzague and Alice, was running low. They told us they found a van to take us to Ayutthaya, not a bus, and it would leave soon. Sydney and I raced to the complete other side of the station where the vans were, getting even more sweaty from the overnight bus and the running. We finally found them, quickly booked our tickets, and jumped in the van. The employees running the ticket box made it seem like the van would be leaving any minute; however, after sitting in the van for at least twenty minutes, we were told that the van would only leave if it was completely full. The unpredictability of transportation in Thailand was now predictable. In the barely air conditioned van, Sydney and I were forced to basically sit on each other because our suitcases were so big from travelling for about a month and a half straight. Whenever a new passenger opened the van door, we were immediately shot dirty looks from our suitcase situation. We talked briefly to Gonzague and Alice but I still felt very intimidated by her from the last few camps and they eventually switched their conversation back to French. Sydney and I were dead from the running and heat and we both fell asleep.
When we woke up groggily about two hours later, we were immediately dropped off into a crazy market. I was having a bit of sensory overload from the heat, vendors shouting out in Thai, chickens and animals in cages all around me, and a completely new environment. Luckily, Alice was in her right mind and had a map pulled up to take us to our hostel. She guided us for a ten minute walk, killing my arms from dragging my bags. Our hostel was everything Sydney had told us about and more. The lower half was a little coffee shop with little cats running around the place. We met the woman in charge of the hostel and showed her our passports, as the law in Thailand requires it to be documented for immigration when a foreigner stays overnight in a hotel or hostel. We waited for everything to be cleared and paid her upfront for the next ten days and we got a very good price considering. Then, we raced upstairs to claim our beds. Luckily, as our group of fourteen was so big, we had an entire floor (and usually the common room) to ourselves. There was a little area built in for four beds so Sydney and I took beds next to each other and saved two bunks for Sofia and Chloe. They were coming three days late, along with Tyler (from Germany) and Gio (from Italy), because they were all at the second Krabi camp for the beginning of camp. Our friend Sofía (from the Faroe Islands) arrived and took the bed above Sydney and later Chloe took a bed right across from us, which worked out great too.
We alternated taking showers (there were only two available) and napping on little mats downstairs in the common room. The others (Francesca, Bea, and Sherif from Italy) arrived right as we finished cleaning up so we collectively decided to text our massage teacher that we could only come to the afternoon class starting at 1 pm that day. I knew them all a little bit from Krabi camp but we weren’t very close and I was nervous that, again, the Americans would be separate from the Europeans. Fortunately, much like the Khao Sok camp and unlike the Krabi camp, we were in close quarters with each other and there were only about twelve of us in total. This was also the longest camp we had ever been to, giving us more time to get to know each other. We soon grew to be incredibly close.
We all walked to class together on the first day, which took about half an hour. The walk was a bit nerve-wracking as we had to navigate over bridges and through traffic. From then on, we took the suggestion of our teachers and either biked or took the tuk-tuks from the market. We were taught by a young woman and her mother. As our group was so big, we were usually split into two different rooms, each with around four beds. The people who went to the Krabi camp were usually separated from the people who came to massage camp on time because they had to catch up on lessons. Our first class was unique, as we didn’t actually learn any massage technique. That day, we focused on theoretical knowledge and were given workbooks detailing massage skills to study and practice.
After class, we decided to walk to the night market nearby and we ate our dinners right next to the ancient ruins on a bridge. We shared our experiences in Thailand and many of us had been in similar situations despite us living in radically different parts of the country. I felt comforted talking to the other exchange students and knowing that I was not alone in these circumstances.
By the time we finished talking and started walking back to the hostel, it was already dark. We all showered, put our pajamas on, and everyone came down to watch a movie. Immediately, I stopped worrying about if we would get along as a group. After sifting through the few movies in English, we decided to watch the only movie none of us had seen: Lolita. What an interesting choice that was. It was even more awkward as Sydney and I, the only native English speakers, would sometimes have to recap more complicated and fast-paced scenes. We were taken aback by the movie and laughed lots at the insane plot. We went to sleep late and prepared to wake up early for our next day of class.
Two days later, while Sydney, Sofía, and I were all enjoying tea and coffee in the downstairs cafe, we spotted the rest of our group dragging their suitcases towards the hostel. Sydney and I jumped up, sadly making me spill my hot tea, and we took off running into the arms of Sof and Chloe. This was the first time we had been together since February and we were ecstatic. We also saw Tyler again and I met Gio for the first time. They also came late to class that day to get settled into the hostel but we were overjoyed to finally be reunited with our friends in class.
We usually woke up at around 9 am to get ready for class. Then, we walked over to the 7/11 right next to our hostel and bought breakfast. After eating, we walked to the local market to take a tuk-tuk to class, cramming as many of us in one as possible. The ride there was pretty, as we passed over rivers and different areas of Ayutthaya.
Our classes started at 10 am, paused at 12 pm, and resumed at 3 pm. Our teacher would begin the lesson by massaging one of us students as an example and the rest of us sat in a circle as she explained what she was doing. Then, we partnered up and learned by practicing what she did and looking at our workbooks. After about half an hour of massaging one person, we switched roles. While we practiced, we would listen to silly podcasts or music sometimes. However, this was very much a learning environment and not a social one. If the lines between the two started to blur too much, our teacher would nicely instruct us to concentrate more on the massage lesson and we went back to working silently. Our partners changed every hour typically. By the end of our ten days of classes, everyone had massaged everyone at least once. Thai massage proved to be far more complex than I originally imagined. It focuses on lines in the body and pushing on them to relax the muscles and body, starting at the head and ending at the feet. There is a lot of assisted stretching involved as well and the technique used can vary depending on the body of the person being massaged. I was a bit overwhelmed by the amount of material we were learning at such a fast pace and I was not very good at it as a result. Other people in my class were very skilled at it though and would practice sometimes in the hostel after our day’s lessons.
At 12 pm, we took a break for lunch and we walked down the street to a small restaurant that exclusively sold Pad Thai or noodles. The street that our school was located on intersected with a main road in town, yet it was fairly quiet and barren, especially with a huge field all around. Because of this, we usually were the only ones in the restaurant and it was a very peaceful environment. The food was incredible and the price couldn’t be beat. We all ate together, moving around tables and chairs as necessary to fit everyone in. This was my favourite part of my class schedule by far, as I couldn’t really do Thai massage well and I much preferred just hanging out with my friends.
At the end of our ten days of classes, we had to take an exam to get certified in Thai massage. We were all in the same room and were partnered based on numbers we pulled out of a hat. We learned how to do Thai massage on a different section of the body each day and in the test, we had to put all of that knowledge together and do a full body massage for about an hour. The test was individual and based on our pacing, knowledge and execution of the concepts, and on general technique. We could get up to 100 points and the lowest possible score was a 75. I was really nervous about the exam because I did not remember a lot of the sections from the first few days of class and I generally did not feel comfortable massaging others still. I was partners with Tyler and he was very kind and helpful, reminding me of what to do if I forgot or was doing it wrong. My teacher continuously corrected me and I was pretty nervous I wouldn’t pass. At the end of the day, our teacher read the scores we got aloud. I was not surprised when I passed with a 77, the lowest score in the class. I wasn’t upset though– it was actually really funny and everyone laughed when it was announced. My cluelessness was pretty well-known by that point. I was excited and proud to finally finish my course and walk away with a certificate in Thai massage!
After our classes, we spent a lot of time at the hostel in our common room. We would eat our meals we bought from markets or 7/11 there together, including our new favourite snack: a special kind of roti that is a specialty of Ayutthaya. It was sweeter than the normal ones because instead of having fried roti with fruit and coconut milk, it was just filled with candy floss. We bought bags of each and assembled them in our hostel, making for a delicious treat. Besides eating, we watched videos together. We had another group movie night watching Call Me by Your Name, which had just been put on Netflix. This was another controversial piece, as it was very sentimental and us Americans did not quite understand the romanticism the same way the Europeans did. Nevertheless, it was really fun and I loved when our entire group hung out together. Here are some photos that Sofia took of everyone in the common room on one of our last days together:
If we weren’t at the hostel, we sometimes went to a local mall or to a nearby department store. One day, Sydney, Chloe, myself, and some others decided to get our ears pierced. I was a bit surprised by my own behavior. I have a fear of needles and things like that so I had always been skeptical of getting my ears pierced. However, since I was with my friends, I excitedly got them done. It barely hurt at all and I realized that I had no reason to worry about it. In fact, because I liked how Sydney’s double piercing looked so much, I got my ears pierced again the next day! Here are photos of me and Lele (who held my hand as I got them done) right after I got my ears pierced and another one that Alice took. She edited in “A Dora bowl” because I apparently looked adorable haha.
In the evenings, we often got dinner from 7/11 because it was right next to our hostel and very cheap. Our favourite meal by far was the giant vegetarian bao, which was a huge bao (like dumpling) filled with mushrooms, cabbage, onions, and carrots. If we didn’t go to 7/11, we went to the local night market to get some fresh fruit and rice.
We were all so close that one day, we had an impromptu “cuddle circle,” which was so silly.
As we are teenagers, we often stayed up wayyyy too late at night hanging out together, sometimes talking until morning. I often had to take naps after class in the common room.
At night, we played board games like Jenga and below is a photo of our best game.
Here is a photo of me, Alice, and Tyler in our hostel after a long day of hanging out together. I definitely was closest to the two of them (besides the YES girls) and they are both still two of my best friends ever.
On the weekend, we biked around the city. Of course, we had to see the famous temples of Ayutthaya!
Here are some cute photos I took of Alice by the flowers in Ayutthaya:
End of Camp//
The day the camp ended, we all decided to go to Bangkok together. Here are some photos Alice took of me right before we left Ayutthaya as we waited for the bus station:
In Bangkok, we all spent one last day together.
Some of the group left to their host communities again but a large group of us stayed for another week or so. During that day, we all went to a big mall for a while and then to Chatuchak market (the largest street market in Thailand). Surprisingly, despite no knowledge of them being in the city and considering the hundreds of trains in Bangkok, I happened to spot Luke and Alice in our BTS train car! We gave them huge hugs and they joined us for the day too. The market and park were remarkable, it was an island of cherry blossoms and lush, green grass in a sea of industrial buildings and chaotic streets. We all shopped around for a bit before meeting in the park and then having one last lunch together.
Sadly, we then said goodbye to some of our group as we all had to prepare for the upcoming and most important Thai holiday: Songkran.