7 AM, Sunday, January 7th, 2018. After traveling for 36 hours (and barely sleeping a wink), I finally laid down on the firm hotel mattress in Suphanburi, Thailand, and passed the fuck out. Only four hours later, we, the 73 Peace Corps Thailand trainees of Group 130, had to be up to eat lunch and take care of some administrative things, like ID cards, cell phones, and helmet fittings. It was pretty smart on the training team's part to force us to get up. If not, many of us would have slept all day and been jet lagged for weeks.
For those of you who don't know, Thailand is 10-15 hours ahead of the U.S., depending on your time zone and daylight savings time (which is not observed here). That first day is so crucial. If you ever travel across time zones, get yourself acclimated to the new time as soon as possible. When I first moved to Amsterdam, I did not heed that advice and was on a 12 PM to 4 AM waking scheduling for about four months. No joke.
After our admin session ended, we were free for the rest of the afternoon, so I ended up going for a walk with my orientation roomie, a super sweet guy named Andy from Denver, and a few other trainees who happened to be leaving the hotel at the same time. It was already in the 90's (30's Celsius), and this was apparently the "cool season." It was my first real experience outside in Thailand, and, through a thin veil of delirium, I started to orient myself to the new culture around me. With the help of a journal entry I wrote shortly thereafter, here are some of the things that stood out to me during that walk*:
1) People drive on the left side of the road in Thailand. How did I not read about this before arriving? I studied abroad in London when I was 19, so I had some experience with this type of traffic flow before. But nothing can really prepare you for the roads of Thailand. Crossing the street can feel like an extreme sport at times. First, it requires that you look to the right, which is not intuitive if you come from a country where you drive on the right. Then, motorcyclists can drive on whichever side they want, so you better look left too, just in case. Crosswalks are few and far between (not that pedestrians have the right-of-way anyway), so if you find a hole in the traffic, your best bet is just to bolt.
2) Babies and toddlers riding on motorcycles. 10 year-olds driving scooters. Five people on one motorcycle at the same time. Hardly anyone wears a helmet. Cars and trucks don't fare much better. Babies riding in the laps of drivers. Nary a child car seat in sight. Hardly anyone wears a seatbelt. Thailand is consistently ranked as one of the countries with the most road casualties per capita (currently #2 behind Lybia). Five months later, and this still shocks me to my core.
3) Sidewalks can be an adventure, as they often have uneven pavement, obstacles, and/or stray animals. Walking down the street really takes all of your attention units. You should be looking down for the most part, or you will hurt yourself. And if you're tall, you should also be looking up so you don't bang your head on a low-hanging object or awning. Inadvertently, this level of hyper-awareness keeps people from staring at their cell phones while walking (one of my pet peeves).
4) 7-11 convenience stores are omnipresent here. Obvi, the selection is a bit different than the ones in the U.S. My first purchase was a bottle of fresh coconut water, some teddy bear-shaped biscuits filled with matcha green tea filling, and delicious rice crackers coated with just the right amount of MSG (all for under $2!). Fun fact: 7-11 is headquartered in Irving, Texas, about 30 minutes from where I grew up. Maybe that's why it's so oddly comforting walking into one here...naw, it's probably just the air conditioning ;)
5) There are small altars, called "spirit houses," all over the place, in front of businesses and residences alike. They are believed to house the ghosts or spirits that once inhabited the land. To appease the spirits (and keep them from interfering with the living), various offerings are placed on these colorful structures, including fruit, flowers, cigars, and Strawberry Fanta.
6) In general, there are a lot of gold-colored things. If your eyes are not used to seeing gold, it really stands out. There are also a lot of power lines. Looking across a street, you can sometimes see up to 30 power lines all hanging together in the same direction.
I know what you're thinking, "These things are all pretty superficial." And you're right; they are. When traveling somewhere new, the surface is what you see first. And when the surface is different than what you are used to, you will linger on it for a bit longer. But if you want to get to know a culture on a deeper level, you need to stay for a while. That's part of the reason why I joined the Peace Corps, instead of just taking a vacation here. A lot of cultural (mis)understandings can happen in 27 months, and I look forward to sharing some of them with you in this blog.
*It's important to note that had our orientation been in another part of Thailand, I might have noticed a whole different set of things. Sure, there might have been commonalities, but Thai culture, like any culture, is not monolithic.