Living in Northern Thailand: The Real Deal with Laura Lopez-Blazquez
Living abroad in a culture vastly different from one’s own opens up the possibility for many challenges, but also presents travelers with much beauty and opportunity for growth. From teaching preschool to riding motor bikes with the locals, Laura Lopez-Blazquez shares her adventures from her time living in Northern Thailand.
Tell us about your time living in Northern Thailand. Where exactly did you live? How long did you live there, and what did you do?
I lived in Sukhothai in Northern Thailand, which is located half way between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Travelers often stop in Sukhothai for a couple days to visit the 700-year-old ruins, as it was the first capital of Thailand, when it was known as Siam. The name Sukhothai translates to the “dawn of happiness”, which I always loved and thought was so fitting, as the people in town were some of the consistently happy people I have ever met.
I lived there for about seven months, and worked as an English teacher at Tessaban Muang Sukhothai School. I taught pre-k to 4th grade.
Living in Thailand taught me so much about community, friendship, spirituality, love, patience, selflessness and, most importantly, how to let it go. My days were filled with so many ups and downs–I’d have frustrating moments of cultural or language barriers but then five minutes later I was laughing so hard my stomach was hurting. My time living in Thailand was definitely an adventure.
What was it like to be a woman in Thailand? Are there any things women should specifically be aware of there?
I felt extremely safe as a woman in Thailand. When I was traveling, if I was alone, I would never be out past dark, but I did not feel unsafe driving home at night on my motorbike. In fact, I felt safer living in Thailand than I do in New York City. Older women and teachers in particular are treated with the utmost respect. Whenever I would share that I was a teacher, they would immediately bow to me. The only thing I would mention women need to be aware of, is that monks are not allowed to touch women.
Did you make friends with the locals, and if yes, how?
I did! I made friends with the teachers in my school. Even though there was a language and cultural barrier (which made me a little hesitant and shy at first), I really pushed myself out of my comfort zone, and would go sit with the Thai teachers during my break. Instead of hanging out in the office, going home or hanging out with other foreign teachers, I’d eat, play music and share stories of my students with my Thai coworkers. In the evenings, they started inviting me to the small parties the teachers would throw in their classrooms.
I also became friends with my neighbors and with my landlady. I often hung out with my landlady. She taught me how to ride a motorbike, and showed me all of her favorite spots in town (including the best view of the sunset over the heart shaped lake). She also introduced to me to many of her friends, some of whom I would tutor in English after school.
Before I knew it, I had created a “puak.” A puak is similar to a network, people who will be there for you and have your back no matter what. I noticed that Thai culture is very much centered on community and family. My puak taught me about their culture, country, and were great friends to have fun with, but they were also always there for me whenever I needed a helping hand. For instance, as a pre-k teacher, I had lice for about three months, and all of my Thai friends picked lice eggs out of my hair at one point! They had my back, no questions asked.
What were the major culture shocks you experienced? What challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?
My first month and a half in Thailand was really difficult. After the initial curiosity, excitement, and intense jet lag wore off, I started to feel homesick. I had never been in a place that was so culturally different. As a Cuban-American, I grew up with a very affectionate family, and during that first month in Thailand no one gave me a hug. Instead of hugging as a greeting, most Thais bow, and that was tough to get used to.
It was also really really hot, a heat that I had never felt before and that I could not really explain. I was constantly drenched in sweat.
I had a cockroach infestation in my apartment. I had more mosquito bites than I could count (and I scratched them so hard I gave myself bruises!). The food was also too spicy. I had difficulty learning Thai, so I did not understand anything that was going on around me. Overall, I felt physically, emotionally and mentally uncomfortable. I even started to doubt myself, and my decision to move to Thailand. But soon, once I felt comfortable and had my puak, I learned to embrace the initial discomforts and laugh everything off.
I overcame these struggles by really putting myself out there and making friends, and really just allowing myself to absorb and learn about the wonderful culture. I also started visiting the temple with my neighbors–I would sit in front of a Buddha and light a candle and just meditate.
I started writing. My initial plan was to start a blog, but my computer broke, so I started writing weekly e-mail updates on my phone to my family and friends. Writing about my experiences and sharing them with the ones I loved really helped put everything into perspective.
What is your favorite memory of your time living there?
My favorite memories in Thailand are celebrating all of the holidays! I especially loved celebrating Christmas in Thailand. Although Thailand is about 96% Buddhist, they still really love celebrating Christmas. I loved that the holiday was not about material gifts but it was about having fun and teaching the students about a holiday a lot of other cultures celebrate. The day was filled with dressing up (I was Santa for the day and most students were mini Santas), there was a giant dance party that ended with cake, and at night my neighbors had a birthday party for Jesus with more cake, whiskey, and karaoke. Overall it was definitely the craziest and most eventful Christmas I’ve had. It didn’t totally feel like Christmas, just because I wasn’t home with family, it felt more like we were putting on a Christmas show randomly in the middle of the summer for Thai people. But it was really cool to be here for this. It wasn’t so commercialized and there wasn’t a ton of pressure to buy gifts. People weren’t stressing out about it. They just decorated, bought funny gifts for each other and sang and danced to Jingle Bells.
Is there anything you regret not doing while in Thailand?
Honestly, one of my personal mottos is no regrets! I felt really integrated into my community, I tried to absorb as much as I could, I learned a lot from my students and friends, and I traveled all over Thailand. I volunteered with an art non profit in Chiang Mai, played with elephants (multiple times), swam in the sea off the beautiful islands of Southern Thailand, danced in Bangkok, and really let myself fall in love with another country.
That being said, I think if I really think about it, I might have a regret. Despite my best efforts to be present while I was in Thailand, sometimes I regret being so connected to home. In other words, when I felt lonely or sad, instead of going across the street to talk to a friend or taking a bike ride, I would spend time talking to a friend at home on the internet. I was so afraid of being disconnected, and being left out of the life that I had left behind, that I did not see what was right in front of me.