I arrived in Thailand on 15 March 1980. Little did I know then that this country would infiltrate my head, my heart, my senses and become a second home. I spent that year living as a Thai, with Thai families, at a Thai secondary school. Learning to speak, feel and react like a Thai girl. I never knew if that had been effective until 10 years later, when I received a great compliment from a very special Thai woman. She said “Khun (Mali), I think you must have been a Thai in a former life.”
I always thought it was odd that I felt so at home in Thailand. I am tall, fair-skinned and green-eyed, and so always look completely foreign in Thailand. You should have seen me in my school uniform. There, amongst all the petite Thai girls, I stood out like a sore thumb. Gawky in my white blouse, blue pleated skirt, and custom-made-for-my-long-feet, extremely uncomfortable black mary-jane shoes. (No, there will not be photographic evidence).
But I enjoyed their open attitude towards me, their humour and sense of sanuk (fun). I spent the year studying with them, standing to attention in the morning as we sang the national anthem and raised the flag. I lived with my families, celebrated Songkran (the Thai New Year) in the formal traditional manner with my Thai grandparents. I travelled into the provinces, and stayed with other families, washing from wells or in basic concrete bathrooms, eating on mats on the floor, travelling on cramped hot buses or in third class train, riding side-saddle (as every good Thai girl did) on motor-cycles or in tuk-tuks (three wheeled open air vehicles). I ate khao neeo (sticky rice) and Chinese sausage for breakfast, more khao neeo and somdum (tangy chilli-hot green papaya salad) and gai yang (barbecued chicken) for lunch (the best picnic in the world) and stir-fried grasshoppers at the mayor’s house near the Cambodian border. My family took me to high-end Chinese restaurants where we enjoyed Peking Duck, and to their favourite noodle stalls where we ordered bami haeng (a dry noodle dish) and ate it on the rickety wooden platform over a klong (canal).
I learned about Buddhism at a temple, where for a brief time I was an apprentice nun, rising at 4 am to attend prayers in the dimly lit temple, with the golden Buddha lit with candles, and the sound of the occasional boat passing in the klong outside. It is a very accepting religion, unlike so many others (believe or perish in hell).
They’re pragmatic people, which is perhaps why I love them so much.
I travelled to the north and visited the poppy growing hill tribes (the tour guide wouldn’t let us try the produce because we had told him – bragging speaking Thai – that we were school students), and travelled south sleeping on a beautiful beach, freezing around the campfire. I travelled to the poverty-stricken east staying in villages where running water was a treat and cars and telephones were rare. But Bangkok was my home, a city I came to know and love, despite or perhaps because of its flaws.
When I left at the end of the year, I didn’t truly understand how deeply this country had changed me, and how deeply personal my feelings towards Thailand are. I could have written about the temples and markets and beaches, Thailand for Tourists 101.
But that’s not my Thailand.
** I apologise for the quality of photographs. Most of my photographs from my AFS year are in slide form. I’m looking into getting them converted, and will add them to this site when that happens.