When I used to think about studying abroad, the first image that came to my mind was often jet-setting across continents and visiting new cities every weekend. Unlike most people I know (looking at you, friends in Europe), I haven’t known this to be my reality and until last week I hadn’t left New Zealand since I arrived here in early February.
I got the opportunity to visit Thailand as my first international (from New Zealand) trip, and I couldn’t be happier with my time there. I don’t know many people who have visited Thailand so I wasn’t filled with preconceived notions of what to expect when I landed. Any expectations I had would have been completely shattered though, Thailand was beautiful in every way.
From the food to the culture to the beaches, Thailand impressed me and showed me a completely new part of the world. It wasn’t somewhere that had always been at the top of my travel wish list, but it should be at the top of everyone’s list. Thailand has a lot to teach. And though the beaches are the most beautiful part, I learned the most from spending the first few days participating in activities alongside locals.
As if studying abroad isn’t stepping out of your comfort zone enough, I took it a step further and ate rice and noodles three times a day… for 10 days. For those of you who know me, you may know that I don’t like rice. New food was only the beginning of the gateway to a new culture, though it was delicious.
One night we stayed in village about two hours from Chiang Mai, and while we were there we went to the local river where it was amazing to see the entire village gathered around, partying and enjoying each other’s company. In a town where many of the children have never seen Americans before, it was humbling to see the joy that these children took in playing with the most basic of toys in a river that I consider to be quite filthy.
The next day we got to spend time at an elephant sanctuary in the same area. I know now that riding elephants is extremely detrimental because the parks that have this feature torture the elephants into submission before they can be ridden. As long as tourists are willing to pay though, the problem will continue. At our park, Elephant Nature Park, we were able to walk freely among the gentle giants, feeding and petting them. It was eye-opening to see these rescued animals behave so similarly to the dogs that my family has rescued in the past. Shy at first, but beyond friendly once you’ve earned their trust, the elephants surprised me by each showing a different personality.
“They can tell if we love them,” one of the locals who works at the park daily said to me. “They want to love us, but they want to be loved first.”
Though he was talking about the elephants, his message really hit home about the purpose of the trip as well. Here I was standing in a country where you can’t even brush your teeth with the tap water because it’s so dirty, but everyone who I came in contact with was extremely kind and friendly, despite the constant language barrier.
Though I haven’t been able to travel to a new country every weekend, or even every month, the time I did get to spend visiting Thailand was long enough for me to think of it as extremely impactful and something that will leave a lasting impression.
I love traveling to see new places, different landscapes and scenes that I would otherwise only see in movies, but this trip in particular struck me in the heart and taught me that traveling isn’t just about seeing a new place — it’s also about seeing, experiencing and loving new people.