Chiang Mai: First Impressions

I’m here! And I’m in love. While I haven’t had too much time to explore the city itself, I know enough to know that I am in love with this country. It really is true what they say: The Land of a Thousand Smiles doesn’t disappoint- these people are the nicest people you’ll ever meet!  Thailand is one of the happiest places on earth and the energy that the people give off is contagious.

I am just realizing this now, but the first few weeks of China I was experiencing heavy culture shock.  I wasn’t able to identify it at the time because it’s not something I’d experienced before- but the easy transition here has made me realize that those odd and uncomfortable feelings I was having during the first 2-2.5 weeks of my trip was due to culture shock.

In China’s defense, Thailand came with a full team of support on the ground here which was obviously extremely helpful in making the transition, but it also has to do with the country itself.  There are fewer people and therefore it is much less chaotic. Many people in Chiang Mai speak English which is both comforting but also gives me a false sense of security. And the food- the food is amazing.  I eat two dinners on a consistent basis.  Not an early dinner at 5 and again at 9 or something… I sit down and order two menu items at the same time because I can’t decide which I want.  When in doubt- order both.  I’m going to scale back because I don’t want to go broke and obese, but I mean….

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Despite the easy transition though, I find myself talking about China a lot.  I don’t mean to, but it’s an easy point of reference when talking about culture.  While it’s been a fairly painless adjustment, Thailand is still an Asian country and there are definitely noticeable differences from what I a used to.

They drive on the left side of the road.  Is that common knowledge? Was I supposed to know that before I came here? That was my biggest surprise upon arrival. At least the ridiculous driving in China has set me up nicely.  They’re crazy drivers, but a little less so than China. However, they make sure to throw in opposite side driving to keep you on your toes!

America is built on the foundation that everyone is created equal. In Thailand, nobody is equal. The various forms of respect and how to convey it is somewhat complicated and a little bit stressful.  Waiing (pronounced like “why”) is a respectful bow performed to elders.  However, there are different levels at which one wais depending on the individual’s rank in society. Monks are the highest (besides the king, obviously), teachers and parents are up there as well.  It’s a very bizarre feeling when students wai at you.  I feel the need to say thank-you or something!

The language is a little tough.  Much like Mandarin, it is a tonal language with five different tones.  Each are distinguishable, however, since English is not a tonal language, we are not trained to hear the differences quite as strongly as those who speak Thai or mandarin and the concept is quite difficult to grasp, as well as to listen for and be aware of when using.  The word for leg, please, yes, and kill are all the same….. but pronounced differently.  I’m going to try to be polite and end up asking to kill someone instead. And then I’ll end up in Thai prison.  And then I’ll never come home or see anyone again. I’m sure of it.   Also, there are not really pronouns or verb conjugations.  I went to the market is the same as she is going to the market and you just kind of— know what the other person means.  There are also specific words to show respect to elders and elders use a specific word to refer to younger people. Except that it’s impolite to ask someone their age- so you just guess?

So essentially: Understand which person and which tense someone is talking in- guess their age to address them correctly but don’t be wrong because that’s both disrespectful and embarrassing and also make sure to say the right words in the right tone so avoid going to Thai prison for the rest of your life. Okay go.