Thursday, February 6, 2014

Thailand: Final Thoughts

If you actually read all 6 parts of my Thailand posts, I truly applaud you.  I know a few of you appreciate the play-by-play, but for most people it's probably pretty tedious.  However, this blog is as much for you all at home as it is for me.  When this trip fades into the depths of my memories, I want to be able to remember all of the mundane details of every day.  So, sorry for the length, but I have a few final thoughts about the trip.

Although I didn't quite feel the impact of Thailand in full force while I was there, I find that the more I think about that time there, the more I am realizing how remarkable it was.  In a way, it seems that I was constantly surrounded by so much, and it's only been afterwards that I've been able to really process it all.

When I first got a glimpse of Thailand, I immediately knew I wasn't in Korea anymore. As soon as we left the airport and got in the taxi I started noticing how things were different.  And it all started with the driving. I thought driving in Korea was crazy, but Thailand brings it to a whole new level.  There are essentially no rules to the road, and there are motorbikes EVERYWHERE.  It's amazing, and really I'm just glad that we survived the roads.  Just about every time we got into a vehicle I felt like I was gambling my life.  It was kind of like being on a roller coaster. You really feel like you could die, but when you don't you feel triumphant-like you've just survived something great.

But that was only one of the reasons I instantly knew I was in a very different country.  I've become so accustomed to seeing signs in Korean, but obviously the writing in Thailand was in Thai (shocking, right?!)  In Korea I can at least read signs, but it was almost like being back at the days when I first got here and didn't understand anything. I was, once again, illiterate.  I was reminded how even the smallest things were different in the beginning of my time in Korea.  For example, the bathroom.  In Thailand we had to pay 3 baht to use the bathroom.  What?! You have to pay for the bathroom?!  And once you get's not pretty.  The squatters in Thailand are different from the ones in Korea, and let me just say not for the better.  There are also little spray-type things that people use instead of toilet paper.  Think of the little sprayers in kitchen sinks.  Yeah, those ones.  In the bathroom.  Ummmm what?!

Ok, that's a lot of information about the bathroom.  Sorry.

So, yes there were things that immediately struck me about Thailand.  Driving and toilets, but also the palm trees, street vendors, kids riding around on motorbikes with their parents (no helmets), the broken down houses, the smog in the air.  There are a million things that hit me at once.

But still, perhaps more poignant was how everything was incredibly catered to tourists.  I have not seen so many westerners my entire time in Korea. Even in Korea's cities where there are more westerners, it doesn't come close to Thailand. There were tourists EVERYWHERE.  I knew the places we were going to were touristy, but I never anticipated there would be THAT many.  And the really amazing thing to me was that there were people from ALL over.  In Korea, if I see a westerner, I almost know for certain that they are from an English speaking country.  In Thailand, there were people from all over--especially from China and the European countries.  I think we heard just about every language there is, and it made me realize once again how lucky we are to be born speaking English.  It truly is the international language--even people form other European or Asian countries had to use English to communicate. To have a brain that is programmed in English is a huge benefit when traveling, and it's definitely not something I take for granted.

Since Thailand's economy depends so desperately on tourism, we were always being asked to buy things.  You can buy little elephant or Buddha trinkets at just about every turn.  When the vendors see you, they see an opportunity to make money.  By the end of the trip this started to get to me.

Although, I get it.  Because another thing I'm taking away from this trip is a renewed awareness of how privileged I am.  I don't think of myself as rich, but in comparison to so many people in the world, I am rich.

On our ride back from the elephant park one of the ladies in our van was talking to the Thai man who was our guide.  She asked him if he's ever traveled to any other countries, and he replied by saying that no, he hasn't.  He told her that he's too busy worrying about day-to-day things to even think about traveling.  He has to worry about eating and paying for bills and taking care of his family. The option of going to another country just isn't there. Traveling in itself is such a privilege, one that the majority of the people can't enjoy.

When I look back on the experiences of my life, I really get overwhelmed when I think about the opportunities I've had.  The thing about traveling that amazes me is it makes me realize that I could have just as easily have been any of these people. None of us choose the circumstances we're born into, and I just happen to have been born into good ones. I've had  rich life in so many ways, and I guess sometimes I wonder why and what I can do with it.

One a different noet, another thing I took away from this trip was a sense of reassurance that living in Korea for a year was the right decision.  When I told people I was moving to Korea, many people asked why I didn't want to just keep teaching and travel during the summers.  My main response was that I thought living in another country would be a completely different experience from traveling, and I wanted the experience of living in another culture.

I don't think I could have been right about that.  I saw Thailand, but I feel like I only got the faintest sense of what that the country is really about.  I got a feel for it, but really everything is so catered to the tourists that at times I had to wonder if I was seeing the actual country or just taking advantage of cheap shopping opportunites.

Living in Korea has provided me with an opportunity to experience life in another culture.  There are many things I'm yet to learn about Korea, but I feel like I know this culture now.  I can understand it, and the country that used to be "some place over there" is now my home.  Korea has a piece of my heart now.  I have Korean friends.  I crave bibimbap, dakgalbi, and kimbap.  I can read Korean and say key phrases. I can navigate my way around the country's transportation system. I get Korea. And when there's something I don't get, I get how to deal with it.

I saw Thailand, but I know Korea.

Don't get me wrong, there's real value to seeing another country.  And if anything, this trip made me want to see more.  But there's also no replacement for really knowing a country.

With that said, if I ever travel to Thailand again, I'd love a chance to go to the less touristy areas so that I could really get to know the culture.

One final thing that really surprised me about the trip was how homesick it made me.  Don't get me wrong, I was happy the whole time I was there, but I haven't missed home in such a tangible way since I've been in Korea.  Maybe it was being twice removed from my home country.  But most likely, it was probably seeing Megan.  In Korea, I don't have any real connections to home in my everyday life.  Being with Megan was like having a part of my old life right there with me, and I could think of home so vividly that it really caught me off guard.

Of course, being in Thailand also made me realize how much I adore my life in Korea.  I was so happy to come back and see my friends here.  I didn't see my Jeomchon friends for two weeks and it felt like an eternity.

I had an awesome time in Thailand.  I did things I never could have even imagined.  It's a place that even three years ago I probably didn't even care about seeing.  But now that I have I'll never forget it. I'm truly thankful for that.

But perhaps traveling isn't only valuable for the experiences you gain and sights you see.  Perhaps it's valuable because when you come back home, you have a renewed sense of appreciation for home.

With that said...I'm home now.  I saw my friends and my clothes are clean.  I already feel the desire to travel again, and I'm already thinking about where I want to go next.  I'm a homebody, but I'm afraid I'm also a traveler at heart.  I have a feeling the battle between these two things is going to be a central conflict in my life for quite some time.

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