I am walking down the Khao San Road just before dinner time, whilst my friend is looking for a new pair of shoes because the last one he bought in the local market fell apart. What I see is people slowly gathering for dinner whilst talking about their stories from last night and planning which new clubs and bars they will pay a visit to tonight.
They look happy and seem to be excited about the drinks that you can get in a bucket for a third of the price that they would cost in Europe or in the States. And I cannot help myself but wonder – why did they fly all the way to Thailand? Was it because they were eager to visit the country, get to know its people, their culture and habits… or was it because they wanted to party for cheap money?
Please do not take me wrong at this point – I have nothing against people visiting other countries and enjoying the local nightlife, but what I consider to be vital is for people, and especially young people, to realise that there is so much more to a country than booze and beach parties. I was fortunate enough to end up living in Thailand for two years during my Sixth Form after having been offered a scholarship by a local international school. These two years had such an enormous impact on me and the way I have developed as an individual: not because of the length of time I spent in the country, but rather because of the intensity and variety of experiences I lived.
During the spring break of my first year we travelled to the north of Thailand, to a city called Chiang Rai which is a bit less known than Chiang Mai but still equally if not even more beautiful. We had the chance to go trekking in the jungle, which was terrifying but also amazing at the same time. Every day we also went to a local school, where apparently the kids had never seen a foreign person before, and taught them some basic English. We were fortunate that the owner of the place where we were staying knew the founder of the school, and so we were offered the opportunity to interact with these kids for a couple of hours each day. But it is not every time that these opportunities will exist.
What I learned during this trip is the incredible power that you have as a visitor to country and what sort of remarkable influence you can have on a particular community. And all it might take is just asking the owner of the hostel that you are staying in about local charities, schools or volunteering opportunities that would take you a few hours each day, but would add so much value to your trip.
A year later I went on holiday to Ko Phi Phi, an island in the south of Thailand, very well known for its beaches but probably even more for its beach parties. We were staying in a small hotel located on a hill so it was always a pain to get to our room, but at least we were rewarded with a remarkable view. One evening, I needed to check something with the reception. After my questions had been answered, I could have made the trip back up the stairs to my bedroom, but the receptionist seemed friendly, so I started asking him questions about his job, his family and life at Ko Phi Phi. It turned out that this receptionist was also the owner of the hotel and somehow, a few minutes later, he was telling me about the tsunami back in 2004 and how much it affected the island. Despite the hotel being half way up the mountain, it was nearly all destroyed as a result of the tsunami. He showed me photos of their hotel, before and after the catastrophe, and it really touched me to see what sort of consequences the tsunami had on people and their lives. It was far more moving and personal in comparison to the news I had seen on TV when it all happened.
These are just two parts of my story of living in a strange country for quite some time. Perhaps you don’t have a spare year in your life where you could just go, move around the world and live in a different country each month. But even if you only have a week or two, try and see how you can make that week meaningful. Whether you can volunteer or engage in any other way with the local community, or whether you can just make yourself really open to the country and its people by hearing out their stories as well as sharing yours.