Before I arrived in Bangkok, I had a very clear idea of what my role here would be. I was going to be a student. I don’t mean to flaunt, but with a whole life of experience and a passion for learning, I think I’m pretty good at being a student. This confidence made me feel as though I had a leg up on the competition. It made me feel like taking the leap and spending six weeks in Thailand would be easy. I was both right and wrong.
It isn’t that being a student turned out to be a difficult task, it’s that I was given a second, unexpected role that I had never had before — tourist. My new role was very apparent from the moment I stepped off the airplane. Locals hovered around the airport, loudly advertising the variety of tour services they provided. Taxi drivers followed us, convinced we needed them because we had no idea where we were going. None of these people were unkind, but it was overwhelming to suddenly receive so much attention.
It wasn’t until our professor had found us and ushered my group into the van that it all sunk in. “What sights do you want to see?” he asked us. The idea wasn’t anything new, I had been asked similar questions by friends and family as I was planning this trip. Yet, for some reason, hearing it while I was driving through Bangkok in the middle of the night is when it sunk in the most. I was now a tourist.
I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with tourism so long as you’re following applicable etiquette for the places you’re visiting. In fact, I love seeing tourists in San Diego because it means my city is cool enough for people to make the effort to travel to. The part I struggle with is how much attention I receive and how far the locals are willing to go for tourists.
It also feels as though I’ve suddenly come upon a vast amount of wealth and shifted into the upper class. To name a few examples, I’ve had drivers wait on me, weekly room cleaning services wherever I am, hotel rooms with the best view, and a studio apartment that looks like something I could find in Del Mar. Being a humble graduate student in a field where money is not plentiful, living a life like this has been jarring to say the least.
I’ll admit, it hasn’t been easy for me to adjust to the idea of being seen as a wealthy tourist. The moments that I feel most comfortable are the moments I get to dress in all black, business casual clothes, walking through the halls of King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital with a purpose. In these moments, despite physically looking like a foreigner, it’s much easier for me to blend in. While I sit beside the bed of one of our palliative care patients, it’s clear that I am not a tourist. I am there to be a social worker, and that is when I’m in my element.
Although I haven’t been able to entirely embrace my new tourist life, I haven’t let the opportunities to be a tourist slip by. So far, I’ve taken a beach trip to Prachuap Khiri Khan, spotted elephants in Kui Buri National Park, visited temples in Bangkok, and toured Ayutthaya. Each of these trips has provided some valuable insight to Thai culture, the role of tourists in Thailand, and has been more fun than I could imagine.
Prachuap Khiri Khan is a province five hours south of Bangkok. It is home to breathtaking beaches, adorable monkeys, and more fishing boats than you can count. We stayed here for one weekend in a beautiful guest house. The locals here treated us with immense kindness and many were eager to get to know us.
Wat Pho is one of Bangkok’s oldest temples and home to the beautiful reclining Buddha above. While leading us through the grounds, our hilarious guide taught us about Buddhism, the history of the temple, and how to gain good fortune. The pride he had for his country and his religion was very apparent, which is something I’ve found to be common in Thai culture.
Ayutthaya was hands down the best location I’ve visited yet. The whole area is rich with history and offers so much to see. Ayutthaya was the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Siam from 1350 to 1765. An invasion by the Burmese left the capital in shambles, leaving it to become the ruins that we see today. Here you’ll notice many of the statues have been beheaded either during the attack in 1765 or by looters who came afterwards. I could easily dive deeper into the various temples of Ayutthaya, but I think it’s better to experience them yourself.
In addition to partaking in various tourist activities around Thailand, I’ve also joined the locals in the everyday activities they enjoy. I’ve taken a run around Lumphini park, I’ve spent a few nights at popular jazz pubs, and I even participated in a salsa and bachata party. While being a tourist has allowed me to learn a lot of history, acting like a local has shown me what life in Bangkok is truly like.
Despite my initial and continued discomfort with being a tourist, I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity for these experiences. It’s given me perspective I wouldn’t find elsewhere and I’ve learned a lot about myself along the way. I can be pushed outside my comfort zone and survive. I can navigate in challenging environments. I’ve learned how vulnerable it feels to face a constant language barrier. Most importantly, I’ve learned that my happy place is working alongside the people.
If I was to give advice to a future study abroad student, I’d tell them that it may be awkward and difficult to adjust at first, but it’ll be worth it in the end.
Ashley Purugganan is a current graduate student in the school of social work. She is spending the summer interning at Chulalongkorn Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand.