I am adopted by a Thai family for a day! Photos, stories, and bucket list successes.
Our first weekend-long excursion with Cal Poly’s study abroad program started out with a homestay at a village outside of Chiang Mai.
We travelled by van on a tummy-twisting winding road for about three hours. Soon we were in an area thick with jungle.
We popped out of the vans into a tiny community of shanty houses and dirt roads. Roosters and chickens roamed in yards. Dogs napped in sunny patches. Thick jungle surrounded us.
We were then divided up into groups of four and given a host family. My mæ̀ (“mom”), like all the mæ̀’s in the village, was an adorable petite woman with a sun-stained smile. She spoke only one word of english: “ok.”
Luckily I knew hello (sawatdee kah) and thank you, (kopkoon kah).
She lead us up one of the dirt roads to our temporary home:
My Thai family’s abode was quite unlike anywhere I had ever stayed. As is customary in Thai culture, we had to remove our shoes before stepping inside the quaint hovel.
Made of creeky wood and tin slabs, the downstairs had a large open space, with items and cabinets along the sides.
Dad was whittling something in the kitchen. The long curled shavings of tan wood piled up at his feet. He looked up from his work and acknowledged us with a laconic nod.
Mæ̀ then showed us the bathroom:
The ground was covered in pebbles, with wooden stepping stones leading between the toilet, door, and sink. There was a massive furry spider residing on the inside of the door (definitely in the top five largest spiders I have ever seen). The toilet was western-style, which was surprising, and there was toilet paper, which was also a blessing. The shower, however, consisted of merely a spout in the corner of the room. My guess is, the rocks were meant as a filtration system for the shower.
Of all the places I have ever gone to the bathroom, this one was by far the most thrilling adventure. It was equal parts terrifying and humbling.
She then lead us upstairs to our sleeping arrangements.
I got a huge splinter on the handrail as I walked up the stairs, which, honestly, was an amusing point for me so I wasn’t too upset.
Two large windows looked out over the other houses and huts. I think we got really lucky since we were in a house much higher than the others, and could look down to see the layout of the village.
Mountains covered in thick green jungle rose up around the valley. The shapes of exotic tropical trees were perfect silhouettes against the sky. The moon that night was full and the sky iridescent.
We were given a complimentary plate of unripe mango slices, which were crunchy, sweet, and delicious. Definitely the best I’ve ever had. We slept in groups of two, with one pair’s room off to the side, and the other pair in a canopied corner in the main room.
We set our belongings down and went out to explore the area.
I could feel the closeness of this community immediately.
Neighbors could converse with one another from porches, and we quickly learned all the scruffy mutts by name.
I bet every person in the village had grown up together, had experienced a smaller than small-town universe.
There was a restaurant, a cafe, and a couple of shack-like giftshops along a jungle stream.
We also had the option of taking a little hike to a waterfall. Every once in a while, we saw the town peacock, on a rooftop or walking along a dirt path.
The class met up to have lunch at the restaurant, and then we were given some free time.
We spent a large portion of our time in Mae Song just hanging out by the “7/11,” which was just the downstairs of one of the houses. There was a convenient store portion at the front, but you could see that, only a few feet further back, a family was playing FIFA on a big TV. There was an adorable toddler who was very curious as to our presence.
We sat on the steps and took sips of a locally brewed rice whisky (bleck!) paired with Thai redbull (bleck!). I’m glad I tried it, but wouldn’t call the rice whisky my Thai beverage of choice.
We also tried a local Northern Thai dish: sausage! The sausage was grilled right in front of us, on an average homestyle charcoal grill.
I had read that this particular style of sausage was one of the spicier dishes in Thailand. This was early on in my trip, and I was not very confident about my spice tolerance. However, I couldn’t resist giving it a try. I’m really glad I did, because it was absolutely delicious! An explosion of flavor; salty, herbal, spicy goodness. The spice didn’t hit until a LONG time after swallowing, which was a very bizarre sensation.
After our free time, we went ziplining with Flight of The Gibbon. You can read more on my experience here.
At night, we had dinner in the village’s recreation center. We were hosted in a room that looked quite like my middle school’s wrestling room: bouncy gym-mat floor, flyers posted on the walls.
We were given a traditional style, khantoke-resembling meal, with sticky rice, soup, chicken, and a plate of rambutan and mangosteen (my two favorite Thai fruit, unless you count mangos). We sat on the floor around woven tables.
A band played traditional Thai music on old wooden instruments, and a woman in traditional dress danced wearing long fingernail caps. Women were constantly refilling the dishes, and we felt very welcomed.
After dinner, we were given a very special treat: a traditional spirit ceremony! The ceremony combined ancient Buddhist and ancient Animistic Thai culture, and is something that very few tourists get to experience.
We all (37 of us) sat down in a giant circle around the room, legs crossed. A man who had once been a Buddhist Monk lead us in the ceremony.
He took a spool of white string and brought it in a circle around the room. Women held the string with their left hands, men with their right. Soon we were all united in the single unbroken line.
Our guide explained that, even if we were enjoying ourselves here, we may not have brought our full selves with us. Part of our spirits were still trapped back at home. This ceremony would help our spirits travel to our bodies so that we could be truly in the moment as long as our travels allowed. (From what I understand. If I am wrong, please let me know in the comments!!).
The monk began chanting in Thai as we sat in our circle. The moment stretched on and on as he sang in a deep, lilting rhythm. Some of us kept eyes closed through the song, but I couldn’t help but peek. About halfway through the song, a bat suddenly flew in through the open door. It flew round and round the room, silent enough that those without open eyes wouldn’t notice. The moment gave me chills. The bat flew out of the room before the monk’s song ceased. Perhaps the bat carried our spirits here? Who knows. It was a beautiful moment.
Then the ex-monk came around and tied the string around our wrists, cutting the line so that we each had our own band. Our guide translated to us that we could not take off our bracelets ourselves. We must wait until the bands fall off of their own accord. There was also something about, “after three days,” but I forget exactly its significance. Maybe you get bad luck if it falls off before the three days? I’m not sure.
Mine fell off on the fourth day, but I know that some girls have managed to keep theirs on for months after having them tied on.
The ex-monk came around with water and a blossomed branch from some sort of local plant. He splashed the water onto our hands, and brushed the plant against our palms. It smelled amazing, like a concentrated plumeria scent.
After the ceremony, we made our way back up the hill to our temporary Thai homes.
We all congregated around the 7/11 for the rest of the evening, telling stories and playing American songs on phone speakers.
Eventually, since there wasn’t much to do in this village, we went back to our respective homes. It was ~11:00pm by this point, and I expected my mæ to be in bed. However, she was waiting for us. I felt so bad for making her stay up to wait!
I had somehow ended up in a group of four where I was the only female, and since I wasn’t really comfortable sharing a bed with one of the guys, I was trying to move some items off of a secondary bed upstairs. She saw me doing this and rushed to help. I kept trying to say, “thank you! I am ok!” but she continued to rearrange mattresses and blankets until my bed was quite laden.
I really needed to shower after a long day of sweating and ziplining, and still hadn’t brushed my teeth or gotten into my pajamas, but mæ would not leave until I was under the covers. She then proceeded to lay more and more blankets on top of me! Every time I would try to get up out of the bed, she would exclaim and coo and tuck me back in. Keep in mind, this is Thailand, and it was hot. I probably could have slept soundly with only a sheet. One of my roommates walked in and asked me what was going on, and I told him, defeatedly, “uhhh, I’m being tucked in. She won’t let me leave.”
I was laughing through all of this, and trying to tell her “kopkoon kah! I am ok!” she would just say, “kah” and continue to pile more blankets on top of me. Eventually, she stopped, and left to go back downstairs. I was finally able to shower and brush my teeth in the bathroom from Fear Factor.
After I got in my covers and turned off the light, paranoia hit me, and I slathered myself with anti-mosquito goo. And when I say slathered, I mean slathered. I felt like a slug. In my defence, there were a lot of bugs in this room.
All night long, we could hear the sounds of the jungle. Nocturnal animals big and small cawed and chirped and whooshed and rustled and attracted mates. It was LOUD. It was the most beautiful lullaby soundtrack I have ever fallen asleep to.
The next morning, we woke up early for an alms giving ceremony. Monks in Thailand must devote their lives to their path to enlightenment and their teaching of Buddhist philosophy. This means they must leave behind such worldly attachments such as family or jobs. Because monks therefore can’t work for food, citizens donate food to the monks in the form of alms.
My mæ gave me a silver bowl full of various goodies: rambutan, mangos, and home-dried fish wrapped in cellophane.
We all walked to the small local temple. We sat on the floor, taking care not to point feet at any images of Buddha.
(Note the string leading to the Buddha image: the same plain white string that we had tied on all our wrists)
We participated in a quick, quiet ceremony and then proceeded to place our alms on a table.
We brought the bowls back to our families, and they rewarded us with breakfast. Breakfast was a lot of fun, we sat on the porch overlooking the village.
Dad made us batch after batch of toast and we had to keep eating because we didn’t know how to tell him we were done.
This homestay was definitely the biggest amount of culture shock that I had ever experienced while I was in Thailand. I woulnd’t trade the awkward experience for anything.