On Five Months in Thailand

I never know how to summarize long stays overseas, but I feel like I should say something. I planned to stay for a month, maybe two if things were going well. I ended up staying for five.

It seemed like a long time while I was there. I started calling it home. But now I’m back in the States, watching college football and drinking craft beer. It’s only been a few days, but the memories of Thailand feel like a dream you know you had but can’t remember.

I’ll start with the small details and see what kind of memories those spark.

myCat is a phone service provider in Thailand. I was at their store renewing my monthly phone plan one day. I watched out the window while I waited. It looked across a busy intersection. A large, open bed truck drove by transporting an adult elephant.

There’s a fruit called “durian” that’s popular throughout Southeast Asia. It has a uniquely strong odor which smells exactly like a fart. My local grocery store had a durian display at the front all summer. The whole store smelled like a fart.

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At night, I heard an eerie sound. It was like a frog’s croak, but not as deep. I eventually learned it was a gecko. I heard it every night, but never saw it.

Scooters are everywhere in Thailand. On my first day, I rented a scooter so I could drive around and look for an apartment. I had never driven one before. The building I rented from opened onto the highway, so I didn’t have space to test the acceleration and turning.

I strapped my helmet on tight, waited for an opening in the heavy traffic, then gunned it. I ran straight into the median and had to slowly waddle the scooter backwards, then turn into my lane. The entire flow of traffic came to a stop behind me while I waddle-turned then stutter-stepped to get going. I came home that night and immediately bought traveler’s insurance.

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By the way, I rented that scooter from the nicest lady ever. When I told her that I was new to Thailand and needed to find an apartment, she offered to drive me to a place where an American friend of hers was staying. I didn’t end up staying there, but it was still generous of her.

In general, the Thai people were remarkably warm and welcoming. They smile when they meet a stranger on the street. They don’t mind much where you come from or if you’re a little different, as long as you’re nice.

It felt a lot like the culture in Los Angeles. Maybe it’s something to do with getting so much sun.

Back to my first day, I drove that damn scooter around all day and stopped by every place to ask for their monthly price.

I eventually decided I was doing it wrong. I needed a strong internet connection, so I went to Sinet–an internet service provider. I wrote down the name of every apartment they service, called every one of them, then rented a room with the cheapest one.

My monthly rent was around $135 USD, maybe around $200 after utility bills. It was significantly larger and more comfortable than the room I was renting for $600 in Los Angeles three years ago, which is going for $1,000 today.

I didn’t go in with much of a plan. While teaching in Korea, I was also writing freelance during my free time. As I came to the end of my one year contract, I was planning to move in with a buddy in Arkansas because the cost of living was so low. I found a website that compares cost of living around the world and worked out that I could support myself for a little while until I found a real job.

I got curious about what the cost of living in other parts of the world was like. I spent some time scrolling around their world map, and it turns out a dollar goes a hell of a lot further in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

As I researched it more, I found there was a whole sub-culture in Chiang Mai of people doing this. They’re called “Digital Nomads.” There are writers, programmers, online teachers, and anyone else who can make a buck online. They don’t technically need a working visa as long as they don’t take jobs from Thai companies.

I quickly found a writers group that meets every week. They ranged from rookies like me to travel writers to authors with several published books. A few of them believe that this digital nomad thing is the first step in a movement that will use the internet to revolutionize our relationship to work. A few of them were dreamers.

I spent far too much time alone, even for an extreme introvert like me. This is what my average day looked like:

11am: Wake up. Make a sandwich or get an omelette from the restaurant downstairs ($1). Eat while watching a TV show. Shows watched: Archer, South Park, Peaky Blinders, Narcos.

12-3pm: This was evening in California, so I’d often play computer games with friends from back home. Or if they weren’t on, I would still usually just dick around during this time.

3pm-6pm: Try to get some writing done.

6pm: Dinner. Usually street food. Noodles and chicken. Noodles and beef. Noodles and eggs. Rice and beef and eggs. ($1.25)

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6:30pm-10pm: Teach online. Halfway through my time in Chiang Mai, I started using a Chinese app called “Palfish” to teach online. You click “go online,” then wait for a student to find and call you. You set your own rate and the student pays per minute. Sometimes you get a student immediately, sometimes you wait for hours. Usually I would play a game or practice bass guitar while waiting.

10pm-12pm: Panic and try to catch up on the writing and gig hunting I should have been doing earlier in the day.

12pm-2am: Open a beer ($1.40). Watch a show or play a game or read a book. Call it a night.

I tried to go to meetup groups about once a week so I wouldn’t get completely lost in the digital world and become awkward. Or more awkward than usual, at least.

I had been in a strange, long distance almost relationship with a girl from Macau. We met in California, then visited each other a couple times while I was in Korea.

She said she’d be able to visit often when I got to Thailand because tickets were cheap. I told her that’s great. I told her that I was tired of being on the dating market and I wanted something serious. I told her I wanted that with her.

By the time I left Korea, she still hadn’t told me when she would be able to visit. I told her not to worry about the price, I could pay for her ticket, just come visit anytime even if it’s only for a weekend. But after a month and a half without her starting to make a plan and hardly talking to me, I realized it wasn’t going to happen.

I eventually started dating a Thai girl. She was from a different Thai city, so we were both new to Chiang Mai. We knew I wouldn’t be staying in Chiang Mai for long, so we tried to keep it casual. But you can’t help it when you spend a few months with someone.  It sucked saying goodbye to her.

The dating culture in Korea felt alien to me. No feeling was ever directly stated, even something as simple as feeling tired or not. Every little action felt like a power struggle. But dating in Thailand, again, felt just like California. It was natural. To me, at least.

My writing productivity tanked about half way through. I had been doing copywriting, which is usually writing stuff like advertisements and sales pages. I thought I would enjoy this because I thought I would enjoy any type of writing. I realized something was wrong when I found myself looking forward to my teaching time more than my writing time.

After talking to other copywriters, I got the feeling that copywriting is a different language of writing from the writing I enjoy. It helped me realize what I love isn’t just writing, but storytelling.

I cringe to say this because it feels like a cheesy stereotype, but I think I discovered myself in Thailand. Except it wasn’t because of a minimal education in Buddhist philosophy or due to some drug fueled weekend on the beach. It was because I forced myself every day to do what I thought I wanted to do until I realized it wasn’t actually something I wanted to do.

As soon as I changed my focus to journalism, everything started making sense again. The people in the field were people I wanted to associate with. The writing was the kind of writing I wanted to do. I started to enjoy my work again.

That more or less takes us up to where I am today. I’m back in the US, applying to jobs at newspapers across the country. And until I get that job, I’m staying with my friend in Arkansas, watching college football and drinking craft beer and trying to hang on to the fleeting details of five months in Thailand.

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