There was no better way to kick off my first semester of my senior year at Saint Leo University than studying abroad in Thailand. Being originally from Jamaica, I was already studying abroad in the United States. However, I caught the travel bug and decided to make my way to the "Land of Smiles" for this Saint Leo study abroad adventure.
This was a year's decision in the making. In the spring of 2018, I spoke to Paige Ramsey- Hamacher, the senior director and PDSO of the Multicultural and International Services Office at Saint Leo, to see what my options were. Under thoughtful consideration, I ended up choosing Thailand and signed up with one of Saint Leo's partner programs, International Studies Abroad (ISA).
The Flight to the East
Prior to my fall 2018 disembarkation, I was filled with excitement. I followed the ISA pre-check list to a "T." I got all my required vaccinations, bought all the bug sprays and mosquito repellent wristlets I would need, Jamaican snacks to last me the entire semester, a good amount of clothes that I could fit into one suitcase, and of course, most importantly, my Thailand visa.
Backpack in hand and suitcase in clutch, my happy-go-lucky self was ready to hit the airport and be on my way on this Saint Leo study abroad trip. My three-day journey to the East started off in Jamaica. From Jamaica, I caught a plane to Miami. From Miami, I flew to New Jersey. From New Jersey, I went to Tokyo, and finally, from Tokyo to Bangkok, Thailand.
Upon my final arrival, I contemplated if this was the right decision. However, after eventually passing through immigration and picking up my suitcase, I arrived at the ISA meeting spot opposite the baggage claim. Despite my two-hour delay and the fact that it was almost 2 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, Megan Dekievit, the assistant resident director, was more than happy to welcome me to my new temporary home.
Introduction to Thailand and My Saint Leo Study Abroad Home
After four hours of sleep, the same day, I had my first scheduled excursion with ISA. Bright and early, all the other ISA students and I gathered outside our new home – Bundit home, in Salaya. Three vans loaded, we started off our Thailand experience by going to the Phutthamonthon Park. Immediately afterward, we jetted off to the western province of Kanachaburi.
For the entire weekend, we stayed at the RN River Raft Hotel, a small boutique hotel that is literally on the water. The following morning, we went to a traditional wet market, along the way passing vendors selling fresh vegetables, fruits, sweet treats, and the infamous Thai coffee. While at the market, we had the opportunity to partake in giving merit. The concept of giving merit is a Thai tradition in which you offer food to Monks. In exchange for your good deed, you receive a blessing.
The same day, we went to Thailand's 12th national park, the Erawan National Park. It has seven major tiers, each of which is accessible by a series of trails and some steep, uphill climbs. To top off the weekend, on our last day of our first excursion, we bathed with elephants at the Sai Yok Elephant Conservatory, visited the Krasae cave, and learned about the heartbreaking history of the death bridge.
For the remainder of my stay in Thailand, of course I attended my scheduled Monday, Wednesday, and Friday classes at the Mahidol University International College, but the weekends were reserved for exploration. Quickly adapting to how cheap things were in Thailand, such as food that was less than $3 American dollars per meal, I also mastered Thailand's public transportation system, learned how to bargain my way through the famous JJ market, and also ate my way through some eclectic Thai dishes.
From Muay Thai fights, to visiting the Grand Palace, to kayaking in Krabi, to snorkeling near the island of Koh Samet, to camping and hiking in Khao Yai, to moped riding through Chiang Mai, to Thai massages and Pad Thai dishes, I wouldn't trade anything in the world for my Saint Leo study abroad experience.
Other Excursions Across Asia
While already in the East, I made the decision to fly to China and to Hong Kong. One weekend, I flew to Shen Zhen, China to visit my dad's first cousins. Now, even though they knew very little English, we found commonality in the language of food. While I was there, my uncles and aunties treated me to home-cooked, authentic Chinese dishes but also various amounts of hot pot dishes. On the very last night I was there, my cousins took me out to try spicy hot pot. Unfamiliar with the menu, I agreed to try everything they ordered. I can now say that I've tried pig's brain and duck blood. Would I ever eat it again? Maybe not. But I can cross eating "exotic" dishes off my bucket list.
I also went to Hong Kong where I visited my mom's first cousins. Hong Kong reminded me of a much cleaner and mountainous New York. The expatriates and diverse food and cultures in Hong Kong captured my heart. While getting to know family, I also got to see more of Hong Kong. My aunt Inna took me up and about, visiting the famous Madame Tussaud Museum, the Lo Pin Monastery, the Big Buddha on Lantau Island, various malls, downtown Hong Kong, and the Jumbo Floating Restaurant. Visiting this part of the world for only a short period had me seriously contemplating moving to Hong Kong.
Reverse culture shock exists, and I did not experience it until I got back to America. After getting used to another culture for three-and-a-half months during my Saint Leo study abroad travels, returning to America was like trying to reteach myself how to adapt all over again. Slowly reverting back to my usual schedule, I could not help but wish I had travelled more to other Asian countries, but also to more provinces within Thailand. Nonetheless, words cannot describe how much I enjoyed my Saint Leo study abroad experience, but reminiscing about my trip makes me want to fly back.
Author bio: Rebecca Hugh is a graduating senior at Saint Leo University who is majoring in marketing. She has visited over 10 countries in her lifetime, including Brazil, Suriname, and Curacao. She also has an extra pair of ribs and was nicknamed "spare ribs." In the future, she'd like to pursue a career in content writing and hopes to own and produce her own online publication.