It has been four years and 2 months since I left my hometown of West Chester, PA, boarded a plane at Philadelphia International Airport, and traveled 23 hours from Boston to Dubai and then to Bangkok. I traveled to Thailand to teach, and I intended to stay for only six months. Instead, I stayed an entire year, and was tempted to remain there even longer in my tiny town in the Northwest corner of the country. In Thailand, I explored myself, I explored people, and I explored a culture that was, at times, bewilderingly different from my own. It was, simply put, one of the best years of my life, and XploreAsia put me in position to experience it.
Upon landing in Bangkok, I was shepherded, along with a group of my fellow travelers, to a small corner of that living city, to a tiny hotel on a tiny street with an incomprehensible name. Since our rooms wouldn't be ready for another hour or so, a group of us dropped our bags in the lobby and headed out into the surrounding streets and the sweltering heat. To a pasty American from the Northeast, it was initially intolerable. By the end of my year there, I grew to love the warmth and the near constant sweating.
That was our first adventure. The next would come later that night while, teaming up with many of the same people, we launched into the Bangkok night on Tuk-Tuks, frantic little buggies which careened through the labyrinthine streets of Bangkok and the Tetris-like traffic. After a night on the infamous Khaosan Road, it was time for much needed rest. The next day, we would begin our two hour journey to Hua-Hin, the site of our TESOL course.
Being a coastal town on the Gulf of Thailand and an attractor to farang tourists and Thais alike, Hua Hin was the perfect landing zone for a group of foreigners finding themselves thrust into the streets of a place that was very different from home. Upon arrival, we were taken to our accommodations. Some of our 70+ group stayed in a series of little cottages closer to the beach, while others of us stayed in a hotel a little outside of town called Glory Place. I was in the latter, fortunate to have a pool and a small gym all on the hotel grounds. Outside our walls, a little village laid host to a favorite restaurant of mine, a little shop where I would drink and eat with the locals, and a beautiful temple atop a nearby hill, perfect for viewing the sunset.
That month in country, from April 1st to the 29th, was a whirlwind. I met countless wonderful people, both Thai and of the Western world, and learned how to teach English as a foreign language with a small group of my peers. The coursework was substantial, but not overly challenging. Our greatest hurdle was submitting ourselves to the vulnerability needed to teach in front of our peers and hear their feedback. By the course's end, this environment forged a strong bond between us all. For many of us, this bond would last throughout our year in country, as well as the years since we have returned home.
In that month there was partying, of course, but there was adventure to and exploration of some truly remarkable places. We took a day trip to Phraya Nakhon Cave, a day hike up and into a sheer cliff on a scenic coastline of white sands and shimmering, turquoise ocean. Inside the cliff, in a world-sized cave with an opening in its ceiling and sunlight pouring through, a small altar to an ancient temple. Add to this trips to the local mall, an elephant sanctuary, an island populated with monkeys and an abandoned Buddhist monastery, and a pineapple farm, the price of taking the course in country is worth its cost. Without a doubt, spending that first month soaking in the sights and sounds of Thailand proved indispensable.
By the end of April, the XploreAsia staff had set us up with a school and accommodation somewhere in the country. They did their best to accommodate our desires and wants, and you would do well to limit your expectations. As one of the XploreAsia staff members related to us within the first week, "you may not get the experience that you want, but you will get the experience that you need."
Being a reasonably open minded person, I was able to get both. In the first few days of May, I arrived in Tak, my quaint little town in the Northwest of Thailand, settled in a valley surrounded by hills and nestled alongside a river. There I would live a life that, years later, appears to be that of someone else's: a novel, quiet, and remarkable life marked by adventure and simplicity.
My journey after that is long and too much to relay to you here. But what I can tell you is that XploreAsia, and subsequently Thailand and my experience there-in, was a means to profound personal growth. Without my experience with XploreAsia, I would not have been armed with the tools necessary to navigate that beautiful and befuddling Eastern world, and more importantly, the perspective and sense to navigate my own here at home.
So, go ahead. Explore Asia. Explore yourself.