I made the decision to study abroad at the end of my sophomore year in college. It was an impulsive decision that led to me living in Bangkok the following semester and, to be honest, I still can't believe I did it.
At the time, I was leaving two full-time jobs, an apartment on a lease, and a pretty insular, sheltered life on the island I grew up on. Yet even considering those factors, choosing to study in Thailand, the Land of Smiles, remains one of the best decisions I’ve ever made to this day.
Despite the political unrest you may see on the news, Thailand is a very peaceful country as long as you're culturally sensitive and aware.
Why? Because studying abroad in Thailand not only exceeded my educational expectations, but also satisfied my need for spontaneity and adventure. During my first week in the country, for example, I ended up traveling with new friends and riding to Prachuap Khiri Khan (south of Bangkok), where we hiked to a temple in the mountains and shared amazing views of the sea with a tribe of noisy monkeys. It was an adventure that would set the tone for the rest of my semester: unexpected, organic, and mind-opening.
So if you’re considering an alternative study abroad experience, one that will stretch your dollar, your mind, your LinkedIn network, and (maybe) your tolerance for spicy food, I wholeheartedly recommend studying in Thailand. Here a few reasons why (plus a quiz at the end to see if it's right for you):
Thailand is a Safe Country
Despite the political unrest you may see on the news, Thailand is a very peaceful country. That is, as long as you're culturally sensitive and aware. According to the International Sustainable Development Studies Institute (ISDSI), a study abroad provider that runs a unique program in Thailand, “cultural competency is safety.” Often, travelers put themselves into risky situations simply because they're unaware that behavior at home may be interpreted differently abroad.
In Thailand, this means that you should:
- Educate yourself about Thai culture: learn what actions show respect (e.g. taking your shoes off when you enter someone's home) and disrespect (e.g. stepping on anything with the king's face on it).
- Learn the language: knowing even a little bit of Thai will go a long way in demonstrating that you're genuinely curious about Thai people and culture. People really appreciate the attempt.
- Act (and dress) appropriately: this usually means wearing more conservative clothing, especially in the southern, more Muslim region of Thailand, as well as in rural areas.
“Students who hang out with just other Americans and/or tourists and act and dress in culturally inappropriate ways are the ones who get into trouble and are the victims of crimes,” says ISDSI. “Thai culture places a lot of emphasis on presentation of self, so dressing like a student or a culturally clued-in person, rather than a backpacker or tourist, makes a huge difference on first impressions.”
Additionally, ISDSI warns to avoid the more touristy party and drinking scenes, such as full moon parties, as well as the known “tourist ghettos.” Students who seek out these areas are more likely to be the victims of crime.
Keeping that in mind, as long as you remain vigilant and situationally aware, as you would be traveling in any other country, your safety in Thailand shouldn’t be an issue.
Thailand is an Affordable Study Abroad Destination
For me, cost was one of the primary reasons why I chose to study in Thailand. I couldn’t afford to live on my savings in most other countries, so choosing Thailand, one of the most cost-effective places to study abroad, was a no-brainer.
Though the fees vary by university/program, you can expect that your overall living costs will be less than those of your friends studying in places like Paris or Prague. An average budget of 15,000 baht (or roughly $433 USD) is needed per month to cover living expenses in the country -- try doing that in London!
When it comes to tuition, though, ISDSI offers a note of caution when you come across programs that seem almost too cheap to be true. “If a program is too inexpensive,” ISDSI says, “you have to wonder if they really have the infrastructure and backup to both create a unique experience and take care of things if there is a problem.”
According to ISDSI, you can expect tuition to cost about the same as your home university or college. “If a program looks really inexpensive, then you need to double check and see if there are hidden costs (e.g. they don’t include the cost of housing or food),” ISDSI advises.
Fortunately, programs like ISDSI offer students cash stipends so that their financial aid is able to cover their expenses, just like back home. Definitely don’t assume you’ll have to pay out of pocket for everything -- just like college, financial assistance extends to study abroad as well.
There are a Variety of Educational Options
No matter your area of study or interest, Thailand is a great destination for most majors, including business, anthropology, biology, environment, sustainability, and development.
For me, cost was one of the primary reasons why I chose to study in Thailand.
For myself, an international business/marketing major, I was able to find a program that satisfied my university’s credit requirements -- and the practical applications for what I learned in country were priceless. I was given the unique opportunity to study global economy while living in Thailand, a “newly industrialized country”, back in 2008.
Another example of a unique learning experience is ISDSI’s semester program called “People, Ecology, and Development,” which offers courses in a more hands-on, immersive environment. You just can’t learn that stuff at your home university, while sitting in a sterile classroom.
The Travel Opportunities are Endless
All work, no play? Traveling on the weekends is one of the core motivations for studying abroad! Fortunately, with the money you’ll be saving from lower living expenses, you can afford to travel as often as your program will allow. A weekend spent rock climbing in Kho Phi Phi? A holiday celebrating Songkran in Chiang Mai? Those are just a few of the many possibilities you can embark on while studying in Thailand.
Plus, being so close to countries like Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, it’s easy (and relatively cheap) to cross borders. Not to mention, bus travel is an accessible, affordable method of transport.
So You’re Going to Thailand -- Now What?
Here are some do's and don'ts for making the most out of your stay:
- Do learn the Thai language. Not only is it respectful to learn a few key phrases, such as "please" and "thank you" (and the Thai people do appreciate a farang, or foreigner, making the effort!), but it would also be helpful for communicating in an emergency situation.
- Don't hang out exclusively with foreigners. Make Thai friends and practice your new language skills! You won't regret it.
- Do participate in a homestay, if the option is available to you. I was given the opportunity to stay for a week with a Thai family in Ayutthaya, and it was by far one of my favorite memories.
- Don’t just stay in Bangkok. Look for programs in places like Chiang Mai. Wherever you are, get out of the city, and explore the rest of the beautiful country, especially if the price is right. Go to the south for beach lounging and rock climbing or up north for hiking and tubing.
- Do try Muay Thai or another Thai sport/activity. You won't get this opportunity anywhere else.
- Don’t hang out and party in tourist areas. Challenge yourself to try new things, and meet new kinds of people! Open your mind and expectations -- you won't be disappointed.
Honestly, I didn’t think that studying in Thailand would have had the impact it did on me, nearly a decade later -- academically, professionally, and even personally. I couldn’t have predicted that the one semester I spent in Bangkok would set so much else in motion in my life: spending the rest of my twenties traveling all over the world, returning to visit Bangkok (twice), maintaining lifelong friendships with my classmates (one whose wedding I recently attended). If nothing else, your experience is sure to be unforgettable, and I hope even in some small way, as it was for me, life-changing.
Curious to see if you and Thailand are meant to be? Take this quiz and find out!
Read reviews of ISDSI's programs in Thailand.Photo credit: ISDSI.