I often get asked where my favorite place I’ve ever traveled is. The answer is always Thailand. I spent the Fall semester of 2015 studying at Mahidol University in Salaya, Thailand. There’s something special about this little Southeast Asian country. From lush tropical islands to the sprawling urban jungle of Bangkok, there’s something for everyone here.
Thailand is somewhat of a right of passage for backpackers. It’s especially popular among Australian and European gap year-ers. However, I think the best way to see Thailand is by spending a semester studying and living among local students. You’ll get a much deeper understanding of the culture and the people and be able to see places off the beaten tourist trail.
Here are some of the reasons why Thailand is the ideal study abroad destination.
Thailand is dirt cheap
I don’t know about you but I think college is already too damn expensive to begin with. It was a good thing that Thailand was my top choice because it was the cheapest location my school offered. Not only was the program cheap, but I ended up with spending money to spare at the end of my semester. This is because everything in Thailand is so unbelievably cheap. I spent about $5 a day on food (that is breakfast, lunch, AND dinner my friends!) My shining moment as a budget traveler was scoring a roundtrip flight from Bangkok to Krabi for $22.
Thailand has some of the best food in the world. The unique blend of sweet, sour, and spicy (think Pad Thai) makes Thai cuisine incredibly delicious and hard to replicate. With endless variations of curries, noodle dishes, fried rice, and soups your taste buds will definitely never get bored.
Meet people from all over the world
Before studying abroad I had very limited exposure to people from anywhere other than the United States. Within the first week of arriving, I had friends from all over the globe. There were students at my school from Switzerland, Germany, Canada, China, Korea, Serbia, and of course Thailand. Through these friendships I learned about all different customs, cultures, and beliefs and became so much more open-minded and accepting.
Easy access to all of Asia
Flights from Bangkok to other Asian countries are very cheap and accessible. In my four months I was also able to visit Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. I had friends who saw even more countries than I did.
The most expensive flight I took was a $200 roundtrip flight to Bali. If you’re not big into flying or you’re on an extremely tight budget, there are also trains, buses, and boats frequently to surrounding countries.
Unique class experiences
While I was studying in Thailand my favorite class was Introduction to Oceanography. The class itself wasn’t particularly interesting but the field trips were incredible. We took two field trips over the course of the trimester.
The first was a 4-day island getaway to Koh Chang Ranong. On this island we snorkeled, ate delicious local food, and took hikes through bamboo forests. The second trip was a 2-day adventure to Koh Sak, a little island off the coast of Pattaya. We got to snorkel some more, visit the local beaches, and collect and analyze trash that washed up on the shore.
I don’t know where you guys go to school but my public university in Milwaukee definitely doesn’t offer free island getaways with their courses.
Living among locals
It would be really easy to visit Thailand and only interact with other foreigners. Many hostels and businesses in touristy places are run by expats or Thais who have spent most of their lives in English-speaking countries.
If you study abroad in Thailand you’ll naturally be going to school with many local students. There will be local businesses nearby run by people who don’t speak a word of English. You’ll likely live among locals. The street that my apartment was on was about half high-rise apartment buildings and half shacks with local people running businesses out of their front door.
Students are respected
It’s not that Thai people look down on tourists. But you’ll get a lot more respect if you tell people you’re a student. This shows locals that you’re not just there for a couple of days to party on Khao San Road. You’re actually contributing to their society.
There were times when I would be in situations that felt a little uncomfortable. All I had to do was tell someone that I was a Mahidol student and I could usually get directions or help quicker. If I would wear my school uniform out in Bangkok people were generally a lot friendlier and I got less “tourist prices” when shopping.
No language requirement
Most study abroad destinations have a language requirement. I don’t know about your school but mine definitely does not offer Thai as a foreign language class. But the good news was that I didn’t need to know a word of Thai before booking my ticket. At any international school in Thailand, you’ll find a whole catalogue of courses taught in English.
However, I highly recommend learning at least a few words in the local language when you’re traveling. This will help you get cheaper prices in the markets, it’ll make cab rides less scary, and it will help you relate to locals better. I took a Thai language and culture class while I was there and it made traveling around so much easier.
Thailand is not a typical study abroad location
Okay let me clear something up quick before I start — there is absolutely nothing wrong with Paris, Rome, London, or Dublin. I would love the opportunity to spend time in any of those cities. But do you really want the same study abroad experience as everyone else? When I studied abroad in Thailand I didn’t know a single other person who had done it before me. I got to experience things my friends had only added to their Pinterest boards. There is always going to be some uncertainty that comes with taking the road less traveled, but if you push those doubts to the side you’ll be rewarded with the most amazing and life-changing semester of your life.