Jungle Living in Thailand (What I Learned When I Gave Up Running Water)

Thailand is an adventurer’s paradise but the true adventure happens when you abandon your creature comforts to experience the country’s wild glory.

In the summer of 2005, I packed my bags and boarded a 747 bound for Bangkok. At the tender age of 20, I signed up to spend a summer in Thailand, teaching English among the Kui people of Northeast Thailand.

What I learned went far beyond the teeming streets of Bangkok and touristy beaches of Phuket — it was a lesson learned only when I abandoned my perception of comfort and fully embraced my new home. In a nutshell, it was soul-shaping.

Here are a few of the lessons I learned from my time living in Thailand’s Sisakaet Province.

True Hospitality is Trusting and Selfless

Boys in Thailand village

I grew up in Mississippi, known as the “Hospitality State.” Even so, I had never encountered true and unbridled hospitality until I lived in Ban Tum, a village in Thailand’s Northeast corner. As a young, single woman, I was definitely out of my element and was acutely aware of how dependent I was on the hospitality of strangers.

The residents of Ban Tum were gracious in welcoming me to their village. They were gracious with me as I struggled to find the right words in Thai to ask a question, when I (more than once) made cultural blunders, and perhaps kindest of all, when I was homesick and filling truly overwhelmed.

They invited me into their homes, taught me to cook, to shop at the market, to hang my mosquito net in a way that would actually keep critters out. They taught me how to wash my clothes with a bucket and rainwater, the joys of an ice-cold splash bath in the jungle heat, and how to flag down the village roti maker. Most importantly, they taught me what it means to open up one’s home.

Adventure Happens When You Let Go of Your Expectations

For the entire summer I was in Thailand, I had one request — to ride an elephant. Yes, it was a childish wish but something I had always wanted to do. Flash forward to a week before I was to leave Thailand. I had yet to ride an elephant and truthfully was a little disappointed. I mentioned it to a friend of mine and she scurried off to round up a few of the villagers who used elephants to help with the logging.

They humored me and proceeded to take me on a two-hour jungle tour atop an elephant. Unlike the touristy elephant attractions of Chang Mai, there was no harness, no safety speech. It was just me, hanging on for dear life. I loved every second of it and was so glad that, up to that point, I hadn’t gotten the elephant ride I expected. Instead, I experienced so much more.

You Learn From a Culture When You Lay Aside Your Own Cultural Misgivings

Karen man in traditional costumes playing a flute

Moving to an unknown country can be stressful. You experience a new language, new food, and new customs. It can be overwhelming and once the honeymoon stage of relocating is over, it can also be discouraging.

Sometimes people can recede into a bubble, avoiding the culture of their new home. But this can cause you to miss out on experiencing a culture that is incredibly rich in the stories it can tell. You miss out on experiencing customs first hand, on tasting new foods, on seeing how life is lived. You miss out on life. So try to set aside your own cultural misgivings and open up your heart to a new world.

Splash Baths are Amazing

the girl with the elephant in the water

Do you know when you really do not need a hot water? When you are living in the jungle and it is a steamy 100 degrees. What you need is a cold splash bath. My bathroom in Ban Tum was an outhouse that contained an urn full of rainwater and a squatty potty.

As much as I love baths, I learned to adore cold splash baths. After a day biking to neighboring villages to give English lessons, I was a sweaty mess. The splash baths were a welcome refreshment. (I also learned that when you live in the jungle, baby powder is your best friend.) So if you find yourself without running water and in a steamy setting, embrace an ice-cold splash bath.

Take Your Guidebook with a Grain of Salt

Now, I am the first person to research a country extensively before I visit. I want to know what people have to say about the restaurants, hotels and attractions. There is nothing wrong with this, but I would exercise a bit a caution. As with any experience, your journey is your journey. Try to travel outside of the guidebook and discover the country for yourself. Become your own Lonely Planet.

You Will Never Learn Everything About a Country

No matter how long you live somewhere, that land will always hold something you have not discovered. When I left Thailand at the end of my summer, I realized that I had only scratched the surface.

I could not have possibly discovered all of the complexities that make up Thailand. Instead, I had been granted an opportunity to grab a glimpse of a culture unlike my own. I was ok with that. In my eyes, it served as a reason for me to return one day.

Teaching English on the other side of the world can also be the perfect way for you to afford a gap year and experience something completely different. Honestly, everyone should move far away from home at least once in their life, you included.

I am so grateful that I had the chance to experience a land and a people that taught me so very much. I traveled to Thailand to teach but I ended up being the student.

About the author

Paige Bennett

Paige Bennett is a communications and content strategy consultant. After beginning her career as a news producer, she moved to Oman. Paige now lives San Francisco and is currently producing a documentary that explores the lives of women who are pioneers for women's rights in the Middle East.

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