10 Things I’ve Learned While Living Abroad in Isaan, Thailand

I’ve spent the past two years living and working in the rural northeast of Thailand (Isaan). Ubon Ratchathani to be exact, a place where life is set at a slower pace than I am used to meaning that days are filled with more time to reflect. With more time on my hands and more moments thrown my way that are blissfully outside of my definition of ‘normal,’ I’ve had some time to change my views. Here are ten things I’ve learned through this wacky journey of living abroad:

1. Traveling Solo Isn’t All That Hard

When I first moved abroad, I was shy and nervous about traveling by myself. I had never done it before, and I didn’t really know how to go about it. As a single female, I was also unsure if it was safe, and what precautions I should take. How would I get from one place to another? How would I find places to stay and eat? More than anything, it was simply a fear of the unknown that intimidated me.

I learned, however, that traveling solo is not only possible, but it’s easy and pretty darn awesome. Like many things, the best way to learn is by doing. In a place like Southeast Asia, the typical traveler’s path is basically a red carpet. There is always a way to get from point A to point B, and it’s easy to make friends along the way.

Traveling along leaves you lots of room to make new friends everywhere you goTraveling alone leaves you lots of time to make new friends! 

2. The World is Modernized

I’m sorry to let the cat out of the bag, but Southeast Asia is no longer some mysterious, exotic, unexplored land of tribes and hidden secrets. Yes, there are still many people who live traditional lifestyles, but TVs and iPods have seeped their way into even the remotest of villages. But don’t let this get you down. Even though you may not be the next Heinrich Harrer, there are so many amazing things to see and so much knowledge and wisdom to be gained from the cultures and histories of people all over the world.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABangkok’s skyline, a city of 6 million.

3. Ditch Preconceived Notions

Let go of preconceived notions, and don’t assume that everyone from any particular country is the same. Don’t assume people are out to get you, or that they wont like you for any particular reason. The fact that we’re all people unites us more than the fact that we’re all from different places separates us. It pays to give people the benefit of the doubt.

4. Adventures Don’t Have To Be Big

Reading travel blogs and “Top 10 Destinations” lists can be overwhelming because there are so many amazing places to go and things to see in this world. Sometimes I find myself getting bogged down by fantasies about doing it all—from bicycling around China to walking El Camino to riding the Trans-Siberian Railway. These are all things I aspire to do someday, but they’re not your typical weekend activities, to say the least. I’ve found it important to remember that it’s not the size of the adventure that’s important, but that you have them. An adventure doesn’t have to look like trekking around Tibet or driving the length of Vietnam on a motorbike. Adventures can be small, too. Talking to the person next to you, trying to learn a few words in a new language, going on a daytrip or trying new food can all be adventures. It’s these little adventures that add the zest to daily life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATrying new food in South East Asia always proves to be an adventure.

5. World Concepts Vary Widely

Moving abroad, I knew that Thai culture would be different from US culture, but I was surprised to learn just how profoundly people’s concept of the world differed from my own. Overarching concepts of many things—daily interactions, romantic relationships, and education, to name a few—are completely different from those in the US. It has been humbling to learn about these differences and to learn to function within a culture that is dictated by them. I will never again take my concept of the world for granted as a universal truth.

6. Communication: Goodbye Subtlety, Hello Miming.

Living abroad has forced me to teach myself, through trial and error, one of the most useful universal languages: Gesture. Never, ever underestimate the power of miming to communicate! At first, I felt (and probably looked) foolish trying to get across my needs and desires by using my body instead of my voice, but as they say, practice makes perfect. From Christmas lights to camera cases, I feel confident that I can find a way to communicate just about anything without the use of spoken language.

A note to remember: when communicating with people whose language you cannot speak, plan on throwing subtlety out the window. Direct, blunt communication is the name of the game.

7. People Are More Important Than Places

Every experience is what you make of it, and people are the true makers or breakers of experiences. It doesn’t matter so much where you are, what you’re doing, or when you’re doing it: it’s all about the people you’re with. So, surround yourself with people you love spending time with, and don’t be afraid to stay away from people you don’t really like. With the right partners in crime, anything can become a fun adventure.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEnjoying the company of some kids at a national park.

8. Be Flexible.

Being flexible is an indispensable skill to have in life, and is especially useful when working, living, and traveling abroad. As a teacher in Thailand, one of the greatest skills I have developed is the ability to let things roll off my shoulder. Missed classes, rescheduled classes, unexpected classes, changes in schedule, sudden new responsibilities and duties, last-minute notices…the list goes on. These surprises have not ceased to bother me—in fact, than can still be downright infuriating—but after two years of this, I am significantly better at coping with changes and challenges that present themselves at the drop of a hat. There’s no use in getting upset with a change in plans. Do your best with what you have to work with, and be content with that.

9. Don’t be Afraid to be Out of Touch

Losing touch with people back home is ok. People understand and expect that when you travel and/or live abroad, you’re doing your own thing, and more often than not they respect that. If you don’t speak with a good friend from back home for a few months, or even a year, it’s ok! If you want them back in your life, all you have to do is reach out to them. It’s totally acceptable to lose touch for some time, and rekindle a friendship later on.

It’s also ok to let people go. We all chose our own path in life, and for some, the chosen path leads far, far away. Friends come, and go. Don’t be afraid to fall out of touch, and don’t be afraid to stay out of touch. You can’t maintain friendships with everyone you’ve ever met. It’s ok to move on.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASometimes you need to loose touch to realize you’re in paradise.

10. Alone Does not Equal Lonely

In the wise words of Dr. Seuss, “All alone! Whether you like it or not, alone is something you’ll be quite a lot!” One of those quintessential lessons of maturing—learning to be alone—is exaggerated and amplified when living abroad. Whether traveling or living alone, there will be days when you feel like you don’t have any friends, when you’ll be sad or frustrated that you don’t have exciting plans for a Friday night, and when you’re sick of your own company. It is particularly difficult to deal with some of these things when you can’t communicate with the majority of the people around you. But these trials and tribulations do naught but make you a stronger person in the long run. Once you learn to be alone, you’ll never be lonely.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy Dad takes some time to think and reflect at Wat Phu.  

Written by: This post was written by Eliza: a teacher, traveler and lover of all things cultural. You can read more about her time living in Thailand here at her personal blog.

7 thoughts on “10 Things I’ve Learned While Living Abroad in Isaan, Thailand”

  1. Great article. It’s all true!

    For some reason many people think traveling abroad is dangerous and get “concerned” when you decide to travel alone. Although, there are dangers abroad there are also dangers at “home.” The (small) risk to travel abroad is worth it!

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