One of the things that continuously surprised me while living in Thailand was the sheer niceness of people. Having worked a variety of hospitality and service jobs in America, I’d developed a bit of a negative view of the general public, as one can after spending time in the service industries. Before I left for Thailand I’d heard about how welcoming the people were, I knew the nickname ‘The Land of Smiles.’ Those were just other people’s opinions, however, so I couldn’t help but take it all with a grain of salt. I figured I’d probably just go about my own personal business and try to get by with the other English teacher in my school. I predicted a lot of struggling with sounds, pointing, and gesturing. I managed to learn how to ask ‘how much does it cost’ before I arrived in Bangkok, but didn’t realize I hadn’t learned to count until I tried to buy my first street food. Luckily I learned numbers pretty soon after that. So, overall I was a little skeptical about just how ‘nice’ and ‘welcoming’ and ‘wonderful’ I’d find people to be.
As it turned out, people were that nice, and more.
I was repeatedly overwhelmed with how giving the people were. Our consultants with the program and later on the Thai English teachers always offered to help us with buses, travel, banks, the post office, anything. They told us to call them with any issue and they would talk to whoever we were trying to talk to for us. When H (the second foreign English teacher in my school) and I left Bangkok for our town of Chonnabot in the northeastern province of Isaan, we stopped over in the city of Khon Kaen for a day before settling into out placement. Khon Kaen is around 5-6 hours from Bangkok and about an hour, hour and half on public transport from Chonnabot. We decided to stop there in order to break up our traveling and prepare for the transition from giant, bustling, megacity to small, quiet, rural town.
We looked up a couple hotels in my Lonely Planet travel book and picked one mostly at random to show to our tuk-tuk driver. We crammed ourselves, our two full sized suitcases and carry-on luggage into the small, three wheeled vehicle and went careening around the city. Jetting through alleys, cutting terrifyingly close corners, with our knees and elbows uncomfortably exposed outside the tuk tuk.
“If we’re going to die in Thailand, it’s going to be here!” I remember crying to H.
After going past the address where this hotel was supposed to be a few times, we gave up and directed the poor confused driver back to this one hotel we saw while looking for the one in the book. La Lerts Guesthouse. We stopped there, asked if there was any space available in slow, exaggerated English. Luckily the older couple in the office that day who owned the hotel knew some functional English. They were happy to welcome us into their beautifully air-conditioned, clean, modern, and comfortable hotel. Before we went into our room, we also inquired about the location of the proper bus station so we’d know when we needed to leave and where to go, as apparently there were two separate stations. The wife, in her lovely blue and white layered dress and black framed glasses, conferred with her husband and they insisted to take us to the correct bus station themselves in the morning. I was quite taken aback by this offer. Where in the United States would the owners of any lodging establishment offer to take a pair of confused travelers to the local portal of public transportation, especially ones who couldn’t speak any of the local native language? I didn’t know if we should accept the offer? If it would be rude to decline the offer? H and I couldn’t decide what the appropriate response was to such an offer in this culture and in this situation. So, overwhelmed by the graciousness of our hosts, we arranged in broken English for them to come to our room in the morning and drive us to the bus station. As we settled ourselves into our surprisingly lush room, with a king sized plush bed and little flat screen TV, the wife came and knocked on our door. She was worried that we hadn’t understood her well enough, so she called her daughter who spoke more English and had her tell me that her parents would come collect us at 730 and take us to the bus stop.
The next morning, there was a knock on our door at 730. True to their word, they had their SUV out front, ready to go. Their car was better, they said. Better than the tiny rickety tuk tuk we’d taken to get there, they meant. So they chauffeured us to our destination, and then talked to the guys at the station and subsequently got us on the correct bus to Chonnabot. If that wasn’t QUITE good enough, they also talked to the people on the bus, and found a woman going to the same place and arranged for her to take care of us and show us where to disembark.
A few days later was our first day of school. Luckily it was only an administrative day, so when we mistakenly went to the primary school instead of the secondary school where we actually worked, it wasn’t too big of a deal. The director of the primary school himself drove us in his personal car to the correct school, because walking was absurd.
Later that same day, as we were strolling around the school grounds, taking it all in, we passed an outdoor vending machine with juices, coffees, and sodas. H decided to stop and test the machine, which worked, but wouldn’t accept her wrinkled paper bill. At least that’s international. A Thai teacher whom we hadn’t met parked his car just next to us and witnessed our struggle. He came over to us and handed H a fresh, crisp bill in place of hers so she could get her juice. How ridiculously nice. He couldn’t even say hello to us, but he wanted to help us out. How considerate.
The rest of the semester was filled with moments like these. The Thai English teachers that we worked the most closely with us were always offering to drive us places or help us with things. If we needed to go to the bank or the post office, they’d drive us during lunch or another free period. If we needed to go into the city to purchase something, they’d offer to take us after school. If we talked about how to get a bus to a certain place we were trying to visit over the weekend, they’d advise us the best way to do so, which buses to get, or even help us purchase bus tickets. And food. They were constantly, constantly, feeding us. We probably only bought our own lunches a total of one, maybe two weeks, tops, the entire four month semester. So much food, all the time. It was incredible. We tried many times to do reciprocate but they never seemed to want us to do anything for them. We were their guests and they wanted to do these things for us. We tried to explain that in our culture when people do nice things for us; we like to reciprocate by doing something nice for them to show our gratitude. The nice things they did for us far outweighed what we managed to do for them.
H and I (H a little more than me) made friends with a couple who operated a small morning coffee stand. H went almost every morning; I was much less motivated to leave my air conditioning. She’d get her morning iced coffee from Lem and Lek and learn Thai and teach English by exchanging words with dictionaries and an old Thai-English picture work book. Even before I went with H to get coffee, our coffee friends and their friends who sold sticky rice goodies knew exactly who I was. Granted, it’s not that shocking considering there were only the two of us female foreigners in the whole town. However, they all knew me as: C! Muay Thai! I started taking Muay Thai lessons from one of the teachers at the college next door to our school, who was also good friends with Lem and Lek the coffee shop couple. My Muay Thai instructor made plenty of jokes about me with them, I guess. I knew he did, but I couldn’t understand any of it, so, eh, whatever. But I was always C! Muay Thai! And they never let us pay for our coffee or the sticky rice pastries they gave us every morning, even though we were paid much more than they earned selling coffee. It was a bit of game for us….trying to slip twenty baht under a mug before we left without them noticing. Most of the time they caught us and refused to accept it.
The Muay Thai lessons, as unofficial as they were, were even free. My instructor never wanted anything in return for putting up with the clumsy foreign woman. H and I did insist taking him to dinner. Well, he and his friend took us to dinner and we paid for it. There were dozens of other little things, and I don’t think I ever got quite used to it.
After my time in Thailand I stopped over in New Zealand before coming home. I won’t go into too much detail about that trip just now, as there is too much, but when there I was taken aback at the amount of niceties there as well. Everyone said please and thank you. They thank the bus drivers, the servers, the bartenders. And if you don’t thank your bartender they often remind you. I loved it. One local Kiwi told me that he always minded his ‘P’s and T’s.’ What a fantastic philosophy. I thought, how much nicer would people be here at home if everyone just used simple please and thank yous. I know if everyone had just used those phrases more often while I was waiting tables, I would have had a much nicer view of people. I’d be much less inclined to grumpiness and bitterness.
When I misplaced my passport and wallet in Rotorua, the hostel located it and had it transported back to me the same day, with everything still in it. The woman placed it in a bag with some local candies to help make me feel better.
People are so nice. The whole experience renewed my faith in humanity. Made me feel more amicable as well.
Morale of the story: Be Nice!