Pua Nan is a small town located in far north Thailand. This little community in the mountainous region rarely receives foreign visitors. The outsiders that do venture here receive both a warm embrace and curious stares.
Pua is a peaceful place. At night, there’s a din of croaking reptiles and howling monkeys. In the morning, you’re woken up by roosters. Mere days after our arrival, most of the town can identify my cohort and me as the new “farang” (foreign) english teachers of Pua School. I’m here with James, 36-years-old, and Ann, 30. Both from California. As the baby of the group, and Pua’s only Texan native, I’ll do my best to show this rural community some southern hospitality.
While it’s important to be polite to the locals in a traditional Thai community like Pua, it’s even more important to be aware of cultural differences. What one person perceives as regular behavior in their native western culture could be misconstrued as an insulting gesture here.
For example, the head of one’s body is sacred – you can’t touch another person’s head, especially a child. Feet are dirty – you can’t point your feet toward anybody (this makes sitting with your legs propped up an impossibility). Foreigners shouldn’t mention the king or the royal family at all. The slightest comment could make conversation very awkward and, if taken the wrong way, could land you in prison. And during conversation, for politeness, you should end every sentence with the word “kah“ if you’re a woman and “khrap” if you’re a man. Just, because.
How one perceives you in Thailand is based on “face” value. Most everyone in this small Thai community is extraordinarily friendly, but if you slip up and make a cultural mistake, you could easily “lose face.” Maintaining a positive reputation following a minor Thai faux pas is called “saving face.” Maintaining face is essential, especially in a small town like Pua, where it doesn’t take more than a week for the entire community to know your name and origin.
Upon introducing yourself to a native, the first questions you might be asked: are you single? how old are you? how much money do you make? why aren’t you married? By American standards, Thais are nosy. Because of the hierarchical social structure of Thailand, people just want to learn their place in relation to everybody around them. And they don’t just talk this way to foreigners, but to each other as well. Here, if somebody is even a year older than you, they inherently deserve more respect.
My second night in Pua, Nan. 9pm, restless, I go for a walk. I don’t make it more than 50 meters from my home when I’m confronted by a local family. “Sawat dee ka!” (hello!), they say. Sitting on the front steps of the family-run knick-knacks shop, they’re enjoying a traditional communal-style Thai meal. I’m invited to join them as they clear a space for me to sit. First off, it’s impolite to refuse such an offer. Second, I love eating. It’s a win-win. I sit, dine, sip brandy. They’re eager to practice English and I’m eager to learn Thai. They’re as curious as I am. We exchange questions about each other’s cultures and languages. “Welcome to Thailand,” I’m told countless times. Just another night in Pua Nan.