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Exploring Thailand: Anastasia Kuprishkina on Her Exchange Experience

Academic mobility is an amazing opportunity not only to study abroad but also explore another country. Anastasia Kuprishkina, graduate of the Bachelor’s programme ‘Political Science and World Politics’, had a chance to go to Thammasat University and experience life in Thailand. Anastasia shares her impressions and memories of the trip in this interview.

Exploring Thailand: Anastasia Kuprishkina on Her Exchange Experience

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

Why did you choose Thailand for academic mobility? Did your fears and expectations come true?

— There were several reasons to choose Thailand. I wished to go somewhere far away, to a completely new place that was unlike anything I was used to. I browsed universities in Asia and South America, sought advice from friends who had studied in those countries and cities, and ultimately decided that I wanted to go to Bangkok. As for expectations, I had very few. My journey began in a new place about which I knew little if anything at all. I gathered information on the go, relying on what I found by googling or learned from the locals.

The same was true with fears. Apart from the standard worries of an exchange student—adapting to a new environment, overcoming the language barrier, and making new friends—I didn't have any specific ones.

I did encounter one challenging situation. In the autumn of 2021, during my semester abroad, Thailand brought in a strict lockdown, which I didn't expect. Offline interactions became scarce: all university activities and classes shifted to online mode, and a curfew was imposed in Bangkok. Pandemic restrictions were rigorously enforced: taxi drivers declined any passengers after 8 pm, restaurants closed, and only essential stores remained open. Due to the lockdown, my exchange experience greatly diverged from the ‘typical’ one. I visited my host university only twice in six months, and even that was on my own initiative. I travelled extensively within Thailand, primarily interacting with expats and other travellers rather than fellow students.

Did you manage to find common ground with other students of Thammasat University? Do you have any tips on how to adapt to a new environment more easily?

— Getting along with my new fellow students wasn't difficult at all—they were very open to communication and always eager to help. My university assisted with most things, from visa questions to finding accommodation. The ‘buddy’ programme at Thammasat University was particularly helpful. Student volunteers provided support to international students in adapting to the new environment. I still keep in touch with my buddy to this day. However, due to the COVID-19 situation, things were a bit more complex for me. Many of my classmates left Bangkok for their hometowns since classes were conducted online. Even though we all communicated via Zoom throughout the semester, we had a chance to meet physically only towards the end of my exchange, once the COVID-19 restrictions were eased.

Regarding other international students who were also supposed to come to Thailand, an interesting situation arose. Many of them chose to stay at home and study online. Not everyone was willing to adhere to the strict anti-COVID requirements imposed by Thai authorities. At that time, all incoming travellers had to undergo a 14-day quarantine at their own expense and provide numerous health and migration-related documents before arrival.

Nevertheless, during my exchange, I wasn't going to stay indoors only. I actively sought other ways to socialise. Unexpectedly, expat groups came to my rescue. It was through these groups that I found wonderful friends with whom I still communicate. Somewhere in the middle of the semester, I realised that online classes provide a fantastic opportunity to travel around the country, and I certainly took advantage of it.

As for advice on adapting to a new environment, I don’t think I can say something radically new, as other exchange students have discussed these points extensively. It's important to be open to new acquaintances and show interest in the culture and language of the locals.

However, my own adaptation wasn't smooth. During the first months in an entirely new country and amidst stringent self-isolation, networking opportunities were limited, leaving me alone by myself. After a 14-day quarantine–an experience that gave me a taste of solitude–the subsequent steps of adaptation came with their own set of challenges. Before I found friends and started travelling, I seriously contemplated returning to Russia before the semester ended, given the severity of the pandemic restrictions. However, I decided not to do it. Having already overcome hurdles during the application process, visa acquisition, and document submission, giving up afterwards would have negated all those prior efforts. I'm glad I stayed because the following months of the exchange turned out to be vibrant and eventful. I truly value this experience, even though it differs from the experiences of other students.

I also believe that adaptation would have been smoother with knowledge of the Thai language, but unfortunately, I didn't study it. My university didn't offer any courses, and my attempts at self-study didn't go very far. While I won't downplay the importance of knowing the local language, I can confidently say that even without it, the experience remains vivid and unforgettable. Google Translate has yet to let me down!

Are there any differences between your programmes at HSE University and the host university? Is the teaching style or approach to learning any different?

— The programme at Thammasat University and their approach to education differed significantly from my programme at HSE University. At Thammasat, the entire course assessment relied on a final exam–there were no complex formulas involving attendance or engagement. In several courses, the only grade I received for the entire semester was the final exam grade. Personally, I found this system more favourable. During the semester, I could focus on the learning process and group projects without worrying about making a mistake that could impact my final grade and require compensation or remediation. There is a downside, though—the final exam required serious preparation and study, as failure meant failing the entire course. However, I didn't encounter any issues. Throughout the semester at Thammasat University, we worked on projects, wrote essays, and so on, and received direct feedback on our work, pinpointing weaknesses. The instructors were always ready to assist with any inquiries, and I successfully passed my exams.

What sights do you recommend seeing? Are there any unusual places or hidden gems that you would like to share?

— Due to online learning, I had the opportunity to travel extensively within the country. One notable place I'd like to highlight is Chiang Mai, Thailand's second-largest city. Situated in the north, it isn't popular among tourists who typically visit Thailand for its beaches. Chiang Mai is a small mountainous city devoid of the towering skyscrapers found in Bangkok, yet it boasts an incredible number of mountain temples, rice plantations, traditional houses, and picturesque landscapes. The city and its surroundings provide an ideal setting to get to know traditional Thailand.

In Bangkok itself, there is an incredible array of fascinating places to explore. Just the Chinatown district alone can captivate you for weeks, with the potential to discover something new each time you visit.

I often opted for a scooter for my travels, finding it to be the perfect solution for exploring suburban areas, mountain trails, roads leading to rice fields, and even to the lotus lake—places that were not reachable on foot and lacked public transportation access. I discovered these interesting locations mostly through Google Maps or by getting recommendations from the locals.

However, this method isn't suitable for everyone. Firstly, Thailand follows left-hand traffic, which requires some time to get used to. Secondly, the traffic can be quite intense and unpredictable, making scooter travel a challenge.

Beaches, islands, and the sea are what often draw people from all around the world to Thailand. Given that Bangkok is quite far from the coast, beach enthusiasts tend to travel to neighbouring provinces or small towns like Pattaya or Hua Hin. Alternatively, they head south to the islands for that picturesque tropical experience.

Are there any myths about Thailand that turned out to be false? What should visitors not be afraid of?

— I may not be aware of widespread myths about Thailand, so I might not be able to debunk anything major here. However, I do know that the idea of Thailand being an entirely cheap destination compared to Russia is only partially true. Expenditure levels will definitely vary individually based on personal preferences and accustomed lifestyles. Speaking from my own experience, my expenses in Thailand were higher than what I typically spent living in St Petersburg. I believe this was due to my extensive travels and participation in various activities. In St Petersburg, I didn't engage in these activities as frequently as I did during those six months in Thailand.

When comes to fears, I believe they depend on individual concerns. Personally, I didn't experience any safety issues or challenges in interacting with the environment. Thai people are very friendly and always willing to help. The only thing is that communication with most locals often requires a translator, as not many people speak English fluently.

However, it's crucial to realise that Thailand differs greatly from Russia in terms of traditions, customs, and social norms. The average Thai person tends to be quite conservative and religious, with Buddhism playing a significant role in daily life. Moreover, finding food which is familiar to Russians and some medications can be challenging and this should be taken into account.

The climate also makes Thailand outstanding. The country has high humidity and an average yearly temperature of 30 degrees Celsius. Due to this, Thai people usually start their day early, at around 6–7 am when it's light but not steaming hot yet. School classes might begin at 7 am, and around noon the streets can be quite deserted due to the heat. For those who have an extreme fear of insects, lizards, and other small creatures, life in tropical regions might be challenging.

Unlike the distinct seasons we have in Russia, Thailand experiences two main seasons: the dry season and the rainy season. There's no autumn, winter, spring, or summer as we know it.

Could you tell us about the campus and its infrastructure? What events are held at Thammasat University?

— I can't share much about the campus since I studied online. I know that Thammasat has a large campus called Rangsit—it's like a city within a city with its own infrastructure and everything students need: academic buildings, dormitories, cafes and restaurants, and even a free shuttle bus that operates exclusively within the campus. There's also a smaller campus called Tha Prachan, situated right in the heart of Bangkok, not far from the Royal Palace. This is where my department was located (I studied Political Science), and it's where I attended events organised by the university for international students. However, this happened after my exchange, in 2023, when I returned to Thailand for other reasons.

In 2023, I attended a workshop on making garlands from fresh flowers, which are symbols of luck and abundance in Buddhism. I also had the chance to join the farewell party for the exchange students of 2023. I was warmly welcomed, and the experience was delightful.

What should those going to Thailand on an exchange programme take with them?

— You definitely won't need winter clothing here, so you can leave your boots and heavy jackets in Russia. Other than that, the standard recommendations apply: documents, visa, and your own first aid kit (medical services are good in Thailand, but having basic supplies with you is advisable—trust me, searching for even a simple headache pill in a new country can be quite an adventure).