Erfahrungsbericht: Alexandra Haimerl

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My name is Alexandra and I study “International Cultural and Business Studies” with a focus on Southeast Asia, at the University of Passau, Germany. Prior to my study abroad experience in Thailand I had been to Southeast Asia several times and had lived in Indonesia for more than one and a half years. I was told about Asia Exchange by a friend of mine, and thought that a semester abroad towards the end of my studies could be a valuable experiences – both academically and personally.
Previously in my studies I had focused on the Indonesian language, culture, and society so I wanted to broaden my perspectives on Asia and learn something new, somewhere new. I chose to do so at the Prince of Songkla University, on the Phuket Campus, in Thailand.

Pre-departure and Arrival to Phuket

Thanks to Asia Exchange, the arrangements I had to make prior to my arrival to Phuket were scarce. Asia Exchange takes care of virtually all arrangements with the host university so the student, when preparing to go, is responsible only for the following;

-    A student visa to Thailand
-    Health insurance (and maybe other insurances) for the semester abroad
-    Learning agreements, issued by your home university
-    Flights

All of the above were easy enough to arrange. Health insurance and flights were – as usual – booked online, while the visa could be applied for and received within minutes at the closest honorary consulate general to you, after receiving the official acceptance letter issued by PSU. However, there is a peculiarity which one needs to keep in mind about the visa: Even though it is called a one-year educational visa, it is compulsory for all visa holders to leave Thailand every 90 days. You can take it as a burden or you make it into the best possible excuse for visiting some of the neighbouring countries for a long weekend. In order to get the learning agreements, it is important to check with your home institution, so as to ensure whether the content of the courses you would like to study abroad comply with the rules of your university. I didn’t have any problems with the course choices I’d made, luckily.  

Arriving in Phuket

Flying to Phuket is very easy with a multitude of inbound flights from most Southeast Asian hubs (I flew from Indonesia via Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, using Air Asia). Things got a bit complicated only after I arrived in Phuket when I couldn’t find transportation to the district of Kathu (where the PSU campus is located), apart from taxies. It is important to be aware that the taxi business in Phuket is a monopoly, thus prices can be excessive at times. I hopped on a minibus running to Patong (costing around 280 THB) and planned to jump off close enough to the accommodation I had booked. The driver of the minibus turned out to be helpful enough to take me straight to my accommodation for an extra 100 THB (around 2,50 €). If you get in before 8 pm, there is an airport bus, which runs between the airport and Phuket Town, and costs only 90 THB. You could hop off at Central Festival if you stay in Kathu and take a taxi from there to Kathu.
Another exchange student had posted on the Asia Exchange-Facebook-group’s wall about staying in the Ormthong Apartments before the study abroad semester began. As the apartments are very close to the PSU campus, I decided to go along and was pleased with my choice. It was a good place to start the semester from, not expensive and very clean.

Finding the Right Accommodation…

… takes some time and patience. Make sure you can and want to commit to the place you pick for whole the length of the semester. I kind of jumped at an offer as I didn’t want to spend ages looking around, the apartment looked fine, its location was close enough to the university, and I had a good feeling about the landlord. It was a nice place to stay at, apart from my windows being towards the bypass, which made it very noisy – day and night. Furthermore, due to the building style (big concrete condo), it was incredibly hot and staying there without aircon on (I usually prefer fans) was almost unbearable – even with all the windows and doors wide open. A different location in the very same condo, i.e. an apartment facing the north would probably have made a big difference.

The Prince of Songkla University (PSU) – Phuket Campus

The Prince of Songkla University’s Phuket campus is a smaller part of the university in the heart of Phuket. The number of foreign students spending their semester abroad there are growing every year – especially during the European winter. The facilities at the universities are fine – nothing fancy, but good enough. Classrooms are usually air-conditioned – that is, apart from when there are power-cuts. It is compulsory to wear the school uniform, including the right accessories (belt etc.). The lecturer-student- relationship in Thai schools and universities is characterised by a strict hierarchy, which foreign students should follow.
On campus there is a canteen that serves Thai food (mixed rice and soups) at lunchtime (contrary to Germany there is a one hour lunch break for all students and staff from 12.30 – 13.30). I ate there most days, as the canteen is located on campus and the food is local, cheap and tasty enough. However, many of the exchange students chose to eat outside the campus which is also easy to do due to the various restaurants being located within walking distance. For sports, there is a small gym, a football field, and basketball as well as tennis courts. There are also some sports courses for students, such as badminton, yoga, and ballroom dance. Both the number of participants allowed and the class times (only once a week for two hours) are very limited, though.
The campus is quite small so it is easy to switch buildings to get to your classes within the 5-10 minutes provided in between the lectures. There is also a library and two computer rooms with printers located just behind the second computer room, so it is easy to get your study materials on site. Be aware though, that both the library and the computer rooms have quite short opening hours (weekdays approximately 8.30 – 16.30 and 8.30 – 19.30 for the computer rooms and the library respectively, weekends the library is open only till 16.30 and the computer rooms are closed altogether).

Studies and Courses

The course programme offered by the PSU depends on the term (summer/autumn term) you are taking part in and is probably not as vast as your home university’s curriculum.  It is important to make sure which courses will be available when you are going on exchange (most of the economics courses are, but many of the international studies courses aren’t).
I chose to take part in the following classes:

-    Human Resources Management
-    Principles of Marketing
-    Business Finance
-    History and Thai Society
-    Fundamental Thai

Generally, (with one exception) it can be said that the English language proficiency of both the Thai and foreign lecturers is very good. In economics, usually 100% of the study content is based on US-UK literature/ textbooks in all the courses, which results in the quality of the lectures being of international standard. Exchange students are provided with their own, brand-new and free copies of the compulsory textbook for each class, which is great!

Even though the names of the classes frequently include words such as “for tourism/ hospitality” the content is delivered in a general manner, with the lecturers only using examples from the tourism or hospitality industry in Thailand, in order to adapt the content to the needs of the Thai students. I thought the examples were very well picked and supportive of the study content.
A major difference between the policies at my home institution and PSU are the regulations concerning grades. Firstly, grades at the PSU – contrary to the German system – do not derive from a single exam but are based on multiple exams (at least the mid-term and the final exam in every subject) plus home or in-class assignments. As opposed to the German teaching system, where we generally use two hours per week for theory and an additional two hours for the practical application of such theories, at PSU there are no tutorials accompanying lectures. Instead, four hours a week are used to deliver theoretical content. The practical application of such theories is usually expected to be mastered in exams and (home) assignments, either with regards to case studies or other situational examples. Combined with the variety of exams, in my opinion, this leads to a greater study effort than back home. The individual, independent in-depth application of the taught theories to real cases (e.g. companies) most certainly contributes to the learning process. Speaking for myself, I was able to extend my analytical skills, especially by analysing real cases in the various and extensive home assignments in both economics and socio-political studies.

Human Resources Management

The classes on “Human Resources Management” were delivered by three different lecturers, with each of them covering the topics they were experts in. All of the three lecturers, namely Ajarn Naree, Ajarn Nattamon and Ajarn Colin proved to be completely fluent in English as well as experts in their subject. Ajarn Naree has a long history as a university lecturer, whereas Ajarn Colin’s background is in working for a major recruitment agency in Britain. Ajarn Nattamon, until recently, was the head of the human resources department at a large hotel.
Each week there was at least one in-class assignment, usually group work, though sometimes – when more appropriate – individual work. During the semester there were two shorter home assignments to be handed in, and of course, the written midterm and final exam. I thought that the content of the course was very informative. The theories taught in it are most definitely applicable in the real world.

Principles of Marketing

A very motivated lecturer, Ajarn Piyanart, tried hard to make every last person in the classroom understand the topic. Her English skills are very good - with the background of studying in Australia clearly perceivable. The content of the class is 100% that of the textbook used. The textbook is very well structured and written in an extremely comprehensive way, giving many examples of the real business world (though focusing on US companies). There was a quiz on the content of the previous chapter every week, plus two home assignments and a midterm and final exam.  This made the course one of the most time-consuming, however definitely worth taking. The skills taught in this class are very useful for every student who will work in any kind of organisation after graduating – that is, pretty for much everyone.

Business Finance

The lecturer of this subject, Ajarn Ilian, knows his field very well and tries hard to make everyone understand what he is teaching – a hard undertaking given the low level of mathematic skills most of the Thai students have. However, Ajarn Ilian teaches in a very comprehensive and explicatory way, and he gives examples on pretty much any mathematical problem/ question he will want you to be able to answer in any of the exams. Moreover, he teaches in a nuts-and-bolts way, i.e. rather than doing it all the traditional way, he shows how to do calculations on Excel, as students will have to do them once they start working for a company. In total, there were four written exams (midterm and final exam, and 2 quizzes) plus one home assignment to hand in.

History and Thai Society

The first few weeks of this subject were awful, with very little content delivered in poor English skills by the substitute lecturer teaching the course, replacing the actual lecturer, Ajarn Nattaporn, who had been abroad at this time. As soon as Ajarn Nattarporn got back, the course turned into one of the most interesting ones, as she provided deep insights into the Thai society and politics, their problems, pitfalls, and backgrounds. Ajarn Nattaporn expects you to use your brains, so don’t expect to get good grades for free. Her aim is to teach analytical skills, so that students can develop critical thinking. Her exams were all in the form of home assignments, four altogether. It was an effort, but it was well worth doing, for I am sure that if I hadn’t taken part in this class, my understanding of the Thai history, society, and politics – which are all linked – would be far less comprehensive and much more off the track.

Fundamental Thai (Language)


Ajarn Kesinee is about the cutest “teacher” in the world. Taking part in her class was more like being back in elementary school as she used songs and games in order to teach us the, quite difficult, Thai language. The Thai alphabets are not being taught to international students in order to give them the possibility to make some progress during the short time of the semester. Focus is on speaking and understanding. Unfortunately, as I had a course overlap, I could only take part once a week. Therefore, the academic office would not let me enrol in the course, but instead I agreed with the lecturer herself to come whenever I can and cover at home the topics I missed. It worked out fine, and the language skills I got were very useful as many locals speak little or no English. In addition, it is generally very well perceived if foreigners (try to) use the Thai language.

Culture

The Thai society is still structured in a very hierarchical way. As mentioned above, this is also true for the teacher/lecturer – student relationship. This makes it compulsory, for example, to “wai” to lecturers when greeting or thanking them (the “wai” is a special Thai form of greeting where you bow your head towards your hands that are folded in front of your chest, in order to show your gratitude/inferiority towards the elderly/respected person). Furthermore, I find it a matter of respect to learn some basics of the Thai language, especially the phrases and/or terms added at the end of sentences to indicate politeness.
There are many traditional festivals celebrated in Phuket, such as the Vegetarian Festival, a mixture of Thai and Chinese culture, as Chinese descendants make up a large percentage of Phuket’s population. The Vegetarian Festival is usually celebrated at the end of September. Besides loads of delicious vegetarian food, it also features street processions of spiritual mediums (who take high significance in Thai society) and other rituals, mostly taking place in temples. It is a most extraordinary festival and a must-see if you happen to be around in Phuket at that time of the year!
Each year, at full moon in November, all over Thailand, people celebrate the traditional festival of Loi Krathong. As it is linked to the spirits of all waters, Thais seek the closest body of water in order to float little “krathongs” – traditionally made from banana tree leaves and flowers that feature a candle which is lit before floating the little boat. Alongside the water, hundreds of paper lanterns are released into the sky.
PSU encourages foreign exchange students to take part in such festivals by organising “activities” all exchange students are free to join. Such activities give the students a chance to learn about as well as to get in touch with the Thai/ Phuket culture.
However, (probably due to my personal background and both variety and extent of experiences in Southeast Asia prior to my stay in Phuket), I was disappointed by the high levels of assimilation of the society in Phuket. Of course I was prepared for the “Western influence” as Phuket is a well-known tourist destination. However, given the size of the island I had expected to find – far off the crowded beaches – still more of the original Thai culture and people, their world famous smiles and openness, and therefore even deeper insights into their traditions, believes, and daily lives. 

Social Life in Phuket

I guess social life in Phuket really depends on what you are in for. There is probably nothing you can’t have or do. You have to decide for yourself how you prefer to socialise – starting when choosing your accommodation. You might stay in a shared house with other exchange students but you might as well live in an apartment by yourself as I chose to.
If you are up for it, you can probably find a party venue every night. You can go to some of the most crowded beaches and rent a lounge chair, have beers and just hang around, as many do. But you can also take it slow, as I did for most of the time. I went out friends and explored the island’s quieter areas such as the beautiful Banana Beach, which you can see below.
Wherever we went, we were always in search of the best waves to surf. Although off season, we had some great days out there, especially in Kata and Kata Noi. It is quite easy to rent surfboards on those two beaches and when you rent one frequently, people will know you and you can ask for a discount. Unfortunately, I don’t have any picture of the bigger waves, as I was out there surfing whenever they rolled in. Above (on the right) a photo of Kata on a very still day – but as you see it was still surf-able. Furthermore, I tried to hang out with Thai friends as much as possible, especially during festivities, in order to learn about their culture and traditions. There are numerous places to catch up at with friends, have a drink, snacks, or dinner. On the weekends, one of the most popular places to go for dinner is the weekend market in Phuket Town, where there is a wide variety of traditional and non-traditional Thai food on offer at very cheap prices. Portions are typically small, so it’s an excellent place to go and try something new. Besides food, pretty much anything any tourist or Thai could probably want to buy is on sale.
New Year’s Eve on Phuket is big! In my opinion, it is the one thing not to be missed at – and the only time I headed to – Patong Beach during my time on Phuket. It was crowded, there were thousands of people along the beaches releasing the well-known lanterns into the sky, sending with them their wishes for the new year. I love NYE in the warm climate, and the fireworks on Phuket are grand. I had never before watched fireworks that lasted for so long, and the atmosphere with the fireworks visible from Kalim Beach over the whole of Patong until Karon Beach was absolutely extraordinary and amazing!

Travelling

Due to a motorbike accident, I was confined to my bed/ apartment from November onwards, throughout the rest of the semester with visits to the hospitals every second day and no chance of travelling at all. Make this a lesson to be learned! Many of the exchange students had minor or larger accidents. Many of them were reckless, but others – like myself – were simply unlucky.
It made my experience on Phuket a bit reduced. I tried to make the best of it but Phuket is not what you would like it to be when you can’t swim, run, or travel. Be more than careful when you drive, be aware of everyone else driving around you, and choose well who you drive with.
Prior to the accident, I had at least made it around Phuket. The northern beaches are quieter, some of them more secluded, so I enjoyed them much more. We saw a reef break off Nai Yarn Beach, which must get beautiful waves in season when the swell comes in (locals told me June to August is the best time to go if you want to surf).
I had also been to Koh Phi Phi – the location chosen by Asia Exchange for their ice-breaking weekend at the beginning of the semester, but found the island way to party-touristy. Though, if you are not on a tight budget, there are very remote and secluded beaches which I am sure must be amazing.

Conclusion

Based on the experiences I have had during my semester abroad, I recommend spending a semester abroad at PSU to those students who are willing to immerse themselves into an unknown culture, and are content to be surrounded by people who might not speak English well. The quality of the lectures hardly differs from that in most European universities and most of the course readings are US-UK literature. This is especially true for the economics lectures, which makes them very professional, informative, and relevant for students from all over the world.
Personally, I found the insights and the broad understanding of the Thai society and politics, which I obtained during the semester, to be the most beneficial. Moreover, I was able to extend my expertise in economics, above all in the field of management, as well as my analytical skills.
It was also important for me to take the step of choosing a semester abroad destination I had never been to before. After a long time of going to places I was already familiar with, finding myself again in a totally strange place, being surrounded by people whose language I didn’t speak and whose culture I had to learn and analyse in order to understand, was very eye-opening. Even if you have been abroad before, there is probably nothing more valuable during your studies than taking the possibility to head out again. You will be enriched by your experience and the people you meet, as well as by the things you learn, both from books and from yourself.