If there is only one thing I have learned here it's to be open to new perspectives. This applies to both working and touring. From the moment we stepped foot off the plane it was obvious that we were not in a westernized country anymore. No one spoke the language we were used to, no one looked like we did, and everyone smiled and stared at us.
At first many of the people in our group, including myself, were put off by some of these things- especially the stares. We were all used to blending in to a society with many different skin colors, not a society where we are the obvious minority. This is not where the changes ended.
We quickly learned that one of the main cultural differences is the idea of taking off your shoes before entering many different buildings- most importantly, temples. There were many times when I would forget to take off my shoes and my (amazing) tour guides would have to remind me. The most difficult place to remember to do this was at the markets. There would be several shops where it was expected to take off your shoes before shopping- how fascinating! This is also what must be done before we enter any of the classrooms in the music therapy building. This is were it became frustrating at first. I would leave a room and put my shoes on only to realize I forgot something in the room. I would then have to take off my shoes and repeat the process.
About halfway through the trip, however, I noticed that this became natural and expected any time I entered a building. I would look around to see if anyone else had their shoes off and follow their lead. I found that it was just safer to always assume that your shoes should be taken off. Even if it is not mandatory for them to be off, no one seems to care if you are barefoot. I have come across several instances where I actually found myself getting slightly upset when there was a place where I was not able to take my shoes off- it has become so natural now!
It is important to know that the Thai culture does not just take off their shoes for fun- there is reasoning behind it. One big reason is simply the fact that shoes get very dirty here- either wet with rain or dusty from dirt. The main reason, however, stems from the Buddhist culture. To learn more about the Buddhist culture visit: http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/history/b_faqs.htm
In Buddhism they believe that the feet are the most unholy part of your body because they are the lowest part of your existence. It is also seen as rude if you show the bottom of your (usually very dirty) feet, even when barefoot and inside. Finally, it is extremely disrespectful to point your bare feet in the direction of a Buddha image or a monk. If you would like to look into this topic further visit: http://nelmitravel.com/thai-customs-shoes/
After getting used to this for the past couple of weeks I know I will have a hard time going back to the standards of the U.S. where shoes are worn most of the time in public... Once again- perspective is everything!