After 3 years in Thailand, I moved back to New York. It didn't feel like home anymore, so I took off again.

Blonde woman on a boat in Ayuttaya, Thailand going down the river
Elizabeth Lavis would dream of the Buffalo wings from her hometown in New York during the three years she spent living in Thailand.

  • Elizabeth Lavis left New York for Thailand, planning to stay for 6 months, and ended up living there for 3 years.

  • While living abroad, she missed some things about the US, but when she returned, it didn't feel like home.

  • Now, she considers traveling her "real life" and sees it as just as authentic and valid as the stationary alternative.

As I tucked into a bowl of wisp-thin Thai rice noodles studded with bok choy and sprinkled with fried garlic, all I could do was wax poetic about Buffalo wings.

Plastic spoon in one hand, chopsticks in the other, I described my hometown's finest fare, which included hot, buttery chicken wings. My favorite basket always came from a local dive bar in Western New York, 15 miles from Niagara Falls.

Throughout the three years I lived in Thailand, a few Chang beers or a familiar Garth Brooks song about friends in low places would often prompt me to crave a seat at that bar, 8,533 miles across the ocean, with wings on one side and Reuben fries on the other.

After three years of teaching English, working at summer camps in the far north of Thailand, and spending long weekends exploring the country by train, I moved back to Buffalo. I was excited to bathe my eager tastebuds in all the Frank's hot sauce and meaty wings and wash it down with an ice-cold Loganberry soda.

But for some reason, everything was different. The old classic dishes didn't offer the culinary homecoming I'd been hoping for. Instead, I got horrid stomach cramps and acute nausea. The Buffalo wing mythology no longer held up. More importantly, I didn't feel like I was home.

My "6-month" journey to Thailand

After breaking up with my long-term boyfriend, crashing my car, and quitting my job — in that order — I moved to Koh Samui. I told everyone I'd be back in six months.

But six months passed on the tropical island in the Gulf of Thailand, and instead of heading home, I made a visa run to the Thai-Laos border to stay for longer. It would be my first of many, extending my initial six months to three years.

I was hooked on the steamy weather, the beaches with water the color of blue topaz, and the food. The ice-cold pineapples tasted as sweet as sponge candy (a treat from Buffalo similar to toffee). Lunch usually included spicy som tom with sour tamarind, peanuts, and shrimp, along with coconut water straight from the shell — always served with a little spoon to dig out the creamy flesh.

Fresh Thai food and the tropical climate did come with a few tradeoffs. Spiders, as big as softballs, would plop in front of me and scuttle away to some dark corner of my bathroom as I shrieked and swatted to no avail. Cockroaches were similarly supersized, and some could fly. Packs of stray dogs and lumbering monitor lizards shared urban space, even taking refuge in air-conditioned 7-11s during the most sweltering days.

Thai transportation wasn't always reliable or safe, including rickety trains that often ran late. Sometimes you'd hear horror stories about them derailing. Once, I heard an unsubstantiated and harrowing rumor about a monkey that climbed up a train toilet and terrorized the passengers until someone tranquilized it. While this particular story might be a total myth, anyone who's ever ridden those trains knows that a stowaway is not entirely implausible.

A strange homecoming

After three years in Thailand, I thought I was ready to come home. I missed reliable transportation, manageable bugs, the change of seasons, my friends and family, and the Great Lakes comfort food I'd been pining for.

At first, I relished the change. Buffalo is gloriously predictable in the best possible way. There are no surprise toilet monkeys. The trains do not derail. The food delivers on its promises: fatty, spicy, bready, and often served with a big cup of chunky blue cheese. On the other hand, there is not much public transportation, and as I didn't have a car, I was at the mercy of Uber. Also, my tastebuds had veered sharply from the local cuisine during my years away.

Beyond catching up with family and old friends, I felt little connection to my hometown. It was jarring, unexpected, and deeply sad. After three years away, my happy homecoming felt more like visiting a distant place full of friendly and familiar faces than settling back into my comfort zone.

I even realized that my definition of comfort food had changed.

Blonde woman looking off to the sunset from a boat in Costa Rica
After a year back in the US, the author moved south to Costa Rica

On the road again

A year later, I headed back to the tropics, this time south, to Costa Rica. My plan was to chase epic surfing on the Pacific Coast, explore the rainforest, and brush up on my Spanish.

Now, while tucking into a plate of gallo pinto with Linzano sauce, my mind wanders to the wobbly red plastic chairs where I sat curbside to enjoy my favorite noodle soup in Bangkok — a reminder of another one of my homes.

When I left for Thailand almost a decade ago, I imagined that I'd be going back to my "real life" after six months. Now, I understand that traveling is my "real life," and it's as authentic and valid as a stationary one. Sometimes, the chaotic streets of Bangkok or the cozy bar-rooms of Buffalo still whisper my name. But I'm happy to keep moving forward, finding adventure, comfort, and a sense of home on the road.

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