Given the excellent location of Phonphisai, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a long weekend exploring Nong Khai, a vibrant city an hour away from our village, and Vientiane, the capital city of Laos – the two cities sit on either side of the Thai-Lao border. Of course, there were plenty of travel pleasures much closer to home too. Phonphisai and the surrounding villages are situated right on the bank of the mighty Mekong river. One of my favourite activities was walking the 3km from Jack’s home to the Phonphisai town centre through the villages, alternately admiring the views over the Mekong waters and taking in the sights of the village homes, farm animals and returning the greetings of the village kids!
I joined this program as an English ‘teacher’ – and this teacher was also a student in so many ways! In teaching the children English in their classrooms, I had to quickly learn how to creatively teach English without knowing Thai; to conjure up the lyrics of childhood songs and rules of primary school games from the deep recesses of my memory; to adapt from teaching in a group of 4 volunteers one day to teaching solo the next; to be ready to teach 7 year olds as well as 14 year olds.
The hardest thing to learn, though, was letting go of the children at the end of lunchtime or at hometime each day – those lovely children who were always smiling, laughing, willing to share their toys and games and eager to get to know the new teachers with such joy! I had the privilege to teach at three local schools in the region. As much as the school facilities, school uniforms and ages of the children differed between the schools, the warmth, friendliness and genuine acceptance of a foreigner by students and teachers alike were stamped over every school in equal measure. Actually, all of the Isan locals had these qualities. Not only did Jack’s family make every volunteer part of the family from the moment you move into their home, but any ‘strangers’ that we met never stayed strangers to us for long! The Isan region exemplifies why Thailand is known as the ‘Land of Smiles’.