We arrived at Don Khong a day earlier than our volunteering gig began so we could spend a day exploring around the local islands. The island we would be staying on is part of the 4000 Island area in Laos. The wild part is the fact that the islands are all surrounded by the Mekong River, not the ocean. This was a first for me: staying on a large enough river that islands were big enough to live on.
We arrived to Don Khong in the morning, so we grabbed a hostel and a motorbike, and decided to explore Khone Phapheng waterfalls, “The Pearl Of The Mekong”. We brought our swimsuits excited to cool off in the water (it was about 95° that day), but found the area to be a bit different than we thought. Firstly, it was $7 per person to get in…quite a bit of money to see a natural wonder. Then, there was a temple associated with a sacred tree that was onsite. As soon as I saw the first monk walking around I knew I had to ditch the whole swimming idea. Bikinis and monks do not mix. Bummer. The falls were stunning, but I'm not sure it was worth the price and the heat. That night made up for it as we celebrated our 100th day on the road by splitting a huge dinner and a few BeerLaos.
The next morning we headed over to Saibadee Volunteer School. This is the homestay we would be teaching English at for the next week. There are four levels of students attending the school. Groups 1, 2, 3 were almost the age equivalent of elementary, middle, and high school in the states. All the children and teenagers show up after school and each get an hour of class time in their respective levels. A small group of adults show up in the afternoon on their lunch break to learn as well. Classes run every day, Monday-Friday, and most of the time a group of kids come on the weekends to play games with the volunteers.
Because we showed up on a Saturday, we had a lot of time to get into full relaxation mode at the homestay. The first day was fairly mellow, and we stuck around the property to play games with the kids as they showed up. Uno, hangman (all English of course), and tag are all favorites of the younger classes. The kids knew numbers, colors, and “sorry teacher!” in English (I had a lot of draw 2 cards directed at me). The kids were all smart and adorable. They kept asking me the names of new words or actions in English. It was nice to see what level they were at in a fun way.
The next day, Grant and I borrowed bikes from the homestay and biked 5 miles across the island to get to the larger, morning market. Being there was one of our favorite market experiences so far. We filled up on fresh spring rolls, donuts, and a sugary drink for about 50 cents each. It was the first time we were getting charged the same price as the locals. After eating, we wandered through town and found the shore. There, we watched a series of boats with questionable safety standards riding to and from the beach. Shortly after, it was starting to heat up (at 9:30 AM) so we decided to trek home. Because of the heat, we learned to hide out in the shade or in the water for the majority of the afternoon. No wonder markets wind down at 9:00 in the morning…it's too hot to be active after that time. On a walk later on, we saw a golden tree snake and the locals were as excited to see it as we were.
Monday was our first real class. We volunteered to teach the adults at first, and later on I taught Group 2 and Grant did Group 3. The lessons are all planned by the volunteers. The classes themselves were difficult because no one who spoke Lao was ever around to help out. Miming and consulting various dictionaries/translate apps was the only way to get our points across at times. At one point during a question/answering exercise, Grant asked why the chicken crossed the road. After giving a sincere answer, we tried to tell them what a joke was and they didn't understand what we were gesturing about. Unemployment was another difficult concept for them to understand as well. Despite this, the adults had a pretty good grasp on the language, but were not comfortable speaking casually. So, of course, that is where we focused a lot of our energy on during the week. By the end, they really did seem more comfortable talking, so I hope future teachers continue to work on that with them.
The kids classes were more difficult for different reasons. It was hard to get them to settle down and to not use Lao to one another. Also, they were all at various levels learning the material. Since our lesson was after their normal schooling, I don't blame them for being slightly rowdy. We worked on answering questions about time and played competition games for practice.
When we weren't teaching, making lesson plans, or hanging out in the shady hammocks, you could find the volunteers playing cards, reading, hanging out in the Mekong, or eating the delicious food that was made for us. Curries, stir fried dishes, soups, fruit, eggs, bread, rice, and more rice were some of the things we would have in front for us for every meal. It was awesome to have 7 days of home cooked Lao food to eat.
Our room was simply made, but had an awesome view of the sunrise over the Mekong. With no doors or windows, the swift breeze would blow through our hut throughout the night. The breeze was welcome, however, since the nights were warm and the wind blew the smoke from the sky. Although we summoned the energy for a few late nights of Lao Lao (rice 'whisky'), BeerLao, card games, and stories, most ended early since we were almost always up for the spectacular sunrises (various island roosters and Jimmy made sure we were awake).
Finally, the host family and founders of the program were amazing to all the volunteers that came through the school. Although we only spent a day with the leader and father of the program, Khamla, we could tell how kind he was and how interesting it would be to know him. During our one evening together, he told us about Lao traditions, his life as a monk, his family, and his time as a student in Laos. He told us about how Laos struggles to keep young talent from going to the surrounding countries, unable to resist the lure of more money. He stayed in the country because he is the youngest in the family, and therefore, responsible for taking care of his parents as they become older. He had a good sense of humor and he treated the volunteers with honesty and fairness; I'm glad we were able to spend just that day with him. His wife was a delight as well, dispite the language barrier. Her smile brought more light to the homestay, and she was always working hard to feed the volunteers and students, and to take care of her 10-month-old son, Jimmy. Jimmy (named after James Bond) was as cute as it gets, and as all the volenteers learned, curious in almost a dangerous way. Somehow, Jimmy was already walking everywhere, but the concept of ledges and steps were foreign to him. He'd routinely walk off of drops, with a volenteer or his mother arriving just in time to catch him. Everything new needed to be picked up, inspected, and tasted. Most of the volunteers are convinced he'll be an engineer as well, since he routinely investigated the motorbikes and bicycles for moving parts.
In the end, this was an awesome experience, and now we are even more excited for the next volenteer opportunities ahead of us in Malaysia.
Before then, we will be exploring the Angkor temple complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We finally caught up with our postings, so stay tuned for an update soon!
Danielle and Grant