What a Trip: In rural Thailand, teaching as a route to learning


Mary Riley interacts with students in Baan Nong Phue, Thailand. (George McDonald)
June 19

Our readers share tales of their travels around the world.

Who: George McDonald and Mary Riley of Arlington.

Where, when, why: Thailand, September 2012 to July 2013; as George retired, we wanted to immerse ourselves in a totally different culture and see what we could learn.

Highlights and high points: We spent most of our time in the rural northeast section of Thailand known as Isaan, working as volunteer English teachers in rural schools with Volunteers for Thailand. The challenges of working where very few people spoke English, learning how to connect with the students (from first grade to high school seniors), and feeling so much warmth and friendship from people no matter the difficulty of communication were the highlights of our trip.

We lived in a town called Khemmarat on the Mekong River. The landscape was very beautiful, with exotic flowers everywhere year-round; bananas and papayas ripened in people’s yards and in seemingly unclaimed lots. George went to a shelter overlooking the river almost every day to read The Washington Post on his Kindle and to meet Thai people. His most memorable experience was meeting a young Thai rice farmer named Tom, who spoke no English. They tried to bridge the gap with a Thai-English dictionary. Most Thais that George met would try to converse for a few minutes and then say a warm “sawatdeekrap” (goodbye), but not Tom. He motioned for George to get on his motorbike, asked for directions and George led him to our apartment, where he met Mary. Then George told Mary that he was off with Tom to Tom’s school (he thought). But they drove about six miles out of town right past Tom’s school to Tom’s house, where Tom introduced him to his wife and young children. George led the kids in “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” and took pictures and printed them back at our apartment. Tom started picking George up about every other Saturday morning and taking him back to his village. They visited many of Tom’s friends, and when rice planting season started, Tom taught George to plow fields and plant (and replant) rice.

On school vacation during the hottest months, we traveled to Chiang Dao (about an hour north of Chiang Mai) and Koh Chang, an island on the eastern side of the Gulf of Thailand. They were beautiful, restful trips.

Cultural connection or disconnect: Mary can’t deal with spicy food, which is a serious issue in Thailand. We quickly learned that “my pet” means “no spice,” so Mary used that whenever we ate out. It worked in our short visit to Bangkok, but not quite as well in rural Isaan. We think it was hard for the Thais to believe that anybody would want food with no spice, so we think maybe they just put a little less on Mary’s dishes. We began going regularly to the Resort of Flowers, a small family restaurant on the river. We got to know the family (the daughter spoke English) and they would prepare us meals that were among the best we’ve ever had — and for a very reasonable price.

Biggest laugh or cry: Mary uses flower essences for good health and ordered some for delivery in Thailand. When they arrived, we went to the post office to pick them up. But a postal official said that we had to accompany him with the essences to the nearby customs office. We hurried behind him and then had to try to explain to customs officials what “flower essences” are. We spent several hours there but left with the box of essences — after paying a much lower tariff because their computer system couldn’t deal with the amount they said we owed. We happily paid the lower price.

How unexpected: We knew where Thailand is on the globe but were surprised that it really is tropical, which means very hot for most of the year. We got an air-conditioned apartment in Khemmarat but taught most days in non-air-conditioned classrooms. Mary prepared lessons with lots of movement for her young students; the kids loved the songs and dancing, but Mary was wiped out by the end of the day.

Fondest memento or memory: As we walked around Khemmarat, we seldom passed someone without exchanging “wais,” slight bows with the hands lifted as in prayer at the heart, and a “sawatdeekrap” (or “sawatdeeka” for women). Those made us feel so warm and accepted. Back in the States, one of our biggest culture shocks was returning to a place where many are looking at cellphones rather than acknowledging each other in passing with a heartfelt greeting.

To tell us about your own trip, go to www.washingtonpost.com/travel and fill out the What a Trip form with your fondest memories, finest moments and favorite photos.

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