My trip to Laos started with one backpack full of clothes and chocolate and a second big travel bag packed with folders, Christmas cookies and teaching material. Coming from Germany and only knowing very little about Laos, I had low expectations that probably say more about me than about the reputation of the country. I expected that there would be no supermarkets and that you need to drive out of town to find the next ATM. In my mind I thought of classrooms without air condition and no technical equipment. Today I view these things differently and so I want to tell you about my first impressions.
Surprisingly – and this was great to see – in the closer surroundings of Ban Sikeud you can find everything you need and even if the people do not speak English they try to communicate with you using gestures and facial expressions to help you.
I was told that it is important to be nicely dressed as a teacher, especially in an Asian country. This means clothes that cover knees and shoulders. For this reason, I brought lots of long cotton pants and T-shirts.
And as far as classrooms are concerned, Ban Phang Heng Secondary School is a pioneer: Thanks to AfC, it has a new physics room with a Whiteboard and a beamer and a computer room with 50 computers to work with.
When I landed on Lao ground, I was warmly welcomed by my teammates Silja and David. After the inspection of the gigantic house in which I am granted to live during my time in Laos we sat on the balcony with a bag of Lao iced coffee and my teammates told me about our plans for the weekend. In the afternoon David showed me around Ban Phang Heng Secondary School in which I will be teaching over the next five months. While walking around in the school, he introduced me to the Lao teachers. They were all very kind and open-minded towards me.
This, honestly, is the point where I was the most surprised. I realised that when a teacher walks by a student, the student bows his head with his hands folded in front of his upper body, like when praying. Later that day, I learned that the “nop“ is a traditional gesture to show respect and social standing. There are three different folding positions, depending on the social standing of the counterpart. The higher the social standing of the counterpart, the higher the hands will be folded. The older the counterpart, the higher the hands are folded as well, i.e. in front of the nose. When you greet a monk, your hands are folded in front of your forehead.
In the evening Silja and I went to see Mrs Gerlinde Engel to say hello and to introduce myself, and also to discuss the next steps in building up the new “Lending Library” in Ban Phang Heng Secondary School. There I got to know that when entering a temple or a house, you have to take off your shoes. The students also take off their shoes before entering a classroom.
Lake Nam Ngum
The weekend was quite eventful. On Saturday morning at 9 o´clock Pauline´s “non-English” teachers came to the villa to pick us up, to spend the day at the lake Nam Ngum. With six people squeezed on the back of a pick-up and a huge sound box, we drove to the lake for two hours. We listened to Lao songs, singing out loud while driving through the dusty roads.
At the lake, we met the director of Ban Phang Heng Secondary School and his family. All together, we went on a boat which had a big slide down to the water on the roof. We had a delicious lunch on the boat, where they served roasted cashew nuts, fish, curry, and a lot more. The highlight of the day was the slide: We had a lot of fun going down the slide and spending time in the beautiful warm lake. Unfortunately, it is not normal for Laotians to be able to swim, so we were very pleased to have teachers with us who had swimming skills. By the end of the day I had not only seen one of the nicest places in Laos, but also enjoyed the very kind and generous company of our partner teachers which they had offered from the very first day.
Vientiane Boat Race
On Sunday, all volunteers joined up with the teachers of LGTC and Sunshine School to go to the Boat Race on the Mekong River (Boun Xuang Heua). The streets to and along the Mekong River bank were very crowded with thousands of spectators. The Vientiane Boat Racing Festival is held the day after the “Lhei Heua Fei“ Festival (“floating boats of light downstream”) and commemorates the defeat of the neighbouring Thai army by the Lao in a boat race. The festival is held after the monks’ three-month fast, and rain retreat has ended.
When we strolled through the markets, I saw many Laotians carrying little flower arrangements with candles on it. We had a lot of fun at the side shows, which were all over the place, such as “pop-the-balloons”, where small prizes can be won. In the evening we went to a Korean restaurant and I tried sticky rice with the traditional green curry. In the evening, hundreds of colourful flower arrangements decorated with candles were brought to the Mekong River. People put their decorated floats into the water and then let them float downstream – a symbol of paying respect to the river spirit.
My first day at a Lao school
For my first day at school, I wanted to get an overview of how things work and who takes care of what. The day started at 8:00 am, and I accompanied David to his “teacher lesson” with Mr Souvanh. On entering the staff room, the Lao teachers I had got to know over the weekend welcomed me very kindly and invited me to sit with them. Mr Champasong taught me the days of the week and showed me how to write my name in the Lao language.
During my first days at school, I explored the traditional Lao dancing during “Activity time”. I must say I was pleasantly surprised! At first I thought this would be a bit boring: Repeating easy step sequences for two minutes, the duration of the song. But I really wanted to check it out and dive into something entirely unknown to me. Lao music is very different from European music to start with, but the movements look pretty easy. After dancing for ten minutes, I realised that they are more complicated and precise than I thought. Seysamone, one of our Lao teachers, taught me how to bend my hands and stretch my fingers and then the different step sequences for every song. The pupils could see that I had big problems memorising the steps but they smiled at me and were very proud to show me their dancing skills instead of being sceptical or critical.
In the big break my teacher-student Ms. Donekeo, a little well-dressed woman, ran straight towards me and introduced herself. Due to the fact that she had an hour off, we took the time to talk to each other and get to know one another a little. We had a good time talking about family and the differences of life in Germany and Laos. As is typical of Lao women, Donekeo likes to wear make-up and a beautiful Sinh. She told me that she had worked as a teacher at Ban Phang Heng Secondary School for four years and that she likes to learn English.
I told her that I am just as excited, that I also look forward to starting work with her, and that I am highly motivated to help to further improve the English learning situation at Ban Phang Heng Secondary School by creating a good learning atmosphere with my English teacher-students and by helping with their classroom management and performance as well as by implementing new teaching methods. Let’s get started!
Text by A. Broghammer
Photos by A. Broghammer, D. Schrep & P. Kern