Flying from winter in London straight into Bangkok is something of a shock to your average Englishman; and as I was lying in a hotel room after a first day exploring, feeling tired and far, far hotter than I'm accustomed to, I admit to thinking that I might have made a mistake in deciding to spend half a year in the land of smiles and overly persistant tuk-tuk drivers.
Nevertheless, I decided that I would press on with my plans to travel northwards and try my hand at teaching. I escaped from Bangkok a week earlier than expected, and took the night train to the far end of the Northeastern Line. Things were looking up - the train was nicely chilled and the pillows were fluffy, and as we pulled up in Nong Khai the only thing troubling me was the persistant worry that Travel to Teach didn't actually exist. Given the amount of ex-volunteers and staff members I'd spoken to however, the idea that the website was an elaborate scam seemed unlikely, and mostly faded altogther when a smiling Rick (the Namsom co-ordinator) appeared at the platform with a large T2T signboard, ready to take us to our new home.
Arriving at the Green Dorm, I was pleased to find that the bedroom allocated to me was larger than everyone elses, and this put me in a good mood for my first day in town. I'd forgotten to mention to anyone that I was a vegetarian, however, and was promptly taken out to eat by staff-members Rick and Meow, to a place that seemed to serve almost exclusively meat. As I was enjoying my breakfast of cheese and bread, and Rick was enjoying my sausages and bacon, I was concerned that Nong Khai might not be too veggie-friendly and I'd have to take to eating animals, or insects at the very least. This didn't prove true however and I've since developed a massive taste for a range of tofu-based Thai dishes and simultaniously gained a stone in weight. Thanks to T2T's cooking lessons, I've also been able to make all my favourites at home and impress my friends with my wok skills.
On the way back from breakfast I got very, very lost for two hours; and would definitely advise new volunteers to take careful note of the landmarks around the dorm. After getting hold of a bicycle and a map, I went out and did some serious exploring. I was a little confused but ultimately pleased to find that Nong Khai has a large Tesco's – a familiar sight to those of us from the UK. There's also a fab market to explore, the Mekong river to look at, and a range of temples. Not to mention Nong Khai's 'intense' night life, which you will quickly discover and possibly even subsequently forget until someone tells you what happened in the morning.
Life in the Green Dorm is good fun and rarely boring. There's always teaching to be done and people to chat to during the day, and movies to watch and places to go in the evening; and the T2T staff are friendly and supportive. Some things take a little getting used to: having to use a Thai shower which is not in any way showerlike; insects that are bigger than your hand; and 'Thai time' being good examples; but it doesn't take long to adjust.
Of course the most important aspect to my trip was the teaching itself. My friend Henry and I were first placed in Tesseban high school alongside German volunteer Marius, who had already been teaching there for a few weeks. After fixing the newly adopted German accents of the Thai children, we got straight in to teaching vocabulary and grammar. I found this a little difficult at first, having no teaching experience; and my first hour-long lesson plan lasted 10 minutes, providing me with the challenge of having to do some fairly fast improvisation. After a week or so, however, I was finding teaching much easier and gaining confidence, and after a couple of months I found myself on a stage with a microphone in front of 100 kids leading a rendition of the 'penguin song'. It just goes to show that whilst experience is useful, it's certainly not a prerequisite for volunteering.
Games and songs aside (and there were many games and songs), I was also soon beginning to perfect a few techniques for teaching spelling and other crucial subjects and was seeing definate improvements in the literacy of the classes I was teaching, which was very rewarding. At the same time, I was seeing a definate improvement in my karaoke skills outside of school, and through studying every day with T2T's language book, I was beginning to pick up Thai which made both teaching and ordering food that doesn't have fish sauce in it (a constant challenge) far easier.
I should mention at this point that the days of sitting in Bangkok wishing I was back in England seemed like a distant memory, and it wasn't long after arriving in Nong Khai that I was starting to dread the day when I'd have to go home, because the staff, volunteers and smiley Thais were making my time here so enjoyable that it was impossible to feel homesick. This was especially true of my time teaching in Phon Phisai, which was the best part of my volunteering experience, for which thanks are mostly due to Phon Phisai co-ordinator Happy Jack and to the slightly crazy, fun-loving residents of his village, Ban Thin Dung, who go out of their way to make foreigners feel both very welcome and a little bit famous. My karaoke skills peaked in Phon Phisai with mine and Henry's interesting version of Bohemian Rhapsody in a local bar, and the many, many Ronan Keating singalongs with the village children in the English camps (Jack's choice of artist – I was a little ashamed at first, but the kids enjoyed it, so Ronan it was).
If ever I had any problems teaching in Thailand, it was due to my own lack of preparation and not at all to do with the kids themselves, who have an incredible amount of respect for all teachers – be it their own regular Thai teachers or young western volunteers. Being in a Thai school is a far cry from an English classroom – the children may not have had such a priviledged education but on the whole they are well behaved, creative, energetic and extremely keen to learn; making the whole teaching experience far less daunting than you might imagine. The scariest thing was encountering a group of monks who I was supposed to be teaching but discovering that their grasp of English was in fact better than mine; and actually being rendered speechless by some of their probing questions into both the complexities of English grammar and the meaning of words that I had never heard of. On the whole though, teaching was great fun, not too challenging; and extremely worthwhile.
As a high school leaver on a gap year, I had a decision to make as to whether to travel around as a tourist or to stay in one place and make myself useful; and I'm convinced I made the right decision. Staying put for such a long time provided me with the opportunity to really get to know Thai culture – something that your average backpacker tourist doesn't get to fully appreciate. Leaving Nong Khai, and the friends that I had made there, was not easy to do and was easily the hardest part of my trip; and I'm eager to come back someday in the not too distant future. I don't have any regrets about choosing Travel-to-Teach to volunteer with and would urge anyone reading this and thinking about it to go for it - not only does the company actually exist, you'll have a great time volunteering with them and will be left with tons of great memories.