What happens when plans change

This is a continuation of our road trip around the north-western part of Thailand. To read from the start, click HERE.

Day 12

Plan One:

‘Fish Cave’ was advertised as pretty much that: a cave with fish. A website that was a few years outdated promised free camping in the national park where Fish Cave was located, which is what drew us there. However, we arrived and were told that it would be 100 baht each to camp – the same price as a cheap guesthouse. We exchanged glances and decided to find another place to camp instead (plan one changed).

Plan Two:

Taking the road towards Ban Rak Tai, a Chinese village on the border of Thailand and Myanmar, we spotted a sign for Pang Oung, a reservoir with potential camping. We had planned to find a camping spot in the Chinese village, but instead took a detour to the reservoir (plan two changed).

Plan Three:

We passed through a village called called Ma Kuay Som, which in English translates to ‘Tomato Village’ (shortened to simply ‘Tomato’), and drove by a small store selling petrol. We didn’t stop there, and headed towards the reservoir. But after another ten minutes decided to turn back and fill up just to be on the safe side. When we topped up, the woman serving – who could speak English very well – offered to let us stay the night for free (plan three changed).

We chatted with Ten, the husband of the woman who had invited us to stay (we never learned her name, or spoke to her again).

“Do you know what a homestay is?” he asked.

“Ah… yes.. I think I do…? Do I?”

“A real homestay. It is supposed to be free, or the guest pays what they can afford if they want to. This was how it was done originally in villages like this. Always for free. And hosts will stay with others for free when they travel.”

The concept was like Couchsurfing. I tried to explain, but had difficulty getting past the name.

“Do you know couch?”

“No.”

“Erm… Sofa?”

“No.”

“Chair… like to sit?”

“Like armchair?”

“Yes!” I replied, “Do you know surfing?”

He didn’t, of course (he lived 1200 metres up a mountain, hundreds of miles away from the ocean), and further difficulty was had after I realised that couchsurfing is not literally ‘couch surfing’, if you catch my drift. Thankfully, the concept was clearer than the name, and so he asked for the link to the website.

The name of our “homestay” was Ben and Ten (Ben was Ten’s father-in-law), and as well as being a petrol station, a general store, a motorcycle repair centre, and a homestay, they also gave guided treks in the surrounding mountains and taught English to children every weekday evening. And so, with several plans ditched, and by a string of lucky coincidences, Caroline and I taught our first English class.

Oh little town of Tomato

The little town of Tomato

I taught class A, of which there were 21 kids. Caroline taught class B, of which there were 14 kids. I was supposed to be helping Ten to teach, but he left after a couple of minutes leaving me to fly by the seat of my pants for an hour and a half. I’d never taught a group of kids before, and hadn’t prepared any sort of lesson plan. They were all looking at me expectantly. And so my class consisted of the following ‘lessons’.

– Ask each kid about themselves. It was clearly something they’d practiced, because in monotone they would recite, “My name is ___. I am ___ years old. I come from ___ village. I am in grade ___. My favourite animal is ___. Nearly all of their favourite animals was ‘bird’, but when I asked what type of bird they looked worried. This wasn’t part of the deal. “Big or small?” I asked. Everybody said small. If the kids didn’t like birds they liked dogs. The first kid I asked said, “I ride dogs.” “Excuse me?” “I ride dogs.” “You ride dogs?” “I rike dogs.” “Oh.”

– I asked them if they knew where NZ was.

– I asked them to guess my age (this resulted in a lot of screaming)

– I wrote large numbers on the board and got them to try and say the number. “Sixty four million, and two hundred twenty thousand, and twelve”

– I got them to write and attempt to say the popular tongue twister, “She sells sea shells on the sea shore,” etc. Then afterwards realised that it probably wasn’t a practical life skill.

– Asked them what they want to be when they grow up. “Doctor.” “Doctor.” “Doctor.” “Doctor.” “Nurse.” “Doctor.” “Fisherman.” Then I asked, “Why?” which stumped them.

– Went back to the writing large numbers thing

Caroline’s classes seemed to run a bit smoother. She was teaching with Saeng, the daughter of Ben. Saeng stuck around to co-run the class and translate for Caroline. She also gave several lessons:

– Separated the class into three groups to discuss what different occupations were for. “To help people,” was the general consensus.

– Taught them the song, “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes.”

– Taught them part of their syllabus (my class didn’t seem to have one) that included weather terminology and action verbs (go to sleep, wake up, make a mess).

– Wrote different animal names in English and asked them to teach it back to her in Thai (caterpillar, cockroach, beetle), which they quickly picked up.

The final bell rang, and for me it wasn’t soon enough. I decided that I might not be cut out to teach.

In the ‘staff room’ (deck) afterwards we drank oolong tea (grown in the garden, then sundried and roasted), and chatted with Ben and Saeng. Ben was originally from Myanmar and moved his family to Thailand in the early 90s during the military takeover. The long trip had to be done silently on foot, at night, and by candlelight, as the soldiers at the time killed anyone they came across. Saeng was the last of four children to be born, and the only one to be born in Thailand, although she still couldn’t get a Thai I.D. until after she finished high school, and was refused school lunches because of this.

Saeng and her mother (and me)

Saeng and her mother (and me)

There was a large population of Myanmar refugees in this part of the country, and the Thai King had done some amazing work with trying to ease their transition. Large, beautiful areas had been created for them to farm (for themselves to survive, not to sell produce) and moves had been made to reduce the opium that was being produced. Ten spoke about this, with much affection for his king.

“The King said, ‘I know you’re growing the poppies, so this year, grow as many as you need. Next year you will be allowed to grow half as many. The year after that, the same.’ And as he reduced the number of opium, he gave the farmers increasingly large quantities of vegetable and coffee seeds to plant instead. It took about ten years, and now there is no more opium problem.”

We chatted with these wonderful, generous people, on a deck overlooking a village filled with cabbage plantations (the biggest exported vegetable from Tomato), to the sound of the Buddhist New Year gongs and drums (you can see this in the main image for this post), and watched the stars begin to appear.

And all this goes to show that you really shouldn’t be disappointed if your travel plans fall through, because you’ll most likely end up teaching English to Thai children in Tomato instead.

To continue, click HERE

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Just an ordinary train

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