So I spent about a month or so at Isara and Nong Khai, Thailand; I rolled into town near the end of March and stayed there until the end of April. I was just coming off about two weeks in Bangkok and Hua Hin — my first time in Thailand. Prior to that I had just completed my CELTA certification in neighboring Viet Nam, but that’s another story for some other time. Let it suffice to say that I had the basic tools in place, but I still really didn’t know what I was in for; I was still a noob filled with some sort of romantic ideal about what teaching English as a foreign language really means.
Before I get any further, I should give you some idea about the physicality of Nong Khai and where Isara was.
Nong Khai, on the banks of the Mekong — the same river that starts in the Tibetan plateau and flows some 2,700 miles into the South China sea at Sai gon, Viet Nam, where I first saw it — Nong Khai is the eponymous capital of Nong Khai province; the district in which Nong Khai itself resides has about 48,000 people on 12.03 miles of land — thank you Wikipedia. It is pretty small and rural — sort of the Southeast Asian equivalent of Mayberry. Except for little pockets of nightlife here and there, they rolled up the sidewalks at night.
That may sound like a dig, but it isn’t; Nong Khai was rather idyllic, as I recall. It’s a far cry from Bangkok, that’s for sure, and not just the obvious. Isaan culture is the norm here, although I really didn’t understand what it meant just then; not sure I understand it any better now, but what the hell.
Isaan — written variously as Isan, Isarn, Issarn, Issan, Esan, Esarn, or Esaan — occupies all of northeast Thailand. As a culture is it distinct from other parts of Thailand and has more in common with Laos and Khmer Cambodia than anything else, although I didn’t realize that until I was actually living in Thailand for awhile. Much of what I assumed was just Thai culture in general was actually Isaan culture in particular, though.
Take the mor’lam music festival, for one example? Isaan culture. Almost unheard of outside of Isaan — except where large pockets of Isaan folk reside, perhaps — mor’lam is huge in Isaan; every weekend it seems there is one going on nearby. What is it? The nearest thing we have in the West is a rock music festival, but the entertainment, food and drink is purely Isaan — which isn’t akin to anything I can think of, East or West.
And the food! Again, much of what I thought of as Thai was actually Isaan food. Papaya salad — som tam in Thai — is actually tam mak hung in Laos where it originated. Larb is another staple of Isaan, sort of a shredded meat salad and the national dish of Laos. I didn’t know any of this in 2010 and newly arrived in Nong Khai, however; I just new it was fucking kick ass good food — some of the best I had ever had, period — and equal in measure to anything I had had in Chengdu, China.
And of course I can’t mention Isaan without mentioning sticky rice. Love the sticky rice. Could do without the various bugs and insects that are popular in Isaan as a snack, but I admit grasshoppers aren’t too bad as bugs go.
Even the language is different and distinct from Thai; like the food it is closer to Laos. Most people from the Isaan region speak both the official Thai language and regional Isaan.
However I don’t want to get into the … cultural differences, lets say, between central Thailand and the people of Isaan — usually rural folk of either Laotian descent or local hill tribes, or both — just now. I’ll save that for its own post for another time; it is bound to ruffle some feathers, I’ll warrant. But then I digress, as I am wont to do.
Back to Nong Khai and Isara
If you look above at the map of Nong Khai, Isara Foudation’s house was in the northeast corner of the map, a few miles east of downtown.
Volunteers who lived on site stayed upstairs; downstairs was the main classroom and computer center, as well as various smaller rooms. In the garage recyclables that Kirk the owner and various volunteers had collected were then sorted. He also kept various bicycles in the garage for volunteers’ use; I remember riding out for breakfast quite often a mile or two west to Mut Mee Guesthouse on the banks of the river.
Out back of the house was a little traditional gazebo-like arrangement, for lack of a better term, complete with a little pond.
On the side of the house, just off the classroom and computer center, was a little play area.
It had its own permanent residents, that pond.
And no, I won’t forget the Gecko’s Bark namesakes:The first one is a tokay gecko; this particular one was about a foot long and lived in the eaves of the house. He — probably a he, as they are larger and brighter colored, but I’m no expert — used to hang out and catch bugs attracted by the lights at night.
The others are just standard geckos found everywhere in Southeast Asia, including everywhere that isn’t permanently air conditioned. Jeez, I miss those little guys and their barking.
Nong Khai, despite the fact that it is seemingly in the middle of nowhere, is popular with foreigners doing visa runs given its proximity to Laos and Vientiane. I made the visit to Vientiane myself to get my work visa while I was there.
You meet travelers of every stripe while hanging around a Thai embassy is a foreign country like Laos, including there three:
Of coarse I forget what there names are, but I did trade emails with the gentleman of the left. A good guy, he came here on vacation several years before and has been bumming around Southeast Asia ever since. I know what that’s like; it gets under your skin. Of course just then I was still enamored with Thailand and in a hurry to get back …
One thing I noticed later, though, while waiting for my visa, was the similarities of the written language of Thailand and Laos; both are based on a Khmer dialect. The above shot, taken with my phone for some reason I forget, was taken in Vientiane — notice the written script? Very similar to Thai writing.
One place in Nong Khai everyone should visit is Sala Keoku. A park containing giant statues made of concrete and influenced by Buddhist and Hindu philosophies, the largest statue is that of a seven-headed snake — as opposed to the more traditional naga, although naga are well represented here — that is six stories tall.
The park is the work of Bunleua Sulilat. Sulilat, a Nong Khai native, was an interesting character; some would call him merely eccentric while others would say he was insane. The mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism he espoused was nonetheless popular around Nong Khai; his followers gave him the title “Luang Pu,” usually reserved for monks. He died in 1996 at age 64, reportedly as the result of a fall from one of his statues. His remains are on display in the third floor of the Sala Keoku pavillion; photography is forbidden.
These photos of Sala Keoku — and some of the others — have appeared on here before; I’ve gathered the best and reprinted them, so to speak, in one place.
Those little dots on the snakes’ heads? Birds. …
Props to Kirk and Ming for taking us for what for them must have been the one hundredth or so visit to Sala Keoku. Let us not forget the many trips into town to go to the night market, Tesco-Lotus, or just picking up tasty Thai food, either.
So that exhausts my meager supply of photos of Nong Khai and Isara. Again, Kirk and Ming were the greatest; they always had time for us volunteers and they offered a professional learning center that was free to everyone who wanted learn, from children to adults. And Isara was truly free for everyone, including us volunteers.
Of my experience teaching there, I taught adults and teenagers, as I was still thinking that children would be more difficult. What I realized later on was that of the three groups, children would not only be the easiest of the three, but also the quickest learners. Teenagers, on the other hand …
Unfortunately I have no photos of students while in Nong Khai, for whatever reason. So I’ll leave you with gravel spreading in the garden …