Luang Prabang is a small, charming city with about 55,000 inhabitants, and lies at the confluence of the Mekong an Nam Kan rivers. It’s the city I liked most thus far due to its relaxed vibe, peacefulness, and just enough things to do. Several people I talked to had been traveling for a few weeks and were winding down here. Some of them were a bit stressed of being on the road every day, or having to make choices about where to go next all the time.
I was going to stay in this city for a bit longer for my first Workaway experience. Workaway is a website where you can find all kinds of projects to work at, including help at guest houses, in construction, gardening, and teaching. Usually you’ll have to work for about 4-5 hours per day, 5 days a week, and in return, you normally get accommodation and food. This is a great way to stay somewhere longer at low costs, get to know some people (other workawayers and locals), and potentially have an interesting learning experience.
After the slow boat ride I arrived at my first Workaway stay: the Sa Sa guesthouse. Here, I stayed for a week, and I worked at the connected Sa Sa cruise: a cruise boat on the Mekong river. I didn’t get a warm welcome by the host – a French guy called Denis. It was more like business. Nothing along the lines of “Welcome Tim, good to have you here!” But more like “Give me your name. Okay, she (pointing at a Lao girl) will show your room.” The other Workawayers were very welcoming and friendly luckily – thanks guys 😉
I did hospitality work around the boat: getting tourists on the boat, serving drinks and food, and cleaning up. It wasn’t hard at all, I had fun with my Workaway colleagues and the Lao crew, and I got to enjoy a few beautiful sunsets.
I was surprised – or perhaps I shouldn’t have been – at the level of Denis (the French host) his English. He’d been running this tourist business for years but you could still hardly have a conversation with him. I cringed when I heard him talk English with tourists, giving them the “ticket cocktail free” (with a heavy French accent). It would’ve saved a lot of confusion if he would’ve uttered a full sentence, such as: “Here is your ticket for a free cocktail.”
Volunteering at English Club Laos
Although I enjoyed the Workaway “work”, I thought it wasn’t a very meaningful way to spend my time. I googled and found the English Club Laos: a Lao school in Luang Prabang that exclusively teaches English. I sent them an email asking if I could come and help for a week, and I got a quick positive reply.
The school has Lao English teachers with a degree, but they always welcome volunteers who can help with pronunciation and conversations. Also, having someone from abroad makes the lessons more interesting and fun for the kids. The age of the kids ranged from about 6 to 16, and the levels from elementary to pre-intermediate. The school can’t afford accommodation and food for volunteers, so I arranged a hotel myself for 12 euro’s a night including a decent breakfast.
Mike, a volunteer from the U.S. who helps the school for months each year, coordinates the volunteers. He introduced me to the school and gave me a schedule for the week: 1 morning class, 2 afternoon classes, and 1 evening class, lasting 80 minutes each. During my stay there was going to be one other volunteer: Angela from Scotland.
The teaching of English
Most of the kids could start a conversation with: “Hello, what is your name? Where are you from? How old are you? Are you married?” Also, some of them said “You are handsome”. Well thank you, but it feels a tad strange and funny hearing this from kids of this age (both boys an girls). One day, the Lao teacher I was working with, asked all the kids: “What is his name? Tim! How old is he? 29! Is he handsome? Yes!” I could barely stop smiling and laughing.
It turned out that the Lao language doesn’t have (or not exactly) a number of sounds which exist in English, most notably, the: th, l, r, k, and x. Also, combining certain consonant sounds, was difficult for them. For example, the “k” sound followed by the “l” sound in “clock”. Most attempts led to “cock”, “quack”, or “lock”. As a result, we spent a fair amount of time trying to pronounce these sounds. I explained how to use your mouth (i.e. tongue and lips) to make these. That often led to laughter, in particular with the infamous “th” (by putting the tongue between the teeth), but they were also serious, and I heard some of them definitely improve over the days.
I also remember meeting one boy outside the classroom who struck a conversation with me in excellent English. He said he felt very lucky to be the only boy from his village to be able to have decent education in Luang Prabang. He wanted to become an English teacher and visit all these poor villages to teach English. We exchanged phone numbers for WhatsApp and one of his first questions on chat was “What is the meaning of life?”
Overall, I had a great experience: I enjoyed teaching, I learned a lot myself too, and the kids stole a piece of my heart.