The sky is a brilliant orange spilling out into the water, the silhouetted horizon line all that separates the sun from itself. It rained earlier, a late afternoon storm, and the boardwalk still bears evidence, peppered with puddles.
The inhabitants of the city have emerged from their homes and offices and coffee shops to take advantage of the after-rain coolness, to walk in the last of the early evening light. The rain has softened the air, the heaviness of the heat, and it is pleasant sitting on this rooftop, the glass bottle in front of me sweating between my fingers. Below, a woman folds her umbrella, a couple directs a baby stroller through a shallow patch of water. This town is always quiet, tucked against the river, but tonight it is even more still. As the light falls away, so does my view of Laos, just across the bridge, until all that is visible of the city beyond is just pinpricks of light.
This corner of the world, far from the bustle of Bangkok, is Nong Khai.
Situated directly across the river from Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, in northeastern Thailand, it is known best for its Friendship Bridge, which has connected the two countries since 1994. The main foreigners ere are retirees married to Thais or those that split their time between Thailand and somewhere west or intrepid backpackers making a visa run or leaving Thailand behind altogether. The people here speak Thai, Isaan or Laos; some even English or Chinese.
Living away from one’s own country for any length of time is the most exciting, rewarding and demoralizing experience a person can have.
Many farm, either as a primary or secondary occupation, though the soil is not as fertile as in the north or the south. It is hot here and, until recently, bone-dry. Considered the most remote, least touristic, poorest and least developed region of Thailand, Isaan is not featured heavily in most guidebooks, and is cut altogether from suggested weeklong itineraries. But it is the part of Thailand that I consider home and have for the past eight months.
I teach here, in a Thai high school. I am the school’s only foreign teacher, the first the school has ever had. In the mornings I eat Isaan food at a communal table my Thai colleagues make at home and bring to school, managing a few broken sentences and laughing at jokes I only half understand. The school days are long and hot. There is no air-conditioning, computers or projectors in the classrooms. It’s just me and my whiteboard markers and whatever activities I’ve come up with that day to keep the attention of 30-plus high school students, most of whom can barely understand me and will likely not need to in order to be successful in their future endeavours.
It’s daunting, sure. But I love it.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of teaching in Thailand.
Both of my parents taught here in the 1980s. My father did multiple tours with the Peace Corps, teaching in Thai provinces Americans are no longer permitted to visit due to ongoing border conflicts. When they spoke of Thailand, my parents’ eyes would light up. They still do, decades later, when discussing new ways they have been able to connect with their Thai friends in this new world of modern technology. I have visited Thailand before, a tourist, even progressing into a traveller as I lived out of a backpack at sat at laundromats waiting for my clothes to finish a cycle and stayed in hostel dorms. But I wanted to live here.
In my eight months in Thailand, I have learned so much: To peel a mango with a machete. To catch a van off of the side of the road. To morlam (sing and dance traditionally), albeit poorly and without much coordination.
Living away from one’s own country for any length of time is the most exciting, rewarding and demoralizing experience a person can have. While my pictures of verdant rice fields and sunsets over the Mekong populate my Instagram page, my reality is often long, sweaty workdays and going to bed as soon as the sun goes down because my brain, like my overheating computer, is done trying to translate every aspect of life into a language that I can understand. In Thailand, the simplest tasks have become not only a linguistic exercise, but one in ingenuity. I am pushed to my limits daily, cognitively, occupationally and physically.
But nothing worth doing is ever easy.Add this article to your reading list