A Crazy Life 8 – Sojourn in Luang Prabang, Laos
In my previous submissions, I recounted how my life had been upturned by personal issues with my mentally-ill Thai wife, how I had been ‘rescued’ from this hell by a teaching job in Yangon, and how my philosophy about life had been forever changed after visiting the slum township of Dala, across the river from Yangon.
Life continued well in Yangon. I taught young kids at the private school during the week, and taught English to young adults at the weekend and in the evening. I was receiving an income equivalent to about $2,000 USD every month, which was a very acceptable amount for a single man living in a third world country.
On payday, I would be paid in the local Kyat currency (pronounced ‘chat’). Since there were about 800 Kyat to $1, I had to take a backpack to carry my wads of money ☺
I needed to send the majority of this salary back to my bank in Thailand. In those days (2012), the banking system in Burma was not connected to the international banking system, due to international sanctions. I was advised to visit a private address in town, where a ‘Hundi’ system was in operation. Hundi is a very old way to transfer funds which relies totally on trust between the two parties, since no money is actually transferred. The sender gives the funds to be credited to the Hundi agent, who then calls up another Hundi agent in the destination city, who will then credit the funds (less commission) to the destination account.
Well, I found the private house and quietly walked into the large front room. There were piles of local Kyat notes at least 1 meter in height, all around the room. In the center of the room was a note-counting machine, the sort that is found in banks. It was whirring away, counting through these huge piles of money.
My presence hadn’t been noticed, so I cheerily said ‘Mingalaba’ to the 3 Burmese in the room. They looked at me with alarm and all retreated behind a large desk at the back of the room.
“Er, is this the place to send money?” I tentatively asked.
They looked at me, looked at the piles of money, looked at the note-counting machine in the middle of the room that was making a noise like a small jet engine and replied “No”.
I looked at the piles of money, looked at the note-counting machine in the middle of the room that was making a noise like a small jet engine and replied “Mr xxx from the school sent me”.
“Ah!!” they all exclaimed together. “You meant that money! Yes”.
And so they transferred my money to Bangkok Bank. The commission rate was peanuts, they gave me a receipt for my payment and my funds were in my bank account in Thailand within 30 minutes…
Although I was very happy with my job in Yangon, I received an unexpected offer out of the blue to apply for the position of Headmaster and Director at an ‘international’ school in north Laos. I place the word ‘international’ in quotation marks, because in reality, ‘international school’ in South-East Asia often just means ‘private school’ with a few token foreign students.
Since it was only about a year since I had started work within the educational sector, I felt that such an offer was too good to turn down. I could always return to Burma if things didn’t work out. I attended the interviews and was offered the job!
Actually, there were a couple of non-pedagogical reasons why I got this job. The current school was being relocated from an old campus to a brand new, multimillion $ campus that was under construction on the west side of Luang Prabang, close to the Mekong river. I was recruited to manage both the transfer of the school and to oversee the completion of the construction work. My previous, hands-on building experience of small hotels in Phuket would stand me in good stead, and I also had a passable knowledge of Lao language, since my ex-wife originated from Issan.
There was a high potential for this new campus to attract many new students, including foreign students, and so I hotfooted down to the building site on my first day of work. Here I encountered a few problems:
– The building work was being undertaken during the monsoon season, with the new term starting in September. This meant that the site was a quagmire of mud.
– The entire construction crew had been shipped in from Vietnam, and all construction materials were trucked by road from Vietnam. This was because the school owner was Vietnamese. For me, the problem was that none of the crew spoke a word of Lao or English, and all studiously ignored my efforts to manage their work.
For example, the large campus was divided into classrooms on one side and administrative buildings on the other side. It was obvious to me that it would be impossible to complete all building work before the new term. So I tactifully advised the school owner that the crew should concentrate on completing the classrooms first. She agreed with me, but the crew did not, and did nothing to accelerate the classroom completion!
On close inspection of the primary school classrooms, I couldn’t locate where the kids’ toilets were to be built. The Vietnamese foreman indicated their intended location, about 200 meters away from the rooms. Presumably, he wasn’t a father, or he would understand the need to build toilets fairly close to the classrooms.
I also suggested to the school owner that now was the best time to make sure that all classroom doors were wide enough to allow wheelchair access, and that ramps were constructed to also allow easy wheelchair access to each room for disabled students. These types of building works are simple to implement at time of room construction. Her reply was defiant “I will not allow any disabled students or teachers in my school”, (a view which was totally illegal under Lao education regulations – disabled students must be allowed to attend mainstream schools).
As the start of the term approached, the campus was still a quagmire of mud. The only access road to the campus was pounded by construction vehicles throughout the day. I couldn’t imagine what might happen if young students had to walk along the same narrow and muddy road to get to school.
Over a Lao coffee in town, I reconsidered my position. It was now obvious to me that the role of school Headmaster was a poisoned chalice. I was but only a ‘white-faced puppet’, placed in position to impress the students and their parents, but with my authority and decisions overridden at will by the school owner. More importantly in the short-term, I also realized who would be blamed for the failure to complete building construction before the new term, and who could be sacrificed to appease the angry parents ⇒ me!
With only a few days to go before the start of the new term, I resigned my employment. I had high hopes for the school, and found Luang Prabang enchanting. The autocratic school owner had dashed my hopes and I left Luang Prabang within the next day, never expecting to return.
But life is always unpredictable. Many years later, I was to return to the same town, and this time for good.
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