‘Going home’ to Thailand

(“Where they Went,” published July 19, 2009, Boston Globe.)

Amanda Johnson with parents Jo Lynne and David at Ta Prohm in Cambodia

WHO: David and Jo Lynne Johnson, 59, of Stratham, N.H., and their daughter, Amanda, 26, of New York.  To see traveler Amanda’s photos from the trip, go here.)

WHERE: Cambodia and Thailand.

WHEN: December to March.

WHY: “We fell in love with Asia, and Thailand specifically, and we wanted to go back to teach,” said Jo Lynne. This was the couple’s third trip in four years, which included two archeological tours with Earthwatch Institute and two teaching programs through Volunthai.

FAMILY OUTING: The first three weeks in Asia were spent with their daughter, who had just received her master’s degree in teaching English as a second language. “We offered to show her some of our favorite places,” David said.

HAPPY NEW YEAR: They started in Siem Reap, Cambodia, to visit the famed 12th-century temple complex of Angkor Wat. “We planned to be there for sunrise on New Year’s Day,” Jo Lynne said, “but there was no sun. Still, it was beautiful.” During a previous trip, the couple had befriended a tour guide, who took them around again. The Johnsons are helping his children attend English classes.

The family hitches a ride at Mae Taeng Elephant Camp in Thailand

PACHYDREAMS: “The one thing Mandy wanted to see were the elephants,” David said. Her wish was fulfilled at Mae Taeng Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, where visitors can view elephants bathing, feed them, and ride them through the jungle.

Amanda shows students their photo on her digital camera at Beungkumku School in NonJaDee, Thailand.

A HOST OF IDEAS: “Before Mandy left, we took her to meet the family,” David said, referring to the Volunthai host family they stayed with a year earlier in the small northeastern village of NonJaDee. “When we came before, we were the first white people the villagers had seen. Our purpose is to expose them to pronunciation. They never hear English spoken by native speakers. We taught school with Mandy for a few days. She went home with her head reeling with ideas.”

NEXT ASSIGNMENT: After their daughter left, the Johnsons went on to a larger school in Pakdee Chumphon, where they taught for a month through Volunthai. Not only is learning pronunciation challenging for the students, Jo Lynne said, the culture does not encourage independent thinking, so students are often reluctant to speak. “They’re so afraid of making a mistake. They’re not used to being individually responsible.”

The Johnsons with teacher Khru Tiu

TRULY CONNECTED: Their last three weeks were spent teaching back in NonJaDee. “It was like going home,” Jo Lynne said. The couple they’ve become close to, their host family through Volunthai last year, also are teachers. Communication is halting but doable, she said. “We keep the dictionary at the dinner table.” When the Johnsons are back in New Hampshire, they keep in touch through e-mail. “The people are just the nicest, warmest, most wonderful people. They’re really what drew us back to Thailand,” David said. Though another trip isn’t scheduled, “they know we want to come back, and we will.”

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