It’s not uncommon for foreign teachers in Thailand to fancy a change of scenery and head for pastures new and to one of Thailand’s neighbours – perhaps Myanmar, Vietnam or Cambodia. But what about Laos? I’d like to know a bit more about what’s going on there. I came across a website for a wonderful looking institute in Vientiane called the Oscar International School and found out that Mr Robert Walsh is the man to fire the questions at.
Robert, a warm welcome to the ajarn hot seat. I’m not sure why (perhaps I’m a little out of touch) but I didn’t expect to see such a smart looking international school in Vientiane. Those are the cutest school buses I’ve ever seen! Summarize the school for us in a short paragraph if you would?
We are a relatively new private school located in Vientiane , Laos. We offer an International curriculum from nursery through to year 12. We have two campuses both on the outskirts of the city. We currently have around 400 students of different nationalities ( mostly Lao) and a faculty of teachers from the US, UK, Australia etc.
I assume that this is a school aimed primarily at children of both ex-pats and the more well-heeled locals?
Our school caters for both the expat community and the Lao community. All students must be proficient in the English language as we use an international curriculum from the UK.
What are some of the things the school is particularly proud of?
We are very proud of our growth since we opened in 2012. We have been growing from strength to strength and are continuously looking to progress and develop for the benefit of our students and for the future of the Lao people and the Lao nation as a whole.
How many foreign teachers do you currently have on the teaching staff?
We currently have around 45 teachers in total of which approximately 30 are expat teachers.
What about you yourself Robert. How did you end up in Laos?
I made the choice to come here in 2001 after teaching in both Thailand and Cambodia for several years. I have remained here ever since and don’t have any plans to move on. I consider this my home.
Apart from recruiting teachers Robert, what are your day-to-day responsibilities?
Other than recruiting teachers, I am responsible for teaching and learning and the day to day running of the school. I will be reading lesson plans, organizing cover for absent teachers, working on schedules, conducting assemblies, dealing with discipline of students (and teachers) and issues that arise throughout the day, accidents etc, meeting with the director and the owner, team meetings, conducting teacher assessments, observations of lessons etc. Liaising with the other campus, organizing sports day and other school wide events, and the list goes on..
You sound like a busy man. When foreign teachers talk about leaving Thailand for another country in Asia, it’s usually for Vietnam, Cambodia or further afield to somewhere like China. Laos doesn’t get mentioned all that often. I guess it’s because there are a relatively smaller number of teaching jobs on offer?
Not the case anymore. There are a number of good international schools, bilingual schools as well as private schools and language schools. It’s almost as if a new school is opening every month!
So how difficult is it to attract foreign teachers to come and work there?
It’s a mixed bag. I have teachers who stay put, have wives and settle down for the long run, and then I also have teachers that come for one year and are done! For younger teachers it seems as though they find it hard to stay here long term so we have a turnover of around 20%.
Vientiane is not every one's cup of tea! Saying that I am always able to fill positions.
One of the most popular sections of the ajarn website is our cost of living section where teachers go into detail about what they earn and what they spend their money on. One of the questions is “in your opinion, how much does one need to earn in order to survive?’ I appreciate ‘survive’ means different things to different people, but what sort of salary would afford you a comfortable living in Laos?
I think you would need an income of no less than $800 per month to survive
To delve into specifics, what’s the accommodation market like in Vientiane? Is it easy to rent an apartment or house and typically how much do they rent for?
I could probably find a small house in the suburbs/outskirts for about $300 a month after searching myself for a week or so, on a motorbike.
Agents only offer high prices. 15 years ago you could rent a nice small bungalow style house, furnished, for $100 - $150 per month. Now the same houses are $300 - $500 per month! There are some small apartments around $200-$250 per month but most are more than $300.
I’ve been to Vientiane twice in my life but haven’t been for over 20 years. I remember a sleepy capital, pleasant in many ways but three days being just enough. You walked around the morning market and had one of those wonderful baguettes for breakfast. You had a stroll around the Patuxai Monument after lunch and in the evening, you drank at that cluster of bars and cafes around the fountain. I’m betting things have developed since then but Vientiane has still retained its small-town charm right?
Since I’ve been here, it’s changed from that sleepy, slow paced village to a busy, traffic jammed, dusty, hot city. Nothing compared to Bangkok or Udon Thani but it is definitely growing fast!I Choose to ride a motorbike as the traffic can get really bad and parking can be impossible.
But with the growth, we've now got lots of good restaurants, bars, shopping malls and water parks too!
I remember it being very expensive to get around town by taxi (certainly compared to Thailand) but I guess most teachers would use their own bicycle or motorcycle?
I have never used a taxi here. Most teachers use their own motorbikes or cars.
A lot of foreign teachers in Thailand come here to teach for a year or two and end up staying longer (sometimes for reasons even they can't fathom)
Does that happen in Laos or do most teachers come for the short term and leave as planned?
No, some teachers are definitely here for the long run. I know many that have settled down with a wife, built a house and have kids.
You must have come into contact with many teachers that have worked in both Laos and Thailand. What are some of their opinions when they weigh up the differences and the contrasts?
The difference is that although there are more things to do here now with the new shopping malls etc, it’s still not the same as Thailand’s malls and shopping venues. Before the new Thai entry visa rule only letting in foreigners overland twice a year, teachers would go to over to Nongkhai or Udonthani almost every weekend for shopping or hospital visits.
By the way, there are no international hospitals here yet. If you are seriously ill, or had a serious accident, you need to get over to Thailand. And of course it is a land locked country, which means no sea and no beaches!