Reviewed by Jim Jouppi (Thailand 1971-73)
Before the Air Force arrived in Thailand, before the unimproved road to Nakhon Phanom was replaced with a two-lane highway which ran all the way to Bangkok, and before Royal Thai Air Base had been built, two female Peace Corps TEFL volunteers were sent to teach at a boy’s secondary school in town. They liked their teaching job as far as they went, but there wasn’t much to do for entertainment. They could have visited volunteers stationed in other provinces of Thailand, but, as author Penelope Khounta writes in Chapter 2 of her memoir Love Began in Laos, the Story of an Extraordinary Life, a chapter she calls “The Starting Point: 1962”, that wasn’t something they really liked to do. She writes as follows:
Priscilla Spires, the only other Peace Corps Volunteer, and I never left the town’s paved streets unless it was on official business to Bangkok, and to go meant a miserable, dirty, sweaty, scary eight–hour bus ride to get to the train station in Udorn Thani or Ubol Rachatahnai. Then it was another twelve hours on the overnight train on second-class, blue padded benches with padded backs. The only place that it was relatively easy to travel to was Thakhek, a ferryboat ride across the river. There, in Thakhek, the romance with Laos began.
After completing her Peace Corps tour was over, Penelope became a TEFL teacher and trained TEFL instructors in Laos, Iran, and Spain and later served as a trainer and resource person for Peace Corps in Hawaii. But Penelope’s employment overseas is not the focus of her memoir. It’s more about the logistics of holding onto a marriage and raising children in the midst of constant uncertainty and turmoil while dealing with long periods of separation from her husband Khounta, a debonair Laotian government servant who, at the time of their marriage, was the Director General of the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation for Laos.
Their time together in Laos lasted only six years until 1975 when the Communists overran Vientiane. Penelope could have returned to America at that time, but she wasn’t certified to teach TEFL in the States, and Khounta didn’t feel he could find employment in a country where he didn’t speak the language. So Khounta moved to France where he’d been educated, thinking it would be easier for him to find employment there, while Penelope traveled to wherever she could find another TEFL job which she always did, often with the assistance of her growing network of overseas TEFL friends.
When reading this memoir, I couldn’t help but believe I was reading about a woman who’d been exuding an attitude of normalcy when her circumstances were anything but normal. In between describing her relationship with Phounta, known as “the mystery man” even by his friends, she describes her day-to-day activities in Laos, just before the Communist overran the country, and in Iran, just before the Iranian Revolution. Khounta died in 1993, but, in 2017, when her memoir was published, Penelope was still dividing her time between her home in Califonia and Vientiane.
Jim Jouppi (Thailand 1971-73) was stationed in Nakhon Phanom Thailand.