The Sky Changes

6F1EF833-9F29-4264-9C96-8DC718A1482A_1_201_aEvery year at this time, the sky in Bangkok changes as the Hot Season (March to June) changes to the Rainy Season (July to October). Clouds appear – first on the horizon and then overhead – as the seasonal change moves closer and closer to reality. Then, there is the first day when clouds appear… the first cloudy day… the first raindrop… the first sprinkling… the first downpour… until we finally break out the umbrella and begin carrying it with us everywhere we go.

I love the Rainy Season… though it is disruptive of my outdoor exercise schedule. I love it because the sky changes every day.  After months of clear skies, fluffy white clouds appear and my heart rejoices. I have hope that both the oppressive heat and the dusty, smog-laden skies that amplify the Hot Season in the city will begin a slow march toward the cooler temperatures and clean skies of the Rainy Season. But the main reason why I love the rainy season is that the sky is never the same as cloud patterns shift by the day and by the hour, giving a new backdrop to all of the buildings that populate the city.

4F564F33-D31F-4B0E-A4F8-16BC189A3E0AI particularly love the color patterns that sunset, accompanied by clouds, provides for our enjoyment. Since the clouds seem to congregate in late afternoon, after a steamy, muggy day, sunsets are far more beautiful than sunrises in the city. Sunsets are also a challenge for me, as an amateur photographer, because I have learned that the difference of a few seconds can change the beauty of a photograph from stunning to just average. I often see a beautiful scene, but in rushing to acquire a better position, I lose the light that was present when I first saw it. I am convinced that, apart from the time when the sun stopped in the middle of the sky (Joshua 10), no sun has waited for anyone to capture the scene and many lovely photographs have been lost.

ABE1A526-59F1-45B0-9009-D90B1FF73B8F_1_201_aAnother reason that I love the Rainy Season is that the cloud patterns that dominate the skies diminish the size of even the largest skyscrapers. As storm clouds gather on the horizon, the size of the super cells and the majestic height of the clouds dwarf all of the buildings in Bangkok and a city whose buildings once overwhelmed and suffocated me is restored to its proper balance the the world. And finally, From the time I was a child in this country to the present day, there is no sound that is more soothing to me than the sound of rain, particularly if I am still wrapped up in the safe cocoon that is my own bed. From the sound of the individual raindrops that signal the start of a rainstorm to the thunderous sound of a monsoon downpour, all of it is a delight.  Bring it on!

 

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Opening To A New “Normal”?

3D2E1EBB-F64A-463F-AA5F-EABD39288937_1_201_aFor the past six weeks, we’ve seen a lot of vinyl banners like this one, telling us that the establishment – in this case, a beautiful Hindu temple on Silom Road – is not open for worship or religious ceremonies in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.  They closed their gates on March 23 and the banner does not specify when they will reopen.

A09CFDED-AE92-4FD4-B449-272EE5C0C2E4_1_201_aThis temple is actually quite small, taking up just a couple of city lots on the south side of the street. I have never been inside the temple itself, but have often peered through the gate to see what I can. What I have seen is that the courtyard inside is quite crowded, filled with colorful and very intricate religious artifacts, stupas, and pillars, which would make navigation tricky for anyone who is new. I can see how it would be impossible for worshipers to do any kind of physical distancing. Not an issue as, for the past six weeks, the gate has been locked tight.

4E719E88-668C-4D62-A0AA-6EE09736046D_1_201_aAccording to the Wikipedia article on Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, it is the oldest and most important temple of its kind in Thailand. Back in 1858, when India became a British colony, many people from the southern state of Tamil Nadu preferred to leave India rather than live under colonial rule. One group of Indians, primarily made up of gemstone dealers and cattle ranchers, came to Bangkok. One leader of this group of Indians was Vaithi Padayatchi, who built this temple on Silom Road about a decade after the group arrived in Thailand. There is a little lane off of Silom Road that is named after him.

E069ED3B-AECB-4D90-AFCB-198E645F469A_1_201_aI usually take a morning walk just after dawn and this temple is on my regular route. It has been a walk on empty streets for the past six weeks, though the fresh market on the opposite side of the road is usually busy. Imagine my surprise this morning when I found the doors to the temple not only unlocked, but wide open.  I took a photo from outside the temple, as the orange sign to the left says that no photos are allowed inside. The yellow sign on the right says: 1. Everyone is to wear face masks. 2. Everyone is to have their temperature taken by an employee. 3. Everyone is to use the sanitizing gel provided. 4. Everyone is to follow the instructions given by the temple employees while they are inside the temple.

898D7E11-BA6E-4C8F-ACC4-05557942E8C0_1_201_aWhat? How? When? Those seem to be the questions that most people are asking regarding the effort to reduce restrictions that have been in place for the past six weeks.  While Christian churches are still providing virtual worship for their members, it seems that this space is now welcoming worshipers again.  Of course, today there was no one there. I will see how that changes over the days to come.

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Update on Thailand During COVID-19

0DC6052A-D148-42B3-923B-78E6AF20E7EAI recorded a short video today about Christian Volunteers in Thailand and the impact of COVID-19 on our ministry and on Thailand.  It includes prayer concerns. It’s only four minutes in length and in posted on YouTube.  I invite you take the time to enjoy it at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1xAKbmYTNA.

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Rabbi, I Want to See!

75CCE46F-42E0-48E4-A3AA-74094964037C_1_201_aToday, I went out at dawn to look for my Lord.  Alone.  Searching for meaning on this Easter Sunday morning that is so different from other Easter mornings. I wondered whether Mary felt some of the same feelings on that Easter morning so long ago.  How to make sense of the present.  How to put it in context with all I know and have known. How to share a word of comfort… a word of meaning… a word of hope for those who look to me for leadership.

I walked much slower than I usually do – as I usually walk for exercise at a rather brisk pace.  This time, I searched familiar sights for something new… or something I could see in a new light. The prayer on my heart simply repeated itself in a mantra that matched the slow march of my feet over the pavement.  I almost missed it.  I stopped and went back… and took this photograph to share with you.

They are eggs… Easter eggs, if you will, since I saw them on Easter Sunday.  But inside the shells (which are not brightly colored this year), there are no yolks… no whites… no fluffy baby chicks.  Instead, they have been filled with dark, rich dirt and seeds that are now germinating… emerging from the soil with their tiny little leaves reaching for the sunlight. I never expected to see tiny plants emerging from egg shells… and that is the message of hope I want to share with you.

18 Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.

We are living in a time that demands that the way in which you and I have always worshiped God must change. But we are not the first to live in such a time.  Think back to when the Jews worshiped God in the Temple that Solomon built in Jerusalem.  That Temple was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E. The Jews were forced to find new ways to worship God… in exile… in captivity. While the Temple was later rebuilt, it was destroyed again in 70 C.E. by the Romans, and the Jews and early Christians were scattered by religious persecution. Again, they needed to find new ways to worship God that were not tied to a place built by human hands.

There are two other significant groups I want to mention who had to find new ways to worship (and I sure there are many more). The Christians pilgrims, who traveled to the New World to escape religious persecution in their motherland, did not arrive to find houses of worship ready and waiting for them. They had to build their own and, while many were fashioned after houses of worship they had known, they used means and materials available to them in this new setting… this wilderness… much as the children of Israel did in their forty years of wandering in the desert. In the same way, missionaries, who have traveled to foreign lands to share the Gospel message and the news of God’s great love with others, have adapted the way they worshiped to new and strange realities.

Today, worship does not look like it did just a few weeks ago. It is something new… something different… not what we expect. But, in all of the harsh and dramatic ways that the worship of God has changed, what has not changed is the message of Holy Week and Easter!  Our God loves us with a love that is beyond our comprehension, and THAT love cannot be defeated by death. In all of the disasters… persecutions… plagues… that have come upon God’s people in the past, nothing has been able to stop this amazing message from reaching people and transforming them. And, even though this new plague threatens to completely change the way in which we worship and do ministry in the future, nothing will stop this message from continuing to reach and transform people in the future.

So, what do we do now? On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus met a blind beggar. He asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus replied, “Rabbi, I want to see!”  I, too, want to see… with new eyes. And I pray that, this Easter, God will give all of us new sight – a way of seeing that is given by God. For, despite all the challenges of this day, the message remains the same: Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.

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Staying Connected in Troubled Times

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Rev. Dr. Sharon L. Bryant leads a Zoom meeting with CVTs from Thailand, China and Australia.

Our greatest achievement in Holy Week 2020 was the first Zoom meeting with Christian Volunteers in Thailand (CVT). Esther I Re Kim, a CVT from South Korea who served as a teacher at Chiangrai Vidhayakhome School in North Thailand for three years and is now living with her husband and son in Australia, joined the meeting and provided the one photo we have to remember this historic event. It was the first of what we hope will be regular weekly opportunities to connect with each other during these challenging times.

Only a handful of CVTs joined the call, but we on the staff of the CVT Program are convinced that the invitation ended up in the spam folder of many who may not have seen it and believed that they were excluded. In an effort to overcome that, we have sent the notice for future meetings out in groups of five or six – a total of 45-50 invitations in all. Not that this number represents those currently active in the program. It is all of those who have been involved since I came to Thailand – at least, all who wish to continue to stay connected.

What did we learn in this first virtual gathering of CVT volunteers? Most are sheltering in place wherever they are. (We had participants from Thailand, Australia and China in this call.) Some are simply enjoying time with their families – as schools are closed for the Hot Season or summer in Thailand. Many are struggling to work from home, with varying degrees of success, as their home environment was never intended to be the way in which work is accomplished. Many are isolated and lonely.  Some are fearful of what the future may hold. The beginning of the new school year in Thailand has been pushed from mid-May to July 1, in the hopes that everything will be back to “normal” by then. The stress of adapting to an online teaching methodology, particularly in schools in poor and remote rural areas is taking its toll.

One of the things that I shared with our volunteers is that, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, I would not be traveling to the USA to share stories of this ministry with churches there. Instead, what I have sent to them is this brief video which updates the news from Thailand: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SsqCKYQNBJY.  One piece of joyful news that we received from Ms. Mesetshou Losou is word that she has received a scholarship to Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas, that will cover the full cost of her studies there. It is an answer to prayer. Now, we wait to see how that will be fulfilled, given the challenges of this current time.

Please pray for all of our Christian Volunteers in Thailand as they wait to hear what changes the future will bring to their ministry here (or wherever they now call home). Also, pray for those who have lost their employment or exist on the margins of the global economic system and are struggling for survival in these days. May God bless you.

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We Are Not Alone

87FB6564-4309-422A-99D8-BB9700797FD1_1_201_aIn every generation, there are events that challenge our relationships, our beliefs, and our very existence on this planet. COVID-19 is one of those. Humanity has survived many of these historic events through the centuries. Knowing how we survive and how we thrive in the face of adversity is the key to understanding what we need to do to survive this one.

Belief in a God who loves us and cares for each one of us. Throughout the centuries, our faith has been a key to our ability to survive. It is this belief that helps us to cope with an unknown future and the stress of present challenges. We draw our strength from what the Apostle Paul told us (Romans 8:38-39): 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Love for others and an understanding that our lives are bound together. Just as we cannot survive without help from others, they cannot survive without us. We are called to be one family, demonstrating our love for others in what we do each day. In John 15:12-13, we hear Jesus tell his disciples: 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

COVID-19 is NOT a “normal flu” – it is very deadly.  And it threatens to overwhelm any country’s ability to deal with it. Remember that we will not show symptoms of this disease until it has incubated within us for 14 days or more. All of that time, we can spread the disease to others without knowing it. If we act wisely now, we may be able to control the spread of this disease. But we need to take it seriously NOW.  You may be young and healthy, but those around you may not be. Please act as if you might be infected until this has passed. Yes, it is inconvenient, but these are unusual times. Finally, in all that you do, wherever you are, take comfort in what Jesus told his disciples when he spoke to them in Galilee (Matthew 28:20): “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This is the significance of Easter!

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Tea in a Time of Plague

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The elusive illusion of stability

in the regular routine

Of my personal pilgrimage through life

Manifests itself in the single solitary chalice

Of steaming sweet cinnamon tea that I drink

Each morning before the day begins.

The enticingly exquisite aroma

Of this distinctive, delectable beverage

Evokes subtly sensuous memories

Of sumptuous, succulent cinnamon buns

Whose saccharine sweetness slides down the throat,

Coupled with the compact kick of caffeine

That I need to initiate intellectual inquiry

And commence cognitive function each morning.

 

As I sit silently in my living room this morning,

Slowly savoring each delicious drop from my mammoth mug

And treasuring each solitary second before the morning madness

Of electronic communication commences,

I wonder how much longer I will be able to enjoy

This brief, blissful interlude –

This escape from the reality of scarcity and want –

That I know will end –

Unmarked by anyone but me –

Sometime in the days and weeks that stretch before me.

For, you see, I import my precious tea

And the creamy sweetener that completes its delightful deliciousness,

And the plague is closing the borders of neighboring nations

 And making the procurement of either tea or sweetener

Much more tenuous and problematic than previously.

“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

 

As I watch the diminishing supply of deep dark tea bags dwindle,

And cans of sweetener vanish without a trace,

I wonder how long the Lord will provide

And when this luscious libation –

And my ability to cope with daily life –

will disappear,

as ephemeral and evanescent as the emotion it elicits,

And I will be tempted to bless the name of the Lord

as the prophets of old did in times of deprivation and despair.

 

© Sharon L Bryant  2020

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The Oxygen of Objects

8E7BCD16-FEB5-413F-8705-6A4E793D569DIt is that quiet time before the day begins.

Breakfast awaits, but I am in no hurry.

Surrounded by beauty captured in tiny treasures

Plundered from the world’s store.

Soft music plays faintly somewhere,

And, in the distance, there is the sound of conversation and laughter.

 

2F45D5F3-E62F-4DE0-B381-594A90C8CF4AAn old Singer sewing machine treadle sits on my right

With an ancient Chinese vase on top.

Next to it, a plaster bust of Aphrodite

Sits on a marble pedestal.

Yet they do not clash.

They are part of an eclectic collection –

Like the one in your grandmother’s home.

It silently reflects on all the places she has been

And all the things she has done in her full, but hidden life –

Things and places you have never seen – nor knew that she had.

 

D232572D-A283-4580-B1DF-6B50DB7964EE_1_201_aHow well do you really know her?

Why did she select that tiny porcelain dish, or that exquisite piece of embroidery?

Did she know the creator, the former owner, well?

Was it given to her by a friend, a lover, she once knew?

Or did she find it, accidentally, in the jumble of items in an antique shop somewhere?

Does it have any special meaning – a special memory – for her?

 

I find myself looking back over my life and the treasures that I have collected.

I realize that, if I had a home, it would be filled with an eclectic collection like this.

Will anyone know why I treasure each item – what it means to me personally?98D8031C-82B7-44F7-A691-0F77CF99201A

Maybe that is why I feel at home here.

She has traveled, as I have traveled, to many places.

She has collected, as I have collected, tiny treasures that capture the essence

Of places and times along the way.

Now, alone in this place, she can sit quietly – as I sit –

And breathe in memories.

And, for a time – just for a moment – find respite from the trials of the day,

And the burdens of the hour,

And be restored.

The oxygen of objects.

 

© 2020  Sharon L Bryant

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Special People Who Serve

It seems like just yesterday when this new year began, and it is already March.  I am preparing, once again, to return to the USA for a brief visit and hoping to see all my friends and supporters on the East Coast this time. It has been three years since I traveled there to share stories of my ministry with Christian Volunteers in Thailand (CVT). I saw many of my Texas friends and supporters in October and November last year.  I hope to get back later this year to visit those on the West Coast and to spend Christmas with family there.

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Larry and Bussarakum Humphrey on a hill overlooking Hua Hin

There are two stories that I would like to share with you in this post. The first is a story that, too often, is ignored or forgotten. That is the story of a wonderful couple who came to Thailand to serve. Larry and Bussarakum Humphrey, American citizens from Greenfield, Massachusetts, came to Thailand in 2018. They came with the intention of visiting relatives, yes, as Bussarakum grew up in Thailand, but they also decided that they wanted to stay for a time to serve the church here. Deeply committed Christians, they met almost 30 years ago, when Larry was teaching in Thailand and Bussarakum worked at the Central Office of our partner church. Now married 25 years, retired, and wishing to serve those less fortunate, Larry and Bussarakum returned to make a difference in the lives of Thai children.

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Students saying goodbye to Larry Humphrey

So, what makes Larry and Bussarakum Humphrey so special? Short answer: They were willing to serve without receiving a stipend from the school. Instead, they lived on their retirement income in housing provided by the school. This allowed me to place them in schools that are small and struggle to meet their budget needs each year. Their first year in Thailand, they served at Suebnathitam School in Chiang Mai, and the second year, they served at Udon Christian Suksa School in Udonthani. Larry, is not a spring chicken. At 75 years of age, he is one of the oldest volunteers who have come to Thailand to serve. Still, the children loved him and would follow him around the campus. Larry and Bussarakum have now returned to the USA and both of these schools are without a native speaker teacher again.

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The Xiong family with CVTs at the Golden Triangle in North Thailand

The second story is about Vern and Kao Lee Xiong. Vern and Kao Lee arrived in Thailand in 2016 with three children in tow. They left their families and cozy existence in St. Paul, Minnesota to come to Thailand to serve God in new ways. Only Wesley, the eldest child, was of school age. Vern and Kao Lee settled in Chiang Mai, assigned to serve The Prince Royal’s College (PRC), a K-12 school belonging to our partner church. Wesley started second grade and Wheaton went to kindergarten, learning the Thai language as they went. Kao Lee taught English at PRC and Vern worked online from home, watching over Waverly, the youngest.

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Kao Lee and Vern Xiong with Thai Christian youth

So, what makes Vern and Kao Lee Xiong so special? In the spring of 2018, they completed their two years of service in the CVT Program. However, they have not returned to the USA. In the two years they served in the CVT Program, they started a Christian ministry with Thai young people in the community. This ministry continues to grow. Kao Lee continues to teach at PRC, while Vern, supported by his church in the USA, teaches Bible and counsels young Thai Christians. Vern is now completing the requirements to be ordained into full-time work as a missionary. All three children are enrolled in a nearby international school which offers a discount to missionary families so that they can all be together while serving God in Thailand.

  • Please pray for me as I plan my travel, for we do not know how the Covid-19 virus will change all of our plans in the future.
  • Please pray for Larry and Bussarakum Humphrey as they settle back into life in the USA.
  • Please pray for Vern and Kao Lee Xiong and the work they are doing in Thailand.
  • Please pray for our United States of America and the things that divide us as a nation.
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Ampawa Floating Market

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CVTs on Winter Retreat Visit Ampawa Floating Market

On the Winter Retreat for Christian Volunteers in Thailand, we made a stop at Ampawa Floating Market about one hour south of Bangkok. This market is a popular spot for Thai tourists – though there are a sprinkling of foreign tourists who come as well.  We visited early in the morning – hoping to avoid the crowds that come in early afternoon – and stayed for about two hours. One of the activities is to rent a boat to navigate the rivers and canals to see Thai life as it was in years past. It was a great final activity for our Winter Retreat – another memory to tuck away for years to come!

 

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A Thai-style home for the more affluent with a dock on the river

Thai life, in years gone by, was centered around rivers and canals throughout the country. Houses were built on the edge of the rivers with steps that went down into the water. People traveled by river to get to the homes of friends and relatives.  Merchants sold goods from their boats and went from house to house. As we traveled the rivers, we could catch a glimpse of life as it must have been. I think that, in today’s world, Thai people remember the stories their parents and grandparents told of a more rural life on the rivers of Thailand. Some have returned to their birthplaces and build magnificent homes on the banks of the rivers. These more affluent homes no longer have steps going down into the river.  Instead, they have built gazebo-like structures near the water, where they can still wait by the river for goods and services, without being the sun too long.

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A Thai Buddhist temple on the river with steps going down into the water.

Faithful Buddhists also traveled to the local temple by boat in the days before roads were built. That is why almost all temples in Thailand are built on the riverside or by a canal, so that worshipers could come and participate in temple festivals on high holy days in the Buddhist calendar.  Water is deeply important to Buddhism as it symbolizes life and cleanliness. Food comes from water in the form of fish, shrimp, snails, crabs, etc. Water also washes away impurities of mind and body.

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The busy city center on the river.

Merchants always built their shops and storehouses on the banks of the rivers – not just so that they could receive goods that were shipped, but so that customers could come to buy the goods they had to sell.  It also made it easier for merchants to load the boats that then traveled the rivers, selling goods from door to door. This can be seen in the city center of Ampawa. Restaurants also line the river banks in the city, waiting for customers who may come by boat – but these days come by bus.

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Two Miang Kham bites on a stick.  Yummy!

A treat for me on that day was finding a merchant on the shore who was selling “Miang Kham.”  Miang Kham was a delicacy that was first prepared for the royal palace during the reign of Rama V. Now, Thai people everywhere enjoy it. It is not easy to make (as with most foods prepared for the palace), but consists of a bite-sized combination of shallots, ginger, peanuts, lime, garlic, roasted coconut, small dried shrimp, and a tiny portion of palm syrup wrapped in cha plu leaf. Everything, of course, has to be chopped up into tiny pieces in order to get all that into one leaf. Today, you can purchase three ready-made bites on a stick for 20 THB or 67 cents.  I had a couple sticks myself and purchased some for other volunteers who had never tasted Miang Kham before.

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An Asian Water Monitor Lizard

At the end of our tour of the rivers and canals surrounding Ampawa Floating Market, we came back to the city and docked.  After getting out of the boat and climbing up on one of the bridges that cross from shore to shore, we saw an Asian Water Monitor lizard. He was a healthy-looking specimen – if not slightly obese – so we assumed that someone was keeping him well fed.  I have seen several of these over the years, but this is the first one who stayed put long enough for me to photograph him.

We are still looking for more volunteers to come to Thailand to help the Thai children learn how to use English. If you are interested in coming, please visit our website at: http://www.teachingenglishinthailand.org. Help us spread the word. Our next orientation for new volunteers begins April 18, 2020, in Bangkok.

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