Readers of this column will know that Rooster – a translator on Thaivisa who is obsessed by the kingdom’s news – is also a die hard Bangkokian. Despite having visited most of the kingdom’s 77 provinces for me it has always been Krung Thep number one and the rest…well, pretty much nowhere.
When I was head of Thai language and culture at Harrow International School , however, I really enjoyed sticking it to the Thai parents for their lack of knowledge – and sometimes prejudice – of the countryside. Rather than tirelessly beat the capital’s drum I made every effort to ensure that Thai studies topics were chock full of traditions, festivals and above all daily life from the provinces, especially from the north-east.
It was a bit like “do as I say not as I do” that has caused many a teacher to come a cropper!
To make my “cunning plan” more relevant and the antithesis of touristy I organised trips to the Thai heartlands where the parents feared to tread. One such place was a small village in Loei that is on no tourist route. It nestles somewhere between Phu Kradung and Nong Bua Lamphu – even after visiting 30 times I’m not sure exactly where it is, my map reading skills being on a par with Mrs Rooster.
It is my second wife’s birthplace and the home of her mum and dad and some of the extended family. It is also the place where I held eggs and was covered in symbolic local mud and holy string; my second Thai wedding day took place here 15 years ago inside what was then just the broken-down family shack.
Following that I brought some of the well-heeled students here to meet the down-to-earth mother-in-law. How fascinated were these city folk to watch Khun Yai just doing things she had done all her life. Collect insects to fry for dinner from a purple light contraption set up at night. Use her loom to make bright mats from free, natural materials that she sold for a few baht in the market. Use a charcoal fire to rustle up a lovely, hearty meal containing leaves she picked on the roadside accompanied by a slaughtered chook.
She wondered what all the fuss was about – this modest woman couldn’t really grasp why the city slickers and her son-in-law from a world away found her clever, wise and interesting.
We did community service in the village school and slept over in the classrooms. The older children from Bangkok taught English or PE to the local kids. My Head of Drama colleague did a fun acting activity to break the ice further with the shy local kids. We painted a few things to spruce the place up a bit. Encouraged the kids to pick up litter. Ceremonies were held and connections were made. Promises to reciprocate in Bangkok were made. When our youngsters went back to school in Don Muang they presented their findings to others in assemblies.
On one occasion my sister-in-law had just given birth and was going through a traditional kind of sauna treatment for post-natal mothers called “Yoo Fai” – or being beside the fire. The process is designed to help a mother recuperate mentally and physically after childbirth while other relatives do some of the child rearing. This formed a central theme to a topic on “Birth” that centered on the traditions of country-folk compared to the experiences of city folk (It helped that one Bangkok kid with an English dad was delivered in a traffic jam in a taxi in Sukhumvit!)
The Bangkok based parents accepted that it was a good idea to teach their kids about those “baan nork” folk one usually only saw as stereotypical downtrodden maids in the soaps. It got them off the cultural hook as they didn’t have a clue what anyone did north of Saraburi or south of Ratchaburi! And for crafty Rooster it meant that by concentrating on what I knew I couldn’t be found out lacking knowledge on some more highbrow Thai subject that the parents would appreciate infinitely better than me. Win-win!
Students that I took to the countryside were helped to realize that city and country folk were essentially very similar if you scraped away some of the superficial veneer. They appreciated that people have similar hopes, dreams and aspirations wherever they are raised. And despite the lack of money in the boondocks some of the more astute realized that those in the country might even have been better off, especially spiritually and morally.
Both my children from my first marriage went to Harrow. Though they visited the countryside frequently with me and with the school they still grew up in something of a bubble. I was reluctant to immerse them with their Chiang Mai relatives in the holidays choosing to take them every year for long sojourns in London and Europe. I could afford it then and I was obsessed by making them citizens of the world at all costs. In the process I may have lost sight of them also being fifty percent Thai.
My son joined the British army, albeit briefly before he suffered a career ending injury while still a teen cadet. My daughter – a high flyer – ended up at Oxford then Canary Wharf. Yes, they never forgot or will ever forget their Thai roots but it’s true to say that their Thai language skills and knowledge of Thai culture lags behind mine. While I shall go up in smoke in Bangkok my daughter is a Londoner and my son is most at home in the north of England. When it comes to politics they wouldn’t have a clue or care about what is happening in Thailand – though they would still cuss and complain about the Brexit vote. That went against their multiculturalism.
Yes, along with their school I was successful in helping to make global citizens of them!
Six years ago I started a second family and now have daughters aged six and nearly three with my second wife – the lady from Loei that I teamed up with after losing the battle to cohabit with my schizophrenic first wife. I quit Harrow to retire on savings and play Scrabble.
It was a question of “needs must” as much as a bit of a social experiment when considering about how to raise my next two chicks. I knew from day one that they would be much more Thai, would go to Thai school – and would spend most if not all of their holidays in the Isaan countryside rather than abroad. This was dictated by dwindling finances and the fact that Thaivisa could hardly compete with a Harrow salary and benefit package, not to mention free ‘international’ schooling.
So it was that when Thai school in Ratchayothin broke up last week for a ten week sojourn we headed up Route 201 via Chayaphum to Loei. The children will stay with their mum, grandparents and cousins for six weeks. Rooster lasted four days – for while I talk a good game about the boondocks my Bangkok heart beats strong and besides, I could do with some peace and quiet!
About ten years ago my brother-in-law built my wife’s parents and extended family a large house. Muggins paid for it. This I had promised the parents on that wedding day. But when it went over budget I insisted on the residue being paid back to me which it was in time. I may have played my part in supporting the family but I wanted everyone to know that I was not an ATM and that everyone had responsibilities.
To their credit all the Thai side of my family came to an understanding of who I was and what I was prepared to do. And for my own part I appreciated who they were. I was never going to be some all dancing guy who arrived twice a year with a crate of beer and bonhomie. It helped that we could communicate well enough in Bangkok Thai. And it helped that they knew I wanted my space on visits. In short we developed a mutual understanding, essential in a Thai “extended marriage”.
Ten years later the house is poorly maintained but structurally still sound. Gran has diabetes and may not have too many years left but still plays “dummy” (a Thai card game) slightly better than me. Granddad had a stroke and is a bit grumpier than he used to be but is still a lovely guy. He tends ducks and only has a drop of “lao khao” at Songkran. (A bit like my own dad having pale ale only at Christmas). They are decent hard working people who, if they ever visit me in Bangkok, would rather sit on the floor than be culturally uncomfortable on the sofa.
But, like many of their age, they have had two young kids dumped on them after their second daughter disappeared. She left owing everyone – including me – a considerable sum of money. The circumstances lead none of us to believe that she is dead. No one has heard from her in two years and while her estranged husband sends a few thousand baht a month he does very little else for his kids.
The shame this situation has brought on this respectable family has been hard for them to bear at times. They have told me that this sense of shame is felt most acutely because Rooster – an original outsider who kept his promises to the family – has been let down too. I can take the financial loss, but. like them, the hardest thing to accept is that someone we loved and trusted has shafted all of us. Fortunately, in some ways it has made the rest of us stronger by galvanizing us.
The grandparents, despite their ongoing health problems, are raising the sister-in-law’s children well. The kids are kind, well-mannered and considerate and embrace my own children on their thrice yearly visits to the village. The grandparents have become an integral part of the life of my brood.
So far that “social experiment” is progressing well. My children are essentially more understanding of Thai ways and speak better Thai. They converse in the vernacular while gorging on sticky rice and playing in the dirt around the duck feathers and chickens. But they appreciate Marmite and Branston with cheddar, an air-conditioned bed in a high rise Bangkok condo and why daddy loves Harry Kane and the Premier League. When the time comes to visit London we shall go but Thai and English-ness will go hand in hand this second time around.
I hope I am doing something right because when I quit my lucrative job it was not just eyebrows that were raised. Some people said to my face that I was barking.
Spending most of the week so far away from my usual stomping grounds meant the news seemed equally far off. It was hard to concentrate on the usual round of Thaivisa stories that my English editor sent to me to translate from Thai to English; what with the chickens crowing outside and gran shouting to put a bucket under a leak in the roof as an un-seasonal storm passed through!
But true to The Week That Was here is my top ten list for the last seven days if, like me, you missed most of the news:
1. Thai thugs terrorize school after being told to keep the music down at ordination
2. Italian/Thai couple in murder suicide because they couldn’t get to Italy
3. Sathian murdered Picharat for hexing his massage skills
4. Drunk Brit with one arm slams his Fortuner into motorcycles in Pattaya
5. Child rapist turned to younger sister after elder sibling was not at home
6. PM calls himself Loong Tu as new devotional book issued by Palang Pracharat party
7. French woman deported for vaping in Phuket
8. German finally arrested for murder of teen lover in Chiang Rai in 2010
9. Motorcyle taxi driver can’t pay more for three year old’s treatment after his dog pack attacked
10. “Kim Thailand” arrested at Hanoi summit and seen off the premises.
Just another week – but who really needs the news! The folks in Loei wouldn’t have given a flying locust for any of it! Granddad asked what I was doing at the computer. My answer, though in Thai, might have been Alpha Centauran for all it meant to him.
Seeing the simple life in Loei that was dependent on the sunlight – everyone was tucked up in bed after just one early evening soap – and more down to earth realities like eating together, really brought home that “life” as many of us vicariously live it though a site like Thaivisa is far removed from the experience of most people.
I’ve never thought that road rage was getting worse, that murder and violence were on the rise, that dogs bite more than they used to, that Thai society was going to those self-same dogs or is more xenophobic or insular than it ever was. It always had bits and pieces like that. It was just less in-yer-face without social media and online news. And easier to ignore!
Thailand may have lost some of its innocence, may have shed some of its charm after nearly four decades for this “visitor” but it still feels like home, still pleases and amuses me and remains the only place I could live and one where I am proud to raise my daughters.
Reading some of the forum and Facebook comments on Thaivisa on every story under the sun one wonders how many of these negative people actually live in Thailand and if they do how the Thais perceive them. Not so well, I’d wager. I may be wearing some rose tinted specs this week but I am no apologist. However, when I read the appalling negativity displayed by so many online towards Thailand, when I am obliged to stomach the pack-mentality Thai bashing that so many purport to condemn, I wonder why they bother commenting about Thailand at all.
If they do live here it sounds like self-inflicted torture. If they don’t I wonder what their motives are. I’d like to think it was just sour grapes but I doubt it. Having spent a large proportion of my life being positive about Thailand – despite all the difficulties like anyone else here long term has faced – I wonder why they bother giving Thailand the time of day.
Fortunately, people who have come to be known as “the curmudgeons” in this column, remain a minority. They appear to be in the majority only because of how loud and how viciously they shout. The reality is that Thailand in general – and let’s face it there are plenty of those – remains a country that helps visitors appreciate a different culture and a different way of doing things. And, I wholeheartedly believe, it is a country that, sometimes grudgingly, ultimately learns from those visitors.
Especially if they are persistent, pleasant and, above all, positive.