Tuesday, 27 February 2007

A Tribute to Mama

Cat's Mama is a Suay, speaking the language of the people who inhabited the clearings in the forest when French explorer, Henri Mouhot came through Sangkha and probably passed by our village on his way to Surin in the mid-nineteenth century. The Suay are the original elephant people of Surin but now are intermarried with the Lao and Khmer who migrated to the region when the rice frontier was expanding throughout Isaan in recent centuries.

Mama would therefore say that her Thai is poor, but although she was only at school to the age of twelve, she can often be seen poring over her books on Buddhism, reading without spectacles for hours on end. Every morning early she has prepared rice for the monks and is out at the gate giving alms as they come by. The temple and Buddhism are an important part of her life.

Cat tells me she was married to her Papa at a very young age... they were to raise seven fine children. What a tough life that must have been keeping so many mouths fed. I gather that at first they were landless and moved from village to village several times while Cat was little. Then Mama inherited some rice land and they settled here in Ban Mahachai. Now they have one of the best houses in the village, thanks to the children sending money home, but they suffered real hardship in the early days. Imagine the struggle to feed a growing family, collecting roots and leaves from the fast shrinking forest, hunting, fishing and doing the hard manual work of rice cultivation, while tending so many energetic kids.

The reputation of Thai men as husbands is not outstanding and so it's often the women who are the backbone of the family and of the community. I can thus only call it heroic that Mama has produced so many attractive and decent children under such tough circumstances and to still be her own, modest, gentle self. Cat thus has three sisters and three brothers while she is number six in line. She has loads of stories of childhood to tell but they must stay in their own private domain.

Suffice it to say that I now salute Mama as a strong woman who has lived her life with quiet strength, always dedicated to her children. If in life there are those who are givers and those who are takers, Mama is a giver one hundred percent. There's nothing she will not now do for us as she bustles around tidying up, tending the vegetables and watching over the house as the elder mother hen.

She's not a lot older than me and has, I think, been suffering more than a little from empty nest syndrome. Such is the crisis of rural society that the land can no longer support the increasing population and so they all have to find work elsewhere. All the children except Cat's older brother Mangorn who lives with his family in a nearby village, now have new lives far away. In a society where the extended family is the norm and you raise a big family in the expectation that they'll be around to support you in old age, it must be tough when they're not there any more.

It was thus a great joy for Mama that Cat and I came to build our house here, especially as she now stays with us and so has family around her. Whenever we go away, she seems to age faster, but when we come back again she puts on weight and the stiff knee she suffers from seems to loosen up a bit.

It's been an interesting experience to immerse myself in a Thai family and it's strange how you can develop a rapport with someone you can hardly even begin to talk to. I really like and admire Cat's Mama and this is my tribute to her.

Nan, Cat and a Coconut

Somehow I love the timeless, documentary feel of monochrome photos. Personal pictures are about memories and dreams, both fulfilled and unfulfilled, and somehow in my dreams and memories, colour never figures very highly.

When my son, Mike was staying at our home out in the far rice fields of Thailand two years ago, he casually told Cat he wouldn't mind trying one of our coconuts. To Cat this was a bit of a challenge and, girding up her loins, if that's what you do, she performed the extraordinary feat of climbing a tall cocout palm without any aids whatsoever. She's as lithe as a panther, but I hadn't realised she was that supple and strong.

All I could do was to stand below looking anxiously upwards. Please, please, if there's a God, give me my lovely wife back. Please, please... not just for a coconut!

Needless to say, she didn't die and she and Nan then began the task of hacking through the tough outer husks of the coconuts to get at the flesh. The sounds of the machete and of their laughter echoed through the house. Somehow, as always, it was all uproariously funny, and Mike, brilliant photographer that he is, captured the moment perfectly on black and white film.

Pictures and memories like this very occasionally encapsulate what it is you so like about a person and why you enjoy being with them. Cat's never the typical farang wife, preening and painting herself pink nor tottering in tight jeens on precarious heels. She's much the happiest when she's belting a hoe into the hard, dry ground in her vegetable garden, bossing Nan and me around or being the life and soul with the friends she always seems to draw to her. She has a life-force that she shares with others and especially with me.

And Nan too, tiny though she is, is also a personality to be reckoned with. Nan is one of Cat's nieces who Cat's parents brought up from birth, and now aged eleven, she lives with us. It's common in Thailand for children to be brought up by their grandparents as hard necessity often makes separation inevitable. Suffice it to say that despite her small size, Nan is always much to be reckoned with... she's one of the biggest characters around.

Her large, wide-set eyes stare unblinkingly out of a little moon face and, while most children quail at the fearful beak of the pale faced farang, from the very first time I met her, Nan held my gaze with never a flicker. I often wonder what's going on inside her head, though it's usually blazingly obvious. Constantly, her face expresses her joy at being alive, though equally at moments of humiliation or pain, her mouth turns into a reverse smiley face and her big eyes become deep pools of sorrow. That time she was bitten by a scorpion, did she howl!

You can see the closeness between Cat and Nan, as Cat has always been a mixture of mother, teacher, sister and friend to Nan, the one person she can always rely upon. So I ask myself, where exactly does that leave me, the exotic intruder into their lives? With what suspicion must she regard me? While I've brought Cat back to the village and provided a home, equally I could take her away again. All I know is that when (very occasionally!) hackles are raised between Cat and her sweet-natured husband, Nan is immediately at Cat's side, her eyes blazing back at me in fury, passionately protective of her beloved Cat.

Nan, Cat and Mama and many other voices fill the house and fill my life, twenty four hours a day. When I first came here, I half expected to be invaded like this and while it's taken time to get used to it, now I wouldn't have it any other way. If occasionally the house is empty and Nan isn't there as we eat at night, we miss her sparkle and the silence seems unnatural and wrong. Normally, as I go upstairs, there's always a little tribe of folk pulling out the bedding and laying it out on the tiled floor of the one big room downstairs. Sleeping like that would destroy a soft westerner like me, but they seem to find a clean, modern floor, and a television permently switched on, the height of luxury.

How would it be for you to have your mother-in-law living at home with you? Especially if there's a big cultural gap between the two of you and you find her local habits of chewing betel nut and eating rotten fish intrinically disgusting. Well, I'm pleased to say, it's all been remarkably harmonious. As she and I hardly have any language in common we can slag each other off under our breaths to let off steam and the one hasn't the first idea what the other's mumbling on about!

Monday, 26 February 2007

Loitering Within Tent

It's amazingly difficult getting decent candid shots of Thai people because at the first glimpse of the camera their smiles freeze up and they snap to attention in a line and stare at you with the tragic demeanour of political prisoners facing a firing squad.

Cat's no better so I've been trawling around for a decent picture that really captures her essence and I've just found one I took when we were camping in Wales. I'd been moping around in the tent looking for my toothbrush and she was sitting just outside when I suddenly realised that with the morning sun it'd make a great photo. If only I could find the camera without her seeing what I was up to. I chanced upon my toothbrush hidden in a plastic bag inside another plastic bag and was just celebrating this, when I sat down hard on the camera. The camera looked okay and with a split second to take take aim before Cat had time to ruin my picture, I managed to get this one of her.

We've had two camping holidays in Wales and they were both hugely successful. The first was in North Wales, the highlight of which was the fish shop in Aberystwyth where Cat bought the biggest crab she's ever seen... it's claws are on display in the cabinet downstairs even as I write this. And we climbed Snowdon, Wales's highest peak and it was spectacular. I was disappointed as we went up into the mist towards the top as there'd be no view, but as I photographed Cat by the cairn at the top, she was entranced by it all.

'Andrew, this much better than a view. I've never been inside a cloud before!'

That night there was a torrential downpour and the next day when we crossed the Menai Straits to Anglesea and stopped at Conway Castle we got a crystal clear vista of the mountains of Snowdonia across the sparkling water of the straits.

Some kids were fishing for crabs from the end of the pier and then Cat's happiness was complete. We bought a line and a bucket and fished happily, but when the bucket was full, I told her the awful truth.

'Cat, you're going to have to throw them all back again like everyone else does.'

'Why?' she protested. "Farang crazy! Why they not make som tam?'

Last summer it was unavoidable that we go back to the fish shop in Aberystwyth but then we headed south and camped at St Davids. Again we picked the best week of the summer.

'Why does anyone go for holidays in Thailand when you've got places like this?,' she asked me. 'Wales is much more beautiful. Never too hot and plenty of crabs.'

'You just try camping in the rain, my flower. The water trickling through your sleeping bag... packing the wet tent into the back of the car in the pouring rain. We've been lucky this time but for me a bamboo hut's a dead cert every time.'

I have to admit though that the European summer at its best is incomparable... it's just a pity about the winter! And England's paeng jing jing! Just so desperately expensive. To cross with the car from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight costs about fifty pounds but to take the car on a similar crossing to Koh Chang costs less than three pounds.

That's one reason why as a poverty stricken pensioner I'm an exile in Thailand. But really I'm here by choice and anyway, I'm sure you're not going to sympathise with my predicament!

Saturday, 24 February 2007

Koh Chang - A Happy Return!

As I stared into the abyss of my sixtieth birthday, they consoled me that another day wouldn’t make any difference… that as a sexagenarian I’d feel exactly the same as I did before. What rubbish that was!

As I wake up in my bamboo hut on the beach on Koh Chang I feel like death warmed up and at least several decades older than before. I think I must be suffering from a bad attack of bamboo hut syndrome!

As I try to get up from the rock hard mattress on the floor of the hut, I’m stiff and achey, my brain swollen to twice its usual modest size. I long for a cold drink, to splash water onto my face and I desperately need a pee. You can see from the picture that the hut has no loo and as the keen types are already out on the beach jogging with little wires stuffed in their ears, I can’t avail myself of the world’s largest WC.

I fumble around for my wallet and watch but as always in a tiny bamboo hut, everything I so desperately need is irrecoverably lost. I think of asking the recumbent Cat where she’s put them, but I know that if I do, she’ll curse me loudly, insisting she’s still deeply asleep.

Seriously dehydrated from last night’s drowning of sorrows, I now stagger outside and prop myself up against a coconut palm for temporary support before walking down the blinding sand to get a much needed coffee.

I’m thinking that a major cause of my sudden acceleration into old age was probably yesterday’s long drive from Surin to Trat which took a horrible seven hours. Crossing some high mountains which definitely weren’t there last time we did the trip, we nearly died a thousand times trying to overtake streams of slow trucks and facing kamikaze pick-ups, all seemingly brand new, flashing their lights and coming at us on our side of the road. When we finally got to the passenger jetty at Laem Ngop it was already dark and, horror of horrors, they told us the last car ferry to the island had left at five.

‘Dammit, Cat,' I complain. “So why are we late then? Why are we going to have to stay in a grotty little place in Laem Ngop and not on the most beautiful beach in the world? Because you had to go into town this morning to buy a new cable for your purple insect trap and made us two hours late!’

‘But, Andrew, now Mama and Nan have insects while we’re away. Not get hungry!”

So that’s okay then, is it? Me missing my sixtieth celebration!

I remind myself that this is Thailand, so we forlornly drive to the car ferry pier on the off chance and to my joy we’re immediately ushered onto the seven o’clock boat which is just about to leave. So I got my evening celebration on the beach after all and as a consequence, a memorable anniversary hangover the next day.

Sprawled on a bar stool overlooking the beach, I now begin to enjoy my seventh decade, taking in the spectacular beauty of mountains, beach and sea around me as I sit nursing my head and my coffee and thinking about the island. I find it’s always a shock coming back to Koh Chang because, as an Isaan woman selling som tam told Cat, it changes every day. Two years away and it’s become a substantially different place.

Nonetheless, the sea and mountains are still there and in spirit it’s the same as when I stayed here at the far end of the beach five years ago. It was inevitable that Ben, the protagonist in my novel, “Thai Girl” should also stay in the same place and, like me he made many close friends setting the world to rights in long boozy sessions on the sand.

Both Ben and I, and thankfully Cat too, love the uncomfortable romance of a bamboo hut in preference to sterile, hot concrete and, while Koh Chang is now going up-market, there are still a few huts around on White Sands Beach. I asked at reception what the future might bring for this last unspoiled stretch of beach huts and she told me the builders move in on 1st May. Couldn’t they just keep them until my seventieth?

In Chapter 30 of “Thai Girl”, Ben and his friends sit with Sang Som in hand and gloomily predict an environmental disaster on Koh Chang and I fear their predictions were not far off the mark. Each time I’ve come back here I’ve been shocked and depressed at the frantic rate of change which is the one thing that always stays the same. This time though, I begin to accept that the island is no longer a simple backpacker place with quiet lanes winding through palm trees. It’s already a major resort and the road behind White Sands Beach is now more like Chaweng on Samui than its nearest rival Koh Samet.

As I stroll along the broken pavements, the Indian tailors target me aggressively.

‘Hey boss! You come my shop!” they say.

Why do they have to do this? It only turns people off. The special quality of Thailand in contrast to India or even Bali is that traders rarely hassle you. They’re far too polite and dignified and it’s for this above all that tourists come back to Thailand… for the discreet charm of the Thai people. Who comes to Koh Chang to buy suits anyway?

The official plan from the Thaksin era is for Koh Chang to be developed with a series of up-market resorts which isn’t a bad idea but only if informal, small-scale development can be restrained. But of course it can’t be and they’re jerry building like there’s no tomorrow. The authorities do a reasonable job of controlling the jungle which is scheduled as a National Park but the old plantations are up for grabs and so of course, as everywhere, money rules. Now, with the development of the road down the west side, the sleepy little villages merge one into the next in a ribbon of motorbike repair shops, markets, shop houses and tourist accommodation. The beauty of the mountains on the one side and of the sea on the other accentuates the tackiness of what has sprung up in between in so very few years. Ben would be truly shocked if I brought him to life again.

Nonetheless, as I swim out to sea and look back at the island, it’s still incomparably beautiful and I think I’ll always want to come back. After showering, I take to my hammock, trying inconspicuously to shake the sand out of my underpants. I mustn’t grumble that there’s too much sand on the beach, and, bamboo hut syndrome or not, I realize my headache’s not quite as bad as it was.

I even try some light reading, ‘The Two Faces of Islam’ by Stephen Schwartz. More than ever it convinces me that the West’s demonizing of Islam is so terribly and stupidly wrong. My six decades living on several continents, including among Muslims, tell me that people everywhere of whatever faith just want to get on with their own lives in peace and harmony. Violent extremism is an unnatural perversion which burns itself out unless we fan the flames by tarring all Muslims with the same brush. Which is what so many non-Muslims are doing and is precisely what the terrorists want us to do.

How can Bush not see the irreparable damage his aggression must inevitably do? But then how can people blow each other up when the world is as beautiful as this?

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Surviving the Big Six-Oh!

Hitting sixty is a bit of a shock but I can think of no more soothing or stimulating place I'd rather do it than sitting in a bamboo hut by the bluest of blue seas on Koh Chang, Thailand's second biggest island, far out to the East of Bangkok. My shots of the beach, bathed in evening light, should have you spitting in envy as you rub your chilblains, though it's not that I'm trying to be horrible to my readers, if I have any. It's just that I'm a very lucky sexagenarian.

I ponder in my hut that if I could make this imperfect world a little better, I'd start by abolishing birth certificates and mirrors. Then instead of suffering these hideous birthdays, I could be in happy ignorance of my age and I wouldn't have to look my own decay in the face.

Half a century ago I thought that if I made it to sixty, all the bits that matter most would have long shrivelled up and I'd be briefly riding the divine conveyor belt before being dumped off the end into oblivion. Fortunately it's not like that at all and the juices are still flowing and hope, like delayed maturity, springs eternal. I have ingrowing toenails on my right big toe and Dupuytren's contracture of my left little finger, the traumatic consequence of an excess of windsurfing, but other than that I and all my extremeties are in fine fettle. I've also had a bit of lower back pain caused by too much humping and laying of paving slabs. That set-back was last summer at our house in Petersfield, which was serious enough to delay my return to Thailand for a full week. I shall now lay off the laying and the humping of heavy weights as I've been warned that I'm not twenty five any more.

Yes, I always find looking in the mirror pretty shocking and always momentarily wonder who is this being, half lizard and half Dobermann that stares back at me. Too many years of tropical sun have done their worst to my face, but it's no good wanting to turn the clock back as I've enjoyed every outdoor moment of mountain, river, desert and sea. If I wanted a fuller face, I suppose I'd have to be overweight.

My worst horror though is a haircut, a subtle form of torture that forces me to sit and look at myself in a mirror for an excruciatingly long time. Thai barbers do it as slowly as possible, one hair at a time, to make sure there's always a queue and in the hope of a bigger tip. If only he knew, as I sit squirming, my flickering eyes trying to avoid the horrors before me, that I'd pay him handsomely just to get it over with as quickly as possible.

So I've had my three score years and I'm now looking forward to the promised ten. Being with Cat will either keep me young or do me in, but I live in hope of the continued blessing of good health so that I can live a better life and make merit for the next one. It strikes me that when Cat's my age now, I'll just be reaching ninety! Where shall we go to celebrate?

Yes, a birthday on Koh Chang can't be bad and I have no complaints whatsoever. If I was living alone in England, I'd be shut away inside, never knowing my neighbours as they work all hours to pay their mortgage. I could talk to the dog and to the people huddled in the bus shelter and I could join an evening class in macrame in the forlorn hope of romance. But I know I'd be miserable there as retired singletons can be horribly isolated. In contrast, living here in Thailand, you're never ever alone and the implicit ageism of the West is totally absent. The Thais respect us wrinklies for our maturity and wisdom, though in my case they're seriously deluded. I suppose I don't really know what they really think about me, but they're always welcoming and warm and somehow even when it's raining the sun alway seems to shine.

Who was it who said you're only as old as the woman you feel? I think I'm beginning to repeat myself so maybe it was me!

Saturday, 17 February 2007

Across the Airwaves

There now follows a transcript of an interview with Professor Andrew Hicks, author of the best selling novel, “Thai Girl”, hosted by the feminist chat show hostess, Mylene Déranger, which was broadcast by the Bangkok based radio station, AsiaView, on 1 April 2006.

Mylene: Andrew Hicks, there are those who say that the many liaisons between foreign men and much younger Thai women here are just based on sex. What would you say to that allegation?

Andrew: Well, yes, Mylene, maybe you’re right.

Mylene: But aren’t you ashamed to admit it?

Andrew: Not a bit. If you’ve got it flaunt it, as they say.

Mylene: And what exactly do you mean by that?

Andrew: No, the problem’s this. You see, Thai women think Thai men are philanderers. And, compared to us, they’re rather small where it matters… know what I mean? And we’ve got these wonderful white skins and long noses, so yes, maybe that’s why they go wild about us.

Mylene: No, no! I mean it’s you men who go crazy about them. (Pause.) No, Andrew… I mean… do you like Thai women?

Andrew: Oh yes, I do. Thai men too… I really like the Thai people.

Mylene: No! I mean, do you find them attractive?

Andrew: Oh yes, certainly… almost as attractive as western women.

Mylene: You mean less attractive?

Andrew: Look Mylene, physical attraction isn’t important… it’s what the person’s really like… their kharma. But since you ask, I actually prefer blondes, statuesque women with substantial assets. But there you go… can’t win’em all!

Mylene: But isn’t it your assets the women here are after?

Andrew: I think I’ve told you that already.

Mylene: No, I mean they’re just after your money, aren’t they.

Andrew: Thai women want my money? How outrageous, Mylene! Absolutely not... they’re in it for the romance. We’re more romantic than Thai men, you see. See’em swooning over an old farang, and then you’d know sighs really matter.

Mylene: Size matters?

Andrew: No, Mylene, sighs matter. You feminists!

Mylene: Well, thanks for that, Professor! Maybe we’d better get back to the book. (Pause.) Now “Thai Girl”’s been described in the glossy monthly, ‘Farang Untamed Travel’ as being one of the biggest selling English language novels ever published in Thailand… and I’m told you’re hoping to be nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Is this true?

Andrew: Yes, it’s true.

Mylene: But is this a realistic hope?

Andrew: You have to have faith, Mylene… sheer merit will be recognised.

Mylene: Yes, but…

Andrew: Of course my Nobel claim isn’t just based on “Thai Girl”. There’s also my “Nigerian Law of Hire Purchase”, published by the Ahmadu Bello University Press some years ago. You must have read it.

Mylene: If I have, it’s slipped my mind. (Pause.) So Andrew, what are you writing at the moment?

Andrew: I’m writing a personal memoir about living in Isaan.

Mylene: So where are you writing it?

Andrew: In Isaan.

Mylene: And what’s it about?

Andrew: It’s about my experiences writing a personal memoir while living in Isaan.

Mylene: So how’s it going, this new book?

Andrew: Well, at the moment I feel I’m going round in circles a bit. But then that’s very Buddhist, isn’t it.

Mylene: Is it?

Andrew: And it’s all about living there with my Cat.

Mylene: Your what? (Pause.) Well anyway, Andrew, I must now finish by saying… thank you for coming on AsiaView.

Andrew: I’m sure it’s been a pleasure, Mylene.

Monday, 12 February 2007

A Khmer Temple, Cat, Bill, 'Darn' and Me

In the last picture of Cat I posted you could hardly see her. It's hard getting decent shots of Cat as she's so small and keeps moving all the time, but here's a rare one of us together at Khao Phra Viharn. It shows Cat propping me up as usual, lest I topple over like the other venerable monuments at the site.

Khao Pra Viharn is one of my favourite places, in fact it's probably at least as amazing as the most beautiful temple in the world, perhaps even more beautiful. It's just over the border in Cambodia but you can visit it from Si Saket province without showing your passport so it's very easy to get to.

While Ankor Wat has no Grand Canyon and while the Great Rift Valley cannot be viewed from the great temples at Luxor, in contrast this extraordinary place has everything together in one package. As you wander up its magical stone avenue through a series of dramatic temples, a symphony in stone, you cannot anticipate the final surprise. For there at the top you'll come into the open and spread before you is the vast wilderness of Cambodia. A thousand feet below, devoid of any buildings, it spreads far and away into the hazy distance, the mountains and towering clouds adding to a very remarkable vista. To me this ancient temple has just about everything.

The Cambodians still charged me 200 baht for entry as usual, a bargain at the price. However, the Thais have scheduled a stretch of road before the border as a National Park and to take their cut, they now charge 400 baht. For this you receive nothing except the right of passage over the road. Some time ago the Thaksin government announced that the usual 200 baht fee for farang entering National Parks was to be doubled to 400 baht, but it was later reported that the new government was delaying the increase for a year. Thus it was to my great surprise that I have twice been charged 400 baht for entry in the last few days. At the booth there was no tariff written up and when the staff handed over two receipts for 200 baht each, it made me wonder a little bit.

Isaan desperately needs to develop its tourism and this is certainly not the way to go about it. Khao Phra Viharn is one of the great unseen sights of Thailand and is not close to any big population centres. Thus it was also sad that there were no hotels within easy reach except a few small town places in Kantharalak some way away. However, this problem has now been remedied as a delightful small resort has been developed where you could stay the night before an early start to the temple to avoid the worst of the heat. Run by a Norwegian, it's called Suan Loong Daeng Homestay and is a useful addition to the local infrastructure.

I can't keep away from Khao Phra Viharn and always take visiting guests who come to stay. The rare shot of Cat and me that appears above was taken by Bill, my Canadian friend, an academic who talks non-stop about classical history and English literature. A few days later I again went with my friend Bill, an Australian academic who talk non-stop about classical history and the economy of the Autocratic Republic of Lao, his own personal obsession. As I rarely get the chance to talk to a farang, it was a great luxury that, like buses, two old friends similarly named should come along so close together in time.

Some of my best friends in fact are Americans and one day recently I opened my inbox to find no fewer than three messages from American friends who call themselves 'Darn'. Whatever can be the importance of being Don? And my two American friends who have houses nearby in Surin are called Terry and Jerry (the latter being Jerry Hopkins the famous author who writes lots of books and things).

But I'm beginning to wander a bit because really I started all this as I wanted to post a picture of Cat in which you can see that she's bigger than an insect. She's well worth seeing so I hope when I click on 'Publish' she actually comes out big enough.

Maybe you think I must be a bit pickled but sadly I'm stone cold sober. Really I ought to hit the bottle tonight as although I'm now still a youngster at fifty nine, in approximately two hours time I won't be any longer... I'll be a signed up sexagenarian! Oh my God, as the Thais say, where's the Sang Som! I hate birthdays!

The Female of the Species

The archetypal 'Thai girl' is sweet-natured, even tempered, passive and gentle, a petite, purring pussy cat whose only pleasure is in pleasing her man. True or false?

So who's kidding who? Like hell she is! All the most powerful and fiery qualities are focussed in Thai womanhood for which I salute and celebrate them. It is they who will fight most furiously for their young and for their families and for this strength of character as much as for their undoubted feminine qualities I admire them. Who is it who drinks all the lao khao then?

It sometimes happens that when I say "Thai girl', people think I've said 'tiger'. How apposite that is!

Had William Blake made it to Nana Plaza before going to London zoo, his famous couplets might possibly have run something like this.

"Thai girl, Thai girl, feisty, fit,
In the sois of Sukhumvit.
What immoral hand or eye
can frame thy fearless symetry."

Just an idle thought!

Saturday, 10 February 2007

Cat on a Hot Granite Rock

If you're beginning to wonder what my lovely wife, Cat looks like, here's one of her both neat and on the rocks, leaving me as she always does, stirred though rarely shaken.

And if you wonder why they put lots of those little sticks under the rock, it's to stop the rock falling over. It always seems to work.

This shot was taken at Khao Sala, Bua Chet, south of Sangkha in the depths of Surin province.

Some Venerable Antiques!

Is he an eccentric whose only living room furniture is an antique buffalo cart?

The locals hardly seem to use furniture and always sit on the floor, so why shouldn't I. And though traditionally the cart was always kept in the space under the house out here in Isaan, as it still is in Cambodia, my folks do all think me slightly mad keeping it there. Mama looks sadly at it... wouldn't even make any decent charcoal. Some of our visitors run their hands nostalgically over it, but the younger ones want to paint it or turn it into a table and put it outside in the rain.

Over my deadbody, say I as, in my view, this is a top quality artefact in fine condition, with its superb craftsmanship and decorated detailing, worthy of a serious museum. It's staying inside safe and dry if I have anything to do with it, as I insist on conserving it properly for later generations of Thais. If I succeed in this, I'll have done something important in saving a scrap of their heritage for them until such time as they actually learn to appreciate it. Sadly, the children round here have never seen a buffalo cart before and while they can utter the magic words, 'Toyota D4D Hilux Vigo' and 'Isuzu D-Max', this ancient form of transport is just simply too old and ridiculous for them.

The construction of my cart is at the very pinnacle of traditional evolved technology. I shall not bore you with details of its modular construction, that it anticipates by many centuries the profile of the leafspring and the rear subframe of Alex Issigonis's original Mini, but suffice it to say that the exact same cart could have been built both at Ankor a millennium ago or in Cambodia yesterday. The carts on the low reliefs at Ankor Wat are identical to it in every detail, even down to the number of spokes in the wheels. Then when I was in Battambang in Cambodia, I asked the price of a brand new cart and I was told how much... it was almost exactly what I paid in Buriram for mine.

The delightful man who sold it to me makes a living breaking up carts and making them into kitsch tables and chairs and garden pavilions. He has a massive yard with tens of men working, bringing the carts in from Cambodia, I guess, and competently destroying the remaining vestiges of heritage that every Thai should proudly cherish.

I see little around here in Isaan that counts as fine decorative art, craftsmanship or handicraft. I could single out the art of silk weaving and the making of fish traps and suchlike from bamboo.
But the highest of these skills, now lost forever, is the construction of traditional buffalo or ox carts and mine I love as one of my most precious possessions.

In the National Museum in Bangkok there is a model of a cart from Si Saket which is identical to mine, but there is no example of a full sized cart on display. At the Siam Society in Asoke there is a fine one standing outside in the rain, but I see few if any elsewhere and those I do see are often in a poor state of repair.

I shall therefore look after mine faithfully as we antiques must stick together, even if in my case I risk charges of eccentricity and perhaps of something worse. Come to think of it though, in the catalogue of mild derangements what could be much sillier than blogging?

Of Walls, Wives, Caves and Gates

So what's the deal, this funny experience of ending up happily entangled with a Thai 'girl' young enough to be your daughter? How does it work exactly?

First of all she clubs you down with her consummate charm, then she grabs you by what remains of your greying hair and she drags you off to her cave. Well actually, maybe quite willingly you will walk, run to the cave even. But having got there and having decided to stay, your obligation is then to get out a-hunting... to provide the means of survival in a harsh environment for your lady and all those near to her. That's how it always used to be with marriage before the days of Germaine Greer, the condom and equal earnings for guys and dolls... and that's how it still is here. And there's nothing so extraordinary about that. She's not with you for the purity of your intellectual ability and you can't expect to discuss Nietsche and Kant or the romantic poets over the som tam and soda. It's not necessarily that she's not your intellectual equal... it's also the inevitable language barrier.

Whenever I meet some poor farang guy alone and palely loitering through the lofty aisles of Big C and I ask him what he's doing in these parts, invariably he'll say he's building himself a house. By which he means of course that he's building a house for his Thai girlfriend and her family! Is it going to be expensive I ask him and here he glazes over. Frankly he simply doesn't know yet.

What I daren't tell him is that although there are no lawyers' fees for buying the land (and so nothing to prove ownership), there will be a number of other substantial and unexpected expenses. First, come the rains, lest the house ends up knee deep in water, he'll have to spend good money bringing in tens of tons of soil to displace the monsoon floods onto his neighbours' land. Next he'll have to provide the rice farmers doing the hard slog of construction with iced water during the day and something much stronger such as lao khao at night. Then when it's finished he'll have to throw a three day house warming party during which he'll keep half the province fed and happily inebriated for at least three days, accompanied by ear-splitting music starts at four in the morning.

And last and certainly not least of the costs, he'll have to build a big, big wall all the way round the 'garden'. This will be unnecessarily high and made of cement rendered blocks, usually painted a pale colour so that it discolours with the rains and has to be repainted every year. It will probably be built before the house is started because it's very important, and it could cost as much as or even more than the house itself. Often the poor farang gives up on the whole affair, having only built the wall and having run out of money and romantic energy and endurance. Or he starts building the house but runs out of cash having only completed the roof. (At this point it should be noted that while in most normal places the roof is put on last, in Thailand it is common to do it first.)

A final shock expense is that at the front of the house, as the ultimate statement of vulgar opulence there must be erected a deeply embarrassing wrought iron gate of Buck House proportions. It will be a tall and elaborate confection of uprights and twiddly bits with little gold arrows on top that is totally unrelated to any concept of reasonable utility. Not least of the problems, it'll need constant repair and repainting which, true to tradition will never be done... Thais just don't do maintenance... and accordingly it'll degenerate into a dusty, rusty mess in a matter of months.

People ask me what are the biggest stresses in this my marriage and I always answer the same... it's 'the wall'... or to be more correct the absence of one. A few years back when I was digging my toes in about not building a wall and Cat was threatening to leave me to look for a less mean and unreasonable farang, (I think she was joking!), we compromised on a fig leaf of a wall at the front only but with concrete posts and chicken wire, topped off with barbed wire around the back. So that's what we finally did and I, at least, think it works very well indeed. I thus thought the matter was now settled once and for all, but in our most warm and intimate moments, Cat cannot restrain herself from gazing into my eyes and sweetly saying, 'Teerak, I want one more thing to make me happy jing jing.' I block my ears and turn a stony face. Not the wall again!

Is it possible for the farang outnumbered as he is, ever to win? Well, I admit I gave in cravenly on the big issue of the gate and there it now is in all its glory at the front of the house. For a dusty soi in a poor rice village in Surin, it really is a bit outrageous when others are living in hovels. Nor is it very functional. It's pretty difficult to open it as it's so heavy, bits keep needing to be welded back on and, Forth Bridge-like it needs constant repainting. I'm determined to keep it decent just to show the locals you should... and I've even been known to wield a paint brush myself and perhaps occasionally to feel a few swellings of secret pride at it's showy splendour.

There's one thing though I forgot to mention about this and other Isaan palace gates, namely that it's customary always to leave them wide open! To do otherwise would make it look as if you and your massive walls and gates are actually intended to exclude old friends who have always been used to freely wandering in since time immemorial.

Nobody could thus possibly suggest that these walls and gates serve a useful function. So do I mind this extravagant madness that allows more than a little farang money to trickle down, should I say cascade into the community where I now live? Of course I don't, perish the thought! If I did they'd all call me kee nieow... which means I'd be 'as mean as sticky shit', and for the resident farang that would be the end, a social fate worse than death.

Thursday, 8 February 2007

Love Me, Love My Jeep!

An Expat Expatiates

What’s it all about, being an ‘expat’ and why do so many of us turn over a new leaf and open the expatriate page in our lives?

I guess I’m an expatriate as I live in Surin with Cat, though as I scribble this in my notebook, I’m gazing out at the mist and rain that’s been sweeping across the Tamar valley in the west of England ever since we arrived here six days ago. We’re staying with our old friends, Peter and Laylai who live most of the year just across the border from us in Si Saket, though when we visit England, we usually get away to see them if they’re in Cornwall. As Peter’s an expat too, he’s the only person who can truly understand me; other regular beings think me slightly deranged.
In Surin, especially in the dry season, I do sometimes miss England. I long for marmalade on brown toast and even the Sunday Times.

Even in Bangkok I cannot always restrain home thoughts from abroad, standing bent double on a noisy green mini-bus as it terrorizes Sukhumvit soi 71. “England, with all thy faults I love thee still.” Though now in England in early summer, I’m missing the passion of a tropical downpour as I watch the grey, depressing variety that’s dribbling endlessly down outside the window.

Slightly bored, I pull Peter’s battered Universal Dictionary of the English Language, thirteenth impression, 1960, off the shelf and aimlessly look up ‘expatriate’. Interestingly it’s not shown as a noun, so ‘an expatriate’, a rootless, beer-soaked drifter in baggy shorts, is a new usage, a product of globalization perhaps. But it lists the verb, ‘to expatriate’, meaning, ‘to drive out, banish a person from his (sic) native land.’ So we’re exiles who’ve been driven out and banished, are we?

There are, of course, many reasons we expatriate ourselves, be they world weariness, the weather, women and occasionally work. But while I’m not an ex-patriot and still love my country, I’ve voluntarily chosen to live in Thailand because I love it too. I love the constant stimulus of living in a different culture, the lure of the exotic and the fact that being a farang makes me a little exotic too. My pallid skin and proboscis nose at last are truly appreciated.
In England I only have to open my mouth and everyone knows my origins, but in Thailand I can be more myself. Here I’m a farang, a high status term with a tinge of abuse, though I’m categorised mainly by the state of my wallet. Am I unusually wealthy or merely rich? Generous, or mean as sticky shit? No, you can never escape being pigeon holed.

Thailand’s the second expat page in my life as ages ago I lived and worked in Nigeria, Hong Kong and Singapore. I can’t seem to kick the expat habit because I enjoy being slightly detached, being a spectator, a student of the society I find myself in. And in this it seems I’ve become a pro; my recent novel, “Thai Girl” is already a bestseller, credited, wrongly I’m sure, with special insight into the interaction between farang and Thais.

But it’s not all good and being an expat anywhere in the world involves constant compromise, irritations too. In Thailand I’m illiterate; I can neither read nor write. And however hard I work on my tones I might as well be deaf and dumb for all my linguistic efforts. Every other language has different words for ‘dog’ and ‘horse’ and ‘near’ and ‘far’, so why can’t the Thais? Is it to confound the foreigner?

And I’m not supposed to get cross when I’ve no idea what they’re all banging on about, keeping me in the dark. The boy in the bank can’t understand a thing I say, the taxi’s going half way round the world, and my order isn’t ready as promised; it’s broken and scratched, it’s the wrong size and the wrong colour. But never mind, mai pen rai, they tell me as they take my money. Laugh it off, hot head, don’t be jai rawn. And don’t raise your voice, you might upset us.
But it’s too bloody hot, the sweat’s gluing the shirt to my armpits, and worst of all, I can’t express my frustration. Sometimes it’s hard keeping the lid on.

Yes, there are frustrations in the expat life and we never hesitate to complain about them, especially to other expats. From Dubai to Delhi and Rio to Riyadh, we sit at the bar, whingeing into our beers. As you can’t complain to the locals, you need a safety valve, so we grumble to each other.

Back with Peter’s dictionary, the other word I was looking for was the verb, ‘to expatiate’. It’s got nothing to do with expats, but to my delight, although ‘expatriate’ and ‘expatiate’ come from different Latin roots, the meaning of ‘expatiate’ is curiously appropriate. ‘To expatiate’ means ‘to dwell at length, to speak at length upon’. Hence, to rant and ramble on, to bore the pants off. It’s exactly what we expats like doing, expatiating about everything that makes us mad.

And maybe that’s why I bore my friends when I visit England. They don’t listen when I tell them about Thaksin’s ‘rent a cow’ scheme, the million baht fund or the exotic buffet at the Chiang Mai Night Safari Park. So I drive down to Cornwall to see Peter and we sit in his window with a beer or two and look out at the Cornish mist. And though we’re at home, we expatiate our fill because that’s always an inescapable part of being an expat.

There Go the Mango Trees!

It’s what I’ve been dreading for ages. As I sit upstairs at my desk, I hear the dreadful moan of the chain saw and go outside onto the verandah and look down over our vegetable plot to the end of our land. Yes, they’re cutting down the mango trees.

It was over a year ago that a wizened little old man came and started cutting down the two great towers of bamboo that stand just outside our far boundary which nicely screened us from the next farm house. I went down to talk to him as he toiled away and he told me that next in line for the chop was the three big mango trees next to the bamboo. “They’re too old and they’re going to die anyway,” he said.

I asked him what he was going to plant in their place. “Mango trees,” he told me.

Appalled, I mentioned this awful prospect to Cat but she didn’t seem unduly bothered.

“It’ll spoil all the greenery we see from the house and open up the mess of the house beyond,” I complained. “Couldn’t we offer him something to leave them standing?”

Cat was appalled at my suggestion. “Cannot,” she said. “Graeng jai! Must think of him… let him do what he wants. Anyway, this old man very rich… not need your money… have seven cows!”

“But he’s as old as the hills and I could save him the sweat of doing all that work and save the bamboos too,” I pleaded without any success. But I’m only a farang, an interloper in a Surin village whose small affairs will flow whichever way without any stirring from me.

Then to my relief he didn’t cut down the mangoes and perhaps because the price of sugar is buoyant with the new market in ethanol fuels, he planted sugar cane instead. Now almost a year later this has been harvested and the land is bare. Although you can get a further crop from canes that have been cut, it looks as if they’re clearing the land for something else, perhaps returning to the original plan for more mangoes.

Now, today I stood on my upstairs verandah as the first mango tree screamed in pain and plunged to the earth with a mighty crash. Kicking up a cloud of dust, its earthy smells wafted back to where I was watching from the house. I then continued writing at my laptop as they cut at the second tree until I knew its time had come and watched it too plunging earthwards, kicking a big hole in the greensward that surrounded our land. Though it now gives us a glimpse of the rice fields beyond, I’m glad that for some reason they have so far spared the third mango tree the same awful fate.

Looking down at our terrace and at the dry, grassy slope beyond, there’s the usual party in full swing consisting as always of mothers and babies, assisted by sundry old grannies. The house is never empty and we’re never alone. Everyone seems to have a baby, though there are few fathers around as they’ve either fled the scene or are away working in Bangkok. It’s mainly women and children and old men round here, and they’re pretty poor, though there are some compensations. With time and good company never in short supply, parties like this one are among them.

Sitting on the mat on the grass are Cat’s Mama, a sweet and gentle woman who has heroically raised seven children, together with Cat and a couple of girlfriends and an old soul of eighty one who seems to be the centre of attention. She can hardly walk but as she is one of the elders, Cat sent for her and had her wheeled round on our rot ken or push cart. She sits thoughtfully pounding betel leaves and lime in a tiny pestle before wrapping a slice of betel nut and placing it in her cheek. This ritual is unvarying and essential and clearly a great comfort to the older folk of my vintage. Cat tells me she was a teacher and that she came to the area with her husband when there were tigers and elephants at large to clear the forest for rice fields. The sheer scale of the work and of ploughing and growing rice without mechanical assistance leaves me breathless with admiration.

The old couple survive with great dignity but life has had its setbacks. They had five daughters and though all married only one of the husbands is still alive. The four have since died of diabetes, liver failure and unnecessary accidents. The sole surviving son-in-law is a likeable rogue who funds his lifestyle by selling off his wife’s rice land to pay the installments on his pickup. The old man wept when he told Cat how once he was rich but that now the family had almost nothing left with their rice land, the source of life and survival, all but gone.

This couple were two of the first people I met when first Cat brought me to the village to meet her family, me a strange and greying suitor for this energetic and captivating young woman.
She and I had transgressed by being together without formal sanction so now was the time for the elders to review our relationship, to predict our future and perhaps to bless our union.

Cat didn’t tell me what exactly was going to happen that night but made sure I was around when the four elders came and sat in a huddle on the floor at the back of the family house by the light of a naked light bulb. By the time I was called in to sit with them, there were some bits of dead chicken scattered around and they were all talking animatedly. One of them was the ancient teacher, now one of my favourite people, together with her bright eyed pixie of a husband. One by one they inspected the gizzard of the chicken and finally delivered their verdicts. There was much talk and waiing and tying of string on wrists, while I was left mystified as they hobbled away, not understanding a word of what had been said. My Thai was progressing quite well but it availed me nothing as they were speaking a babel of Lao and Suay.

“They say we okay,” said Cat, encouragingly. “Can stay together. Maybe later you go back to your own country but no problem, you and me, at least if I don’t talk too much.” I later got the picture that Cat had a reputation in the village. Her family called her ‘Pok-Pok’ and at school she was called Gas, for exactly the same reason. Four years later she and I are still together and the truth is that I still love her for talking too much. And as I stand on the upstairs verandah looking at the little party playing out on the mats below me, yes I can certainly hear that Cat is contributing well to the conversation. But then so she should be. She now has the best house in the whole village and is a notable personality much to be reckoned with.

It’s strange though that nobody seems the slightest bit bothered about the sad loss of the mango trees. Perhaps they’ll yield some good charcoal and a bit of extra land for cultivation. They look at me as I complain at this unecological vandalism, eyeing me and thinking, “What’s the farang making all the fuss about this time?”