Saturday, 10 February 2007

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.

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