Wednesday, 28 March 2007

The Tough Life of the Rice Farmer

Cat’s oldest brother, Mungorn and his wife, Malee are rice farmers who work long hours trying to eke a living from the soil and to me their lives seem to be grindingly hard. They have three boys, fourteen year old twins, Gi and Gong and five year old Geng and, especially with further education looming, it’s hard for them to make ends meet. The pictures show them at harvest time and me with Geng on sports day getting our feet very muddy.

I have great admiration for them as they are unusual in making a life for themselves in the village rather than splitting up the family and migrating to the factories to earn a safe salary. Of all of Cat’s seven brothers and sisters, they are the only ones still settled here. The others have all left because it’s almost impossible to stay. Rice farming takes up only part of the year and brings in a limited amount of money, so both Mangorn and Malee have to find other paid work locally whenever they can.

Nonetheless, growing rice takes up a major part of their year and the climax comes in November with the harvest. When the rice has been cut, it’s laid out to dry, then gathered in a huge pile to be threshed. The thresher, a pale blue machine mounted on an old lorry, has been hired and is now standing by in the field.

First, Mungorn and Malee make an offering of lao khao or rice whisky to the spirits of the place, pouring a few drops onto the ground, while Malee’s Papa looks on. With the harvest now blessed, the engine of the thresher is started up. This is the big moment.

Today there’s a festival mood after many months of toil as the men toss the bundles of grain into the thresher, watched by the women who, despite the heat, are swathed up in clothes to keep out the dust. While the machine shoots a fountain of rice stalks high into the air, the precious trickle of brown grains slowly fills the big hessian bags. One by one the bags are lifted off the thresher, and it takes two strong men to move them. Meanwhile, Mungorn is keeping an eye on things, anxiously counting the full bags of rice.

It’s been a difficult year and the cost of credit, fuel, seed, insecticide and fertilizer have been rocketing. His crop of khao hawm mali, or Thai jasmine rice has been the first to ripen in the village and so he has just paid for it to be harvested over two days. More than a hundred people have been slowly advancing in lines across the fields, cutting the rice a handful at a time with their sickles. Only when he totals up the number of sacks will Mungorn know if there’s any money to be made from all the hard work.

If you have only a small farm, you won’t make much money from growing rice and while many families cultivate their small plots just to supply their own needs for the year, Mungorn has an entrepreneurial streak and is always looking for new opportunities.

He also cultivates some neighbouring fields under what I can only describe as a pledge of rice land. His neighbour, Oht, was in a financial pickle and desperately needed some immediate cash so Mungorn lent him 60,000 baht for a specifed period. No interest is paid on the loan but Mungorn (as if a mortgagee in possession), has the use of the land and cultivates it for his own benefit in lieu of interest. If at the end of the fixed term Oht fails to repay the 60,000 baht, the land is forfeited to Mungorn. As a complex deal, the agreement is recorded in writing and is verified by the village head and deposited at the ampur, the local village administrative authority. (This is as explained to me by Cat and if any reader can give me more info on this form of ‘mortgage’, I‘d love to hear from you at

Mungorn is thus immensely hard-working and determined. When he’s not cultivating rice, he’s looking after his cows or planting chillis, sugar cane and rubber on a small piece of land he's recently bought. He got it for a good price because it’s next to the forest where they cremate poor people who can’t afford to use the temple. And if he can ever get work such as cutting sugar cane or on a construction site nearby, he’ll be there.

At nights, on top of his day work, he works in Sangkha market, driving and offloading the trucks and pickups that arrive in the early hours. I’ve no idea when he sleeps. It’s a tough life and sometimes there are set-backs, like when the cow house burned down and one of the cows was killed, but I’ve never ever seen them dispirited or out of sorts. Malee is full of fun and laughter and with her radiant smile, always lifts the mood of everyone around her. They are a delightful couple and I only hope things work out for them.

For me, they represent all the very best qualities of the Isaan farmer. I wish them well but fear that their material rewards are few. I also feel that if Mungorn and Malee, with all their energy and competence cannot prosper as small scale rice farmers, then nobody ever will.

Somehow they personify all the problems of rural Thailand. The land is overpopulated and degraded. With sub-division down the generations, land holdings have become smaller and smaller and so the able bodied move to the cities. However desperately hard and cleverly you work as a small farmer, you'll only ever squeak by. The rewards for keeping your family together are there, but in material terms they are pathetically few.

I hesitate to call these people poor as they have preserved their family values and sense of community, but there will be no breakthrough to better themselves for the future. I can understand fully why farmers look to escape by playing the lottery and drinking too much alcohol but Mungorn and Malee never resort to this.
They are honest and hard working, their sons handsome and polite and I only wish that some good luck could come their way. If anyone could make sensible use of a windfall, it’s them.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

A Linguistic Bangkock-Up!

Bangkok people on Bangkok boat on Bangkok river

Journalists in the otherwise excellent English language press in Bangkok have a funny habit of needing a collective noun for people from Bangkok. Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner or a Brummie or a Mancunian, that I too feel that there should be such a word. But what is it?

The one they tend to use is Bangkokian and that sounds just awful. It couldn’t be much worse. Or could it? How about Bangkoker? Or Bangkokite?

Or maybe we should try a gender distinction… hence he’s a Bangcock, in which case she’d have to be a Bang-hen. But no that doesn’t work either.

Krung Theppid works as an adjective perhaps, except that Bangkok’s never in any way tepid. But you could never call them Krung Theppites.

Or how about something relating to The City of Angels? What’s a dude from Los Angeles called? A Los Angel? I’ve no idea.

How about Phukettites, Saraburians, Nakon Ratchasimarians, or Kanchanaburians? Not to mention the problem with folks from Mahasarakam, Sakhon Nakon or Nakhon Sawan.

I think it’s a losing battle and when it comes down to it, journalists and people like me had better stick to calling people who come from Bangkok precisely what they are. So delete ‘Bangkokians’ and let's settle instead for ‘Bangkok people’. Sounds much better and won’t unsettle your dentures.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Can 'Sufficiency' Be Too Much of a Good Thing?

Of low tech and high, fetching our drinking water on a rot tai.

Mungorn and family on his rot tai

The current government of Thailand which was brought to power in a bloodless coup has promised to run the country in accordance with principles of ‘sufficiency’. Enough is as good as a feast and both in personal and national affairs, a headlong rush for expansion and wealth at all costs is not the right approach in a Buddhist nation. This seems to be the philosophy, a gloss on the usual approach to economic affairs which will be worked out and applied over time as the daily business of government continues.

Three wise magazines with influence on the world stage, including The Economist, immediately responded with articles critical of the ‘sufficiency economy’ which has had the Thais distinctly worried. I hope they stick to their guns though, as I think guiding principles of this sort have something to contribute in running a developing economy such as Thailand. To walk the middle path in economic affairs, to make haste slowly, is better than promoting unbridled public and private greed, whether in a Buddhist country or otherwise.

The economic gurus of the media will of course continue to scratch their heads at this mildly heretical view but as militants and extremists of the free market they’re sure to refuse to understand. Nobody denies that the free market delivers results, but one day prevailing fashions will change and the downsides of free-wheeling globalization will become apparent. What fits the big powers such as privatization and open markets may not suit relative minnows such as Ghana, Bolivia or Thailand.

Also of interest is the recent recognition in Thailand of how Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist nation has preserved its own culture from corrosive outside influences. Its King Jigme Singye Wangchuck has promoted the idea of focusing on the nation’s ‘Gross National Happiness’ in preference to the crude pursuit of Gross National Product.

No doubt The Economist, a magazine I greatly respect, would sneer at this ludicrous idea in incomprehension, though one point it could validly make. While GNP is a simple measure of output, the pursuit of collective happiness concerns making the best possible use of the resources or costs that are currently available. Apart from the fact that ‘gross happiness’ is a rather unfortunate term, surely what the King is trying to measure is not GNH but Net National Happiness.

However, I agree that increasing the overall national wealth does not necessarily deliver happiness to the greatest number of people. Just as the weak fail to take advantage of the new opportunities, so also globalisation and the free market necessitate a Darwinian struggle in which small countries must rub shoulder with the leviathans. As it’s clear who'll get trodden under foot in the headlong rush, the leaders of the smaller nations of the world are right to glance over their shoulders and to express concern.

When traveling in Laos, one of the poorest countries in the world and a generation or two ‘behind’ Thailand in terms of development, it’s hard not to feel that the sleepiness and stability of the place confers a certain quality of life. In contrast, the insatiable appetite to acquire consumer goods that the Thai people sometimes have, only brings misery, as any Buddhist teacher would tell them.

Thailand has been awash with easy credit, which raises expectations and ruins lives and families. The poorest of the poor, if they can beg or borrow a deposit of ten thousand baht and can persuade a more prosperous relative to sign a guarantee for the finance, can go to the showroom and drive away in a brand new pickup. No doubt they’ll choose a top of the range model with all electronic windows and alloy wheels, but they’ll soon fail to find the monthly instalments.

First they’ll sell off the family rice land, then when they eventually default, the lenders will look to the guarantor, provoking a family rupture of terrible proportions. Finally the finance company will sell off the pickup for a song leaving them with a debt they can only pay off by selling the family home. This scenario is not unique to Thailand, though the irresponsible abandon with which people accept unnecessary credit seems to be fairly extreme.

Easy credit of this sort is a major breach of sufficiency principles and there are strong arguments that the government should introduce firmer regulations putting controls on credit agreements. Such legislation can be unduly complex but simple measures such as requiring a minimum deposit as a proportion of the cash price is a crude but effective in dampening demand.

Okay, so the motor industry and the economy generally would contract a bit but so what. Why does a poor farmer need a spanking new pickup anyway? The one axled rot tai or tuk-tuk that farmers use throughout the country is the best iron buffalo ever devised. It can pull a plough in the rice fields and tow a trailer on the roads to take produce to market. It has a power take-off which means it can operate a pump to move water from one paddy to another or to power a circular saw. It’s a great little machine and for most farmers it’s sufficient for its purpose.

My own contribution to the sufficiency economy is limited, though I’ve decided to store rain water from the roof in big concrete vats and when that runs out to get drinking water from the village well, rather than buying bottles and proliferating plastic. My big satellite dish for accessing the web hardly fits these principles, but at least paying for a slow speed of connection is sufficient for my needs.

The sufficiency economy is not a revolution but if the government’s promotion of sufficiency principles manages to dampen expectations a little and to reverse some of the expansionist hype of the previous government, then something at least will have been achieved by it. It’s not a Ghandhian ideal demanding major changes to the economy or to peoples’ lives and I happily conclude that as with moderation, when it comes to ‘sufficiency’, you can’t have too much of a good thing.

Monday, 19 March 2007

Vindicating My Literary Reputation

It has reached my ears that some of you who've read occasional reference to books of mine, such as the “Nigerian Law of Hire-Purchase”, think that yours truly is taking the proverbial piss again.

I would now like to give notice to all my readers that I am indeed the author, inter alia, of the said “Nigerian Law of Hire Purchase” and indeed of “The Filipina Helpers’ Handbook”, a bestseller in Hong Kong, which knocked “The Dogs of War” by some guy called Frederic Forsyth into a poor second place.

I've also recently been working on a sixth edition of ‘Hicks and Goo’, soon to be published by Oxford University Press. Go into Kinokuniya in Siam Paragon in Bangkok and ask if they have a book by Andrew Hicks. While inexplicably they don’t have “Thai Girl”, they’ll take a few thousand baht off you for a copy of ‘Hicks and Goo’ on Company Law.

‘Hicks and who?’ you may well ask. Yes, Hicks and Goo, I kid thee not! And if you still don’t believe me, just try Googling Goo, along with 'Hicks, Company Law’ and see what happens.

I’m also a little offended that doubt has been cast on my forthcoming nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature. While I admit that “Thai Girl” alone is a small body of work, I'm sure your doubts have now been assuaged, since you know the breadth and versatility of my published portfolio.

Nomination is no problem, but what about the Nobel Prize itself? Well, as a modest person, I admit I may not be the front runner yet, but it’s going to be different when I’ve published, ‘My Thai and I’. Then I’ll really be in with a chance.

Finally, if anyone posts a Comment which casts doubt on anything I’ve just said or which tends to bring me into hatred, ridicule or contempt, would they please leave an address for service of the writ for defamation that I shall be issuing against them. Literary reputations can be destroyed by that sort of thing so please don’t try it. I’m still a lawyer, remember, even if a rather old one.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

My New 'No Poke' Policy

After feeling a bit guilty for poking fun at the Thais about their linguistic boo-boos, even if I don't have a clear 'no-poke' policy, at least I've evened things up a bit by admitting that we Brits have some silly signs too. Well not everywhere... these two are from up north.

So how about the two northern signs then? Well, I ask you! How coy are we to put the entrance for the family planning clinic at the back of the building in case people are too shy to be seen going in the front. Utterly ridiculous in the twenty first century! Jolly funny really! It's a bit like the old fashioned barber saying, 'Something for the weekend sir?' Why can't we be more open and simply say 'c*nd*m' without embarassment.

And Penrith! I was there last year after scaling Helvellyn by way of Striding Edge in a force ten gale, picking my way over the corpses of the fallen and clinging to vertical rock faces. Up there on the mountain, maybe yes, the consequences of extreme turbulence that are referred to on the station sign could have occurred... but on the edge of the platform!! Ridiculous!! The trains just don't go fast enough. I guess it could happen in France, know what I mean, but not in Cumberland! Too many sheep!

Having now made merit by balancing the scores a bit, I'm now going to spoil it all by mentioning the menu in Koh Chang that offered 'fried vegetarian'. In a Buddhist country too! And I'd totally forgotten the 'rather burnt land slug', the 'fresh thousand year old eggs' and the 'general chaos chicken' from where in Thailand I can't remember.

In Bangkok I'd recommend a place that advertises itself as, 'The shadiest bar in town', and the dry cleaners with the slogan, 'Drop your trousers here for the best results'. But as a lapsed lawyer, I particularly appreciate the notice at the hotel reception saying, 'Please do not bring solicitors into your room'.

Finally back on the PC, anti-ageism/sexism/racism theme, I loved the classified ad that the Tongsai Bay Resort put in the Bangkok press. They wanted to recruit a 'beach boy'. First of all he had to be male and not much more than a boy at 23 to 30. Okay so far. He had to be Thai, fair enough, but on top of that he had to have a Bachelor's degree. Isn't that some sort of discrimination? I guess at hotel reception they'd need at least a PhD. You can get them printed up in Khao San Road.

Sorry, didn't I half promise 'no poke'?

Friday, 16 March 2007

Blue Crabs Cry

We’ve just come back from a great weekend with friends at their home in the rice fields of Ubon where we lay and swigged late night drinks to the sound of cicadas and frogs under the grass roof of the floating pavilion on their fish pond. Was it really a weekend though? Well in Thailand, every day’s a Sunday anyway, unlike in England where life’s a sad succession of Mondays.

Among other delights, they took us to see the Pha Taem National Park which overlooks the River Mekhong. There, for the usual entry fee of 400 baht we had a spectacular view across the river to Laos, saw the most amazing inland cliff I’ve ever not fallen off, some half-decent rock paintings from four millennia ago, and one of the best silly signs I’ve ever seen anywhere.

At the top of the cliff was a newly painted sign saying, “Danger! No Poke”. And hell’s teeth, I didn’t have my camera with me! Both Cat and I usually vie to be first to make off with the camera and wrongly thought the other had already grabbed it… so we’d left in the house. Fortunately our hosts stepped in and took the pictures with one of these amazing, new-fangled cameras they’d just bought. Whatever will they think of next... with this new camera, you can even make phone calls!

Later I picked up a National Park leaflet which came up with some more linguistic gems. It told us that an island in the river is ‘covered by delighted dry evergreen and teak forests’, and it recommends a particular place to see the early morning view, ‘covered with misty seas of frog’.

While we were there it was so blazingly hot you could’ve boiled an egg on a brass monkey, but the leaflet assures us that in the National Park it’s ‘cool and comfortable all the year round’… and they go on to say the same thing twice more. ‘Cool and comfortable! Like hell! Methinks the writer doth protest too much! It then continues, ‘This waterfall flows from a high cliff to the creek below, which do colourful flowers surround’. Shades of Shakespeare again!

I also liked the sign at the foot of the cliff saying, ‘No writing on the walls.’ Too many damned rock paintings already, I guess. Also there’s a message at the top of the cliff… ‘Do not throw anything away’. Something to do with the government's new 'sufficiency economy' I suppose.

It’s a bit like an item I saw on a sea food menu when we ate at in Bang Bao on Koh Chang… ‘Blue crabs cry’. Yes, they’re said to scream when thrown into the pot of boiling water, though I think this must be a version of the dish they usually call ‘Weeping Tiger’.

Menus often enliven meals in Thailand and I especially remember ‘fried special wild bear in spicy taste’ and ‘soured telly vermicelli with thaw’, though I didn’t dare try either of them.

The Nigerian newspapers always used to be fun too. (‘Much can be achieved in life by pressing the right bottoms.’ And… ‘Our wedding picture shows the happy couple outside St. Mary’s church where their marriage was consummated before a large congregation.’) Though in comparison The Bangkok Post and The Nation, with their legions of expat sub-editors, are disappointing for connoisseurs of the mal apropos. Other places however, do not disappoint.

I regularly spend a part of my life at the Department of Immigration in Bangkok sitting waiting under a large hanging sign that says, ‘The visa extension process paid only fees, do not believe anyone’.

Soon bored with trying to work out what this means, I flick through my application papers, concerned that I've not brought with me a doctor’s certificate, as the rules require, certifying that I am ‘free from any defect’, and free of the ‘dangerous step of tuberculosis (step that causes disgust to society)’.

I even fear for my life though, because as I read their glossy leaflet about re-entry visas, I learn that a, ‘Foreigner who already has an approval to stay in Thailand wishes to leave Thailand for another foreign country and re-enter Thailand during the validity of his/her existing approval will expire immediately.’ Sounds nasty!

Despite my condescending British arrogance that expects my hosts never to put a foot wrong with my language while I mangle theirs, I’m now beginning to have a bit of a conscience about writing all this. Perhaps I’d better post some pictures showing that even at home we can cause a double entendre or two… like the advice in the family planning department and what happens if you stand too close to the edge of the platform in Penrith station. Watch this space!

But I can’t stop myself drivelling on because I’ve some more of my favourites to share with you. Like at Wat Arun in Bangkok there’s a sign saying, ‘Do not dangle any doll’. Well, I don’t think I did, though I’m not too sure.

At the elephant show in Surin, the brochure assured us that the show would begin with, ‘Surin deva on the back of charming elephant evacuating from the clouds’. Better bring umbrellas!

While you can almost forgive government departments for not losing face by asking the farang around them to check their English, it’s more surprising in the commercial sector when they expose themselves to ridicule and commercial failure. In the seventies, the handbook for my little Daihatsu car declared at the top of every page that, ‘Daihatsu spare parts make always nice driving’. The Japanese have now swallowed their pride and produce handbooks that are exemplarary, but when will Thailand get it’s commercial act together?

An English language programme on Thai television was teaching the phrase, ‘Too much talking plagues!’ Eh?!! Thai Airways did a special promotion called, ‘Buy one, get one’. Outside a glitzy, mega-buck dental clinic in Bangkok is the slogan, ‘Living in a vibrant world where every eyeful stimulates’. You can say that again! The slogan for Cat’s Schengen travel insurance policy reads, ‘Take always the risk and can do anything’. And the label on the fireworks says, ‘Warning! Shoots flaming balls with reports.’ Sadly, I must conclude that the end of term report on Thai English is, 'Could do better'.

The non-PC in Thailand can be a giggle too. For example, there’s my box of ‘Negro Hair Dye', our ‘Black Man’ mop, and the black and white minstrel style, ‘Darkie’ toothpaste, now re-branded with great racial sensitivity as ‘Darlie’ but still retaining the darkies. And I shouldn't forget the Miss Jumbo beauty contest for fatties and the penchant for dwarves and other funny freaks on Thai TV programmes… though I fear I’m beginning to wander, wittering even.

Maybe I’ll go and shoot myself in the head for being horrible to the Thais before they shoot me first, or better still just shut up.

I sort of wish there was no such thing as languages and that the whole world spoke the same language as me. It would have to be Queen’s English of course, but then the world would be a less funny place and I couldn’t have written this stupid blog.

Yes, maybe it is better to have one universal language, though pathetically I have to admit that the ‘No poke’ sign kept me in a good mood and humoured for several hours as we toiled and sweated in the blazing sun seeing the less funny sights of the Pha Taem National Park.

PS I gather it's quite difficult posting Comments, so here's a nice one from A Man Named Le Phoque that came to me by email.
"Well, of course, the sois and byways of Sukhumvit are festooned with quirky renditions of the English language. Sadly missed, but not fogotten, is the RIP travel agent on Sukhumvit, which had the great good sense to expire, and there is, of course, the Egyptian restaurant on soi 3, proudly boasting a trilingual menu - Arabic, French and English - and featuring, as one of its arcane house specialities, lambs' "rognons blancs", a French gastronomic euphemism for lambs' The English version just leaves it as "lamb balls"! Le mot juste, indeed."

Thursday, 15 March 2007

"My Special Island"

I remember as a child in the mid-fifties escaping from the cold, grey, windswept streets of Birmingham, then one of England’s ugliest city centres, into the warmth of an Odeon cinema to see Mike Todd’s amazing movie of the Broadway show “South Pacific”.

There for the first time I saw coconut palms and banyan trees, and there for the first time I fell hopelessly in love with a sweet-faced Asian girl. It was France Nguyen, a Vietnamese teenager who played the nubile little daughter of Bloody Mary, a sow of a mother who was ready to offer her daughter’s hand for a fat wad of dollars. In the words of the song, ‘Bloody Mary’s always chewing betel nut, but she don’t use Pepsodent’!

There in that cinema so many years ago I learned that while, like me, some people live on a lonely island, lost in the middle of a foggy sea, ‘some people long for another island, one where they know they would like to be’. The movie had a big impact on me and I became a dreamer, longing for that other island. Now, finally I seem to have found my special island and of course it’s Koh Chang, a dreamy spine of jungle clad mountains adrift in the warm ocean off the Eastern seaboard of Thailand not far from Cambodia.

When five years ago I stayed on Koh Chang for the first time, I rapidly filled my writer’s notebooks with all I saw and absorbed. Later I used this material to write my now bestselling novel, “Thai Girl”, a story about British backpacker Ben who falls for a sweet and flirtatious Thai girl, Fon, a masseuse on the beach at Koh Samet. Contrary to stereotype she refuses to go with Ben and when she tells him to get out of her life, he goes to cool his heels and drown his sorrows on Koh Chang.

These are his first impressions of the island and perhaps mine too.

“The massive bulk of Koh Chang, elephant island, the second largest in Thailand, reared up out of the sea as the smoky little ferryboat drew closer. From his seat in the bow, Ben could make out the coconut and banana plantations which ran from the shore up into the jungle-clad mountains behind.
A row of pick-ups standing on the dark laterite of the vehicle park, their drivers touting for fares, greeted the arriving travelers. The first ones quickly filled up with passengers and left and when Ben found himself about to be crammed inside the last to go, he decided instead to ride shotgun on the wide metal step at the back. The step was heaped with sacks of fresh fish and ice, but he could just find a foothold.
The overloaded pick-up moved off and began to career wildly along the narrow concrete road at the foot of the mountains. With the wind in his face and clinging on precariously, he began to feel life was worth living again. New perspectives appeared around each corner. Plantations followed scrub and jungle, then a village and a Chinese temple, and to his right the sea and the distant hills of the mainland.
Soon the pick-up was beginning to climb, to struggle and slow, its exhaust farting and burbling beneath his feet. Grinding down through the gears, the driver swerved through the potholes and round hairpin bends, threatening to throw him under the wheels of the more powerful truck that snarled impatiently behind.
He stared up at the mountains as they climbed to where the narrow ribbon of road cut into the vertical side of the rock face. Then as the road reached its highest point, he caught his first glimpse along the island, a chain of bays, headlands and peaks, softened by a gentle evening light that merged the colours together in a warm glow.
All this and the rush of hot air, richly scented of earth and foliage, the tallest trees and densest jungle he had ever seen and the sweat and exertion of not quite falling off the back of the pick-up brought his usual optimism flooding back.
Now as the pick-up began to wind down through the mountains towards White Sand Beach, he was beginning to feel more positive. The excitement of moving on and the beauty of his surroundings were doing him good.
The island was a National Park and as tourism had arrived decades later than on other islands, he was hoping Koh Chang would be pristine and unspoiled. But as the pick-up reached the bottom of the hill and cruised along through the coconut palms behind the beach, he was dismayed by the messy developments on either side of the road. There were huts and bungalows everywhere, mini-marts, noodle stalls, obtrusive signs, motorbikes for hire and all the disorder of Thailand in pursuit of the tourist dollar.”

Since my visit five years ago, Koh Chang remains as vibrant and as passionate as ever, no longer quite the untouched virgin that she once was but still with a charm that’ll bewitch the most jaded traveler. I never tire of going back there, but then I have a special affection for it as the place that gave me much of the inspiration for “Thai Girl”, my first novel.

The book is widely available, (see, but I warn you… this island and my simple love story are distinctly dangerous. They could get under your skin and change your life forever, just as they have mine.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

"The Lightness of Being Unbearable"

Abducted by sirens yet again!

Don't jump... they're wonderful really!

It’s sometimes said that Thai women are feminine through and through, that they are Venus personified with never a hint of Mars, and that their only aim in life is to please their man.

Sad foreigners with a limited grasp of reality soon fall amorous when they first come to Thailand. They go through a temporary phase of self-delusion akin to a mental illness, the main symptom of which is that they think they’ve gone to a heaven filled with honey coloured angels.

Unfortunately for them, once hooked and with an irreversible addiction to their lady, her purring pussy cat phase may not last very long and they face some serious reverses. It’s always a shock for them discovering that their pussy cat is in fact a man-eating tiger and they can sometimes be seen at the end of the pier and of their tether, thinking of ending it all there and then. Rarely do they do it though as invariably they’ll come back, begging for more of the same.

Let me first stress that despite my feline imagery, none of what I’m going to say in this report on the psychological strategies of Thai wives that follows, in any way relates to my own wife, Cat. To write of her even in a veiled way would be an unfair breach of her privacy and might consign me to a nasty incident with a meat cleaver. No, in fact she’s always been perfectly reasonable and even-tempered. She’s never known for slagging me off for always losing things, for buying a stupid thirty year old jeep or putting her name on a contract for crap satellite internet that hardly ever works. In the face of considerable provocation, her good mood is in fact always exemplary.

Just as this study is not based on Cat nor on any other personal experiences of my own, I also deny having myself done any of the empirical research into the erratic behaviour of Thai ladies. Throughout my academic career, I have always made exclusive use of research assistants. In this case I've benefitted from the expert opinion of many an expat on bar stool and beach who can be relied upon to expatiate ad nauseam about what makes their ‘Thai girls’ tick. Their findings are many and various but their general regret is that while a time bomb usually ticks, Thai women give them no warning and only ever smile. It’s therefore impossible to have any idea what they’re thinking. As they’ll never give you a straight answer on anything, there’s no hint of the pyrotechnics to come.

By way of an aside, it’s noteworthy that the Thai language has no single word for ‘yes’ or ‘no’, only for ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’.

In Bangkok I stay at a unique hotel at the door of which there’s a big sign saying, ‘Sex Tourists Not Welcome’. In this study I have excluded contact with any such informants, though it’s not always easy to avoid them. Once at a small Chinese hotel in Penang, I was having breakfast with two Swedish men I had reputably met at The Atlanta hotel in Bangkok, when a middle-aged German came and sat down with us uninvited. He insisted on telling us that his favorite place was Patong in Phuket and that there he had had assignations with over two thousand girl friends. While I would acknowledge his generous contribution to rural development, I would not rely on his judgment about Thai women for the purposes of my research, as the depth of these relationships must be relatively limited.

On a more personal note, as a young man I always used to try to remember my girlfriends’ names, if not always their birthdays, though perhaps the German had dispensed with this nicety.

To briefly summarise our research findings therefore, we reliably conclude that out of a cloudless sky, lightening can suddenly strike. The Thai women that were the survey sample, all partners of farang men, can at times be moody, capricious, fickle, mercurial and volatile and can explode without warning. On a whim and without rhyme or reason they change their minds on an agreed course of action and wax furious when their man protests. While at one moment, butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth, suddenly they can behave in a manner that is utterly unbearable.

This is not of course my experience, and as I say, mindful of the meat cleaver, I’m simply reporting the empirical findings of my research team. Nor do I in any way imply that these men are lacking in judgment in their selection of a partner. Even so, when any of them express a grievance about their experiences, I put it to them that if you choose to ride a roller-coaster, you must take the consequences… there’ll be downs as well as ups! In Thailand though the clouds quickly roll away and the sun always breaks out as sweetly as before.

That’s of course why these besotted foreign men always come back for more. It’s also because even when their tirak is being utterly unbearable, she does it with such style and flair, with such charm. Who other than a Thai woman can be so awful, but with such a flashing of eyes, with such detachment, such poise, such cool… such lightness. It’s all calculated, an insidious manipulation that leaves her farang in a state of gibbering anxiety and dismay as he staggers backwards in shock, grabbing instinctively for his wallet.

After the sweet success of my novel, “Thai Girl”, I’ve been urged to write another one. I think it’s going to be about a farang who has a stormy relationship with his Thai lady. She sees him reading a book in a café where she’s a waitress. She follows him to his room and moves in with him, but while he’s nursing her through a bout of dengue fever, she becomes fearful he’s being unfaithful with other women. This is morally unacceptable to her as he must be spending loads of money on her rivals that he should be spending on her. She rages at him every nights and tells him that if she catches him at it, she’s going to cut off his nearest and dearest and throw it to the ducks.

The plot then follows the male protagonist as he freely philanders, leaving the reader in tense apprehension as to the continued safety of his threatened equipment. The emotional point of the story though is that despite all his dalliances, he always comes back to this woman because he loves her for being so awfully, so exquisitely unbearable.

I’m trying to think of a title for the novel and I’ve come up with one that has a certain ring to it. How about, “The Lightness of Being Unbearable”?

This Is Thailand!

Our picture shows a black cinereous vulture in drag.

The Bangkok Post has reported (Police to go after 1,000 rape suspects, 8 March 2007) an announcement by a police major-general that to mark Womens' Day the police are launching a first ever crack-down on a thousand rape suspects in nine provinces.

He is further reported as saying that more than 70% of the female population in these provinces work in factories and that rape causes psychological harm to female workers and affects businesses. 'Some foreign entrepreneurs had moved their production bases out of the country after their female employees were raped,' says the police major general. 'If rapes took place in provinces which housed a World Heritage site and historic places, sch as Ayuttaya, this would drive tourists away and ruin the reputation of the country.'

The rapists in the remaining 67 provinces where there are fewer factories will presumably be dealt with next Womens' Day.

On the adjacent page of the same newspaper, it is reported (Black vulture to be freed in Mongolia), that a rare black cinereous vulture, one of the last of a world population of 20,000 had gone way off course while migrating and had been found falling off its perch in Chantaburi, Thailand. I guess people don't eat vultures as they are a sign of bad luck, so it ended up in a university's veterinarian department where the dedicated staff nursed it back to health.

The vulture will now be flown to Beijing on Thai Airways accompanied by five bird experts. From Beijing they will then drive it to a black vulture watch centre in Ulan Batur, Mongolia. There it wiil be released into the wild.

It strikes me that this a very lucky black vulture, as indeed are the five bird experts who are going along for the trip. It is good however that because of this expenditure of conservation resources, the world's population of black vultures has not yet fallen to 19,999.

Two days later, The Bangkok Post reported (Saprang's Euro jaunt worthy of suspicion) that a delegation of Airports of Thailand board members led by the Council for National Security's deputy secretary general had travelled to Europe to study airport security and had spent7.2 million baht on the trip, including 1.2 million for entertainment. Some members of their families had accompanied them and 'a question mark is hanging over them' as to whether it is appropriate for their expenses to have been paid from the national budget. No doubt they too had an entertaining trip.

Sniffer dogs are sometimes used at airports and there could perhaps be a security role for the black cinereous vulture too rather than sending it all the way back to Mongolia.

On the front page of the issue of 8 March reporting the eleventh hour reprieve for ITV which will not now cease broadcasting, it was also reported that the channel had at the stroke of midnight changed its name to TITV.

The new name has a certain cadence to it. As the now resigned deputy prime minister said in his defense following the collapse of the stock market caused by his imposition of capital controls on inward investments, foreign investors should be reassured and must always understand, as he succinctly put it that, 'This is Thailand'.

Friday, 9 March 2007

Of Rats, Ratios and Edible Bugs

That very independent London newspaper, ‘The Independent’, recently ran an article stating that there’s now one rat for every person in Britain… that’s a 39% increase in the past seven years.

Personally I’m quite fond of them, so I’m thinking of flying back to England to claim my rat. (A Welsh or Scottish rat would be fine, as I’m not fussy.) Though I’m worried... do they really mean a 39% increase in rats or persons, because surely they don’t do rat censuses. How can they be sure that one to one is the correct British rat ratio?

It bothers me anyway the bad press rats always get. Cutesey little harvest mice on birthday cards we love to bits, but rats! Is more rats necessarily bad rats or are we all guilty of ratial prejudice? Given the similarity of rats to mice, hating them is hardly rational.

So are the British now wanting to get rid of their rats? It could be a bit difficult. Other than paying a pied piper, they’d do well to realize that if you can’t beat them, you’d better eat them.

I first ate rat for Christmas dinner on the banks of the Niger in the south of Nigeria far too many years ago. The rat was peppered and very spicey and by the light of a guttering oil lamp hung low over the table, boy, did we sweat.

In that part of the world, rats are as big as rabbits and are known as grass cutters. At our compound in Zaria eight hundred miles further north, the dogs used to catch grass cutters and bring them home for us. Our Christian cook was always grateful to eat this luxury meat, but Garba our Muslim cook never would because the rats had been contaminated by the dogs which are unclean in Islam. Of course most Europeans wouldn’t eat this fine protein simply because it’s a rat, though there’s a real distinction between the sewer-dwelling scavenging rats of the city and these clean-living rural rats which are thoroughly edible and quite delicious.

Once staying in a village in Laos far up a river and miles from the nearest road, I saw the children out in the rice fields excitedly digging into the low walls that separate the dry rice fields. I asked them what they were digging for. It was rats. Here in our village in Isaan, the quest for food and survival is exactly the same and the kids dig for rats in exactly the same way and hunt them at night with torches.

In our kitchen, we have one of those old-fashioned food cabinets with perforated zinc sides and the other day I was getting my coffee for breakfast and as I put my hand inside I saw spread out beside the bananas a big, fat, dead rat. My gut reaction was not wholly positive and I confess to some repressed feelings of ratism. Somehow this dead rat was a worse shock than the live one I later discovered in a pot under the sink when I went to investigate some scraping sounds. Usually it’s fish or crabs or even a turtle doing the scraping, but this time I was more worried about whether the rat had any water.

Jerry Hopkins, the famous author of a remarkable book called, ‘Extreme Cusine’, who happens to have a home not far from here, comments that the next untapped source of protein that’s available to feed the world is insects. His book is a fascinating survey of all the more unusual foods that are eaten throughout the world, though I’m rapidly discovering that what’s unusual is entirely subjective.

In an earlier blog, I mentioned that when going on holiday we almost missed the last ferry to Koh Chang because Cat spent an hour or two before we left setting up an insect trap for Mama and Nan. Dare I say, when I thought I was going to miss my sixtieth birthday party on the beach, it really bugged me. Anyway, the result is that I now can admire a strange structure behind the house consisting of a bamboo pole with a rusty piece of corrugated sheeting tied to it and a light that glows eerily purple at night. I should be grateful of course as this construct no doubt could be sold for a considerable sum in London as modern sculpture and also because Nan is now able to sell the insects it catches for at least twenty baht a day.

So how does it work? Well, the insects see the purple light and decide reasonably enough to hurl themselves at the sheeting, then fall into a bucket of water and have a swim. Some miss the bucket and land on the earth into which they then burrow for whatever reason. Now, every day, first thing in the cool of the morning there’s a huddle of those near and dear to me sifting through the soil and picking out the insects one by one. Yummee!

Whether you eat insects or not is a matter of culture, though I can vouch for the fact that fried insects can be delicious and are clearly nutritious. What’s delicious and luxurious, however, depends on whether you acquire the taste as you grow up. What, for example, could be more disgusting than Stilton cheese. Swallowing raw oysters is quite revolting, yet eaten with fresh French bread and washed down with a chilled dry white wine, it’s my idea of gustatory heaven.

A week or two back, I was laying a few pieces of turf I’d bought at a garden centre when a neighbour from one of the poorest houses in our soi greeted me from across the fence. She was carrying a long bamboo pole on the end of which was a small net. She was hunting for red ants nests. I’d only spent a hundred baht on the turf but I stopped work and slunk away as I didn’t want her to see my wasteful folly of ‘gardening’. I felt uncomfortable that here she was gathering such awful food for her family when I can waste money on turf and cruise the supermarket with a heavily laden trolley.

High in the trees, the red ants sew the leaves together into a nest, clearly visible from the ground and the eggs inside provide useful sustenance. I’ve eaten them, generally with a few ants mixed in and they’re tasteless but perfectly palatable. Cat says red ants are becoming fewer because of being hunted, which is sad because rather than being a food of poverty, they’re also a food of choice. The folks around here love them and would of course eat them in preference to something very similar we Europeans regard as a delicacy. While they adore red ants' eggs, we go for caviare, because they're what we each are accustomed to liking.

There’s so much to say about gathering food, that it’s a subject I shall return to later on, but I’ll end with a passing thought. Even if there’s a red ant shortage, I wonder what the rat to person ratio is in Thailand. Despite the intensive hunting, are the Thais fortunate enough to have more rats than we do back in Britain?

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Feeling the Heat

Today, it’s hot, hot, hot! God is it hot and it’s only March. Can April really be hotter than this? Hotter than hell?

I did a bit of ‘Do It Myself’ this morning. It was a horrible job, using chemical paint stripper to strip off the blue paint Cat has managed to get all over the floor tiles on the verandah. It was only seven in the morning, an ungodly hour to be doing DIM, but the sweat was soon pouring off me.

Mopping my brow with the kitchen towel, I went and had a look at the thermometer on the jeep which is parked in the garage and it was showing 33 degrees. So cool for this time of the morning! It must be more than that.

When I’d given up on the manual work, I showered and now sit at my desk upstairs to do my email, quaffing from my bottle of ‘Nile Drinking Water’. When the bare skin of my chest touches the desk, it’s hot to the touch. The ceiling tiles are hot, radiating heat down from the roof and I’m not sure I can stay up here for long. It’s just so, so desperately hot.

Even the locals are complaining and lolling around, though annoyingly they look like an advert for anti-perspirant and all laugh at me when I ‘glow’ and drip. Even Ping, who’s only six and usually a bundle of energy, is looking a bit limp. She’s taking the Thai way out and has fallen fast asleep next to her mother on the hard tiled floor. I always find it difficult to give in and do nothing, so I go upstairs to look for the camera. I then creep downstairs and sneakily take a charming shot of her, fortunately without waking her.

For me, this hot season in Thailand has more than a touch of déjà vu about it. Thirty three years ago (perish the thought), I lived in a traditional African mud compound in Zaria old city in Northern Nigeria. With a ratio of about one white person to approximately ten thousand, it was a great experience to live there, though as you may guess it was hot, hot, hot. The mud rooms were square and immensely thick and once they’d absorbed the heat of the day, they’d stay hot overnight. We had running water and power, most mud cons in fact, but the table fan was pretty useless as the power was usually off. I remember sleeping on my back, or not sleeping more likely, one foot in a bucket of water on the floor. As a way of cooling the blood, it worked really quite well.

I don’t need a bucket now as I confess to an air conditioner in the bedroom, though there are similarities to life in the two places. The north of Nigeria has two seasons, the hot and muddy season, followed by the bloody hot and dusty season, when it doesn’t rain for six months. It happens that Nigeria and Thailand are my very first and my latest experience as an expat, though I don’t know which climate is more hot and horrible than the other… let’s just say I’ve jumped out of the frying pan into the frying pan.

Now today, we’re in the middle of Thailand’s annual drought when for six months everything’s parched and brown, the foliage is drab and bleached and you just long for a cooling shower. At about this time there are the so-called mango rains when thundershowers offer some blessed relief but my experience is that they’re always over the next village and they never fall on us.

A week ago, it was excessively hot and humid and all day the clouds were building up in the direction of Sangkha. Then late afternoon, with the black clouds towering over us, there was a strong flurry of wind which brought the delicious smell of rain on hot earth. We ran out and brought in the washing and watched the first glorious drops splattering down, making big round circles in the dust. I went upstairs and stood on the verandah happily watching as the roof turned dark, but to my disappointment the rain abruptly stopped and the clouds rolled away to the east. Sound and fury followed by a tantalizing dribble is all the rain gods ever seem to give us, the bastards that they are.

Meteorologically speaking, life’s pretty predictable round here because, as in Nigeria, there’s loads of climate but not much weather, which is disappointing for a Brit like me as it leaves very little to talk about. So all I can now tell you is that we’ve just come through the hot season and are coming into the very hot season which lasts from about March to May. Then in June it should start raining and the rains last for about five months, or so my Rough Guide to Thailand reliably reminds me. This is the rice growing season when the world becomes a rich green for several months before it becomes dry again and the rice turns golden brown for harvesting at the end of the year.

Despite the almost total absence of weather, the English language newspapers nonetheless always publish a daily weather forecast and they’re about as useful as the world weather forecasts on CNN. You know the ones… like, ‘Turning cloudy over Somalia,’ and ‘there’ll be light rain in the Himalayas’.

In Thailand it’d be much more sensible to have a month by month ‘climate forecast’, as follows. ‘It’ll be hot and dry in March, ridiculously hot and dry in April, and intolerably hot and even dryer in May’. But no, they insist there’s weather to be had every day. Today, 6 March 2007, The Bangkok Post forecasts 38 very hot degrees tomorrow right here in the North East and then goes on, ‘Thunderstorm, gusty wind and hail are expected in the areas. People should beware of thunderstorm, gusty wind and hail’. So true, we should! I’m so glad I’ve been warned.

A useless forecast they often trot out when it’s not quite intolerably hot is the one that says, ‘Cool with morning fog… 35 degrees’. Cool?? Thirty five degrees! And what am I supposed to do about this fog I've never ever seen? It’s a bit like those road signs warning of falling rocks. Beware of forecasts and road signs say I.

Having perhaps over-hyped the inescapable heat I suffer daily, there’s something I must now confess to. Thailand really does have a winter of sorts. Winter lasts for at least two or three days around the turn of the year when cool air from China comes down our way, and I really, really love it. All the locals stand around wrapped up in padded jackets, slapping their sides and asking their resident farang if it’s cold. ‘Nao, nao mai?’ they ask him with anticipation. It’s so bitter, surely even he must be cold. But no, I always disappoint them and tell them it’s still hot and that in England sometimes there’s ice on the ground just like in the freezer, though of course they never believe me.

This winter was particularly hard, lasting all of a week or two when the wind moaned in a Northerly sort of way and kicked dust and plastic bags high into the air. It was really pleasant, though if you’re foolish enough to ride a motorbike in a singlet, it's pretty chilly. Up in the mountains it’s much colder and the newspapers reported that Nan province was declared a disaster area when the temperature fell as low 13 degrees. Officials were busy distributing hundreds of thousands of blankets as they do each year, though I often wonder what happened to last year’s… perhaps they used them to light their little fires of coconut husks.

You see, every morning when it’s ‘cold’, everyone opens all the windows in the house to let out the residual warmth and then they rush outside and squat around fires, holding their hands out to the guttering flames. They never forget to wake the baby and they take him outside too in the thinnest of t-shirts and seem to wonder why he always gets sick.

Now winter’s just a distant memory, of feeling fresh and cool, of cycle rides and jaunts in the jeep out into the rice fields and being able to work in the garden without discomfort. And now it’s hot, hot, hot, so I think I’ll follow Ping’s example and stretch out on the floor downstairs. It certainly is the coolest, or do I mean the least hot place in the house.

Sunday, 4 March 2007

That Sad, Sad Shirt!

Just for fun, I got my caricature done in MBK in Bangkok for eight hundred baht, which is a bit over ten quid. I gave them an old photo and they took a digital shot of me and I collected it a week later. When I showed the original caricature to my son, Mike, he said, 'Yeah Dad, it's great, but have you really got a shirt like that? Blue palm trees are just so sad!'

I had to confess because the sad evidence of the shirt has unfortunately been captured on film, though I categorically deny the existence of the trousers. Yes, I do have such a shirt and I've even occasionally dared wear it, like on the first occasion we took a family trip to the Khmer temple of Khao Phra Viharn just across the border in Cambodia.

We'd asked Cat's uncle, puyai baan, the village head to take us in his smart new Mazda pickup.

'Yes, Cat,' I said, 'It's fine if some of your family come too. We can make a party of it.'

But as we pulled up by the road to meet an aunt or two that Cat had invited, men, women and children came running. Puyai, good natured as he always is didn't seem to mind very much when they all climbed into every available space in the back of the small truck. It was desperately hot and they were exposed to sun and wind for the long journey of two hours, but not only that, they were packed in like sardines... there were twenty one souls on board all told.

It was a great day and we stopped for photographs at the bottom of the great stone stairway, almost a thousand years old, that goes up to the temples, and there I was caught on camera wearing the sad, sad shirt that's now in the caricature.

Next to me in the picture stands one of Cat's uncles. He's a quiet, dignified man who asks me interesting questions about what it's like to live in England. Do they cut the wheat with sickles and how many buffaloes do people usually have?

Apart from going to Chonburi to cut sugar cane, he has hardly ever left the village. It was therefore interesting for me to be with him as we walked up through the ruins. As he stood at the top looking out over the cliff at the hundreds of miles of Cambodian jungle and mountains spread before us, he who had never seen a mountain before, stared down at the terrifying drop of eight hundred feet to the ground below and gazed in silent awe.

Everyone enjoyed the visit but attention spans were limited and we soon wandered back to shop at the stalls on the Thai side and then sat down to eat. It's traditional that the older man of substance picks up the tab, so I of course paid for the car, the entry fees and the food. It was a day everyone, especially Cat's uncle will always remember.

So for me, the feeling of having given everyone a good day out was ample reward and anyway, things like this in Thailand are never very expensive. It didn't cost very much and I can hardly say I lost my shirt.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Propitiating the Spirits

I'm out here in the far rice fields of Surin, caught in the middle where two worlds collide, the world of ancient ritual and spirit worship and the clinical modern world of digital photography and satellite internet by which I post this blog.

As I sit at my computer and send it out out into cyberspace, I can still hear the insistent thump of the drums and the sweet wailing of the pipes. The ceremony is set to go on all night.

In an earlier blog about cutting the mango trees, I told you about the strong willed old soul. a former teacher and great aunt of Cat who was wheeled round to our house on a push cart for a little party out on the grass. In her eighties she seemed to be fading fast but she kept rallying with all the spirit and energy she'd shown throughout her long life. So tonight is the time for her family and neighbours to hold a traditional ceremony to propitiate and banish the spirits that are afflicting her and causing her weakness. They are all still out there now, the women dancing and swaying gently to the music, their hands sinuously outspread, even as I write these words.

The old lady is sitting on the floor under the bamboo and palm roof erected for the occasion, where she is the centre of attention. She must be stirred by having so many old friends and relatives around her expressing their love and concern and by the power of the ritual that's so deeply embedded in her psyche. She senses the overthrow of the spirits that are afflicting her and she's bouyed up, though her eyes are dim and she feels a little disorientated. She's intoxicated by the music and by more besides as the candles flicker dizzily before her eyes. She's rocking to the music ever faster, clapping her hands ever louder, transported, entranced. Everyone is willing her on to a last burst of energy. They're putting a necklace over her head, and now they're helping her to her feet and she begins to dance, straight and strong as she once was before. The spirits are banished. She has been made whole again.

With the clouds occasionally revealing the moon sailing high above the palms, the flash of lightning in the distance and the night breezes moderating the heat that still remains from the day, it's indeed an atmospheric occasion, a retreat into a world of ritual that has become obscured by aggressive modernity but which nevertheless is still very much alive in older peoples' hearts.

I, the outsider, look around at the ranks of elderly women, their serious faces dark and lined from years of toil in the the rice fields, while the children play without a care in the world.

Perhaps they'll remember the significance of today, though as they grow older will rituals and practices such as this one finally die out? I do hope they survive as even if you do not recognise the power of the spirits, a collective ritual of solidarity is an encouragement and support to a person whose grip on life is weakening. Nothing is worse than the terrible sense of being alone.

In the West, we cannot ask for anything like this... everyone is too busy. They have no time for the old. We do not know our neighbours and all we can expect is for a health visitor to assess us and then perhaps an occasional knock on the door from an over-stretched geriatric nurse. In comparison, old, rural communities like this one have such huge strengths. Urbanisation may bring gains in perceived standard of living, but it also causes an irreversible loss of community. Yet it seems that in Thailand, everyone dreams of the urban lifestyle and they'll sell themselves, both soul and body to get something of it.

I wish I could tell them that they should value and preserve their traditional culture. If only I could!

Not Forgetting Papa

Cat’s Papa’s a likeable old rogue. He has a warm and boyish smile and when he’s sober he doesn’t say very much. His age changes every time I ask Cat about it but I know he’s several years older than her Mama, which puts him at around seventy. He’s a wiry little man and he looks remarkably fit for his age.

For elderly men around here there seem to be three final options in life, all of which are sedentary and involve various forms of meditation. When you give the rice farm to your sons, you can either become a monk, you can spend your days taking the cows out to the rice fields and watching them chew, or you can take to the bottle. Being early retired myself I’m not going to cast nasturtiums, but lets just say that Cat’s Papa isn’t a monk, nor does he have any cows to look after.

I sometimes see him pottering down the soi in big rubber boots, a hoe over his shoulder, but where he’s going to I have no idea. Sometimes he disappears for days and while he generally lives at the family home two houses down, we don’t see a lot of him. He has a certain shy charm and I like him, but apart from our penchant for lighting fires and having a good blaze, we seem to have very little in common.

To those around me, including him, my life must seem to be the ultimate in luxury and ease, so to give him credit where it’s due, to earn his next bottle of lao khao, he does sometimes show willing and work hard.

When we were building the house three years ago, although the ground was already high enough, I was told I had to buy a few hundred tons more soil to make it even higher. As the fleet of trucks poured in, the drivers were dropping their loads haphazardly like B52 pilots, only anxious to escape as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, I was desperately running in all directions, trying to show them where I wanted it, but inevitably several truck loads ended up in the wrong place.

So what do you do when you want to shift several tons of soil entirely by hand. Well, you look for the smallest woman and the frailest old man you can find and you give them a hoe and a hod made from a truck tyre, and you tell them to get on with it. Cat’s sister, Yut and Papa worked steadily through the day in temperatures of 35 degrees and slowly they moved mountains. Yut kept smiling as she always does and Papa seemed quite content, looking forward no doubt to the warmth that the bottle of lao khao would bring that night.

All I did, lazy farang that I am, was to stand about and watch and then to buy him the alcohol!