Monday, 30 July 2007

Recycled Jalopies - Amazing of Thailand!

People round here are amazingly good at improvising with minimal materials and one of the things I really admire is the way they recycle old pickups with a new engine and turn them into useful farm jalopies.

Top of the range for transport round here is of course a pickup. Most cheap and practical is the universal two wheeled 'iron buffalo' used for ploughing, towing a trailer and just about everything else. Then somewhere in between comes the home made truck based on an old chassis and running gear.

Yesterday in Si Saket I stopped and chatted to some lads in one of these crazy vehicles who had just passed me at a good rate of knots. It was based on an old Datsun chassis perhaps thirty or forty years old and had a Yanmar single cylinder engine. Usually they are Kubota engines similar to those used on the 'iron buffaloes' and the loud put-put sound is very familiar. Where would the locals be without them.

This truck had a well-made wooden body and looked to be an excellent, cheap work-horse, I guess totally devoid of any registration, tax or insurance. How these fall within the law I have no idea, but the further you go out into the countryside, the more of them you see.

It was quite an event when I stopped to take some photos, no doubt a world first for that particular village.

'Amazing of Thailand', somone shouted from the local shop just across the road.

Amazing of Thailand indeed!

Thai Morality - The Hole in the Dyke

A new monk and a new motorbike

Before the loy kratong festival at the end of the rains when romantic floats of banana leaf called kratons are launched on rivers and waterways at night to carry away the past year’s sins, there always seems to be a media frenzy in the newspapers about teenage sex. For some obscure reason it’s become fashionable for young and very young lovers to surrender their virginity on festivals such as Valentine’s Day and loy kratong. As they can’t do it at home, the ‘love hotels’ you see everywhere in Thailand are booked solid during these festivals.

Some time ago, the newspapers reported a survey that on Valentine’s night in Bangkok, a hundred thousand youngsters from fifteen to twenty four would be at it like rabbits, quoting Bim and Noot (real names withheld) who say there’ll be red roses for them too that night. I’m sure their readers love all this, tutting loudly, and obviously it sells newspapers.

Thai governments, as everywhere, like to respond to newsworthy social problems by being seen to be doing something, but in this case, what exactly should they do? Well, why not go to the love hotels and shame the kiddies by shining torches in their faces when they check in for the night. Yes, that was the cunning plan to preserve their morality that was dreamed up by then Minister of Social Development and Human Security, Watana Muangsook. I wasn’t sure though was who exactly was going to do the shining.

Unhappy to lose the limelight, Khun Watana soon went public again, announcing his view that women should always ‘prostrate themselves at their husband’s feet before bedtime, in line with Thai tradition.’ (The Nation, 14 November 2005.) Well, that’s a great idea too, though if this bizarre tradition ever did exist, its aim was surely the propagation of the nation. More widely observed, it’d make a hundred thousand hits a night seem small beer.

Not surprisingly, womens’ groups complained to then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, that promoting marital prostration fosters gender inequality and doesn’t answer any real problems in society. To this he curtly replied that the minister was within his rights to make suggestions on how to improve public morality among Thais.

It seems that the wider problem of under-aged sex and promiscuity among school kids has been causing many twisted knickers. It’s a topic that regularly surfaces in the press and my days have been enlivened by the pronouncements of the secretary to the Minister of Education on matters of sex education, Khun Tossaporn. A while back, The Nation quoted Tossaporn as saying that low-waist trousers and tight shirts are a risqué fashion trend which arouses sexual desire and possibly leads to sex crimes. (‘Ministry hits out at erotic trousers’, 12 February 2005.)

The Director General of the Religious Affairs Department, one Preecha, also urged girls not to wear sphagetti strap blouses and naval-revealing (sic) tops on a religious festival and feared a ‘moral recession’ among young people. (The Nation, 22 February 2005). It’s no laughing matter of course and child protection activist, Senator Wallop added to the debate by saying that ‘the government must be serious in its efforts to suppress illegal businesses and prurient enticements’. (Crisis predicted for middle class kids, The Nation, 13 February 2006.)

Another campaigner also called Wallop, then a university counselor, is quoted as regretting the ban on caning in schools, saying that in the US similar bans have resulted in rising crime rates. ‘Many students,’ he said, ‘became gangsters and killers and indulged in other anti-social behaviour. And all this because they had been raised without caning.’ (Learning Post, 4 April 2006.) Wallop by name…!

The overwhelming concern of older people in Thailand seems to be that youngsters are getting it much younger and more often than they ever did and that’s not a good thing, now is it. All this arousal! It’s not in accordance with Thai tradition anyway.

The newspapers reveal a peculiar mix of salaciousness and prudery that contrasts strongly with ordinary Thais’ easy and exuberant attitude to sex. Like everywhere of course, readers enjoy a little titillation in the papers, but publicly say they disapprove. The Nation reports a survey of readers’ attitudes to naughty stories in the papers which was conducted by a certain Professor Sukhum.

‘The headlines for stories on rape cases were found to capture readers’ attention the most,’ he reports, ‘followed by those on sexual violence, domestic violence and abortion stories. After reading the front page reports, the respondents said they thought women’s revealing outfits are the major cause of rape, pornographic media is the cause of sexual violence, mental disorder the cause of homosexuality, and immorality the cause of child dumping or abortion.’ Would that life was so simple!

In contrast, The Thai Youth Network Against Aids has had the forward thinking idea of getting students to sell condoms to each other. To remove the embarrassment of having to ask for condoms in shops, this would usefully promote safe sex, said their representative, one Wangkanok, (The Nation, 11 February 2006). However, the article cited more opposition that support for the idea. ‘It’s dangerous,’ said one childrens’ rights activist stridently.

There’s even been mention in the Bangkok newspapers of ED or erectile dysfunction, formerly known as impotence. A leading ‘sexpert’ and psychiatrist, Dr Sukamon Wipaweeponkul suggests that oral medication can be a successful remedy (Bangkok Post, 31 March 2006). However, he recommends that ‘doctors encourage ED medication for home use only’, spoil sport that he is! What should it say on the bottle then? “Not for use in Nana Plaza”?

In Isaan at least, there’s a strong tradition for early childbirth soon after puberty. In a peasant farming community, it’s inevitable that as soon as you can, you must breed the next generation. I often meet mothers here in Surin who seem little older than their children and I hear many anecdotes of early teenage marriages in my wife’s parents’ generation. There’s probably no proof, but while today’s school kids still do get pregnant all too often, this may be happening later and later. As water flows down hill, the sexually mature will have sex, but with universal education, early pregnancies should become rarer in the villages of Thailand.

Visitors to Thailand are often perplexed by the openness of commercial sex here in contrast to the modest behaviour of Thai women like Fon in my novel, “Thai Girl”. The two extremes are so very apparent.

In Thailand, it seems there’s a strand of opinion that you’re either a virgin or a whore, so that once you’ve lost your virginity, there’s no going back. As you’re now a whore, you might as well make the most of it and have a good time. Developing a modern concept of responsible and safe sex, is thus one of the challenges for Thailand, which is not helped by politicians brandishing bogus assertions of traditional moral standards.

Sexual behaviour is an important issue for government, if only as a matter of public health, but I fear that shining torches in kids’ faces is doomed to failure, just as equating abstention with public ‘morality’ is a dead duck. In any case I’m not sure that the idea of sexual purity has ever been a part of Thai thinking. The Thais have an open and natural attitude to sex, free of the guilt complexes engendered by repressive Christian teaching. Thus, if a man can support a woman he likes, then he’d better have her and others too if he can afford them. In any event, things have moved on in recent decades and the risk of fatherless babies should be minimised if governments successfully promote responsible safe sex and contraception.

My own take is that the idea of strict abstinence for unmarried women is more a Chinese than a Thai attitude. Bangkok in many respects is a Chinese city and those in government and other positions of influence retain Chinese ways of thinking. Thus a daughter must be kept pure and unsullied as in due course she will become the possession of her husband. The loss of virginity is more about property and the family’s chances of a good bride price than it is about moral purity in the Christian sense.

It’s common for Thai advocates of abstinence to blame ‘westernisation’ for the perceived moral decline and promiscuity of their young, but again this is wishful thinking. If sex is happening earlier, which isn’t necessarily true, it’s happening for the same reasons as in the West and not only because the West showed the way. Contraception makes strict abstinence unnecessary and the fragmentation of the extended family and urbanization leave people much freer to do what they like. In any event, Thai television and advertising are full of sexualized images that successfully seduce the young into early sex, without any help from the West.

Let’s face it, even if virginity in women is valued in Thailand, men here have always been allowed to do pretty much what they want. This double standard again suggests the irrelevance of ‘morality’ and that virginity in women has traditionally been important simply to avoid unwanted pregnancy and to secure a good marriage and bride price.

But nothing ever stays the same. To quote Bob Dylan, ‘the times they are a changing,’ and the Minister for Modern Morality, whoever that might now be, had ‘better start swimming or he’ll sink like a stone’. Someone should tell him that water always flows downhill and that promoting abstinence is hopeless. It’s as unrealistic as the story of the little Dutch boy who, when the floods threatened the town, was resourceful enough to stick a finger into the hole in the dyke.

Friday, 27 July 2007

'Man Bites Dog!'

If you don't like creepy crawlies, the North East of Thailand is the wrong place for you. It's absolutely swarming with them.

Most of them are benign, such as the termites that swarm at night round the lights and the black beetles that have just stripped one of our trees and which in turn were collected and fried up by Mama. But some of them are highly dangerous.

The millipedes as long as my hand can give a nasty bite, not to mention the scorpions which seem to like to come into the cool of the house. Cat trimmed this one's tail and used it as a lesson for the children. I hate even a poisonous insect being tormented and crushed but at least this one wasn't wasted. Mama was highly appreciative!

'What's a B52?'

In Bangkok, I usually stay at the Atlanta on Sukhumvit soi 2, the old hotel with the prominent sign outside saying, ‘Sex tourists not welcome’. It’s an interesting and quirky place and I invariably meet some interesting and quirky people. That’s one of the main reasons I like staying there, though there was once an American I had to shout at.

He was an ex-marine and I had to sit on his right and shout because his hearing was so damaged. He told me he’d been on the ground in Vietnam within five miles of a B52 raid and it had shattered both his nerves and his hearing. It was as if it had ruined his life.

The words shock and awe do not begin to hint at this terror the ‘free world’ has unleashed in our names from thirty thousand feet just so many times. Usually we are far removed from it all, but to meet someone who had been so close a witness to the horror and had suffered, I found profoundly disturbing.

As a child I remember seeing the first B52s, monstrous apparitions high in the peaceful heavens above a rural Gloucestershire in South West England, no doubt on training flights from their base at Brize Norton. To me even at that age they looked evil and one cannot imagine how they must have been for Indochinese children playing in the dust who knew this was for real and that they could be targets.

In the words of Baker and Pongpaichit*,‘Thailand was host to 45,000 US army and navy personnel in 1969. Three-quarters of the bomb tonnage dropped on North Vietnam and Laos in 1965-68 was flown out of seven US bases in eastern Thailand.’ The Thais should thus know all about the Indochinese wars and their impact, yet selling ‘B52’ brand mosquito nets seems to raise no eyebrows here. Nobody appears to know what the brand name refers to, even though the bombing was so close to home.

When a ceasefire was declared in Vietnam the Americans bombed Laos instead. These were neutral countries so as Kissinger so nicely put it, this was not a war, merely a sideshow. Both by American and international law, the bombing was illegal, yet Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

I’ve read many different descriptions of the bombing of tiny, poverty stricken Laos… that it’s the most bombed country in history, that more bombs were dropped there than by all sides in the Second World War, that ten tons of bombs were dropped for each and every Lao, man, woman and child.

These statistics may be exaggerations, but all I know is that when, decades later, I was in a remote village far from the nearest road in the north of Laos, a veritable Shangri-La, the place was still littered with cluster bomb casings, just lying around and used as fencing and for herb gardens.

Whatever was the bombing all for? To make friends and influence people? This small village was a remote, rural paradise presenting no threat to anyone, but I suppose that as the B52s had nothing to do, they’d better bomb the shit out of Shangri-La too.

Thailand was deeply touched by the instability caused by the Indochinese Wars and, as a frontline domino, inevitably caught up in the Cold War, another ‘war’ against an ‘…ism’. The Thais played the opportunity for all they were worth, offering military bases for burgers and their prettiest daughters for ‘R and R’. In return they got massive aid and investment, a superpower for an ally, together with militant materialism and a consumer society. It affected their politics too. In the words of the same authors, ‘In Thailand, the US underwrote dictatorship… Thailand had become a US client-state under military rule.”

The CIA had a massive presence here, providing the police with, ‘tanks, armoured cars, aircraft, helicopters, speedboats and training by 200 CIA advisers’. Yet a rice farmer can wear a CIA cap and not know what the letters mean. Mosquito nets are sold under the ‘B52’ brand name, ‘100% best quality, modern from USA’, and nobody here bats an eyelid, despite their Lao compatriots across the border being bombed to hell and back by these planes.

Why ever did somebody choose this brand name? Selling ‘Bin Laden’ trash cans in Manhattan or ‘Pol Pot’ saucepans in Phnom Penh would be almost as marketable as ‘B52’ mosquito nets in Sangkha. But perhaps only the struggle to get by really counts around here and in a place where intelligent young people don’t know who Hitler was, world politics just passes them by.

Similarly when yesterday I picked up an excellent rubber squeegee in Macro in Surin, I would have though twice about buying it had I noticed its brand name. It was‘Black Man’ no less! (See their excellent English language website, ‘Think of Cleanliness, Think of Blackman.’)

It still surprises me that in a modern country such as this, it’s not appreciated how deeply offensive this sort of thing is. It’s as if Thailand is on a different planet to everyone else or still back in an earlier era, which is strange as their world so obviously collides with all others.

When I was last in Luang Prabang, the old cultural capital of Laos, I bought in the night market a village-made movement from a hand gun. It’s a fine piece of local metal work and it still cocks and fires with an angry snap. I admire its unknown maker very much and I reflect that when the planes were overhead, unseen and probably unheard, this was what the Lao peasants had to defend themselves with. All they could do was to hide, yet when the women and children hid in the caves, the fighters slaughtered them with carefully placed rockets. I saw the caves in that particular village where so many had died.

Harold Wilson, my Prime Minister refused to commit troops to the Vietnam War, though he couldn’t actually condemn the war for fear of breaching the ‘special relationship’ with the US. Years later, Tony Blair too could have drawn some lessons from the tragedy that Vietnam suffered and it could have been highly significant had the UK refused to support the Iraq escapade. Whatever was he thinking of? I’ll never begin to understand.

* Quotations are from Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit’s excellent ‘History of Thailand’, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Truly, Madly, Mega-Frustrating!

When my girl likes the other guy, I just want to scream!

I was recently interviewed as author of my novel, “Thai Girl” for an article on Strangely the article made it into the ten most visited sites for that week, mainly I think for its sharp line in questions, one of which asked what I found frustrating about living in a small rice growing village in Thailand.

Yes, of course there are frustrations living here, but it was extraordinarily difficult to say exactly what they are and to give an answer in a nutshell. The one I came up with was that Thai culture and its version of Buddhism suggests that as everything’s impermanent and unsatisfactory, you should give up striving for worldly ends. ‘Mai pen rai’ thus expresses the national philosophy, meaning 'never mind', 'to hell with it', or 'why bother'.

This could explain the beguiling, laidback attitude of the Thais but also why nothing much ever gets done around here. Add to this the fact that it’s unacceptable to question or confront anybody, especially those in authority, and the result is a low standard of accountability and competence in just about everything they do. At least that’s what I sometimes think in one of my more grouchy moods.

For me the problem’s made worse too by my crazy western expectation that things you pay for should actually work. Secondly, because my Thai is limited, I have to get Cat to do the complaining for me and of course she’s always reluctant to be my battering ram. Thus Thailand, The Land of Charming Cock-Ups can sometimes be truly, madly, mega-frustrating.

I found it hard to explain this briefly in the interview so gave an example instead. When I had my TOT IP Star satellite internet installed at home, it simply didn’t work. Brutally I made Cat do the phoning as for me this was life or death stuff. We also spent four or five hours on the road visiting various offices where people smiled but didn’t seem to have any idea what I was talking about. Eventually somebody sent out a technician to look at it and he of course said it was fine and that we’d have no more problems.

Over a period of months, this happened four times more, including the frustration that, though we always asked them to phone before they came, they never ever did so invariably they’d arrive when I was out. Once we were staying with friends an hour away and when Mama called to say they’d arrived, we aborted our overnight visit to come back to talk it through. When we got back home at high speed to see them as agreed, they’d already gone and the connection was still dead. Was this frustrating or what?

Meanwhile, whenever they visited, Cat treated them as royalty, providing iced water and soft drinks, cut fruit and biscuits neatly arranged across the plate, none of which they ever ate.

‘You can’t keep calling us out,' one guy said. 'We’re busy you know.'

And could I persuade TOT that I shouldn't have to pay the subscription while the wretched thing was down? Oh no. It’s rude to complain, you see, and I should be grateful it works at all. Tonight it’s totally dead which is why I’m writing this on Word instead.

Now of course my tortoise internet is a lifeline which does sometimes work and our marriage has just about survived the strain. But yes, it’s been frustrating, I’ll say.

Today I’ve just had another experience that wasn’t as bad but was a consequence of a similar cultural quirk. It was also similar because it concerned my need, given that I'm isolated here from contact with my culture and language, for some sort of link to the outside world.

I have no television or radio that I can understand and cannot of course read Thai newspapers. My internet is so sluggish and usually crashes if faced with thetimesonline, that I’ve been desperate to order an English language newspaper. The Bangkok Post and The Nation are both reasonably good, with an adequate coverage of Thai news and with syndicated articles from all over the world, but the nearest copies on news stands are in Surin an hour away.

In the past I've succeeded in ordering a paper but when I went away for seven weeks to England, I cancelled my order. But no problem, the sweet Chinese lady at the concrete provisions shop in the new market by the bus station told me. I could re-order when I came back. They’re a delightful couple, all smiles whenever I picked up my Bangkok Post, so of course I went back to see them as soon as I returned a month ago.

They said to come in the next day to pick it up and they’ve been saying that to me every time I go in ever since. Still the paper hasn’t come and I’ve been adrift on an ocean of ignorance while the world's kept turning without me. I don’t think I’ve ever been exiled from reality for so long and I’ve hated it.

Of course, seeing how important the paper is to me, whenever I ask for it, how could they possibly refuse me? How could they give me the answer I don’t want to hear, so of course they again promise it'll come tomorrow.

They can see that I’m near suicidal whenever I go in, though I try not to let it show. Cat sometimes comes in with me to intercede, though she too thinks me a bit mad. Basically they say they’re worried for me and very much want to sell me the newspaper… and they’ve called the distributor who always says it’s coming tomorrow. But it never ever comes.

Weeks ago I told Cat that if they really can’t get the paper for me, we’d better tell them to give up and go to the mini-mart where I ordered it last year. It’s much nearer anyway. But no says Cat, we can’t do that because while they’re still trying to get it for me, we have to wait.

‘Graing jai,’ she says. Be considerate, think of their feelings, their loss of face if after all that work, you just storm off and don’t appreciate what they’ve done for you. This stalemate has now lasted a very long and barren month.

Finally I had it out with Cat to tell them just to forget it, with a face saving promise that a friend can buy us a copy in Surin and send it back on the minibus every day, thus not offering the contract to a competing local business.

So today anxiously I went into RK Mart, the 24 hour mini-mart and asked to order the Bangkok Post.

‘Can, can,' said the boy. 'No problem.’

‘When’ll it come?’ I ask.

‘Tomorrow, for sure. Around three o’clock,’ he said.

It was a bit like the moment I won the Nobel Prize for Literature for writing “Thai Girl”, made it to the top of Everest in a summer frock and landed on Bognor beach having swum the Atlantic. I think people in the shop were a little surprised when I leaped across the counter, took the boy in my arms and embraced him in floods of tears.

When I got home, I told Cat the whole story not without a little bitterness and frustration.

‘I’ve waited nearly four weeks while that woman fiddled about and didn’t get me the paper… I could have gone into RK Mart any time and just ordered it on the spot.’

Cat thinks I’m completely deranged.

‘Why you angry me?! I help you talk to the lady… and now you’ve got the newspaper you should be pleased! Anyway, it’s only a newspaper! You not have newspaper two weeks and you die already? It so bad, why you not die?!’

Momentarily I think of smashing the television and denying her any som tam for a month just to see how she likes it! But no I won’t, not really.

The nice man in the shop has just told me I’ll have my paper tomorrow, so everything's hunky dory. I’m really looking forward to some evenings sitting on my upstairs verandah, surveying my estate with a Sang Som and coke to hand and, luxury of luxuries, reading the Bangkok Post.

But an awful thought has just occurred to me. I haven't got the paper yet and I’m thinking back over the whole episode and hell’s teeth… that’s exactly what the nice lady always told us too.

‘Bangkok Post coming tomorrow… no problem,’ she’d always say with the sweetest of sweet Thai smiles.

Bangkok Post Script

The first day the paper did actually arrive but since then it's failed to arrive as often as it comes. One day I got two copies. That was the day the nice Chinese lady phoned Cat to tell us triumphantly that at last my Bangkok Post had arrived!

Thursday, 19 July 2007

A Child Is Born

If you go to the bottom of our land and turn right out of the tiny bamboo gate by the new wooden house, walk a few hundred yards through the sugar cane, mulberry and taro, you’ll come to a tiny house or shack in a grassy clearing. When Cat took me there today, ‘Q Papa’, the man of the house, was gutting a scrawny chicken, a special luxury. They were celebrating the birth of a child, a sister for Q and for Cake.

Q Papa is a taciturn sort of man from the south who does electrics, tiling and most other such jobs for us. He’s willing enough, though he smiles rarely and never says anything much. His wife, a local girl, is a bit taciturn too, a rare enough quality around here.

Then again when you look at their house they don’t really have very much to smile about. It amounts to no more than a few posts, a wooden floor and corrugated roof and not much in the way of walls. With these recent violent storms, they must all get pretty wet inside when it rains.

The baby was serene and admirably white, sleeping on the floor in a mosquito net and Q Mama gazed at her in pride, gaunt and exhausted as I photographed her. No doubt the child howls all night, keeping her parents permanently exhausted as well as sick with worry as to how they’ll get by.

Neither of them has any work to speak of. Q Papa could go away to Bangkok and live in isolation and squalor, sending back perhaps a thousand baht a month, but then how would Q Mama cope with the baby and the two small children of three and four on her own. Something seems to have gone wrong with their family support systems and it looks a desperate situation.

The child is exquisite with perfect, tiny feet but what will happen to her and her little family in the current crisis. What will her future bring and what sort of a life is she going to have after the start she’s just been given?

The house is surrounded by palm trees, the ducks and chickens cackle and the buffaloes gaze balefully, heads down. It’s green and lush and pretty and it’s so easy to be taken in and to see only a romantic idyll. Rural poverty can be so beguilingly beautiful, but poverty this surely is.

This Is The House That Cat Built

It’s looking pretty good, this fait accompli house presented to me courtesy of my lovely wife Cat. It really will be great for Mama and for visitors and it looks amazing, especially with its new mook or porch whose functions, in no particular order of priority, are to shelter the steps and to keep several men in work and alcohol for a few more days.

But suddenly today they’ve all stopped work on the house and instead are building a couple of wooden beds to at least A1. packing case standards. I suppose a wooden house does need wooden beds, but there’s still loads more work to be done on the house… varnishing acres of wooden floor, tiling and painting in the shower room, not to mention making windows and doors. I really want to get shot of workmen, though in our several years living here we haven’t managed to yet.

We had a heavy rain storm last night and I went down to have a quick look at the house. Water was pouring through a gap in the complex of corrugated roofing over the mook and was cascading down directly onto the precious, high status steps it was intended to protect.

I called Saniam over who’d been responsible for the work and pointed out this small technical snag to him.

‘Mai pen rai,’ he said casually. Never mind, it doesn’t matter!

And do you know he wasn’t drunk and he meant it without the slightest hint of embarrassment. It’s only a roof, you see. You can’t expect it to keep all the rain out, now can you!

It’s at moments like these that I feel that local culture really does diverge from mine. Do I understand anything that’s going on around me? Is this really The Land of Smiles or are they just laughing at us, at these deranged, bewitched, fat walleted foreigners?

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

"Why Are Thai Women So Explosive?"

An arsenal of unexploded 'Thai girls'.

Somebody has asked me why ‘Thai girls’ are so explosive. Are they really?

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 focused in Thai womanhood. It’s they who’ll fight most furiously for their families and for this strength of character as well as for their feminine qualities I salute them.

It sometimes happens that when I say "Thai girl”, people think I've said “tiger”. How apposite that is! Man eaters every one!

Thus, if William Blake had made it to Nana Plaza in Bangkok before 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 symmetry."

Tigers of course are dangerous and it’s often asserted, fairly or otherwise, that Thai women are not merely fiery, they can sometimes be positively explosive. If so, a farang thinking of taking one as his sweet little wife had better think twice. Foreign men who think they are escaping the rigours of feminism for a much softer version may find an assertive woman of a very different kind.

My expertise on whether Thai women are explosive is extremely limited, but that’s never stopped me speculating about something, so here goes, a brief and superficial dissertation on the nature and qualities of Thai womanhood.

A thesis like this one always raises a host of subsidiary questions. Isn’t it the case that in all cultures and creatures, the female of the species is deadlier than the male? Who’s to say that Thai women are any more dangerous than the rest of them. In the animal kingdom, after mating the female praying mantis is said to kill and eat the male as he’s now of no further use to her, so things could be far, far worse than an exploding Thai lady as one’s mate.

It’s a nice coincidence that the Latin for wife is uxor, while in NGO-speak, UXO means unexploded ordnance, a landmine that blows your foot off when you tread on her toes!

Another question is whether the volatility of the puying Thai is regional… for example is it more extreme in the case of women from Isaan who make up a good proportion of farang wives. Then are Chinese Thai women the same as other Thais? What are the differences between rural and urban women, the educated and the poor farmer’s daughter? And how about women from neighbouring countries? Is not a Burmese, a Malay or a Lao likely to be similar to a Thai?

Is this alleged explosivity a general characteristic of all Thai women or is it a special quality of farang wives who are a self-selecting group. These particular women are not shrinking violets but powerful personalities with get-up-and-go and the potential for self-assertion and fireworks.

If explosions are about conflict, is conflict the particular way in which Thai women handle difficulties in their relationships? Or could conflict with farang husbands be a consequence of the particular pressures of these cross-cultural relationships? The questions are endless.

Thailand draws some of it’s cultural influences from India and one thus thinks of a philosophy that accepts the hardships of life as they come and which cultivates an ascetic stoicism in the face of all adversity. Perhaps there’s an acceptance of hardship in Thailand too, until such time as it becomes intolerable. Then when there’s no place left to turn, the only option, like a Malay villager, is to run amok and to sink a parang, either of sharpened steel or hard words into the thick skull of an unfeeling husband.

The status of women in this very hierarchical society is undoubtedly low. Money is paid to a girl’s parents when she marries and her duty to her husband is to produce and raise children, to keep house, to produce and prepare food and to wait upon and pamper her man, while he most probably philanders with other women and drinks himself insensible.

A Thai wife may be expected to tolerate this situation in silence. She cannot negotiate or remonstrate with her man if she’s dissatisfied as there’s nothing for her to negotiate about. There’s no culture of husband and wife talking things through as equals. Her only option therefore, other than chopping off his chopper, a crime with a high incidence in Thailand, is to fly off the handle and make a big fuss from time to time.

At its extreme, this is a desperate step to take as it’s an admission of failure, a breach of the culture of compromise that so values harmony in personal relations. However, handled well, open conflict can be a useful tactic, a strategy that can produce results. If it proves particularly effective, it becomes habit-forming and patterns of volatile behaviour are established and taught down the generations of women.

While Thai men can be weak, much is expected of Thai women who have to learn to be strong and who, when needs be, sometimes express that strength through aggression. Modesty, passivity and subservience are a female ideal but especially in gritty rural societies, women probably learn the value of assertiveness from watching how their fathers behave. And if they’ve been beaten by Papa and they’ve seen it happen to Mama too, how can they learn more sensitive ways? Nobody has taught them to mediate a way through a potential conflict, so it seems a useful tactic to get their retaliation in first… to throw some verbal punches, just when farang Dave’s least expecting them.

If a farang’s perception of his Thai wife is that she’s moody, hot headed and unpredictable, perhaps it’s true, though maybe there are pressure points in the marriage that partially explain it. There are many tensions in Lek’s relationship with Dave, a relationship that’s rewarding but also is high risk. She has a long way to fall, and having flaunted her gold to the village, the loss of face will be traumatic when he walks out on her.

First, she has no control of the purse strings and so money can be a constant source of friction. She has an abiding fear of poverty, of slipping back to the time when she had to eat rice with salt, when Papa was always drunk and Mama always pregnant, when they were still in debt even though Papa had sold almost all his rice land, when her older brothers were not sending money home and when they then looked to her to leave home to sell herself however she could.

Her recent alliance with big, cuddly Dave is substantially an economic exchange. From the time he handed over the sinsot on their wedding day, the question of how they spend his money is an unavoidable and ever present issue. As there’s no common ground and nothing’s ever hammered out, the problem of money is a ripe source for conflict. One day somebody’s going to call him mean as sticky shit, and having built her a palatial house on her family’s land, Dave’s not going to be a happy bunny.

Then there’s the problem of language. Dave and Lek can’t understand each other properly, so things are always tense, tense, tense. There are twelve tenses in English. Present tense, but maybe future perfect… if Lek can learn enough English to communicate properly with Dave who’s never going to get beyond saying sawaddicup and cowpat ghai. Misunderstandings are endemic and so the tensions slowly accumulate.

There are many cultural differences that lead to friction as well. Dave walks into the house with his shoes on because he says the floor’s dirty. He tells her not to wash his clothes every five minutes and she calls him dirty. He can’t eat chili like the rest of the family, so she has to cook special dishes for him. And instead of politely picking his nose or spitting on the ground, he blows it with a tissue… shock horror! Farang nagliat!

Perhaps most difficult of all is that, because of the language problem, Lek is the exclusive interface between Dave and the rest of the Thai world. She has to mediate between her husband and her family’s expectations of him and inevitably she’ll offend one side or the other. No ambassador could have the diplomatic powers to deal with this intractable situation.

Thus, as Dave’s interpreter and negotiator, she has to act as intermediary in all his petty disputes with traders and workmen and with the rest of the province. The painter’s smeared paint all over the woodwork of the doors, his satellite internet’s a disaster, the top of the table he bought has dried up and split, the noise from the neighbours’ sound system is deafening and somebody in the soi has eaten the cat and he’s very upset. Lek now has to deal with all these issues while Dave stands threateningly behind her, egging her on, pushing her, willing her to get the result he’s demanding.

But no, says Lek, mai pen rai. It’s not that important. The work’s acceptable and you can’t be that fussy. You’ve just got to swallow your anger and pay up. And the noisy neighbours. Graeng jai! You’ve got to be considerate to them and shut up even when they’re being inconsiderate to you. And you can always get another cat.
But Dave’s out for blood and he’s going to make her push, push, push until he gets full satisfaction from all of them. He’s a nice guy but this time it’s a matter of principle.

‘Cannot, Dave. You farang, you talk too much!’ she says loudly. Dave dares to answer back and then she explodes, a fearful sight to behold.

‘Dave, you farang… jai rorn, jing jing. You buffalo, no good, no good!’

And let’s face it, to be fair, sometimes Dave explodes too. Lek doesn’t have a monopoly on being explosive in this particular family.

Thus, stress and provocation can cause explosions, but sometimes they are primarily a tactic, a conscious form of manipulation. The more histrionic the explosion, the more effective it’ll be for getting Lek what she wants. Keeping Dave in fear of the next display of fireworks is a handy way of making him more compliant.

When a wife keeps changing her mind about small things all the time, flies into jealous rages, is petulant and moody and is a pain in the proverbial, it can be a bigger issue. Perhaps she has serious problems and is damaged goods. In so many poor families anywhere in the world, a child has to compete with her siblings, looking after the younger ones while Mama is pregnant or out in the rice fields and gets no parental attention herself. Papa is drunk and violent or has fled the scene, so there has been no role model to show her how to behave in a marriage. Nobody has taught her what behaviour's reasonable and what is unacceptable. She just copies the way her Mama used to scream at Papa.

And one last thing, if Lek once worked in the bars, her life defined by her monthly tally of lady drinks and bar fines, who knows what experiences she might have had and what resentments she harbours against those responsible for them. Dave will never know as she’ll never tell him, nor can he ever discover how it now affects her behaviour towards him.

Marriage has never been easy and as between farang and Thai there are certainly some massive cultural incompatibilities. Nonetheless, learning about each other and coping with the difficulties is all part of the fun.

Though as I said earlier, I’ve little insight into such marital conflicts as my own Thai wife is always, always sweet and wonderful. You see, Cat never ever explodes!

Monday, 16 July 2007

That ****** Gate Again!

Back in February I wrote that when you build a house for your Thai lady you must factor in the considerable extra cost of a prison-style concrete wall around your acres of garden and of elaborate steel gates of Buckingham Palace proportions. My comments quickly degenerated into a moan about how you probably need to employ a handyman at least part-time to maintain the gates to stop them reverting to the bundle of rusty steel rods, tubes, flowers and little arrows that you first started with.

In the few months since then, numerous twiddly bits have fallen off our gates and where the snotty nosed kids stand on the bottom rail and rattle the bars, several welds have failed. The gates are so heavy they’re sagging somewhere and the steel jockey wheels that run along the concrete of the drive have excavated a bumpy track down to the granite chippings and grind and drag most horribly. The whole thing’s looking thoroughly seedy, the blue paint has faded, there are numerous chips down to bare metal and rusty water oozes out of cracks in the nether regions of the tubing.

This is of little consequence except for the fact that the left hand gate has now become a potential killer. The weld holding the lower hinge has broken away and only the upper hinge is stopping the gate from crashing down and causing much death and destruction. It really is quite dangerous and there could be a serious accident.

The gate was made by a nice cousin of Cat’s and given that normally he services motor bikes, he had a pretty good shot at it. Doing our gate must have been wonderful practice for him and I’m grateful that I was able to provide this socially-useful service for only a small bag of gold. That said, it’s a pity he didn’t have much idea about welding and then painted it with only one top coat and no primer.

Never mind, we’ve now brought in the local pro to try and make it safe. He seems competent, but it looks like he’s getting lots of advice from all the lads and geriatrics who are passing him things and generally doing what they can to help in a fine spirit of collective enterprise. It really was quite a party and plenty of fine spirit was quaffed from the several bottles of lao khao I’ve just cleared away from where they dumped them in a tidy heap by the gate. This local white rice whisky at forty percent delivers a considerable kick and always seems a essential stimulus to efficient and competent workmanship. Can you guess who pays for for all the booze?

When you employ workers on a daily rate, you’ve also got to factor in the extra cost of rendering them semi-comatose, a process which begins long before the sun is below the yard arm and long before the work is finished. With the resulting loss of productivity and the outlay, it could add to the cost of a job by fifty percent!

They’re down there now in the dark passing round a single glass with hands that are still blue and pungent with paint, rolled in the hot blanket of the night, the blood throbbing in hazy brains, as they celebrate the pleasure of joint effort and a job well done.

Well, I hope it’s a job well done! Maybe this time the gate won’t need any attention now at least for several weeks.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Can This Be True?

This was one of the ladies who I shot planting rice the other day. None of the farmers I think understood my excitement when I saw her cap.

One possible definition of true innocence must be not knowing what the CIA is.

Why Can't We Stop Building?

Today we’ve had three men working on the new wooden house in the garden and somehow I feel that we’ll never ever stop building. I thought the house was finished but what Cat says is quite correct. At the near end the roof stops directly above the verandah and as the rain blows in from that direction, the steps and a yard or two of flooring gets soaked. And as Cat says, the railings and the stairs are of ‘mai pradoo’, a top quality wood which nonetheless doesn’t take the weather particularly well. It’ll all rot out in a year or two.

‘Teerak ja, we need some sort of a mook.’ she says, smilingly. ‘Then no problem with the rain!’

I know exactly what a mook is because we had this same debacle when we were building the concrete house. We totally forgot about a porch for the front and so something had to be cobbled together as an afterthought, causing all sorts of horrific complications.

So we’re now busy building an afterthought mook for the new wooden house as well. Cat’s first idea was to extend the whole of the existing roof by a few metres to cover the steps, but then foolishly I came up with an idea to do something a bit more interesting. Why not have a smaller gable that covers just the steps and verandah but not the old rice barn? It’ll look much prettier. I did a sketch plan and all was quickly agreed by Cat’s brother, Saniam, who was leading the work.

Saniam then worked out what wood we’d need and ordered it from a nearby village. The wood arrived in the dead of night and was noisily stowed away behind the house. Though we were at risk of jail for handling bootleg timber and would only be safe when it was safely nailed to the realty, the next day he failed to turn up for work. As usual we were left waiting and wondering.

Eventually after a day or two, we at last had a team of Saniam and two others on the job and things got started in earnest. The only trouble was that suddenly they announced that they couldn’t do it as per my drawing. It just wouldn’t work for some reason. So we spent a few hours chewing the fat, drawing and redrawing and getting nowhere. As the resident farang and banker, all I could do was stand in the sun in thirty six degrees and listen uncomprehendingly to the debate, occasionally trying to get Cat’s attention to make an anguished point or two.

Finally a plan was agreed upon and holes were immediately dug for the two supporting posts. Things proceeded apace and it was looking good, a sort of Roman portico across much of the front of our dear little shanty. But then Saniam again said we couldn’t do it that way because the left slope of the roof would block the doorway into the old rice barn, and especially with the gutter in place, you’d have to duck down to walk along the walkway in front of the barn.

They were all most solicitous that the tall farang might hit his head, though I didn’t care a damn. I just wanted it all finished and for me and my fragile bank account to be left in peace.

Round and round in circles we went, getting nowhere fast. Eventually I was losing interest and about to give up in disgust when Saniam said he had an idea. I was too hot to follow what he said but when I came back after an hour or two, he’d already done the timber work for an extra slope of roof coming off the rice barn allowing the farang to enter the barn without having to bow his head at all. It was a bit fiddly and complicated and not particularly beautiful but that’s just a consequence of a committee of rice farmers, obstructed by me, cobbling it together on the hoof.

Next thing, I had the silly idea of hanging some decorative woodwork on the bargeboards of the porch’s gable end. Cat liked the idea so we got in the pickup and went off and bought a load of materials, including the blue corrugated iron we needed for the roof. It was a good morning’s work except that as the two sides of the roof turned out to be of different lengths, we had to go back and buy some more corrugated sheets for the longer side.

On getting back to the house, I discovered that Cat and I were at cross purposes as to where we were going to hang the decorative woodwork. She wanted it across the horizontal gable beam and not on the bargeboard. This debate then took an hour or two, which ultimately she won.

Then we had to decide whether they should be hung on the back or the front of the beam. Sitting on the grass, now in the shade as the sun had gone round to the west, we contemplated the samples the men had hung for us, while Bpirt’s electric plane screamed blue murder. That took at least another half hour.

The next debate was as to the colour of the fascia boards to be hung under the eaves… maroon to match the house was decided upon, or so I thought. The next day when we got back from the builders’ merchants, I discovered we’d got cream in the back of the pickup!

‘Tell them not to put those up, Cat. They’ll look awful,’ I insisted and she fully agreed. When I came down again a few hours later, sure enough the cream boards were nailed in place under the eaves.

Now I’m knacked and if I have the choice, I’ll never ever build anything again in my life. But probably I won’t… have the choice I mean!

Tomorrow we’re having a day off and we’ve told the workers not to come in. We’re going to our friends’ divorce party.

It’s a farang and his Thai wife who’ve quite recently finished building a great big house, with another one in the garden for Mama. He’s had enough of this world and he’s decided it’d be better to stop home making and to go off and become a monk instead. I must get him to give me the address of the monastery!

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Whither the Rice Harvest?

The ideal way to cultivate rice, from ploughing, to raising seedlings in a nursery bed and then planting each one by hand in the flooded field.

About the time I flew back to England at the end of April the first rains had already fallen, precious drops falling onto the parched ground and giving off the rich smell of hot earth. Cat told me over the phone that unusually the rain was continuing and after a week or two that the farmers were preparing the soil and planting the rice. I was surprised as this seemed earlier than usual and with no guarantee that the rains would continue. A resumption of the hot, dry weather would surely burn the young shoots.

It’s now early July and the rice crop is not looking good at all. Most of the rice land has been planted but much of the rice looks yellow and thin and very little of it is in the standing water that’s necessary for robust growth. Rather than seedlings being pre-germinated and individually planted in the flooded paddy field in the usual backbreaking way, it looks as if most farmers have broadcast the seed rice directly onto the earth. When the ground is relatively dry like this year, the only option is to broadcast the seed, a method that saves time but produces a smaller yield.

In a few places with a high water table the fields are flooded and there’s an example of this at the end of our soi where a pond has recently been filled in. A farmer and his wife have just been ploughing it with their ‘iron buffalo’, the two wheeled tractor that does such good service in this part of the world, before they plant out the rice. This they’ll do in the optimal way by first germinating the seeds in nursery beds. When the seedlings are about a foot high, they gather them in bundles and take them to the flooded fields. There the farmers, often women, wade bare foot in the mud, bent double planting each seedling individually in rows, growing conditions which produce a much better yield.

In the last few weeks there have been some dramatic storms and the sky has darkened, the low clouds streaming by on the squall, dumping cold stair rods of rain on us for a few minutes but then in all their sound and fury fast moving on. What’s now needed is the long grey days of continuous rain that we’ll probably get in August when my daughter and son-in-law come out to stay for a couple of weeks. We’re going for a trip to Southern Laos and while I hope we don’t get washed away, I do still worry for the rice harvest.

Cat simply says that the world is changing. New weather patterns may thus mean that rice production in this dry region becomes even less viable than it already is. Yet you wouldn’t think so when at the rice harvest later in the year all the farmers come streaming in to the rice depots to sell their crop. The trucks, pickups and iron buffaloes are lined up for miles and they sometimes wait for days for theirs to be sold. It seems sad that after all that work they’re so desperate to pay off some of their crippling loans that they can’t wait a few months for a better price.

I’m sure the devil runs rice farms in hell as torment for the wicked and in purgatory too. Rice farming really is a tough life and I wonder what the future is for our North Eastern Thai village where rice cultivation ceased to be a viable way of life at least a generation ago.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Traffic Jam Tomorrow!

Traffic, Aberdeen harbour, Hong Kong, a few years back.

It seems that nowadays anyone and everyone blogs… John does and Joe blogs too. So I think I must be one of the last to take up this new perversion and I’ve still got a lot to learn about all its log ins and outs.

Every writer wants his stuff to be read and in blogging terms that means maximizing the hits on your site and generating more ‘traffic’. Trouble is I’ve no idea how to achieve this. Can anyone tell me what I should do? What’s an RSS feed for example?

I’m fascinated though by my site meter which tells me I’m getting well in excess of a hundred hits a day. There’s even a world map decorated with pin pricks of light which tells me where all my readers are, the bulk of them being in Europe and America which is not surprising, while only a minority are in Thailand.

Most fascinating of all is that if I click on ‘referrals’, my ever helpful site meter tells me exactly how my readers found my blog. Some come from other sites that link to me, such as, the site for my novel, ‘Thai Girl’, but the majority arrive via Google and Yahoo searches. What’s so magic is that I can click on any referral in the list and call up their actual search, including the key words searched and the full search result. Usually somewhere at the top of the sites displayed among the millions is my very own That way I can see exactly how they found my blog.

Admittedly the term ‘Thai girl’ is sometimes relevant to their searches and as I’ve written ‘of beavers and butterflies’, about ‘when the earth was virgin and bountiful’, about how ‘my laptop was fingered in Pantip Plaza,’ and that ‘my Thai pussy cat is in fact a tiger,’ some of those drawn to my blog might have left a little disappointed. On the other hand, most searchers are looking for something quite serious or literary and stumble upon me by pure serendipity.

Some of the searches that found my blog have been questions, for example…
- What is in the life of the rice fields?
- What are Isuzu D-Max prices in Bangkok like?
- Should I buy a house for my teerak? And,
- How do you get the fog from a cold drink out of the inside of a Toshiba laptop screen?

I don’t think they always found the answers, though I hope the ‘exotic adventures of a literary sexagenarian’ proved to be a good read. If any of the actually read it, that is.

One such person did read my site though. He then emailed to tell me he’d Googled ‘mango trees Thailand’ as his wife wanted to plant a mango orchard and the search turned up my story, ‘There Go the Mango Trees’. He’d enjoyed reading the blogs and now wanted to find a copy of my novel, “Thai Girl”. What a nice guy he was!

Bizarrely, somebody else Googled, ‘amazing similies’, and hit on my comment, ‘Amazing Thailand! It truly is the Land of Similies!’ Google searches for ‘Delhi girls expats’ and ‘expatriate life Nigeria’ found me too, and there’ve been some even odder ones…
- Thai boxing girl blog.
- Urban allergies,
- Glossy Pantip label,
- You are my special island song,
- Street fight girl gets hit with a bottle,
- Unbearable lightness of being Thai language,
- Say rat in Thai.

If these folks are so easily distracted by my site, they must be terminally bored or else lack concentration. It seems odd that while doing some internet research, of the millions of sites that pop up on their searches, they then find time to open my modest blogspot. Why?

Are they lost souls? Should some of them, you even, thus be regarded as objects of my sympathy? Have I added a little joy to their day, to the sum of human happiness even… or did they find me thoroughly irritating? I have absolutely no idea.

A time long ago my life was kidnapped and I was chained to a desk in a law firm for several bleak years, never seeing the light of day. I remember the time sheets on which I had to account for my every six minutes so that my time could be charged out to clients at the usual outrageous rate. In those days we had a new gizmo called a ‘fax’, guarded in the basement along with Charles Dickens’ divorce papers by a she-dragon called Mrs Peed.

The internet was still far off then, but had I as a solicitor been able to Google , ‘Nigerian law of hire-purchase’, the blog, would have appeared right at the top of my search. If so I’d surely have allowed myself to drift away for several billable hours on the whimsical bloggery of a deranged, expat sexagenarian from Thailand. I might have hit lucky and been sacked for doing so, though more likely I’d have charged the wasted time to one of my files. Putting their depressive solicitor in a better mood is surely a useful objective for any commercial client.

Sadly, as I remained too long in that job, I now wonder if perhaps I should launch a mission to present my blog to the tormented souls still toiling at desks who long for a breath of fresh air, a whiff of Thai drains and durian even, during the long, arid watch of their working day. If I planted some arbitrary key words on my blog, perhaps I could entrap them when Google finds my blogspot, and perhaps enliven their day.

Thus if I now type Goldman Sachs or Ernst & Young, IPO or auditors’ liability, do you think some sad City man might stumble into my den and perhaps stay awhile? Could I subvert him into wasting time and reading a few paragraphs of my self-indulgent world? Should I seed my blog with verbal bait to get myself served up as innocent 'R and R' in chance Google searches?

For the doctors, I think I’d have to mention myocardial infarction, infectious mononucleosis, MRI, ICU and osteoporosis. Laparoscopy, lithotripsy, hysterectomy and hemorrhoids, if I can spell them. Barbaric, hyperbaric, BCG, CAT and CT, in-growing toenails and housemaid’s knee. Harold Shipman, Dr.Terror, BMJ and BMA should trap a few.

For the lawyer in his garret, I can offer the Companies Act 2006, Hicks and Goo, (yes, why not Google Goo!), enlightened shareholder value, Registrar of Companies, disclosure, dividends, directors, derivative claims, financial assistance, Foss v Harbottle, written resolutions, quoted company, computerized billing, collective madness. All my trials lord, soon be over!

Accountants are surely in need of roll-over relief and distraction too. Let’s try independent valuation of non-cash consideration, audit exemption, share premium account, capital allowances, discounted cash flow valuation, accounting reference periods, EEA group accounts, operating and financial review, corporate governance, Cadbury, Greenbury and Myners, and death creeping slowly up behind you, with no allowance for depreciation.

I’m sure the faddists would love ‘Thai Girl’ too, so I’ll seduce them with sustainability, organic food and orgasmic food, fast food and slow food, McDonalds and Kentucky Fried, pesticides, hormones, fertilizer and anti-biotics… yum! Global warming, carbon dioxide, shrinking ice cap, Dutch cap. Kyoto, Live Earth, AC/DC, Kevin Wall, Berlin Wall, Al Gore, algorithm, blood and gore, Gore and Bush, bore and gush. Adopt a whale, hug a tree, read ‘Thai Girl’ and die.

Ecstasy, Viagra, excrement, Niagara, beri beri and pellagra. Vitamin C. Senokots. Evening primrose oil. Sperm whale juice. Irritable bowel syndrome, colonic irrigation. Homeopath, telepathy, Home Office pathologist, pathological liar, psychopath, gender reassignment, fender bender, gay rights and wrongs. It’s the same old song. Stream of semi-consciousness, Dublin and rejoice. But now I digress too far!

Then there’s oceans of attractive initials that must often get Googled. There’s RSJ and RSI, CFS and DDT, PTSD, VD and STD. Subscriber trunk dialing or sexually transmitted disease. EU, ET, ED… European Union, extra terrestrial, erectile disfunction. I can list so many ‘e’s, from A to Z.

There’s the Environment Agency, the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, electrical engineering and exempli gratia for example. El Nino, environmental management, La Vie En Rose. Emotional quotient, Elizabeth Regina, exposure values, your ‘ex’ (the former trouble and strife). Oh to be Ernst & Young again, finally to sleep easily, perchance to dream that they’ll hit my blog and tarry awhile. Yes, I could go on ad nauseam.

But do you think I should really be doing all this? Would these key words actually find me and enliven somebody’s day or is this just a pipe dream? Will it make me a little merit in the next life? Or will the one true scorer already know about blogging and suss out that I’m just trying to get more traffic for my blog? Another red tick perhaps on the debit side of my eternal balance sheet?

I’m now going to watch the referrals on my site meter to see if my cunning plan works and I’ll let you know what happens later on. As to whether I get the thumbs down on judgment day, I hope you’re going to have to wait a little bit longer!

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Music For a Monk

In the middle of the day we dedicated the new wooden house, I was feeling a bit ragged after my early start and was only wanting to hide awhile and play the ‘new’ Nick Drake album, ‘Family Tree' his sister Gabrielle had just sent me. But I was drowned out by some extremely loud music in the next soi. At first it came from the west, but I soon realized it was moving and so must be part of a procession. Giving up on Nick Drake, I got on my bicycle and went out to see what was happening.

The procession or mob more like was coming up the soi at the back of our house, so I turned left to meet it head on. I’m well past culture shock in these parts but it was more than a bit intimidating coming head to head with and confronting a noisy mob of young drunks, shouting their heads of, baying at the farang as if he were a green faced creature from Mars. In the narrow land, I was soon engulfed by them, juggling my bicycle and trying to take some photos at the same time.

It was soon pretty apparent what the procession was all about… it was the sacred and the profane. Sitting up on top of a slow moving pickup, his head shaven and in priestly robes sat an androgynous young man on his way to the temple to be inducted as a monk. It has long been the tradition in Thailand for all young men to become monks, even for a month or two, either as a planned event or perhaps on the death of a parent, and it’s yet another excuse for a big party.

Here he now was, cool and serene amidst the loud music coming from the huge speakers and generator following him in the next pickup, ignoring the raucous mob that surrounded the procession.

Nobody could accuse this celebration of religiosity or of being boring, but as so often in Thailand the contrasts were stark. This was a religious display as serious as anywhere else and deeply imbued in the local culture, but equally it had to be sanuk, noisy and irrepressible fun. And fun it certainly was, such fun that I was almost scared… but then I was probably the only one who was stone cold sober.

I was glad to get out to see it, but equally relieved to be back to the house to listen to Nick Drake whose new album issued more than thirty years after his death couldn’t have been more different. (See

Friday, 6 July 2007

My New Cleaning Weapon from Gemany

As an afficionado of the mal apropos, especially in relation to businesses such as the above, I have to share with you the follwing. As my 'Black Man' brand mop is worn out, I bought a new squeezy style mop at Big C in Surin yesterday. I was thrilled when I examined the label.

It's a Panasional brand mop this time, which claims to be a 'cleaning weapon super absorb water raw material is coming from Gemany. This Germany sponge features don't need sunburn.'

Well, that's good, I guess. It's worth the ninety baht in laughs, at least!

And Cat bought a new tee shirt, the brand name being, 'QR Updated Ladies'. Nice one, Big C!

Monday, 2 July 2007

Dedicating Our Wooden House - Part II

It’s now early morning on the day of the ritual to inaugurate our new wooden house and all is activity. There are legions of ladies preparing food on the big bamboo tables and people everywhere milling around and chatting. There’s as many children as adults, always playing happily, which adds to that special rural sense of family and regeneration.

There’s a big crisis on hand though because Q, the young lad who’s been doing some of the carpentry, block work, tiling and electrics, a typical Jack of all trades, has just switched off the power to both houses and is striding from house to house, looking tight lipped and grim. He’s just discovered something drastic along the loose white cable that runs power down the boundary fence to the new wooden house. I now belatedly remember to tell Cat about the bolt of lightning in the dead of night that must have been not God’s but our electrics shorting out. She looks at me as if I’m mad.

‘Why you not tell me this before,’ she says, but like all such little local difficulties, the problem’s soon resolved and the power is on again with no fatalities recorded.

Cat now tells me that things are about to start in earnest and there’s already a small knot of oldies milling around the bottom of the stairs of the new wooden house. There’s Cat’s Mum, an old aunt, an even older uncle and Cat’s brother, Saniam, looking rather distinguished in the spectacles I bought for him at the one pound shop in Aberayron last summer. And of course there’s Cat’s great uncle who’s as old as the hills.

I wrote about this old man earlier, under the title, ‘There Go the Mango Trees!’, about this great uncle of Cat’s and how he must have been one of the pioneers who’d first settled in this area when all was still dense forest. In conflict with tigers and elephants, they’d cut back the forests to extend the rice frontier, and moved mountains, leveling the ground to form the rice fields with nothing more than hand tools. Ploughing with buffaloes, threshing and milling by hand and perhaps too poor to afford an ox cart, everything had to be done by hard manual labour. I can hardly imagine the heroic scale of such toil, all in harsh conditions of drought and flood, without the assistance of modern medicines and accompanied by a lifetime of constant pregnancies. Despite this tough life, he and his wife have now survived well into their eighties.

Life here was inconceivably hard, though at least in those days the earth was virgin and bountiful and there were forests in which to collect roots and berries, where pigs could root and timber be felled. If you had the need and the energy, more fields could be carved from the forest to increase your yields for a growing family. Then came the gradual shift from the steady equilibrium of subsistence farming to a modern cash economy, accompanied at the same time by an ever-increasing population. Now the forests are gone and every scrap of land is exploited to raise surplus rice for sale, to grow cassava and more recently rubber and sugar cane for sale into tough international markets.

Timber is no longer free and it’s an offence to cut even your own trees, rice land is surprisingly expensive despite its low profitability, the land is generally over-used and degraded and as infant mortality falls, agriculture can no longer support the increasing rural population. With increasing costs for new needs such as education and with rising expectations, the young and strong leave the villages to look for work, leaving the babies with Mama Papa and sending home their pathetically small savings. Perhaps the prettiest daughters too end up in perilous places such as Patpong, Pattaya and Patong seeking a way out of poverty. Meawhile, Thai television stirs a craving for consumer baubles and easy credit on punitive terms allows instant gratification with new TVs, a fridge, a Honda Dream motorcycle, or even a new Nissan pickup that the poorest can drive away against a tiny deposit and Papa’s guarantee.

I digress too far, though seeing this old man, so innocent in his simplicity, again reminds me just how much has moved on in Thailand during the eight or more decades of his life.

He now sits on the matting with the others at the bottom of the stairs of the new house, always silent, gazing around with innocent eyes that hardly comprehend all the change around him and smile out of his wizened, pixie face. In the middle of the group a severed pig’s head stares upwards with yellow candles lit and burning in its nostrils, next to it an offering of yellow flowers, candles, joss sticks and paper money placed on some bolts of local hand-woven fabric.

There then begins a low-key ritual in which the offering is symbolically passed between the men, accompanied by utterances that I cannot even begin to understand. As in all these ceremonies, such as for births, marriages and community events, there then follows the tying of saffron strings around the posts of the stairs and, to low chantings, the tying of strings round each others’ wrists. I always value this ‘baisri sukwan’ ceremony of the threads as it so evocatively suggests welcome, unity, closeness and community, and as I type they are still around my wrists as a reminder.

The pigs head is always there at these events too, though if I asked its exact significance, I’m sure the folk around me would be hard put to explain. That’s just how it is, they’d say; it’s what we’ve always done; it’s what you have to do. I can only assume that it represents an offering to the spirits of worldly fullness and wealth.

The local belief is that by building the house, we have intruded upon and disturbed the spirits of the place, the phi thii, and we must propitiate them with offerings so that our stay in the house is not an unhappy one. Cat too has made a small spirit house and this will be set up nearby for the spirits to reside in and where offerings will be made to them, lest they’re enticed into our new house and cause us trouble. It strikes me that today’s rituals are quite elaborate but not so different to house warmings and blessings of new homes in other cultures, and in the Christian church we even have formal exorcisms when a house is thought to be inhabited by unhappy spirits.

Meanwhile, back at the new wooden house it’s now the turn of the mortals, so we all gather on the big verandah where mats have been spread and a feast awaits. All the close relations are there to enjoy apparently unlimited quantities of food, soft drinks and of course alcohol. It’s a very special atmosphere, of aunties and elders and excited children, bright eyed and energetic, but so well behaved. The only shadow I can think of is the near total absence of the middle generation. They’re away in the cities, far from their rural roots so that parents and babies can survive.

Eventually, in a mellow alcoholic haze, the party begins to break up, though it’s still not yet ten in the morning. They all drift off home carrying ‘doggie bags’ of rich curries and foods that Cat has filled for them and that’ll keep them full for the next day or so, a tradition of giving that again seems universal at such events.

Yes, it’s still only morning and though the main even is finished, it’s never over until the slim lady sings. Tonight we’ll have more food and of course, karaoke, another well-established Thai tradition. All day long people come and go, and by evening the verandah is again full of people. The show and yet more serious eating has to go on, as always, the alcohol flowing freely.

The karaoke they like is the usual Thai popular music, though Cat allows me a guest appearance singing some bootleg Beatles numbers on our only karaoke CD that still seems to work. I particularly enjoyed the quirky track, “Come Together” whose lyrical double entendres really hit you between the eyes when you see them up in lights on the screen.

“Jojo was a man who thought she was a woman but she was another man!” It’s a raunchy story about an American transsexual and I’m happy that nobody could understand it.

Yes, karaoke is established as if an old Thai tradition. A few months back, Cat and I were summoned to an event at the village school to receive their thanks for a television that I didn’t know we’d given them recently. A local lady politician had also presented them with five new computers in strategic advance of a forthcoming election, and she was there too as the star attraction.

Anyway, after various speeches in front of all the kids in the school and perhaps a hundred adults and, after all donors had been hauled up onto the stage to be photographed and presented with nicely-printed certificates of thanks, the principal donors like me then had to sing karaoke. And no, I couldn’t refuse because karaoke is a compulsory part of social bonding, especially as I am a prime exhibit, namely the village’s resident farang. So I had to do it and join in graciously. To be mai sanuk, to be ‘un-fun’ is social death, a definite no-no. I, and particularly Cat, would never live it down.

The charming lady politician could hardly wait to get hold of the microphone and she took to the stage, a hard act to follow, but I was now suffering an attack of reticence and amnesia and couldn’t for the life of me remember what song I could sing.

‘Bee Gees, Bee Gees,’ hisses Cat at me, looking distinctly anxious… which is what she always calls the Beatles. Yes, Beatles is a good idea, but there are so many tracks! We scan the digital list of songs together and the first we hit upon is, “Get Back”. But do I know it and can I sing it? I’ll soon find out when I’m up there facing the music! My mouth is dry as I look down at a sea of upturned, angelic faces, white knuckles clutching at the microphone. I know they won’t boo me off but if I blow it, there’ll be a nasty silence followed by embarrassed laughter which’ll be even worse.

The music erupts and I’m trying to read the words. ‘Jojo was a man who thought he was a woman…’

I’d never sung this before, but thank goodness I do half know it and I belt it out happily. I then grasp that what I’m now singing to these little souls in front of me is all about a homosexual from Tucson, Arizona who heads for the bright lights and sells himself as a rent boy. ‘Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged! Get back Jojo!’

How can this be happening! Experiences such as this that Thailand throws at me are often bizarre, transcending the surreal! When I later sang it at our house warming party, I smiled as I’d memorably sung it before.

Four years ago we built a beautiful reinforced concrete house on land I’d bought for Cat in her village and now while I’ve been away in the UK for a few weeks, she’s built this sort of wooden summer house and ‘museum’ down the garden. At last the picture’s becoming clearer and I think that really it’s a place for her Mama and Nan to live in, so that we’re not living on top of each other in our concrete house. It’s a great idea really and it’ll just emerge like the rest of my life, coming out in the wash with everything else from day to day. You’ve just got to go with the flow, I remind myself and don’t ask too many questions.

The main complaint from Thai wives is usually that their farang talk too much, so I always try to keep my questions to Cat well below the necessary minimum. Does it matter very much if, like the old man, I don’t really understand everything that’s going on around me?

Today there’s still more work to be done on the shower room, but as the spirits have now been taken care of, Mama and Nan moved into one of the three small bedrooms in the new house as soon as they could. Most importantly brother Saniam has set up a shelf in the corner of the room for the TV, so they’re well and truly installed. There’s plenty of work on hand, unraveling the chaos of plates and pans and plastic that are scattered everywhere after the party and there’s absolutely no risk of getting bored.

Cat’s dead tired after two months of planning and building so now perhaps we can get our lives back to normal… which is what I always say as we put the final touches to her latest project. And I never dare ask about the next one!