Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Thai Tourism? - Shot in the Foot!

White Sands, Koh Chang less than two years ago.

Bamboo huts - a travellers' paradise lost.

And today... recognise the far tree from the first picture?

Room for a sexagenarian to swing his hammock.

The same spot last year, the huts all gone.

My coconut trees encased in concrete.

KC Grande resort from above. Nicely done but far too big.

Well padded holiday makers from another world.

We’ve just got back to our Surin village after a short holiday on the island of Koh Chang which gives me the chance to go on a bit about the current state of Thai tourism.

The village is a good place to avoid Christmas so we’re home again after a nine hour drive. The worst bit about leaving the island was saying goodbye to my daughter Anna and son-in-law Will who’d met up with us there for a short winter holiday.

They’ve visited us many times in Thailand but this time it wasn’t exactly easy for them. First of all it proved almost impossible to book a hotel from London as the Koh Chang resorts repeatedly told the booking agencies they were full and had no rooms. Finally they ended up staying at the new 160 room KC Grande Resort on White Sands Beach which proved to be almost empty of visitors.

The holiday was a cliff hanger too and they nearly cancelled when a mob of political demonstrators invaded and closed Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport a few weeks before. Then at the last moment the protests came to an end and they were finally able to fly.

Thai tourism now looks pretty sick after this and it desperately needs a shot in the arm. With recession engulfing the world, long haul travel is an unnecessary luxury, added to which the strong baht now makes holidays here much more expensive. While I’ve been used to around 70 baht to the pound in the last few years, Thomas Cook in Petersfield gave Anna and Will only fourty four baht to the pound. Our pizzas on White Sands Beach were excellent but they now cost no less than in Europe.

Instead of getting a shot in the arm though, Thai tourism has been repeatedly shot in the foot. The Thai military which controls airport security allowed ‘The Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy’, a well organized anti-democratic rent-a-mob to take over the airport which was closed for many days, trapping 350,000 foreign tourists in Thailand and causing many more inward cancellations.

Nothing could be worse for the reputation of Thai tourism than this debacle. While the tsunami was far more catastrophic in human terms, it only affected one small part of the country.

As if these disasters are not enough!

One of the great advantages of visiting Thailand is the visa waiver that many nationals enjoy on arrival…you get an immediate thirty day stamp at immigration which is a big incentive to easy travel. But now they’ve changed the rules yet again. If you arrive overland you’ll now only be given a fifteen day stay.

Bang, bang, the message is clear. We don’t want so many travelers here… go to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos instead. They’re far more welcoming.

Koh Chang profited after the tsunami as it’s safe from risk within the Gulf of Thailand. It also welcomed many backpackers, being well placed on the overland route to Cambodia, but in the last few years I’ve seen the character of White Sands Beach change from a sleepy traveller’s town to a resort attracting older tourists for short holidays in the sun.

When Ben the protagonist of my novel, “Thai Girl” stayed on this beach in 2001 he predicted an ecological disaster and he was dead right. Bang, bang, they’ve turned the west side of the island into the usual grubby shambles of tacky stalls and huts spread out for mile after mile in headlong pursuit of the tourist dollar. Thailand is incapable of controlling informal development even here on the fringes of a national park and they’ve destroyed much of the natural environment that is the chief attraction for many visitors. The sea and mountains are still there but much has been lost in a short time even as boom turns to bust.

A few years ago the Thaksin government proposed reserving Koh Chang for up market tourism, a good idea so long as the rest of the island isn’t ruined by low grade developments. In that light the recent expansion of Anna and Will’s KC Grande resort could be justified but I’m sad at what’s been lost in the process.

In my recent book, “My Thai Girl and I”, I describe how we stayed in one of the old bamboo huts at KC Grande for my sixtieth birthday and I’m still not yet sixty two. The next time we visited Koh Chang the huts had all gone and construction of the new resort was well under way. Now it’s open for business though some of the bar areas are still not quite complete. Thai-Chinese owned and partly financed by Swedish interests promoting package tourism, I’m told, it has been planned and finished to a very high standard indeed.

I wish them well and hope that their enterprise brings employment and benefit to ordinary people here, but I also wish the resort wasn’t so big and that it hadn’t replaced my bamboo huts with steel and concrete and the brutal sea wall that now blights the beach front. The coconut trees from which I used to sling my hammock have either been chopped down or embedded in concrete.

The resort has opened at a terrible time. Christmas and New Year season will be busy but who knows what will happen after that. Thai tourism really doesn’t need any more shocks.

I’m unable to verify the story but this is what I’ve just been told by a usually reliable source. In Thailand the foreshore is vested in the Crown and is controlled by the military for strategic reasons. On Koh Chang the generals have been rattling sabres saying that the beach resort developments are illegal and that they must all be closed and cleared away. Meetings are now being held and heavy negotiations are in progress.

So does this mean, bang bang, that tourism on Koh Chang will be decimated or that all resorts will be moved back from the beach?

Well, no actually… this is Thailand, where nothing is ever what it seems.

In Buddhist terms all of human striving is illusory, impermanent and unsatisfactory. Three prime ministers in three months isn’t bad going but the new cabinet ministers are wearing impressive white uniforms and keep smiling benignly. Next year the visa rules will change again and the beaches on Koh Chang will look much the same as they do today. The pace of development will slow a little because of recession but we’ll never know what was resolved with the military, though we may well speculate.

The losers from the tourist recession will as always be the little people… the ones selling tee shirts from a tiny stall on the street, the cooks and cleaners who’ll lose their jobs, but’s that’s just how it always is.

Koh Chang is still wonderful though. After we’ve done what we have to do here in the village, we’re planning to head back there for the New Year. A round trip’s only fifteen hours driving after all and as an added bonus the ferry service is the best in the world.

Where else do they charge only a few dollars a head while the car goes on for free?

Andrew Hicks The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog December 2008

Friday, 12 December 2008

Do They Know It's Christmas?

Scouts and Guides day at our village school.

The teachers seem dedicated to the welfare of the children.

The classes are small and there's a great atmosphere.

Presenting the school with books and a climbing frame.

The kids are angelic, at least when I'm around.

They just love parties and performances.

The kung fu routine was amazingly good.

The lady who cooks the lunches.

The communal hall where they eat their lunch.

The lunches we've been providing for them.

What would I really like for Christmas? It's hard to say as I have all I need.

That can't be said of all the kids in our village though as many of the families are really very poor. It's not poverty exactly because this is a rich and supportive community but they are desperately short of money. In particular, sending your children to school, feeding and clothing them is a constant drain.

The village school is a delightful place simply because of the teachers and children that are there. The buildings are just about falling down and budgets are extremely tight so I and a very generous Japanese friend have been trying to help out.

All our efforts are described on which so far has provided books, playground equipment and most importantly lunches.

A high proportion of the children are below the correct weight stipulated by the Thai Ministry so we have been providing them with good lunches of meat, vegetable and fruit, food of a proper standard that Cat told me they will never have had before. How can they do their school work if they are hungry and poorly nourished?

But now we've run out of money and there will be no more lunches.

For the 95 children in the school it costs about a thousand baht a day to feed them and we have 3,000 baht in the bank account. We had ambitions to raise money in Japan but times are not good and it just hasn't happened. Every single baht is used to pay for the food as there are absolutely no overheads.

So this Christmas I can think of no present I'd like more than to see our lunch programme continue and the children to have the proper lunch they need at school every day.

(I can be contacted on Having just got back from the book launch in Bangkok a few days ago and today packing up to go and meet my daughter and son-in-law who are flying out for a holiday, I meant to write a much longer piece than this. I'm taking my laptop and might yet manage to post more info about it from an internet cafe.)

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Naked Launch!

Legs on the Skytrain.

Boom... the one that made it in time.

And bust... fallout from the crisis of 1997.

Wat Arun in the evening.

Life goes on as usual in the side streets.

The tiger that didn't get away.

Temporary buildings are cleared away after the Royal cremation.

Khao San Road busy if not exactly humming.

I arrived back in the village from my book launch in Bangkok at 3.00 am this morning and with Cat at college for the day the house seems pretty quiet, especially after the excitement of the last few days.

I’m relieved and happy to say that the book launch at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand of MY THAI GIRL AND I went pretty well. The room was full, they laughed at my readings and jokes and my wrist became sore from signing books. And I can even say that I enjoyed it.

I’m always nervous before a thing like this as presenting one’s creative efforts to a discerning audience takes a lot of nerve. It was especially so this time as I’ve done what I never before thought I’d do and that’s to write about myself; about Cat and me. I’d exposed myself publicly to personal scrutiny and I felt naked and vulnerable standing there before so large an audience as I began my talk.

It’s one thing to know that copies of the book are being dissected by critics in the Solomons and The British Virgin Island, as I know there to be. It’s quite another to face up to my readers in the flesh and to have to deal with their sometimes searching questions.

Anyway I bluffed my way through the evening and I think got away with it. I read them my local version of the Little Red Hen story (page 133) in which the little red hen ends up in a bar in Pattaya and then one of my more cynical chapters called, “You Can Score on Route 24”, and it all seemed to go down pretty well. What with the excellent food and service at the FCCT, I think the evening was enjoyed by everyone.

My being in Bangkok also gave me the chance to survey the state of the nation as I took a trip the next day around some of my favourite city sights. Sukhumvit had already struck me as being unusually quiet with bars and restaurants unusually empty for the beginning of high season but would I see any other fallout from the recent political and economic turmoil that has recently hit Bangkok?

From The Atlanta on soi 2, I took the Skytrain down to the river where I was strongly reminded of the Asian financial crisis of 1997 on seeing the derelict condominium development just downstream of Saphan Thaksin station. Its construction came to a halt when the Thai economy went into free fall and it still stands uncompleted, a gaunt skeleton starkly reminding of the fragility of commercial affairs in a place such as this. Could the current world financial crisis again have a similar devastating impact on the Thai economy?

I then boarded a river boat headed upstream to the Grand Palace and all the major royal and government compounds. Predictably the boat was almost empty which made it easier for me to move around and to take pictures of the brash condo tower that was successfully completed just before the firestorm hit in 1997 and of Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, dramatically back lit in the early evening.

When I landed, the amulet markets on the street seemed quite busy, but then life has to go on… the pavements were crowded with ordinary Thais and monks going about their usual daily business. Perhaps these difficult times stimulate a demand for lucky charms, though the scraps of what appear to be animal skin displayed for sale suggests that the tiger very definitely ran out of luck.

I then walked to Sanam Luang, the scene of recent demonstrations and saw nothing to suggest the political turmoil that engulfed this part of Bangkok only a few days ago. In the centre of this huge open space I saw the remains of the elaborate temporary pavilions set up for the cremation last week of Her Royal Highness, Princess Galyani, the King’s older sister. These are now being demolished and they look very sad, occupied only by old men asleep, rolled up in mats against the cool of the evening.

My last stop was to visit Khao San Road, the vibrant backpacker area which is usually full of young travelers and serves as an entry point where first time visitors get over culture shock with a foot in two worlds and buy bandaids at Boots.

Since Emma and Ben, the characters in my novel, THAI GIRL, first started their holiday in Khao San Road seven years ago, the street has been substantially cleaned up and is now a twenty four hour multi-cultural festival that few younger tourists would want to miss. While the political upheavals and closure of the airport have clearly affected business, the street was still busy, though not humming in quite the way it usually is.

So I happily conclude that Bangkok is still there, is safe and welcoming and will bounce back from the recent traumas. Memories are short and after the first rash of cancellations tourism will soon take off strongly again.

I have a particular reason to be thankful that the airport has reopened so quickly as my daughter, Anna and son-in-law, Will arrive here in a few days for a precious break from the English winter. So I’ll be taking a short holiday from blogging as I’ll soon be joining them on my favourite island of Koh Chang.

Then again I’ve managed to blog pretty extensively about Koh Chang on previous trips and I’ll be taking my laptop with me!

Can blogging become an obsessive/compulsive disorder? Maybe it can.

The “Thai Girl” Blog 9th December 2008

Friday, 5 December 2008

Sex, Thais and Videotape!




It’s the stuff of cliché to say that Thailand is a place of extremes, contrasts and confusions, though often it’s true.

Take for example ‘Thai girls’!

Is a typical Thai woman the seductive vamp of international notoriety? Or is she a nice, traditional girl looking for the one man in her life, who knows little or nothing about sex?

All generalisations are dangerous but it might come as a surprise how often she’s much closer to the second of these stereotypes than to the first.

My own personal knowledge on this topic is limited though and my ‘research’ is confined to reading the English language media in Thailand. Take for example a recent article in the Bangkok Post entitled, “The Naked Truth” (13 November 2008). About pornography in Thailand, it comments that just as prostitution is illegal here, the distribution of ‘pornography’ also has stiff penalties. Legal enforcement has become stricter in recent years because pornography is widely seen as the cause of rape and other sexual offences.

The article is based on research by an aptly named professor Chalidaporn who says, ‘Pornography exists because sex is condemned in society. Thai society has this notion that sex is something that should not be disclosed. There is no way of learning about sex, so most people learn through direct experience with pornography…”

Articles in the media often suggest a surprisingly prudish attitude towards sex. There is for example a wide spread ambivalence about sex education for the young and as sex is unmentionable, it should be kept under the table.

This strict attitude is hard to square though with the apparently exuberant attitude towards sex of many Thais but could in part be explained by the varied nature of Thai society. Thais of Chinese origin for instance, many of whom are well educated opinion formers, may have a more repressive attitude than the ethnic Thais.

Opinions in Thailand about sexual delinquency are thus sometimes expressed with a vehemence that is almost Victorian in tone. In my recent book, “MY THAI GIRL AND I”, I quoted a certain Professor Sukhum who had researched readers’ attitudes to newspaper reports on sexual matters.

“The headlines for stories on rape cases were found to capture readers’ attention the most,” he said, “followed by those on sexual violence, domestic violence and abortion stories… The respondents thought womens’ 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 it were so simple!

Sex is often seen as dangerous and a headline in the same paper caught my eye… ‘Women lured into sex by aphrodisiac coffee and juice’ (7 April 2008). A leading womens’ foundation had warned that packets of instant coffee and juice are on sale containing a powerful aphrodisiac that women are unable to resist. “It leaves women excessively aroused,” according to the spokeswoman and “triggers an uncontrollable urge to have sex with the men who set out to take advantage of them”.

This shocking matter came to light when the complainant, a student named Bee, went to have dinner at the house of a man she’d met on the internet. The man then gave her a cup of coffee which he said was a new formula health drink. She drank the coffee and immediately felt a surge of arousal and an instant desire for sex which in the event was soon satisfied.

A similar complaint came from a bar hostess, of all people, who accepted a coffee from a patron of the bar. “About ten minutes after drinking it, she became dazed and felt a sudden unstoppable sexual excitement which drove her to have sex with the customer.” Well, that’s her story and she’s sticking to it!

Anyway, the womens’ foundation got hold of some samples of the coffee and sent them for testing by the Food and Drug Administration.

In the strict interests of research, I too have been thinking of buying some of this sexual elixir but so far haven’t found any. As my Thai is limited, when asking for it in a shop I can only explain the effect it has by using sign language. Buying toilet paper or condoms using sign language is difficult enough, but my “Harry Met Sally” fake orgasms at the check-out could get me arrested me pretty damned quick.

This wide-eyed innocence from a womens’ organization is hard to credit, though at the other extreme Thailand can also be wild. With its nightlife having a steamy reputation, modesty and decorum is hardly the order of the night.

The low status of women in Thailand could of course explain the glaring double standards in this particular human zoo. Thailand has a long tradition of concubinage and the men have always done pretty much what they want. A married man can always take a mia noi, though God help him if he’s indiscreet and causes his wife to lose face. Even worse if he spends money on the mia noi that should have been spent on her. Meanwhile married women are expected to behave impeccably and the sweet virgin daughter mustn’t get caught as it’ll diminish her sinsod, the nice big bride price Mama’s expecting to get when she marries her off.

The newspapers have also mentioned a new development in the sexual arena arising from the widespread availability of cheap video cameras and camera phones. The police are getting an increasing number of complaints from women who say that on dumping their boyfriend, he took revenge by posting nude videotapes of her on the internet or used them to extort money.

Even more insidious has been a rash of cases in which celebrities staying in hotels have been secretly videoed taking a shower. This has caused considerable embarrassment and clips on the internet of well-known starlets have been widely viewed.

Having just passed the Loy Kratong festival, I’m reminded too that at this time and on Valentine’s Day the young and very young are reported by the press to be at it like rabbits. As I mention in my book, the short time ‘love hotels’ are all booked out by these romantic young things and certain other places are often used for ‘promiscuous behaviour or even premature sex’. The Bangkok Post reports that, “Teens were found to have got carried away in the provincial sports stadium, particularly the area at the back of the basket ball field… and in isolated corners in department stores.”

Surging hormones thus need to be restrained and a secretary to the Ministry of Education on matters of sex has been quoted as saying that, “low-waist trousers and tight shirts are a risqué fashion trend which arouses sexual desire and possibly leads to sex crimes”. (The Nation, 15 February 2005). That particular official was called Tossaporn.

So to conclude, how can one characterize the typical ‘Thai girl’? ‘Is she seductive, scheming and available? Or is the Thai girl modest, sweet and innocent… is it she who is the victim?’

The topic is complex and nuanced and it’s hard to get beyond the platitudes, but I do have one final thought.

Fiction can convey ideas that can never be definitively stated so perhaps the best medium for this particular topic is a romantic novel!

Shall we call it, “Thai Girl”?

Copyright: Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog November 2008

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Tonight's the Night!

Don't miss my book launch tonight at the FCCT in Bangkok. See below.

Don't miss it!

Choke dee,


Friday Post Script: Just to say thank you to everyone who came to the book launch. The Foreign Correspondents' Club was full, the audience looked interested and laughed at most of my jokes and asked some good and searching questions. Asia Books was there in force with no fewer than five staff members and my wrist was sore from signing books.

J.K. Rowling, eat your heart out!

Friday, 28 November 2008

You Are Invited!

It's a funny thing writing a book.

You spend years at the keyboard, most of the time spent on the hard slog of rewriting and editing. Then at last it's finished and there's an amazing moment when you hold the first copy in your hands. It's exciting too when you go into a bookshop and it's there on the shelf along with ten thousand other titles. But then nothing more happens. There's an anticlimax, an excruciating silence. It's like dropping a gold coin down a well and you don't even hear a splash.

Yes, MY THAI GIRL AND I has had some nice reviews in the media and I've received lots of emails from people who've enjoyed it which is very gratifying. However,a slim file of clippings and these messages recorded on my Readers Forum (see all I've now got to show for it.

Except one more thing... the launch party. Yes, there's going to be a party in Bangkok. It's next week and you're invited to it. This is my brief moment in the limelight and I genuinely would like you to come along.

It's in the Foreign Correspondents' Club which is an interesting private venue so it's a rare chance to get in for no charge and have a look around. Access is from the Skytrain.

Do come! I'd hate it if nobody comes to my party!

Here are the details.

Book Launch



Andrew Hicks

“How I found a new life in Thailand.”

Venue: The FCCT (Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand)

No cover charge.

Thursday, December 4th at 8.00 pm

About the book...

Thailand offers an enticing haven for European men wanting to retire to a warm and welcoming climate and huge numbers seem to be flocking this way. The food is good, the cost of living reasonable and the ladies really know how to smile. Some of these men succeed in finding happiness but it isn’t always an easy path.

In “MY THAI GIRL AND I”, author Andrew Hicks describes some of the pitfalls of living with a rice farming family in Isaan. Ants eggs for breakfast and toads in the toilet are the least of his troubles and with his energetic young wife, Cat, life is a roller coaster as they deal with the stresses of marriage and the cultural gulf that separates them.

After life as a lawyer and university professor in London, Hong Kong and Singapore, Andrew finds a small village in Surin takes some getting used to. He soon discovers that he’s not only married his wife but her family too and that their collective way of life is in stark contrast to the individuality of the West.

He describes the problems of building a home, of running a thirty year old jeep and most difficult of all, his isolation from his own world; from international news, family, food, language and culture. How can two people of such differing age and experience possibly make a life together?

The story also provides a vehicle for the reader’s observations on the decline of agriculture and the crisis in rural society, on how Buddhism coexists with a belief in the spirits, on alcoholism, accidents, motorcycle maintenance and many things Thai.

“His observations are on sociology text level,” said Bernard Trink reviewing the book in The Bangkok Post, which may or may not be a good recommendation.

Join us at the FCCT and judge for yourself as Andrew presents and reads short extracts from “MY THAI GIRL AND I”.

He will also mention his other new book, Hicks and Goo, CASES AND MATERIALS ON COMPANY LAW which was published this year by Oxford University Press, a tombstone of a book that’s in no need of launching.

Free entry for members and non-members. A bar and full menu are available.

Venue: The FCCT is on the Penthouse floor, MANEEYA CENTRE which is accessible from BTS Skytrain, Chidlom. Follow the FCCT signs down to the lifts at the back of the Maneeya buildings.

Enquiries to FCCT on 02-652-0508

“MY THAI GIRL AND I” is available at Asia Books and Bookazine and all bookshops throughout Thailand. An Asia Books stand will be at the book launch.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Where Tuskers Stomp

Surin town is invaded by horsemen from the past

Nice sign but does the translator actually work?

Mahouts and their charges waiting to go 'on stage'

Yet more of the three hundred elephants

It costs twenty baht to buy her some sugar cane

Is there a future for him in elephants?

We’ve just been to the elephant fair in Surin, the big annual event for which the town is best known. It’s always hot and crowded so we went along just to see the elephants on the sidelines rather than to sit through the whole two hour show, which we’ve done several times before.

The nice thing about the elephant fair is that it’s not set up for foreign tourists but is very much a Thai event. For the farang it’s pretty difficult to get any information and the loudspeaker commentary for the show itself, essential if you want to know what’s going on, is only in Thai. The signs do offer a ‘translator service’ and next time we watch the show itself I must give this a go and see if it works.

Despite the friendly and chaotic atmosphere of a small town agricultural show, make no mistake this is a very big event which is well choreographed and truly spectacular. Featuring historical cameos including a war, an elephant football match and a tug of war where the biggest tusker just beats an army of men, it offers something for everyone. Hundreds of elephants come into town and mingling in the crowds you’ll see horsemen and tribal people in sarongs who hardly raise a glance amongst the stalls and noodle stands.

On the Friday there’s an elephant ‘breakfast’ in the town when you can get up close and personal with any number of these huge beasts as they’re fed in the street. This year 60 tonnes of food was prepared for the three hundred elephants there.

These huge animals can be dangerous though and from time to time at various tourist venues around the country an elephant goes berserk and an onlooker is ‘stomped to death’, as local usage has it. The Bangkok Post briefly reported (22 November 2008) that this Friday at the opening ceremony an elephant ‘became agitated and hurt four Thai tourists, three of them seriously’. I hope it wasn’t worse than that as in Thailand tourism comes first and negative publicity isn’t very welcome. On the same note, the warning some years ago by a safety specialist about the possibility of a tsunami was carefully suppressed with tragic consequences.

On Sunday we enjoyed the bustling atmosphere at the show ground and were able to mix freely with the elephants, though as we went in a guard warned us to be very wary of the elephants.

And there were elephants big and small everywhere. For twenty baht you can feed sugar to them but despite the huge cost of maintaining an elephant that and giving rides seems to be all they can earn. Like a bar girl slurping over-priced ‘lady drinks’, the main commercial role of an elephant seems to be selling sugar cane.

Yet there are still substantial numbers of elephants here and we sometimes see one at night near the market in our home town of Sangkha. If in the traffic backed up ahead you see a red tail light swinging from side to side, then that’s exactly what it is… a tail light on an elephant.

Cat’s Mama is Suai and it’s the Suai people who migrated northwards from Cambodia that have special skills in managing elephants. The mahouts are still Suai speakers but one wonders what the future will bring for the younger generation. The only future must be tourism but an annual fair is hardly enough. There’s an elephant village north of the town but it’s not well promoted and we know nothing about it and have never been there.

Tourism throughout Isaan is sadly under-developed, only about three percent of foreign visitors ever coming here. In this and every other way the region has always being ignored by politicians until former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra seized his chance and built a political base among the rural poor through populist policies such as health care and credit.

Whoever is in charge though, Surin desperately needs substantial central government spending on a major all-year elephant centre near to the town and its hotels. This could be on a circuit of attractions to bring visitors to the ‘real Thailand’… to see elephants, rice cultivation, the Khmer temples, the ancient site at Ban Chiang and the Mekong and its riverside towns.

Isaan urgently needs a strong policy of regional development which could thus begin with tourism and with elephants. There’s a major agricultural revolution going on here in the countryside, a widening social and political gulf between the rural poor and the pampered city folk and a big problem both in town and country caused by urban migration. And this is a crisis that’s going to get worse before it gets better.

An effective policy of regional development needs political stability and long term vision though and sadly this seems to be a forlorn hope in Thailand at the present time.

Andrew Hicks, November 2008. The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

The Tyranny of Rice

From upstairs I can see the rice is suddenly ripening

Hire of the thresher and labour is yet another cost

An old truck has brought a new future to the rice fields

Thumbs up from Mungorn as the combine does all the work

Combine harvesting Mama's fields for the first time ever

A big machine, no wonder it's so expensive to hire

Mali's Papa eyes the future with some scepticism

For his generation it's all going to change though.

After almost a week of rain the temperature has suddenly dipped several degrees and as I look out from my upstairs verandah I can see that the brilliant green of the rice fields is suddenly turning to brown. It’s a good time but a tough one as the harvest rules everyone’s lives when they begin the tough task of bringing in the rice.

The village is not quite as sleepy as usual. Familiar faces that I haven’t seen for some time have come back from work in Bangkok for the harvest. I hear the thump, thump of the thresher and go round to watch a family team tossing the bundles of rice high into the machine. The straw is spewed out high into the air and a trickle of brown grains is collected in sacks which are then put together and counted. Will it be a good harvest this year?

Cat’s brother Mungorn tells us that Mama’s field is ready for cutting but try as he might he cannot find enough people to do the work. In recent years he’s used a big team to bring in the whole crop within a day or two but times are changing. He thinks the only alternative now is to rent a combine harvester but while this cuts out the cost of the threshing, it’s going to be expensive. He’ll have to find 6,000 baht which he hasn’t got, but never mind, he does have a farang brother-in-law!

An incidental advantage is that with his own fields cut in a few hours, he and Mali are then free to sell their labour and recoup some of the extra cost.

Rice farming is difficult as your cash flow comes only at the end of the season when you sell the rice, so farmers borrow to finance the production costs and sell on for a low price as soon as possible after the harvest to minimize interest payments, though this time Mungorn’s in luck as he's got free credit from me.

I go out to the rice fields and the harvester has already been offloaded from its battered truck and is grinding up and down the fields at some speed. Mangorn gives me the thumbs up as he starts his rot tai, the iron buffalo and trailer with which he’ll collect the full sacks of rice from the fields.

First time ever on Mama’s land, the harvester is quite a spectacle for the old men who’ve come to watch. After a hard life of farming by hand, Mali’s father is open mouthed, but he’s ready with his sickle, gleaning the standing rice in the corners that the harvester has missed. His eye sight is fading so I’ve just given him some spectacles which I can see sticking out of his shirt pocket. (I buy these ten at a time and hand them round to any old folk who need them.)

For him though, this is the end of an era. His world has been changing fast and with rice farming unable to sustain the village population and with the inevitable drift to the cities, ironically there’s now a shortage of labour at harvest time. Here in Isaan with its long dry season and no water for irrigation, only one crop a year is possible which thus offers intensive work for only a few months. Seasonal workers who come and go are needed but as they get scarcer and scarcer, increasing mechanization is necessary.

For a child in the field playing with the old man’s sickle, life may be very different. He'll not want the same backbreaking life in the rice fields and there’ll be no livelihood there for him anyway. It’s a way of life whose time is almost gone.

With all the costs of producing rice I often wonder too if rice production on this small family scale is still financially viable. I’m sure that few of the farmers keep accounts and have only a vague idea what if any profit they’ve made. But it’s what you know and if you have land, then you just have to farm it. As most people are under-employed, working the fields turns your labour to account and you can produce some rice to eat during the year. To me it seems a very haphazard way of running a major industry and I wonder how things will change in the next twenty years.

There’s a slow revolution coming to Isaan and who knows how socially disruptive it will be. It seems an obvious proposition, but the problem of urban drift and migration should be tackled by an aggressive policy of regional development. Bringing small industry and jobs to Isaan would reduce the pressure on the metropolitan area and maintain social cohesion in the villages.

It seems strange though that I’ve never heard mention of such an idea. For the aspirant politician it could prove to be the most attractive populist policy ever, far better than handing out money and cheap credit as has been done until now.

Sadly politicians need instant results and long term policies such as this seem to have little chance of success. The life expectancy of a Thai government is generally far too short.

Andrew Hicks

Copyright: The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog 10 November 2008

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

The Ladies of Loy Kratong

Making 'kratongs' or floats the traditional way.

As always it's a laugh a minute.

The end product, bio-degradeable and plastic free.

The ladies of Loy Kratong... a small village beauty pageant.

This has to be the land of smiles.

Children launching their kratongs onto the lake.

He's pinching coins from the kratongs and it's really cold!

One of the most delightful of Thai festivals is Loy Kratong when families launch floats or “kratongs” made of banana leaves and flowers and lit with candles onto the waters of the local river of lake. This is the moment to pray for better things to come and when the dark moments from the last year are carried away by the gentle winds and current. The children love it and of course it’s a great excuse for another party.

In Bangkok the festival has become a big problem as hundreds of tons of waste block the waterways, especially where people have no access to natural materials for their kratongs and buy the modern plastic ones instead. The custom of putting a handful of coins in them which then go to the bottom must also cause a terrible annual waste of national coinage.

This year we didn’t miss out and Cat organised Nan and a friend in making two beautiful kratongs out of banana leaves in the traditional way. As always the whole exercise was ‘sanuk’, a laugh a minute.

We then headed off in the pickup that night to the lake at Sinarong a few kilometers away where our local festival is held. Though the administrative centre for our local district or ‘ampur’, Sinarong is nothing more than a village, a huge party had been staged. As well as the ceremony of launching the kratongs onto the lake, there was an elaborate beauty contest, each village in the district represented by a ‘Thai girl’ aged at least thirty five.

A stage had been set up with a massive backdrop of art work and lettering, together with towers of loudspeakers for the music and commentary. The proceedings were long and well-choreographed in which each contestant, elegant in her shiny costume, was paraded in turn. At last there came a pause for the judging and a musical intermission when I could get up and stretch my legs.

Several singers took to the stage, the last of whom came as quite a surprise. It was Gop, the local electrician who put up our television aerial a year or so ago. A sparky little man who worked for some years in Taiwan, he certainly is a jack of all trades.

This must have been an expensive evening to stage but as always it was done with flair and an eye for the outrageous and kitch. They always do beauty contests on TV like this, so why not here in the village. These handsome women were out in the heat and dust of the rice fields today cutting rice but why can’t they now be princesses for the night and have their moment of glory.

At least the coins that floated away in the kratongs on the lake weren’t wasted. At the edge the water is shallow and two little boys had plunged in and were helping themselves to the money in the floats. Just as dogs sometimes eat the food that’s left for the spirits, nobody sees anything wrong with this as the offering has been made and cannot now be taken away by the little boys.

It was pleasantly cool that evening so I only hope they did well out of it and didn’t freeze.

Copyright: Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog November 2008

Friday, 14 November 2008

Last Train From Sikoraphum

The station's antique wooden sign

Waiting, waiting.

There's a peacock pride in the station's appearance.

Points switches installed by the original German contractors.

Station buildings a hundred years old.

Going home from market with a new sickle for the rice harvest.

The train arrives at last.

Green flags and military precision.

After a horrible day cancelling our TOT satellite internet contract and emptying my wallet in the process, I felt like having a day out. There were a few takers for a train ride to nowhere, especially as it happened to be free, so we all piled into the pickup and headed off to Sikoraphum.

The railway workers have been on strike in support of the demonstrations against the government but now they’re back at work again and the bosses are punishing them by making train rides free. I guess the idea is to attract people back to the railway and incidentally to make the strikers work harder coping with crowded trains.

The idea was for us to take a train from nearby Sikoraphum to Si Saket and back but on the way there Cat suggested we go the other way to Surin instead as it’s not so far.

Just as we arrived at the station a train to Si Saket was just rolling in. Only a few seats were filled but we stuck to our plan and didn’t get on board. Cat went and bought some grilled chicken while I wielded my camera.

Sikoraphum and its railway line.
Sikoraphum is notable for its 900 year old Khmer temple and more recently came back to prominence when the railway line was cut through a little over a century ago. What’s charming about the town is that it has hardly changed over the years. The centre is a series of narrow streets and Chinese shop houses, all well kept and bustling but without the demolition and disruption that usually comes with relative prosperity.

It’s hard to believe how remote Sikoraphum must have been before construction of the railway. A millennium ago it was not so remote though, looking to Angkhor, the great centre of the Khmer empire. Only a few hundred kilometres away, the journey would have been relatively easy passing through a gap in the Dongrak hills at Chong Jom and across level ground to the capital.

With the decline of Angkhor, the political balance swung East across the plateau towards the Mekong, which allowed river access to the great capitals upstream. Then as Laan Chang declined, the region became beholden to the kingdoms of Thailand, but how very far it was from their capitals in the Chao Phraya basin.

Bangkok was impossibly distant and for government officials visiting the fractious North East the ascent onto the plateau was extremely difficult. In 1891 King Rama V therefore ordered construction of the railway, a huge and herculean task to integrate Isaan into his modern kingdom.

Laying the tracks northward across the plains progressed well but after Saraburi came harsh mountains where the German contractors faced many hazards and risks. It was only in 1900 that the railway reached Korat not so very much further on, during which time forty Germans and over 500 Chinese workers are said to have perished.

Pushing on through Buriram, Surin and Sikoraphum and at last to Ubon was then relatively quick and a remarkable vision was finally achieved.

Saraburi today is now only an hour or two out of Bangkok by road, so it’s hard today to grasp the significance of this feat of modern civil engineering. Sikoraphum, once far away on another planet, had become accessible in safety and comfort on an overnight train. This was a huge leap into the future, though since that time the railway has been allowed to slip gently back into the past.

Today the line to Isaan is a delightful time warp and a lack of investment in the railways has preserved it in a pleasant state of sleepy decay. The old station signs are as they always were, the wooden buildings, the track and systems substantially unchanged. It’s all much as I remember the small station in sleepy Warwickshire village from which I used to take a train pulled by a puffing tank engine a few miles to school… and that’s a good few years ago.

The heavy levers for changing the points that the German contractors installed are still in use, a polished brass bell hangs above a decorative fountain and the long platform is clean and well kept. In fact it has an almost military feel and the staff look sharp in brown uniforms, their toe caps gleaming as they wave their green flags to send the Bangkok train on to Si Saket and Ubon.

All is now anticipation on the crowded platform as the Surin train is in sight down the line. We’re on our feet as it rolls into the station, an elderly diesel engine drawing tatty carriages that must be at least fifty years old.

Then I realize to my dismay that it’s packed out with people. It’s going to be standing room only, damn it.

We move down the platform to avoid the worst of the crush and try to make it up the steps at the end of carriage, but the corridors are jam packed with people. It’s almost like the Indian sub-continent with bodies hanging off and not a spare inch inside. Offering free rides has certainly brought out the travelers

We don’t have to go anywhere today though, as we’re here to enjoy ourselves. A battle like this isn’t going to be fun so we admit defeat and scramble down onto the platform again and watch the green flags waving as the train moves slowly out of the station.

Shall we have a good look round the market instead, I suggest. There’s some nice pictures to be taken among the fruit and veg, but then it starts to rain.

Clearly this wasn’t our day, though savouring the retro mood of the station in Sikoraphum was like stepping back fifty years.

It’s a rare and special experience that can make me feel like I’m twelve years old again.

Copyright: Andrew Hicks The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog 2008