Friday, 30 May 2008

At The Fringes of Belief

I have great respect for the positive influence of Buddhism in Thailand.

Buddhism is a fine personal philosophy and the temple in our village in Isaan along with the school is an institution of huge importance in holding together an agricultural community under considerable strain.

In the modern world Buddhism is much threatened by an opposing religion, namely materialism, and it often falls short of the ideal. Its focus for example on building more and gaudier temples is contrary to the essence of a simple and ascetic religion and elaborate rituals seem to supplant its true spiritual core.

Nonetheless many young men still see it as an important part of their lives to become a monk even for a short period and this rite of passage is often observed in the villages. Recently a cousin of Cat’s became a monk along with many others and it really was a good party!

We went along to the house and watched as his thick black hair was shaven off to much laughter. Then we all went to the temple and processed around it and of course there was loud music, food and drink for the rest for the day. All was sanuk as it usually is!

Buddhism has always had to coexist with older beliefs such as animism and spirit worship and, in the absence of the jealous god of the mono-theistic religions, it tolerates them remarkably well. The result is a tangle of rituals and practices where the elements of the different beliefs become intermingled and indistinguishable. The monks regularly participate in ceremonies that are far more animist in content than they are Buddhist.

At the fringes of belief the monks thus bless amulets for sale at high prices, provide lucky numbers for the lottery and take part in the ancient rites of blessing a new house or car. Very worldly they sometimes seem.

And people often turn to the monks when they fall sick.

Cat’s Mama suffers from a painfully stiff knee. She’s had it examined at a hospital in Bangkok who say nothing can be done but when conventional medicine fails, like everyone else, she’ll try the alternatives. She’s recently been told of a temple not far away where there’s a monk who has special powers of healing and sells strong medicines and she’s asked us to take her there. The visit proved very interesting.

We drove for an hour or so and when we got there it wasn’t like approaching a traditional Buddhist temple at all. The place was more like a shanty town with a few permanent buildings surrounded by shacks of corrugated iron and cardboard. Literally hundreds of elderly people were lying around on the ground under tarpaulins being fanned by their relatives in the oppressive heat. These were the sick and dying who’d come to seek out the famous monk for a last chance cure.

There were old people bent double on sticks with terrible disfigurements and skin diseases, deranged old folk jabbering wildly and the aged struggling in the throes of death. It was like a medieval picture of hell.

Just as we arrived, there was a big commotion, everyone running round and shouting, their attention focused on a big pond. Someone had just tried to drown themselves.

After they’d all calmed down and dispersed, I walked over to the pond. I think they’d been bathing because spread around on the banks were clothes and sarongs strewn around in abandon , the tattered residue of desperate humanity. This must be how it looks at the scene of a genocide.

I’m not sure how you define poverty but the condition I saw people in that day looked as desperate as it gets. To be old and sick and to come here as a last resort exemplified poverty for me as strongly as I’ve ever seen it, whether in Africa, India or elsewhere.

Yet for these people the monk and his temple represented hope and so some benefit must come of it. In the West we have access to modern medicine but we now also accept the importance of alternative, holistic and herbal medicines. This was what seemed to be on offer at the temple.

I watch as a group of evidently sick people sit in a group in the blazing sun close by the monk’s verandah. At last he comes out and chanting loudly begins tipping buckets of water over their heads. Then they turn towards him and he throws water hard into their faces. They sit and wait and the ones who can walk go up to him. Taking a mouthful of water from a plastic cup, he then spits it over them before they walk away shuddering with cold.

One family arrives in a large Toyota Vigo pickup, top of the range with alloy wheels and a Bangkok registration. They help their old Papa out of the front seat. He can hardly walk and they half drag him to the monk who performs the same rituals. Money changes hands and they leave with their bag full of medicines.

Cat’s Mama stays dry thank goodness but buys potions from the monk which she later swears are highly effective in helping the pain in her bad knee. It wasn’t particularly cheap and for less money I’ve been treated by a specialist at a top Bangkok hospital. With hundreds of sick constantly in attendance at the temple, the takings for medicines must thus be substantial.

The Thai government provides treatment in small hospitals in every town and they look clean and well managed. Other than a nominal thirty baht fee, treatment is free. Like all public health systems this one isn’t perfect but it seems to provide a reasonably good service and so people are not unprovided for.

So where does this now leave the traditional healers such as the Buddhist monks? They still have an important role to play, though I’m a bit sceptical about those who work on the fringes of medicine wherever they may be. But then placebos really do work and perhaps it's the holy men who offer the strongest ones.

Mama certainly wants to go back again to the temple when her medicine finally runs out and I guess I'll have to take her!

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Oh Blogger!

A bit over a year ago I didn't know what a blog was. Then Philip and Vera visited us in our village eight hours out of Bangkok and the trouble started.

Philip said he could set up a blog for me in a few minutes before dinner and he did. Cat kept calling that the food was ready and I was madly trying to decide what to call the blog and I came up with something pretty silly. Then Vera told me to be careful I didn't get too obsessive about blogging and oh blogger, she was right.

Now the blog's just had a total of 50,000 hits and writing it provoked me into finishing and publishing MY THAI GIRL AND I which is now on Asia Books' bestseller list.

And there's another amazing new listing of blogs about Thailand just come on line. If you go to you'll find THAI GIRL rated in the mid-thirties.

Push me up please! Click on a ten and give me a boost please! Obsession should have its rewards.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Cat's English Club

When last year Cat built a big wooden house down the garden while I was away in England, I asked her why she’d made its verandah so huge.

‘It’s because I want to run a school,’ she said, as irrepressible and zany as ever. I had little idea what she was talking about but I’ve since found out.

I wanted to write about the school as a last chapter to my new book, MY THAI GIRL AND I, but I realized that if I did, new events would keep making the book longer and longer. I just had to stop somewhere and publish the book. So I mentioned it briefly in the epilogue and now have the chance to tell the story in full.

Cat calls it her English Club and that’s exactly what it is. From time to time she’s had a number of children around to learn English before but now it’s become quite a big thing. Every weekday after the school day finishes twelve kiddies aged about nine to twelve arrive and sit down and chat excitedly on the verandah floor. Then teacher Cat appears and they all fall silent. This is serious stuff!

Then she teaches intensively for about three hours, both written and spoken English. It’s a very long day for them but they love every minute of it. She’s bought eight of those low school tables that Thai children use, a white board and various pictures and teaching aids, but the biggest teaching aid of all is a real live native-speaking farang.

Yes, I’ve been doing my half an hour or so and it’s been fun. Concentrating on oral English and pronunciation, I’ve usually arrived with a rucksack full of things like cups and spoons and toys and I pull them out and show them to the kids.

‘What’s this?’ ‘It’s a…’ I drill again and again. Eventually something sinks in and they’ve really learned quite a lot.

It looks professional too, a full thirty hour course with a proper invoice issued, a school outing to the lake where we all ate and swam and with certificates of completion nicely printed and handed out at the end of term dinner.

What quite impressed me was that the kids were not all from our village and the parents delivered them and collected them on their motorbikes. Cat is at last realizing her dream even in a small way of being a teacher and she’s much in demand.

When term had ended at the local school, she then began a second course for younger children in the school break. As it was getting much hotter, a cooler place to teach was our own concrete house. The main room downstairs is huge and again was perfect for the purpose.

This time I found them harder to teach. They were like puppies falling about the place and fighting, unable to concentrate for more than a few minutes. It was hard work to keep them engaged. Most of all they loved the two stuffed toys that sat on my knee and talked to each other. One was a dog, an ugly boy who loved the pretty penguin and did the children shriek with laughter at their silly courtship.

It really was fun and having the house full of noisy, happy kids a wonderful tonic for an elderly farang. For Cat too it was rather special, but already there’s something new in her life. She too has just become a full-time student!

Friday, 9 May 2008

What Is Matt?

The crowd passes our gate during the Songkhran New Year water festival

Vanity of vanities! This is to tell you two things.

Firstly my new book, MY THAI GIRL AND I is on Asia Books' bestseller list. Amazing!

More importantly, for anyone interested in Thailand there's a great new on-line listing of the top hundred blogs about the Kingdom.

If you go to you'll find them listed on a combination of Page Rank, Technorati (WhatisTechnorati?!) and user votes. (Or click on the link to the right and at his home page click 'Top 100'.)

So if you've enjoyed my blog, please vote for THAI GIRL! Scroll down to find THAI GIRL and click on the fifth star! The traffic on this blog is not massive so, just like Hillary, I need your votes.

Vanities apart, the Top 100 is an excellent listing and I have found some fascinating and useful sites about Thailand that I didn't know existed.

Matt himself is a young Englishman who was working in Bangkok but has now escaped to Phuket where he is a freelance journalist. The byeline on his very popular blog is 'The Lost Boy'. Matt is a fan of the late singer songwriter, Nick Drake. Sometime ago there was a documentary about Nick which was called 'The Lost Boy', hence the name.

Matt was intrigued when I told him that Nick was my childhood friend and that on the new CD of his early recordings called 'Family Tree' one of the essays about Nick in the sleeve notes is by none other than me.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Cat's Building Yet Again!

Life goes on as usual in the village and true to form Cat’s been building yet again. This time it’s a chicken house.

To be honest I’m not that keen on keeping chickens. I’m constantly cleaning up their mess from the verandah and shooing them off the table in the kitchen. And they scratch the leaves from under the bushes in the garden and I spend my life raking it all up again. Not to mention thoughts of avian flu!

On top of that I’m also ambivalent about having a personal relationship with the protein I eat, though I’d as easily stop Cat producing food as Canute held back the tide.

So now there are chickens everywhere.

When recently I came back to the village from Bangkok after doing the design work for my new book, “My Thai Girl and I”, I soon noticed something strange by the side of the fish pond. Thankfully Cat had never put pigs in the pig house that came free when we bought the pond, though I knew she had designs on it.

The strange thing was that on my return the pig house had gone. It wasn’t there by the pond any more.

‘Why did you knock down the pig house?’ I ask Cat accusingly.

‘I didn’t. It disappear!’ she tells me.

Apparently nobody saw it go. Nobody heard the clash of rusty corrugated iron or the thud of hammers tearing the woodwork apart. It had been spirited away by persons unknown.

Cat too was shocked to see it gone so she went to see the neighbours who’d sold us the pond. It was all smiles as usual and no, they knew nothing about it. They couldn’t explain it at all and had no idea who had taken it.

It was strange though, as Cat pointed out to them, that all the timber and iron from the pig sty was right there, dumped in a heap by their house.

They couldn’t explain this either they said, but since it wasn’t included in the sale and was theirs anyway, they weren’t going to give it back to her. It was a very Thai confrontation, like angry ducks paddling fast on the pond but making as few ripples as possible.

It took a visit from the police to persuade them that as a buyer of land takes anything affixed to it, they now had to tip it over the fence back onto our patch. Which is where I saw it in an untidy heap when I got back from Bangkok.

There could be something else behind all this of course, though I have to accept her story at face value as Cat is as the sole modem between me and the unfathomable web of smiles and intrigue that makes Thailand so constantly amazing.

The upshot is that we now have an ugly pile of old old building materials, which isn’t a problem as Cat wants to build a chicken house. The rainy season is coming and unless the chickens have shelter they’ll often sicken and die.

She now takes on the two of the frailest old men she can find and in a few days they create for her a new chicken house from the recycled pig sty and the bamboos they cut from nearby. It stands on the banks of the pond, has an upstairs for roosting and a steeply pitched roof. Unfortunately the roof is approximately eighty percent corrugated iron and twenty percent hole, so she’s going to have to put on some rustic grass roofing panels as well.

With the chicken house now almost complete, we drive in to Sangkha market to buy pork and vegetables as she’s going to do a Mongolian barbecue to celebrate. You may not pay your workers in gold but instead you entertain them to good food and an ample supply of lao khao, a white rice whisky which at forty percent is well worth a day’s work.

Cat has the little round barbecue glowing hot and the thin slices of pork are cooked on the aluminium dome which is placed over the top. We’re at the bottom of the ‘garden’ by the wooden house sitting under the grass roofed shelters that have recently become a regular living space. The great thing about cooking outside and eating on an earth floor is that you don’t have to clean up afterwards. All is organic as it should be and the dogs see to it that nothing’s ever wasted.

The two old men are sitting under the thatch with a big bottle in front of them. It’s half empty but also half full and while gentlemen prefer blondes and the devil wears Prada, I’m quite partial to a tot or three cheap rice whisky. So I help them to finish it off before we buy another bottle.

Still sober I’m humbled by the immensity of the heavens as we eat, the stars sharp pinpricks in the inky blackness. Then, as the alcohol sears its way down my throat, I find myself at its very centre, the hub round which the universe revolves. This is my rightful place in the world and it’s mine, all mine!

The alcohol mellows my senses but also intensifies them. The heat is thick, the sweat pricking at my brows, my clothes clinging to the interstices. The wet blanket of the night envelops us and the scream of the insects is raucous and intrusive.

I’m now definitely under the influence, the world has become benign and I no longer care about the dust and chaos around me. The two old farmers next to me are my best mates, though we have nothing in common and can hardly communicate.

But suddenly we can understand each other with a few choice words. The conversation isn’t profound but so what. Maybe it’s better that way.

‘Muang Thai sanuk mai?’ they ask me. Thailand’s fun, is it?

‘Sanuk’ I say sagely. ‘Chawp maak!’

Yes, living in Thailand is fun. I do like it. I’ve got a new hen house, it isn’t cold and my brain’s comfortably soggy with the glow of lao khao.

We can’t celebrate having a new chicken house like this every night but Cat won’t ever stop building so there’ll be more feasts and celebrations to come. Not that the Thais ever need an excuse for one anyway!