Friday, 29 August 2008

The Relativity of Remoteness

The oldest house in our soi, about fifty years, from times when elephants roamed.

A view of our soi.

Most families socialise in these small shelters in front of the house.

The newest house in the soi, about two years old.



I remember when Cat and I first moved here Tamsyn, in one of her emails from England, asked me if the village was very remote.


Of course it’s not remote. It’s near Sangkha which is the centre of the known world.

Well, okay, I suppose it’s relatively remote, depending on what theory of relativity you ascribe to.

In fact it’s probably the most remote place I’ve ever lived in, though Zaria in Nigeria where I worked in the early seventies was more cut off from the world. There were no phones that actually functioned and the fastest means of international communication was by things called 'telegrams'. An incoming telegram from the UK usually took about three months to arrive; there was instant transmission to Lagos but then it was handed to a cripple with a cleft stick.

Things have moved on since then and our village in Surin in the North East of Thailand is not so bad as the basic infrastructure of roads and so on is remarkably good. Unfortunately there are no phone lines, even though the cables run down the main road only a few hundred yards away… at least they did until they were stolen some while back.

The village has a hundred and twenty three houses and about 2,000 people registered as living here, though many work far away in the urban centres. It’s on the fast road to Sikoraphum and there are a few expats who live in places that are much more remote. We’ve visited one or two who live off the beaten track down unsealed roads for whom a trip into town takes a lot longer. It doesn’t make much difference though. They too can pay for a big TOT IP Star satellite dish for over-pried internet that doesn’t work. They too could order a Bangkok Post that’s rarely there when you go into the mini-mart to collect it, so we’re all in pretty much the same boat.

The reality is that each little pond is its own universe around which lives revolve and remoteness is not much of an issue. Most of the young go away to find work but long to gravitate home again. You only accept exile to the city if you have to.

As I sit outside in the new shop across the soi enjoying a beer, all our neighbours pass by. Old granny from next door, looking ferocious as always, old balaclava uncle on his ancient bicycle and later his wife and a lad on a bike far too small for him. Children are coming home from school, a farmer on a motorbike, mothers carrying babies. They all wander in and buy a tiny sweet, a snack, some soap, a tot of rice whisky.

Everyone round here has known each other all their lives and they’re all related somehow. It’s a real community, cohesive and strong with its colourful Buddhist temple and cosy little school. It’s a world of its own, complete and secure, so how could it ever be remote. Remote from what?

It’s Bangkok that’s remote, that’s alien and dangerous, remote from the place you were born in, where you’re meant to be. The things that happen so far away in Bangkok hardly seem to impact upon us here. Bangkok’s truly remote from Ban Sawai.

On my last trip to Bangkok, I brought a pound of cheese back with me. It was a great luxury but now it’s all finished. It’ll take me nine hours to go and get some more, though you can buy massive bricks of Cheddar at Makro in Surin in two kilo packs. No, I’ve decided to respect my arteries and eat flaming chilli and fermented fish instead.

And for the last few days my Bangkok Post has actually arrived at the shop so I’ve some idea of the many things that are happening here in Thailand. It’s still turmoil in the capital, though the ripples do not seem to spread as far as us.

As I scan the headlines, I see that ousted former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra has fled to London with his wife to escape a raft of serious corruption charges. He has assigned a legal team to file a libel suit as he says the police were going too far in publicizing the arrest warrants issued against him, a step intended primarily to humiliate him. Still in cloud cuckoo land, he is now applying for asylum in England where presumably he’ll argue that he’s being unfairly persecuted... politicians should be allowed to get away with corruption, as they always did when he was in power.

The Electoral Commission is busy considering a motion for the dissolution of the ruling Peoples Power Party for various electoral infringements. It is reported that their meeting was adjourned and a decision delayed for two weeks to allow the investigation department on the fourteenth floor to photocopy a key document and deliver it to the Commission’s offices on the nineteenth floor.

Meanwhile Prime Minister Samak himself is under investigation and could be disqualified for violating the constitution by continuing to host his long standing cooking programme on television called ‘Tasting and Grumbling’. The PM, a former governor of Bangkok, is larger than life, a popular tele chef and didn’t want to give up stirring and frying just because he had a country to run.

The beggars' licensing bill is under final consideration and eight students have been caned with up to eighteen strokes for protesting at the plan to demolish their school to make way for a new parliament building.

The possibility of an exceptional storm surge overwhelming coastal defences south of Bangkok has been raised by the chief of the National Disaster Warning Centre. It is reported that 499 Buddhist, Christian and Hindu priests and a Buddha statue will take part in a ritual to keep the province’s coastline safe from this risk. It is reassuring that such action is being taken in the face of such a significant danger.

However, the chief of the Centre has accused some senior politicians of trying to silence his prediction of a storm surge. Some landlords had also phoned him berating him that he had ruined real estates development and their businesses. He has a certain authority as his prediction some years ago that a tsunami might hit Phuket was carefully supressed. The tourists wouldn’t have liked it, now would they!

A couple of days ago the unofficial opposition, the Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy, announced a continuation of its massive protests against the government. Predicting 300,000 protesters on Bangkok’s streets, their strategy is ‘to paralyse the administration and the country.’ They plan to seize Government House and all the ministries, disrupt airports and block roads. “People have started to panic,” said the Prime Minister.

Whether the world caved in yesterday, I don’t yet know as I haven’t got the paper yet.

There are quite a few more interesting stories too. A Thai weight lifter has recovered from critical injury and won a gold at the Olympics. Her bid for gold was boosted when she changed her name as a nun suggested her old name could block her road to the top.

The Bangkok Post for 26 August has yet more stories, including that of a major strike at Body Fashion Thailand’s factory. Two thousand employees stopped work to protest the sacking of a labour union leader. She was sacked because, on a TV talk show, she wore a tee shirt claiming the right not to stand when the royal anthem is played in cinemas.

A provincial airport is being sued because there was no security screening when the complainant checked in. The scanners had been borrowed by a local university for security at its graduation day.

A former chief of the TT&T telephone company and four others has been charged with stealing fiber optic and copper cables. With a six wheeled truck and safety cones, they posed as repairmen and if challenged when hauling away quantities of cable they'd produce company documentation to prove their bona fides. Poorly paid and in debt to loan sharks, the chief had resigned his job as there was more money to be made harvesting cables than laying them.

Did he get as far as us or is this a national hobby?

Finally a Thai university has developed a new method of treating depression and phobias using elephants. ‘Autistic children will be matched with elephants based on their personalities. For example, hyperactive children will be paired with calm elephants, while introverted children will be matched with enthusiastic elephants.’ It sounds like a jolly good idea.

But that’s just in the newspapers.

Meanwhile, here on another planet, I hear the storm clouds rumbling darkly a few kilometers away and it’s painfully hot hitting the keys on my verandah upstairs. I long for the rain to come and cool things off a bit but the blackness seems to be receding and it’s sultry and still with not a hint of a breeze.

If I’m going to post this blog today, I’ll have to find the key to our gate and drive into Sangkha to the internet café, which may or may not be open. I’d rather stay here and watch television, if I had one I could understand. Or I could finish the painting I started in the kitchen yesterday, or mow the grass… if the mower worked.

Or I could ruminate a bit more upon the relativity of remoteness.

Trouble is my brain’s soggy and I have a rare craving for an ice cold beer. There were several bottles left from the party on Friday night but, dammit, they’ve disappeared. I should have put them in my bedroom cupboard under lock and key to make sure they didn’t walk.

Yes, an ice cold beer.

Really, really cold! In a glass that’s been put in the ice box… with condensation streaming down its sides and making a pool on the table. With salted cashews and almonds.

And some real Cheddar cheese! On a decent plate that’s not bendy plastic, eaten with butter and Ritz biscuits.

But no, forget all that. It’s just idle fantasy!

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Present Tense... Future Perfect!

I am in an internet cade\\fe in Sanghka. There are some typing errors as the letters on the keyboard are all worn out and I cannot tuch type.. I came in here to do this post ecause my own ToT IPStar internet at home is too slow to download pictures. I have sufcceeded in posting the pics but as the wording on the computer is all in Thai, I have committed an illeal action and the flashcard on which I'd put the text of this blog has become corrupted. So I've lost the text. I shall go home and try and post the text from there. (If so it will have taken a weej of trying to get this to you.)

Or I could just commit hari kiri... it'd save a lot of hassle!

Two hours later... back home and after five tries I've managed to post the text and have marginally survived!]


Staying married is never easy at the best of times as everyone knows. Major cultural differences are an added problem but language can sometimes be the biggest one. How can you understand each other unless you share a near perfect knowledge of a common language.

My skill in Thai is limited so Cat has to do the hard work of bridging the linguistic gulf between us and she does it pretty well. In fact she has far outstripped her English teachers at the village school and they are hugely impressed by her fluency.

Misunderstandings between us because of language happen rarely but when they do it’s usually because verb tenses in English are so horribly complex. We have twelve tenses with labyrinthine rules that are readily broken which overwhelms most Thais as the Thai language has no tenses at all.

‘He has a nice car.’ Present tense. ‘He has bought a new car.’ Perfect tense.

‘Will he have bought a new car?’ That’s ‘future perfect’… if I remember correctly!

‘Mama go market,’ says Cat to me as she shoots out of the door.

‘You mean she’s going to go or she’s gone?’ I reply, trying to be sure as I run after her.

‘I tell you already!’ says Cat. ‘You farang, you talk too mutt!’

I know e farang always talk too much but while the present’s tense, if I could perfect my Thai or Cat her English, the future could be almost perfect.

If Cat has transcended her teachers despite their Masters degrees in English, why is the general standard of English so low in Thailand?

I once met a senior teacher and the only thing he managed to say, when proffering a chair was, ‘Siddow pree’. From then on he could say nothing and Cat had to act as our interpreter.

Peter tells me of a local headteacher who got funds to build a library and so built himself a private office. On the outside of the door is a sliding notice which he changes as he goes in and out. Despite protests from his colleagues, it says, ‘Is’ and ‘No Is’!

At another school we visited, nicely painted as a permanent English language display hanging along the passage way are the words ‘postman’, ‘foot’, ‘brather’ and ‘annona’.

I’ve done a fair bit of voluntary teaching and helped many a child with their homework round here in the village and they do seem to find English terribly difficult. I accept that they just wanted me to do their homework for them and weren’t interested in learning anything… that’s normal. But what’s less explicable is that the exercises set for the homework were always several years ahead of the actual achievement level of the children.

I’m sure I wasn’t coaching dummies… they were simply floundering in water that had been made much too deep for them. No doubt the teacher was storming ahead through the book at a set pace and couldn’t slow down as this would be an admission of failure to achieve. As a result the kids were floundering and dispirited.

Yes, English with its many linguistic derivations, Greek, Latin, Germanic and so on is immensely rich and complex and it’s also liberally garnished with idiotic modern idiom which makes it even more difficult.

Thus a ‘makeover’ is a made up word about makeup. We chop down a tree before we chop it up. When the alarm comes on we say it goes off. Then we wind up a clock to get it started but wind up a company to close it down. The confusions are never ending.

Even worse, the Thais have insuperable problems with pronunciation. ‘Rice’, ‘house’, ‘horse’, ‘fish’ and ‘snake’ are impossible for many of them. ‘The sa-nake wen-t into the how to ea-t rai.’

Chinese speakers too have similar problems with sound clusters and word endings but when I went there as one of the first foreign visitors in 1978 shortly after the Cultural Revolution our guides spoke ponderous but fluent English. They had never met a foreigner of any sort before and had learned solely from books and listening to radio broadcasts.

I’m also intrigued that in Cambodia the level of English encountered in the street is far better than in Thailand. The little girls selling postcards at Angkor Wat chat happily and are totally at ease in the English language. No, they didn’t learn it at school… they’re too poor to go to school, they said. Talking about this to a Japanese man I met, he then spoke to one of them in Japanese and she responded fluently.

The more needy you are, the cleverer you have to be? No I don’t think that explains it. Plenty of Thais desperately need a leg-up into a better job through better English.

As another example, in Phnom Penh the motorbike taxi driver who picked me up at the frenetic central market when I got back from Kampot elicited my whole life history from me as we rushed through the traffic jams back to Maria’s place. This gave him the opportunity to offer his services for the rest of the day but he was gracious and friendly when I declined.

In Malaysia or Singapore, even far up country in Nigeria, people speak good English. Thailand did well to avoid being colonized but now has a lot of ground to make up. Even so, Cambodia was colonized by the French and Indonesia by the Dutch, yet the standard of English seems to be higher there, despite their economies being less developed.

So what’s the big problem in Thailand?

Though good English opens the door to many a job, is there a cultural resistance to absorbing something so foreign? Could it be that English is an Everest too high? It’s easy enough to learn a few words but is functional English just too difficult?

Thai kids often have an unspoken portfolio of words but it seems to be limited to ‘door’, ‘table’, ‘book’, ‘aeroplane’, and so on. It’s never ‘a book’, ‘an aeroplane’ or ‘the tables’. Thai has no articles or plurals and they just don’t seem to get the idea.

In my teaching I've often tried drilling standard questions.

‘What’s this?’ Answer… ‘It’s a car.’ Over weeks of repetition, this simple response still seemed so desperately difficult. ‘What colour is it?’ ‘It’s a red,’ they’d reply.

And speaking is just so embarrassing! Many Thais even in upmarket shops seem paralysed by shyness at the prospect of actually uttering something in English to a foreigner.

Until I hit sixty and had free eye tests in England, I used to go into ‘Beautiful Optical’, a big opticians in Sukhumvit, the tourist epicenter of Bangkok. It looks as if they haven’t had a customer since I was there last year and they rush to throw open the door as I approach. Milky white beauty queens all of them, they surround me as they edge me towards the desk, wai-ing humbly and smiling anxiously.

I produce my broken glasses.

‘I’m from Surin and an elephant trod on my specs,’ I say jovially. They all nod in solemn incomprehension.

One tests my eyes. Like the driving test it takes about a minute. Another helps me choose a frame. Yet another sits me down and measures my nose. Then they sit me on a couch and ply me with salty orange juice and haggle hard, decimating the price of the glasses, knocking off percentages with a small calculator until at last I smile. I wasn’t haggling anyway but the price has been brutally cut without a word being spoken.

They’re sweet and embarrassed as if I’m the only farang who’s ever come their way. The deal done, they all try to open the door for me and wai at the same time. It’s raining as I plunge outside into the heat and I nearly slip and break my new glasses on the slippery tiles of the sidewalk.

In many places where you might expect a reasonable level of English, you’ll often be disappointed. I use a branch of a major bank in Sukhumvit nearby and nobody seems to speak a word of English. Instead they huddle in a corner and look down uncomfortably whenever a farang walks in. The other day the ATM outside wouldn’t do a money transfer for me and I had to go in to ask for their help. The girl was all smiles and came out and wordlessly explained what I didn’t understand. The ATM screen which says, ‘Insert number of bill’ was supposed to mean, ‘Enter the amount to be transferred’. Couldn’t a major bank do better than that?

In the sixties, Japanese English was a joke but then they got their act together so as to sell more of their stuff. Thailand’s commercial world hasn’t got there yet though. Outside another big opticians shop I saw a big slogan reading, ‘Living in a vibrant world where every eyeful stimulates’. Thai Airways recently ran a campaign saying, ‘Buy One, Get One’. The firecracker I bought said, ‘Warning… shoots flaming balls with reports’.

I sit in the visa office in Bangkok under a sign that reads, ‘The visa extension process paid only fees, do not believe anyone.’

I have to produce to them a medical report which certifies that I am ‘free of dangerous step of tuberculosis’ and of ‘filariasis (step that causes disgust to society)’, and that I am ‘free of any defect’. Furthermore their leaflet says, ‘A foreigner who…wishes to re-enter Thailand during the validity period of his/her existing approval will expire immediately.’ Sounds worrying!

The menu in a smart restaurant offers ‘fried special wild bear in spicy taste’ and ‘soured telly vermicelli with thaw’. Yes, I love the menus.

At the Temple of Dawn in Bangkok I saw a big notice which said, ‘Do not dangle any doll’, and at the Pha Thaem National Park at the top of the unfenced cliff was a cryptic notice reading, ‘No Poke’. No, it’s not fair to poke fun, especially when my Thai language skills are even worse, but still I do wonder why!

The leaflet for the elephant fair in Surin told us that the show begins ‘with the Surin deva on the back of charming elephant evacuating from the clouds’. Perhaps this was to do with the fear of losing face. While someone was clever enough to have a good shot at writing a brochure, to get it looked at by one of the many native speaking English teachers in the town could have been humiliating. Instead it wasn’t checked and a greater public embarrassment resulted.

Governments have been well aware of the extent of the problem and that the obvious answer is better English teaching in schools. There’s often talk of recruiting more native speaking teachers with better qualifications, but then they’re reluctant to pay them properly. Salaries are extremely low and the visa hassles that applicants are put through are calculated to deter the most determined applicant. Why would any decent foreign teacher bother with all that?

In reality there can be no quick fix and any real improvement in overall standards will take a generation at least. First you need an army of teachers who can actually speak English and until these have been trained and put in post, there’ll be little if any improvement. That’s where resources should be focused though… in the teacher training colleges.

Meanwhile Cat and I are absorbing each other’s languages slowly but surely. As we get to understand each other better, most of the tensions are now way back in the past.

Past tense yes, but can I claim present perfect?

Maybe not yet awhile, though is there any such thing in life anyway? I’ll have to check my English grammar book.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

A Noodle In A Rice Sack




People often ask me what I spend my time doing living in a small village out on the vast rice plains of Isaan, the great North East of Thailand and I find this quite a difficult question to answer. If I analyse my time though, the greatest proportion of it is probably spent looking for things I’ve lost.

I confess that a small element of this could be due to my own geriatric decay. I find that my short term recall of where I put my mobile phone, car keys or glasses is slowly deteriorating.

However I also blame other more sinister forces for losing things. Living in a house full of people, everything is always going astray.

One job I always do is burning the household rubbish because otherwise drifts of plastic end up blowing around the garden and that’s horrible. So I look for the lighter which should be on top of the kitchen cabinet. I recently bought five to be sure of having one but they’ve all disappeared.

Now where’s the bottle opener? With all this hunting around, I’m in need of a beer. And the tape measure’s gone too. While building the house I bought at least four of these and all were quickly lost. Not stolen… lost!

I rarely do any work in the garden because the hoe and the rake have all disappeared. Whoever used them last has probably put them down in the long grass and it always takes me half an hour of searching before I can get started. Nobody ever puts things back in the same place and it’s so frustrating! In a big garden it’s like looking for a noodle in a rice sack.

Then there’s the keys to the front gate which always go missing. I must buy a new padlock with ten keys, but as of now there’s only one and it’s not in the drawer. Cat’s at the college and not answering her phone and so I’m a prisoner here as I can’t get the pickup onto the road. Yes, I made a place in the drawer for the key but it isn’t there. Round here, farang systems somehow get subverted every time.

Upstairs is my domain I think, but even there things can be difficult. I’ve bought a cupboard in which to keep my lighter, bottle opener, tape measure, hammer and screw driver and all the things I need and this usually now keeps them safe.

Trouble is, there’s a cultural quirk that destabilizes even my most cunning plan. The DNA of Thai women determines that before putting things away in box, drawer or cupboard they have to put them in plastic bags. And first they always tie the neck of the bag with a double knot so tight that it takes an age to open it to find the contents.

Thus when I want to find that digital optical reader for my camera it could be in any number of bags in any drawer and it takes half an age to find it. I thought of learning the drawer and bag that Cat keeps it in, but that’s a waste of time as she generally moves everything around from bag to bag and drawer to drawer at least every few days.

Cat’s extremely well organized and thoughtful about her domestic systems. Always trying to improve them, she changes them at the drop of a hat. I tell her where I want to keep something and even pre-empt her by putting it away myself, but when I next go to look it’s gone. Now the camera drawer’s full of blankets and receipts for everything she’s bought in the last decade or two but where’s the optical reader thingie gone?

I don’t mind this too much because if I didn’t spend my day looking for things, I wouldn’t have enough do. There’d only be my blog to write and that isn’t enough to fill my time or slow my mental decline.

Today I’m up in the bedroom at the computer and it’s hot. The ceiling fan hasn’t worked for a month and last night the air conditioner failed to work. The fan turns but the compressor doesn’t want to come on. So yes, it’s really hot just under the roof.

When occasionally my satellite internet does work, I’m usually getting a fifth of the speed that I’m paying TOT for and it can rarely open Hotmail. Today it managed to open my inbox but for some reason it won’t open the messages. I’ve got loads of messages to read and reply to but I can’t get into them. And for some reason the font size of the inbox has suddenly become infinitesimally small so I’m crazily peering at the screen through a magnifying glass. I’ve tried all the options to correct it, including ‘Appearance’ on ‘Internet Options’ and just cannot get it right.

An hour ago as I was hoping to attach a letter that I’ve just written to The Bangkok Post (something to do at least!), but the power went off and the internet crashed. So it now makes no difference that the ceiling fan, the aircon and the internet, my principal means to a civilized life don’t work. There’s nothing to power them anyway.

Was George Bush really in Thailand? What Olympics? I missed it all.

When I was writing “MY THAI GIRL AND I”, I gave an early draft to a friend, the venerable author, Jerry Hopkins who went to considerable trouble to read it for me. He made some useful suggestions that made it a much better book, but his principal comment which was debated on my blog several months back, was that the tone of the book was too negative and that I grumbled about Thailand all the time.

I therefore removed a chapter that was a bit too negative, the book’s out and on the best seller list and now I’m back upstairs writing blogs I cannot post.

It’s green and beautiful here in the village, but I can’t find my boots for mowing the lawn and the mower’s buggered anyway. It’s stupidly hot upstairs, it took a month to get The Bangkok Post ordered and my essential link to the world, the internet, though expensive is a dog that’s been hit by a truck. I’m about to drive into Sangkha to read my email at the internet café and to pay 5,000 baht to TOT for their internet that doesn’t work. Cat tells me you’re not allowed to challenge the bill, even though you’re getting nothing like the speed promised in the contract.

Yes, this is Thailand and those are the facts! And I’m not grumbling, Jerry, really I’m not.

Dare I tell you though, I wouldn’t mind a nice comfortable condo like yours in Sukhumvit and to dip my toe in Isaan occasionally… just long enough to get bored before fleeing back to the big city and civilisation. Like you do!

Today I can’t even go out to the internet café to read my email messages. The gate’s locked, the key’s gone awol again and Cat’s not back until nine tonight! Yesterday’s Bangkok Post with my letter in it didn’t come and I couldn’t check their website. As for food, that’s not important.

But no, Jerry, I’m NOT grumbling!! I’m just telling it like it is.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

A Lifeline for Ben and Yut

Viewed from my upstairs verandah, the clouds and storms are spectacular as it’s the rainy season, Nan and Cat are busy in their vegetable garden and now we’ve got a shop just across the soi.

In fact Cat had it built by her brother, Mangorn on her sister’s land while I was away in England. The scale of it came as a bit of a surprise to me but apart from it being pretty ugly, a total non-issue around here, the idea is a good one.

Essentially it’s a shop for Cat’s sister Yut and her husband Ben. The story is that for years they’ve been working in Samut Prakan in shoe and plastics factories but when Yut became pregnant with Best, now aged two, the second wage went out of the window and life wasn’t worth living any more. They had to be apart for a bit, but if somehow they could eke a living in the village they could stay together and have a better life than in the teeming sweatshops of the city.

So Cat has set them up with the shop. As from when the monks come by early in the morning, it’s quite a sociable place and everyone on the soi stops for a chat and to buy snacks, toothpaste and alcohol. Yut also sometimes cooks grilled chicken and fried bananas and these seem to sell quite well.

As in all Third World countries the modest shelves of luxuries are much the same… soap, tinned fish and tiny packets of luxuries that make a simple life a little sweeter. This could be Africa, Central America, anywhere. Always the packets are as small as possible as the buyer has no cash and in consequence pays the maximum possible price for their purchase. A toothbrush and toothpaste, some washing powder and liquid is more than forty baht, a third of a rice farmer’s daily wage. It’s big money for them, but Ben makes only a tiny mark-up on each sale; a baht or two a time.

Yet big business stands tall behind all these brands and everything is highly advertised on TV and elsewhere. The tens of millions of poor farmers are a big market. Being a farang I can’t read the packets and while the brand of the soap powder seems to say ‘USA’, in fact in Thai it’s ‘Breeze’ and it’s a fast mover.

The shop is open from dawn to dusk and though better than the plastics factory, for Ben the day is mind-numbingly dull. He waits an hour or all afternoon and nobody comes by, but then that’s how half the population of South East Asia live… in an endless cycle of nil opportunity and low productivity that’s hard to break.

I ponder too that when his back is briefly turned and a bottle of beer walks away, then most of the day’s profits are gone. Cat tells me they try to keep track of stock and to tot up the cash they take but I really wonder if there's any profit at all. If they had to pay for the building or for rent, there would of course be nothing to be made.

But anyway, it’s good that they’re here and I hope they can get by. Mama now has another of her daughters back home and the family is a little more complete. If we go away, they are here to look after Mama and watch over our house. Ben is a delightful man and always keeps a sharp eye out for any intruders in daylight hours.

While I was away in England the gravel road of the soi was paved with concrete so it’s beginning to look quite prosperous, suburban even. The only two pickups owned by neighbours have inevitably been repossessed but there’s still a good few motorbikes and everyone keeps smiling.

As the Thais always do despite costs going sky high!

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

A Shared Heritage

Above, Khao Phra Viharn. Below Prasat Hin Prang Ku.

Below, Prasat Hin Sikoraphum, Surin Province.

Apsara at the Khmer temple, Sikoraphum, Surin.

[New photos posted in an internet cafe as my Tot IP Star internet connection at home is too slow to do so.]

I can’t stop thinking about the crazy fuss over the temple of Khao Phra Viharn, (Preah Vihear in Khmer,) the Khmer style temple on top of the cliff in Cambodia just over the Si Saket border. It’s so sad that the parlous state of domestic politics in both countries has caused relations between Thailand and Cambodia to deteriorate so badly. The temple has become a political football and the focus of an entirely avoidable dispute.

The tension began over Cambodia’s successful application to have the temple listed as a World Heritage Site, something that’s in the interests of both countries, particularly Thailand which is the principal point of access for tourists. The issues are complex but suffice it to say that with troops massed on each side of the border, it only needed one hot headed soldier for fighting to break out. Now all cross-border trade between the two countries is badly affected and it may take years before the temple is again open for access from Thailand.

The current disaster perhaps highlights a much more positive point that is easily missed. Until now the degree of cooperation by the two countries over management of the temple has been little short of exemplary and could easily be continued. Thailand was mature enough to accept the decision of the International Court of Justice that the temple was within Cambodia and to realize that its best interest lay in working with and not against Cambodia.

Agreements were then reached by which visitors from Thailand were allowed across the border into Cambodia to see the temple without any passport formalities whatsoever. For all practical purposes the border became invisible.

Once sitting in the small pagoda on the Moh E Daeng cliff, an area now in dispute and claimed by both countries, I found myself talking to a monk who was speaking French. Otherwise there’s nothing to suggest that this is where the colonial power long ago asserted its territorial ambitions against the Thais.

In the temple you always pay the entry fee in Thai baht and the little Cambodian girls who wander the ancient ruins selling postcards were to be seen eating fried chicken in the stalls on the Thai side. It was a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere, in strong contrast to the aggressive territoriality forced on the region with the invention of the modern nation state.

The Thais now of course would say the decision of the Court that put the temple in Cambodia was wrong, but they now have to live with it.

Certainly it was not a very practicable decision. Perched at the top of the scarp just below the watershed, geographically it is within the Thai land mass and of necessity was always approached from that side because of the high cliff to its south cutting it off from the Cambodian plains. Politically it must therefore have been a part of the Korat plateau, whether ruled from Angkhor or not.

Practicality was not the issue that the Court had to decide though. It was not for the Court to decide which country the temple should most conveniently belong but to which country it belonged in law. Its role was to interpret the effect of the border treaties loosely concluded between French colonial Indo-China and the then sovereign powers of Siam.

Unequal treaties they may have been but the late colonial carve up of the world during that era created many greater anomalies and no court can put the clock back. To do so would be to overthrow the current international legal order throughout the world.

There is a possible argument that the temple is rightly within Cambodia as it is a temple in the Khmer style, but this is an argument without any merit whatsoever. The Khmer empire and its influence spread across a huge part of what is now Thailand. There are Khmer temples in large numbers on the Thai side of the modern international border.

Little is known about the precise nature of the political organization of this empire, only that it spread northwards from Ankhor breaking through the physical barrier of the Dongrak mountains at the low pass of Chong Jom, the present border crossing near where I now renew my annual visa. The road with its seven stations or rest houses, several of which are still discernible, then continued onwards to the major Khmer temple at Phimai. This temple along with Khao Phnom Rong in Buriram province indicate that Khmer culture flourished extensively in what is now Thailand and that it is just as likely from a cultural point of view that the disputed temple is on the Thai side as in Cambodia.

Near to where Cat and I live at Sangkha in Surin province there are many small Khmer temples that still have substantial structures standing. Given that nearly a thousand years have passed since the construction of the earliest at Phum Pon just south of Sangha, these were major monuments and a tribute to a remarkable civilization. What constantly surprises me is how those societies that create the greatest civilizations then often disintegrate into the poorest and most desolate of all.

I’m now digressing wildly, but think of China, India, Egypt, Central America. Even West Africa with the splendours of Timbuktu and the empires of Songhai, Bornu and Benin. All of these great societies had infinitely far to fall and the decline of the glory that once was Cambodia is no exception.

A few months back I decided to try and find one of the last local Khmer temples that I have not yet visited. With Anthony, a fellow enthusiast for ancient stone, we set off from Sangkha to look for Prang Ku, a small temple about forty kilometers away. It shouldn’t have been difficult to find but it was.

Simple navigation can be a formidable challenge in Thailand as road maps are breathtaking for their inaccuracy. The roads shown are historical only and the words ‘Prasat Hin Prang Ku’ were spread across perhaps fifteen kilometres of the map without being pin pointed, even if printed roughly in the right place. We therefore had to scout a wide swathe of terrain to find the temple.

Added to this was the problem of language and the fact that no self-respecting Thai would go a hundred yards out of their way to look at an old heap of stones. Accordingly the locals had little idea where it was.

We were probably within a mile of the temple for at least half an hour repeatedly asking for directions, but they all pointed confidently in different directions. When we finally got there, the temple precinct was nicely maintained by the authorities at some expense and was well worth the visit. That expenditure probably provided a good few jobs, though actually putting up some direction signs or getting anyone to go and look at the ruins would perhaps be expecting too much.

We then went on to look at the temple at Sikoraphum, a much larger complex that I’ve been to many times before that is well preserved and has some nice carved lintels and figures. Surrounded by a moat and shaded with massive trees, it is a beautiful spot. The site is well managed and clean and there’s a small charge for entry, though it is much less appealing than a Seven Eleven store or a dealership for Honda motorcycles, the local temples to consumerism.

American convenience stores and Japanese motorbikes are part of a shared modern culture that bind the world together in mutual interdependence, while Khmer temples are part of an ancient culture shared between Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. It thus doesn’t much matter on whose side of the border the temple of Khao Phra Viharn is thought to fall. Whoever’s it is, the peoples on both sides of this artificial divide are equally entitled to benefit from it. They should demand that their governments again cooperate in the open border policy that served them so well and for so long.

Listing as a World Heritage Site is a huge opportunity for all, especially for Thailand which should see considerable commercial benefit for the poor region on its side of the border. It could be a continuing example of how two nations can work together for their mutual benefit.

Sadly people throughout the world are now looking on, aghast that local domestic politics could so unnecessarily foment an international incident of such seriousness. But then most wars and confrontations are the consequence of weak internal leadership, of self-serving politicians playing to the electoral gallery. What will they think of next when they think we’re all bored with the ‘War on Terror’?

It’s not hard too to see a link too between the Khao Phra Viharn fracas and past turmoil in world politics. That this region became a key theatre for the ‘War on Communism’ is one of the key factors that destabilized Cambodia for so very long and set neighbour against neighbour.

From the West we can look down with dismay at the current dispute but the countries of South East Asia are not solely to blame for the tensions that still divide them.