Sunday, 26 October 2008

Preah Vihear - A Shared Heritage

A child in an old Khmer Rouge sala looks out fearfully

I can’t stop thinking about the long running border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over the temple of Khao Phra Viharn. Called Preah Vihear in Khmer, this fine Khmer style temple sits on top of a cliff in Cambodia just across the border from Thailand’s Si Saket, not far from where I now live. The volatile state of domestic politics in both countries has recently caused relations to deteriorate badly and the Cambodians have closed the temple to visitors from Thailand. The issue has become a political football, the focus of an entirely avoidable crisis.

The current tension flared up over Cambodia’s application to UNESCO to have the temple listed as a World Heritage Site, which was duly granted on July 15. With Thai and Cambodian troops occupying disputed land below the temple it only needed one hot-headed soldier for fighting to break out. Cross-border trade between the two countries has been badly affected and it could be years before the temple is again open to access from Thailand.

The conflict perhaps now highlights a positive point that is easily missed. Until recently cooperation by the two countries over access to the temple has been little short of exemplary and could easily be continued. Thailand was forced to accept the 1962 decision of the International Court of Justice that the temple fell within Cambodia and realized that its best interest lay in working with and not against Cambodia.

When the Khmer Rouge were first out the area in 1998 and essential mine clearance done, agreements were then reached to allow visitors from Thailand into the temple without any passport formalities whatsoever. It was a pleasantly relaxed atmosphere and for all practical purposes the border became invisible.

As the ancient Khmer empire included much of Thailand, the many fine temples that remain are part of a shared heritage. People on both sides of an artificial divide should thus have ready access to Khao Phra Viharn. Rather than inflaming ultra-nationalist passions, they should now demand that their governments again cooperate in the open border policy that has served so well.

Listing as a World Heritage Site should be seen as an opportunity for the two countries to work together for their mutual benefit, though if the Thais do not co-operate in this, then Cambodia will go it alone. Talk is of Cambodia building a new road to the foot of the cliff and of private interests building a cable car up to the temple. There are wider issues too as all 800 kilometres of the border still needs demarcation, a process that has been delayed by the threat of land mines. The border that divides the territorial sea also needs precise definition. With substantial energy resources to be discovered there, the implications for the two countries are considerable.

Meanwhile the world looks on, aghast that local domestic politics could so unnecessarily foment an international incident. It’s not hard though to see a link with past turmoil in Indo-China. Observers may be dismayed at the current dispute but the countries of South East Asia are not solely to blame for the tensions that still set them apart.

(This article was first published in DATELINE, (second quarter 2008), the journal of the FCCT, The Foreign Correspondants' Club of Thailand. You don't have to be any sort of correspondant to join the FCCT. I am a country member for a very small subscription and enjoy the excellent menu and private atmosphere of the club premises close to the Skytrain and especially the many remarkable visiting speakers and similar events that are a regular feature of the club.)

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Frogs and A Border War

The old border market, always bustling

The new market on Saturday, very quiet indeed

Oceans of unfilled bras

Sorting second hand clothes from Korea

The bales of clothes behind them are their livelihood

Light on water near the border

Diesel, Lisa and Cat at the lake

Not so far away from us here on the rice plains of Surin there’s a border war brewing between Cambodia and Thailand. It’s serious stuff and there’s already been hostilities with several fatalities and many injured.

The present tension arose over Cambodia’s successful application to UNESCO to have the temple of Khao Phra Viharn, just on their side of the border, listed as a World Heritage Site. It’s now an unnecessary spat about a tiny strip of territory.

The soldiers are dug in facing each other a few hundred yards apart on a 4.6 square kilometer piece of scrub that’s disputed by both countries close to the ancient temple. When Thai troops are there, the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen says they’ve invaded his country and when the Cambodians appear Thailand says exactly the same thing.

‘It’s mine!’ ‘No, it’s mine’, they keep saying, issuing tough threats of war from time to time.

As a result tensions are running high and two Cambodian soldiers were killed in a forty minute shoot out and seven Thai soldiers injured. [It now seems to be three Cambodians dead and two Thais.] Two Thai rangers have had their legs blown off by mines in an area that is said to be de-mined. The Thais are now accusing the Cambodians of laying new mines.

As if Cambodia hasn’t had enough of warfare and mines, they are now loudly rattling sabres at their much bigger neighbour.

However, Thailand’s Second Army commander, Lt. Gen Wibulsak Neepal is quoted in the paper as saying, ‘The situation should improve. Both sides have had lunch.’ And the front page of Sunday’s Bangkok Post (19 Oct) shows a Cambodian general ‘holding hands along the border’ with a smiling Thai officer. I do hope the general’s right.

About forty miles south of our village in Surin runs a line of hills called the Dongraks. If you look at a map of lower Isaan you’ll see that these form a natural border with Cambodia. You’ll also notice that the Thai side is well populated with small country towns and is criss-crossed with roads but that there’s very little on the other side. This region of Cambodia looks very poor indeed.

After decades of instability (Cat remembers as a child hearing the far-off sounds of heavy guns) the last thing they need is more of the same. Everyone benefits from cordial relations through cross-border trade and tourism but these have now slowed to a trickle and Thais living in Cambodia have been advised to return home.

So why fight over a tiny scrap of land?

While the whole of the border needs demarcation, the task has not been completed because of the civil war following the fall of Pol Pot and uncleared land mines. This should be a simple task that could be slowly completed without tension, so long as politicians do not stir up nationalistic disputes for their own ends. It can then be business as usual.

On Saturday Cat said she wanted to go to our usual market on the Thai side of the border at Chong Jom as she was going to buy a few hundred frogs for her latest frog farm. (She says she’s done it so this time they can’t possibly escape!) And I’m happy to see the market again as I want to see the current state of trade on the border.

This market used to be set up in a forest area near the border check points but now it’s been moved up to a huge new site on the main road and it’s hot and horrible and I don’t like it as much. Such is progress!

Chong Jom market is busiest at weekends and is a chaotic muddle of stalls selling Thai vegetables to Cambodians and cheap goods of all possible description. I find it surprising that you’ll see saloon cars registered in Phnom Penh covered in mud and packed to the roof with vegetables ready to make the tough journey back.

The other big item for sale is second hand fabrics. In half the stalls there’s huge bales of clothes and bedding shipped in from Korea and Japan, perhaps given to Cambodia as aid and then brought across the border to sell to the Thais.

They won’t be selling much though as my question was soon answered. The market was very quiet indeed and it’ll be some time before all the acres of bedding and brassieres will be sold.

Some of the stalls were shut up, their Cambodian owners apparently keeping well out of the way, while Thai buyers are perhaps unwilling to come so close to a border hot-spot. The children who gazed sadly at my camera, the bales of clothes unopened behind them will be having a lean time of it until the political problems at the border are sorted out.

After a market marathon when we and our friends all lost each other for ages as there was no phone signal, we then drove a few miles to one of our favourite lakes nestling in the hills. The light was beautiful and there was a pleasant breeze, but with hardly a soul around, the eating places were almost deserted.

Sitting in a grass roofed pavilion built over the water, this was as peaceful as it should be, though at the temple to the East they’re ready to die and all for a petty squabble stirred up by politicians and ultra-nationalists.

As so often, this border separates people of similar culture (Khmer is widely spoken in Thailand) and it was imposed on them by French Indo-China not so long ago during the colonial era. The temple nonetheless is a shared heritage and disputing a few scraps of land on the border now benefits nobody.

The damage to the two countries has already been immense in loss of reputation and revenue… as if this was needed in these difficult times.

We had a great day out at the market though and Cat, by the way, got her frogs.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Nan's Dayglo Cake

Food enough for an army but it all goes.

Lighting the cake.


I remember not so long ago asking Cat how old Nan is now and she said she was thirteen. A few days ago it was her birthday and I asked Cat again.

‘She’s thirteen,’ said Cat.

‘But she can’t be,’ I said. ‘She was thirteen last month.’

Then I remembered. While in the West we only add a year after the birthday itself, Thais quite sensibly round it up a year a few months beforehand.

This may be confusing but what’s more difficult is that if you ask a child her age, she probably doesn’t know. It’s okay if she says she doesn’t know but all too often she’ll pick a number out of the air because that’s what you want to hear. Next time you ask, it’ll be different.

Age and birthdays doesn’t seem to be too important in Thailand which suits me quite well now that I’m fast approaching middle age.

Funny things do seem to happen though. According to her identity card Cat's Mama is only two years older than her eldest son, Mungorn, while Cat’s ID says that she’s only six months older than her sister.

How they got Mama’s age wrong I’ve no idea but in Cat’s case, as the family was living out in the middle of nowhere, it took them almost two years to register the birth.

Nonetheless the idea of birthdays is fast catching on and so we had a little celebration and a cake for Nan. Marking a birthday is not a part of Thai tradition but with aggressive commercialism finding any excuse for a party, they’re catching on in a big way, along with dubious western festivals like Valentine’s Day and Halloween.

Some friends came round to our house for a small party, Cat cooked enough for an army and Nan had her cake and ate it.

Lighting the candles in anticipation does have a certain magic, though Thai cakes are a mixed blessing. As usual this one glowed in the dark, vivid in coloured icing. The sponge is usually light with no texture but the icing is a horror. It’s hardly even sweet and is more like lard or grease than a conventional icing. You could use it to lubricate a bearing or as an underseal for your car but eating it isn’t so good an idea.

Cat tells me that as a child, they knew about birthday celebrations so used to find a candle and stick it in a dry buffalo pat. After it had been blown out the kids then threw the bits of the ‘cake’ at each other which was probably every bit as fun.

Then came the day for her first real cake. It had taken some time to save the money and very excited she went into town on a friend’s motorbike. They’d collected it from the shop and as they were driving away, the door of a parked car flew open. They swerved to avoid it and the cake fell into the road and was squashed by a following truck.

I bet they laughed in true Thai style but I’ll bet it hurt too. The sight of a child standing bawling her eyes out, her ice cream fallen in the dust I find strangely poignant, perhaps a reflection of life itself.

Small bakery shops are appearing in many towns in Thailand and the trays of bread and cakes look bright and interesting, though don’t try putting them in your mouth. The bread is sweet and the pastries revert to flour in your mouth. Somehow Thai versions of farang foods subtly subvert the original and really are new creations to suit local tastes.

The slice of so-called pizza I recently bought in the mini-mart rather than starve was soggy and sweet and left a strong afterburn of chilli. Never again!

Even so Nan and the kids seem to have enjoyed the ritual with their cake, though it was the event and not the eating that mattered most.

All of which makes me wonder what it’s like being a thirteen year old Thai girl in this part of the country. Nan is growing up and carries it off with style, going into her big school in Sangkha every day on a pickup truck loaded with students.

She says she likes the school but I wonder how she’s doing and what her future will bring. You hear of jobs in the public sector receiving literally thousands of applications and the outcome must be inevitable. Family contacts or money can get you a job for life and you’re out of luck if you don’t have them.

Thailand is a hierarchical society and not a meritocracy which in my view is the chief source of so many of its problems.

This is why so many people chance their arm by starting a small business. There’s so much competition though and as everywhere most business fail to make a profit.

It’s not a misfortune to be born a Thai but it’s tough if you really want to get ahead.

'Mai pen rai' they'll all say though, what the hell... and smile sweetly.

That's just the way it has to be.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

The Sound of Silence

A trailer full of noise

Mama minding the shop

What amber nectar?

Celebrating a new shop at another village.

Early this morning I was woken by loud music out on the main road so I grabbed my camera and went out to have a look. I expected to find crowds of people twirling and dancing and celebrating the end of Pansa, the Buddhist Lent, but all I found was an orange tractor and a trailer loaded with speakers. These were belting out the message... come to the temple. It's the end of Lent.

Wandering back I dropped in at our shop and found Mama in charge. Ben had gone off on his motorcycle to get more alcohol. As it's the end of Lent, everyone is now free to drink again so sales are brisk. Not that they ever stopped, and he's not supposed to sell in the Mid-day period either. But this is another world where Bangkok rules hardly bite.

On the table stood a row of bottles filled with an amber liquid. Sang Som the bottles said. I enjoy a tot of Sang Som and Coke, but oh no, this isn't rum. Nothing is what it seems. This is petrol.

Locals with motorcycles sometimes forget to stop at a filling station so they buy a bottle here instead. It costs them the small mark up that Ben makes on the deal but then what's wrong with capitalism. He won't get rich but he seems to be making a living.

Somebody's doing okay too if they could afford to buy that tractor, though in all probability they couldn't. It's almost certainly on the never-never which usually means the never ever. Finance deals usually come to grief round here which is all very sad.

In the meantime it's doing a useful job of waking me in the morning and invading my ear drums. There's no right to silence in Thailand.

Copyright The Thai Girl Blog


I wrote a longer version of this blog but when I came to download it I found that the file had been wiped and there was a rude message saying, "Hack by Debugger!" I've lost all 'My Documents' and have little idea what to do. How am I going to write and post my blogs now?

Friday, 17 October 2008

Dear John, I'm Confused.

John Irving looking cool in black tee shirt

John Grisham looking cool in black tee shirt

From Ali to Zadie. I'm confused again.

An insect's best house.

It’s amazing how well ‘the novel’ holds its own in this modern world of television and internet. Supermarkets now stock them, book shops seem to be booming and in the big airports the shelves are laden. The penny novel started out on railway stations in the steam era and surprisingly it continues to thrive, albeit now much thicker and more pricey.

What a great bandwagon it is for an author churning out popular novels. If you can get a foot in the door. With about one in a thousand novels offered to publishers ever getting published and most of these then disappearing without trace, success can be elusive. If though you hit the right buttons with a good agent who sells to the right publisher and markets you well, then you’re on a roll.

Becoming a published novelist is thus as chancy as making it big in Hollywood, but the rewards can be as good. Even J.K. Rawlings who wrote those Barry Potter books would tell you she’s made a buck or two and now the poor woman can’t go anywhere in the street without being mobbed.

Books are as commercial a product as everything else and when a publisher takes on a new novelist they have to be actively marketed as a brand. The writer then churns out a book a year in exactly the same genre, which is hardly a recipe for creativity. And each one has to be four or five hundred pages or whatever; usually far too long for my liking. The author thus has to grind out several thousand words a day, padding out the story as best they can.

Sometimes it’s their early novels that were worth reading but soon they become formulaic. I often wonder what the point of the story is. Why care about these cardboard cut-outs as their cliff hanging predicament will be artificially resolved when the author pulls a few fluffy rabbits out of the hat in the last few pages.

You see the main character, Leonard wasn’t really Leonard at all but was Christian’s second cousin, who was in fact poisoned by Darcie, and even though Tom thought he was Lilian’s son, he wasn’t, which makes it alright for Jack who therefore hasn’t been having an incestuous relationship his little sister as you suspected.

That’s all very clever but what the hell!

There used to be a few big names around like Huxley and Maugham and Greene, but now there’s just too many writers which gets me confused.

Was it Zadie Smith, Ali Smith or Monica Ali who wrote Hotel Lane, White World and Brick Teeth? And which best seller was written by Lynda Laplonque, Karl Hyacinth, Jodie Pickle or Minette Waters. I’ve read something by all of them but am not sure what.

Then there’s John Irving and John Grisham.

Recently I exposed my ignorance of the Johns by getting them confused in a comment I posted on the Thaivisa forum. I said I liked ‘The Painted House’ by John Irving and was quickly put to rights. It’s by Grisham.

Big hitters respectively for Random House and Transworld Publishers, they’ve done extraordinarily well as buyers keep coming back for more, but I do find it easy to confuse them. Despite identical, wry smiles and the black tee shirt in their photo shoot, you can just distinguish them as Irving has a little more hair. At least he did have when his picture was taken twenty or so years ago.

There are some other differences too as Grisham’s titles always begin with the definite article. Thus his books are called, ‘The Summons, The Rainmaker, The Client, The Partner, The Firm, The Chamber, The Testament’… ad nauseam and all the way to the bank.

I give him some credit though for writing not about sex, sex and more sex but about lawyers, hardly everyone’s first love. Being a lawyer myself I did read one of his legal books but that was enough. I’ve also read a rare Grisham that begins with the indefinite article, ‘A Painted House’, which I thought was very well written. About a family’s struggle to survive as farmers in the bad old days of the dust bowl or the Depression in Arkansas (or was it South Dakota) the book was utterly memorable. It was up there in the same league as “The Grapes of Wrath” by Steinbeck, yet another of the American Johns.

Irving’s perhaps a more varied read than Grisham and he writes nicely but I found ‘The World According to Gripe’ pretty indigestible. Our puppy found “The Fourth Hand” indigestible too and only managed to eat the bottom right corner of the book. On the other hand an insect loved ‘A Painted House’ and made a mud nest on it, which means I can’t have opened it for ages.

I don’t trust the critics though and in my view when it comes to novels, there are no real absolutes. It’s a personal thing and you either enjoy a book or you don’t.

For me it’s the story telling comes first and that’s why I’d choose my old friend Stephen Leather over many more seriously rated novelists. For example, that famous guy whose name escapes me (the one who wrote, ‘Atonement’,) gets off on fine writing but his stories are so plodding. In his recent novel set in London in the new millennium (in which he calls an East End low-life ‘Baxter’ like a prep school boy instead of ‘Wayne’ or ‘Dave’), it takes a jet liner flaming down into Heathrow about thirty pages not to crash. Fast moving narrative or what!

Sour grapes this may be, but one absolute I do know is that “Thai Girl” by Andrew Hicks’ is his finest novel.

My second book, “My Thai Girl and I” just happens to be non-fiction.

Good books, both of them? Pity about the covers!

I don’t have Random House or Transworld behind me to do the marketing and the most difficult bit has been writing my own book covers. Doing the descriptive blurbs is tough enough but it’s writing the comments from independent reviewers that I really struggle with. With no ecstatic hardback reviews to quote, just how good can I claim to be?

Book reviews of course are a genre in themselves, sometimes pseuds’ corner incarnate. They don’t have to read a book to do a review… just deliver a torrent of adjectives and sizzling assertions that draw attention to themselves as a clever writer.

The April Fools review of my never-to-be novel, “The Kandinsky Lode” (which you can Google or find on at 'Other Stuff',) is a tribute to the book reviewer’s tacky art. In writing this spoof, all I had to do was come up with a Dan Brown story line, then paste in words and phrases taken from reviews in the front pages of commercial fiction. They’re adjectivally retentive and I find them hilarious and deeply dishonest.

Inside John Irving’s “The Fourth Hand” there’s a pseud’s corner of the finest quality, several pages of it.

The following reviewers comments are typical.

“The Fourth Hand” ‘oozes readability in abundance. The pages flick over, you bask in the light of gentle companionable decency, smiling, chortling even. Then comes its final epiphany, and you glide on a sometime ripple of transient pleasure, shutting the book with a great two-handed thwack of explosive satisfaction.’ THE SCOTSMAN.

“Here is a splendid gallery of endearing grotesques, of fallible characters swept along the seas and muddy waves of fate and coincidence and a delicate fresco of frailties and tenderness… a beguiling tale of love and redemption.” TIME OUT

“Grief, loss, abortion, amputation, sex, children, America’s political history and the power of foresight are all explored here.” THE OBSERVER

“Joyfully exotic… You’ll find yourself shaking with laughter.” THE SEATTLE TIMES

EVE also found it, “Sharp, funny and as deep as the sea.” UNCUT thought it “sharp and very, very funny”, and THE LIST says that Irving, “lays bare sexual relations, the media and dog poo in humourous and biting style.”

Less forgiveable perhaps, Transworld tell us that Irving’s novel, “A Son of the Circus” is ‘an extraordinary evocation of modern India’. Is it really? Irving himself admits he had never even been to India.

The mega publishers can thus say and do they like, can find fawning reviewers and get reviews of their books published in the top journals. They then edit the best snippets from these reviews for the paperback edition and where’s the honesty in that?

As for me, I have to write my own cover pages and reviews!

“THAI GIRL” thus is “surely the best backpacker novel so far.” “A totally compelling novel, I was either in fits or in floods.” “Not just another rehash of the Bangkok bar scene, this is a serious book.” My friends read a draft and told me so!

My new book about my life in Thailand with Cat, “MY THAI GIRL AND I” is described by me on the back as, “One of the funniest books I’ve read all week,” “A feast for feminists!” and “Hicks at his best”.

Which I think sets the tone and deceives no-one.

For the second printing of THAI GIRL I was able to insert some real quotes from the media that it’s, “one of the top selling English language novels ever published in Thailand,” and “the definitive novel about relations between foreigners and Thais”.

I didn’t reprint the cover though as a new set of colour plates costs a fair bit. Nor did I get it reviewed in The Scotsman, Time Out or The Observer. I don’t have that much clout as an author, not yet at least.

For really independent comments from real readers you should look at my READERS FORUM on Here you’ll find all the rude comments I’ve received, along with the nicer ones, and what could be more transparent than that.

Selling books is like selling beans so of course you say they’re sweet and tender on the can. Powdered milk may only be suitable for making plastic tops for kitchen tables though, so caveat emptor! Caveat lector too.

At least this blog, like all the best things in life, is free.

Copyright Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Sleeping Dogs, Sleeping Child

Sleeping dogs at Phibun Mike's

Sleeping dog, sleeping child

With his other dog, aged two years, nine months

Ping, aged five asleep with Mama

Our house out in the far rice fields of North Eastern Thailand is always filled with the happy noises of children and dogs. It’s open house around here and people of all ages wander in freely and, while the dogs know they’re supposed to stay outside, inevitably they sneak in guiltily and pretend that they’re not really there.

As a result it’s usually riotous at home with the chatter of shrill voices and yapping, and sometimes when they fall asleep in the mid-day heat we creep around, grateful for a few moments’ peace. Let sleeping dogs lie and children too.

Thai children seem to find their easy sociability very early in life and they play happily together for hours on end, though they can be little devils, charged with energy and mischief. Like kids everywhere they want to be the winner, grabbing the other’s toy, pushy, acquisitive, demanding.

There may be no such thing as original sin but by god they learn fast.

I love the dogs too but ours have often been a cause of heartbreak. We’ve lost four dogs so far and counting and while Cat casually wants to collect some more, I’m reluctant to make the commitment.

I wrote earlier of the awful day when Pepsi’s beautiful white puppy Leo was mowed down by a truck on the main road but I shall never bring myself to write about what happened to Pepsi.

Pepsi, our loveliest and most gentle dog, Pepsi, my firmest friend who always understood me when the chips were down, who’s there in so many of the pictures in MY THAI GIRL AND I… Pepsi succumbed and died just after I’d left the village to go and visit to England. If we’d looked after her better we might have saved her but we didn’t. And now horrible things are happening to another dog all over again.

I told you recently about how Cat collected a new puppy from the wat in Sangkha to give to her sister, Yut, but she saw where the best food was to be had and came running back to us. Soon Milo had adopted us and it was impossible to make her stay at Yut’s house as it’s only just round the corner.

Milo’s a bit of a terror, jumping up to catch the clothes on the washing line, chasing the ducks, scattering the used disposable nappies she’s dragged in from next door and generally making a nuisance of herself. Cat’s none too keen on her as Thai dogs shouldn’t be so apparent, but I love her for her sweetness and warmth and for her high spirits and cheek. It’s not every dog that climbs into the pushchair at night and goes to sleep there like a baby.

Milo is definitely a naughty dog and in the West our usual response with a naughty dog is to train it to behave better. Round here you don’t bother. You sell it for a hundred baht to the man who comes by on his motorbike and trailer and then you get another one. Yes, life is always precarious for animals in farming communities.

Not far from us on the main road an old man has just died after a long illness and our lives have been dominated by the five day funeral festival that the family put on for him. At about three in the morning the funeral music starts up and it’s hard to sleep. The music must be incredibly loud given that we’re at least five hundred yards away and it chills the soul, a dreadful music that murders sleep. It has a sickly, sad synthesis of plinketty piano and waily, warbly flute sounds and for Cat it’s powerfully evocative of death. I find it disturbing as I’ve already heard it at three family funerals and for me too it’s charged with grim associations.

At about six in the morning the music takes a break just as our day begins and we fall blearily out of bed. Five nights of this has been more than enough and I’m now feeling pretty ragged as I stare into my laptop computer.

It was during the funeral festival that Milo disappeared. An inevitable part of funerals around here is that there are three shattering bangs every few hours that tell the surrounding villages someone has died and which scare away the bad spirits. They scare me too and of course they terrify the dogs. I wondered therefore whether Milo had run a mile to get away from them.

I called for Milo outside but to no avail and as she didn’t return for her food I feared we mightn’t see her again. Then early in the morning just after the music had stopped, I heard a yelping outside. Milo was trying to crawl in under the gate.

She was in a terrible state, thin, traumatized and shivering, tottering on feeble legs like a new born lamb and dragging her rear quarters, a bloody wound down her flank. The heartbreak was happening all over again.

Cat has since been told that someone saw Milo hit by a car and I now wasn’t sure if she’d survive. Huddled in a corner she was refusing to eat and looked desperately sad and pathetic, gazing at me soulfully, hardly able to raise the smallest wag. It seemed to me then that she might have internal injuries and possibly neurological damage as well and could be headed for the happy hunting ground. I don’t want to say too much, though I’m now getting a bit more hopeful.

Dogs have an innocence in their devotion to mankind and their dependency on us that makes them so very special. I love them for that, just as I love the serene image of a sleeping child. ‘The world’s so wild, I’ll cover you sleeping child.’

So very vulnerable and with all survival instincts switched off, they can be like angels and tell eternal truths. The Bible says that ‘out of the mouths of babes and sucklings comes forth great wisdom’. Children are from God, are perfect and blessed, until the world too quickly spoils them and their innocence is lost.

A sleeping child has become an angel again so please, please I tell some visitors who burst into the house talking loudly in Thai… please don’t wake him up! Really he’s only human.

When he wakes up, he’ll howl the place down. He’ll grow hooves and a forked tail!

So please, just let him lie.

Since first writing this, Milo seems to be making a full recovery and is now was bouncy as ever.

Copyright Andrew Hicks The Thai Girl Blog

Monday, 6 October 2008

Building, Building. Which World Where?

What message in a moustache?

Our 'new' wooden house down the garden

Mali helps out amidst the wreckage

Mali, Ben and Mangorn somehow keep smiling

Kong and Ben churning the sea of cement

More and more we’ve been migrating down the ‘garden’ and eating under the grass roofed shelters by the new wooden house.

While I was away in England Cat cut the last tree down and extended its kitchen as everyone finds it easier cooking in a more basic kitchen than in the smart one in the concrete house where there’s more to clean up.

The trouble’s been that as it’s at the lowest point of the land and as it’s rainy season, things have been getting a bit boggy. Cat’s plan therefore has been to finish rendering the kitchen in cement and to extend the roof to make a dry outside eating area with a concrete floor where we can sit and eat in the open air.

And this is exactly what she’s just done.

We collected the cement and corrugated iron in the pickup and had some sand and gravel delivered and she and Ben then got to work. Older brother Mangorn was the powerhouse, his wife Mali and son, Kong joining in to help on the second day.

There were some major hydrological issues though as the kitchen extension and the new concrete floor would effectively block the escape of surface water onto the next door land, though nobody seemed troubled by this at all.

For ages Cat’s been asking to build raised pathways between the two houses but I’ve resisted saying that the key to the problem of soggy ground is proper drainage.

There’s a major cultural conflict on this issue… farang brains tend to think ‘drainage’ while Thais just build up the land to displace the water somewhere else.

Anyway I suggested that a drain through the cement work was going to be needed and they found a two inch pipe. Niagara could as soon be piped because when there’s a downpour the place floods very fast and there’s tons of water to get rid of.

I was working upstairs at my computer when my phone rang. It was Cat. Would I please come down and explain my farang view to the team. It wasn’t for her to tell them that a two inch pipe’s a silly idea. That could seem offensive.

I duly played the fool with them and I don’t think anyone lost too much face, though there was one of those uncomfortable ‘farang talk too much’ silences. Now we’ve got a muddy open drain between kitchen and concrete floor and I hope we can finish it properly come the dry season. More likely it’ll stay as it is.

Wheeling the tons of sand and gravel down the garden, mixing the concrete by hand and laying it was a grueling task in the oppressive heat. I don’t know how they do it but do it they did.

Everything’s now a mess. All is chaos, but that’s just the way it always is. No details of what they’re going to do are ever thought through or discussed and nothing is properly finished, but maybe it’s just too hot to bother. Anyway we now have a sitting place with the bamboo chairs we bought in Ubon and the kitchen is nearly done. Let’s see if it all gets swept away with the first heavy storm.

Such are the ripples on our little pond… small ones indeed.

My Bangkok Post tells me though that out in the wider world big things are still happening. I recline and read sweatily on my upstairs verandah and the first two pages for Friday October 3rd present me with three major stories.

On the front page it’s reported that Chuwit Kamolvisit, the maveric candidate for governor of Bangkok ‘brutally assaulted’ Visarn, the Channel 3 anchorman immediately after a televised interview as he’d asked him too many awkward questions. Visarn says that Chuwit hit him in the face, knocked him down and kicked him as he lay on the ground. Reportedly now staying in hospital, the front page picture shows his facial injuries.

Candidate Chuwit said he felt his actions did not go too far. “I lost my temper because he insulted my manliness… I’m a person who doesn’t take abuse from anyone. However, I actually felt good after doing it,” he added.

The Bangkok Election Committee has dismissed the incident. “It is a private affair,” said the panel chair, Ping Rungsamai and Mr Chuwit is still qualified to run in the election.

Maybe his directness qualifies him well for so a tough job.

Chuwit is well known for having a colorful past. He first made his fortune as a soapy massage mogul, developing a chain of multi-storeyed sex palaces in Bangkok, but he first came to public prominence when things went wrong in his relationship with the police.

He went and told the media that the police in his area were totally dishonest and corrupt. Even though he was paying them well to look the other way, they were continuing to bust his ‘sex for sale’ night clubs. This of course was an abomination and an affront to all right thinking people.

Not only that, he did what you never do in Thailand and that was to name names. He told the press which cops were taking money from him but not calling off their men. And the media had a field day.

There was a big furore and as I remember he disappeared for a few days and was eventually found half dead in a ditch, alleging that he had been kidnapped by irate policemen and beaten up.

He later showed up in the press again when there were lurid reports of a violent early morning raid on a large site on Sukhumvit road occupied by a warren of small girlie bars and eating places. Apparently assisted by uniformed men, a gang of mobsters came and smashed up all the premises to the surprise and shock of their owners and had the site fenced off and secured behind a massive stockade.

Who had done this outrageous thing and why and whether with police assistance was the subject of much rumour and intrigue. With a tangled web of leases and sub-leases on the land it was speculated that a head landlord was wanting possession of the site in order to redevelop it and that this was the most practical way to do it.

Strangely there has since been no redevelopment and no big building now stands there. The site has instead been dedicated to the people of Bangkok and landscaped as a public park.

And the generous benefactor? None other than Chuwit himself.

All of these experiences apparently persuaded Chuwit that he had the qualities necessary for a political career and that there was a great future ahead of him. His angry mustachioed face could often be seen staring down from many an election poster and of course he got into parliament as the voters loved his extravagant showmanship.

He is now standing for election as Bangkok’s governor. As I write he is in second place to the incumbent and no doubt many Bangkokians will feel he should have their vote.

Certainly the new Bangkok governor will be kept busy and the story on page two of my Bangkok Post is about a vicious shoot-out between two rival ‘private rescue agencies’ over of a territorial dispute.

Bangkok has no public ambulance service and these agencies rove the streets waiting for an accident to happen and picking up the pieces. They then deliver the injured to private hospitals who pay under the table fees for the supply of patients.

The agencies have staked out their respective territories and when an infringement occurs the violence gets nasty, this particular one happening only a week after the previous shoot out. ‘Police found pools of blood and many cars peppered with bullet holes,’ says The Post. The boss of one outfit was heard shouting ‘get rid of them all’ before fleeing the scene in two pickups and a van.

More peaceably, on the same page there’s a headline, ‘Foreign husbands lift economy’. This is the story of some research into the benefit to rural areas of local girls marrying a farang husband. In Buriram province just down the road from us, there are, says the article, 960 women married to farang of whom 67% live abroad and send money home. These remittances contribute about 230 million baht to the economy annually.

On top of which, I now observe, there are other farang married and living here who in fact contribute much, much more. To get our visas we have to prove an inward flow of money which amounts to many times the inward remittances from Thai wives abroad. The rural areas do benefit in a big way, even if this is not an idea model for development.

Sometimes I think I spend quite a lot round here. It’s summer time and the living is easy, but we always have to support the extended family. You can’t be kee nieow (‘mean as sticky shit’) as that’s just not the way you do it.

In fact I’ve built a nice concrete house. Then when I was away last year Cat built a wooden house at the bottom of the garden. Then when I was away this year she built the shop for Ben and Yut across the road and made a bigger kitchen for the wooden house. And now she’s just built the new sitting area down the garden.

When the farang’s away the cat will play?!

No, it’s not quite like that, but yes the village does benefit from its resident farang. This is a very small pond and any input is important and trickles down.

It often seems that the economy locally is on the brink of collapse though with everyone struggling with a mountain of debt.

I’d love to be able to bail them all out and 700 billion dollars would be more than enough to put things right for them.

Such figures are unfathomable, but that’s another world which nobody round here even seems to be aware of, let alone concerned about.

Copyright Andrew Hicks The Thai Girl Blog October 2008

Saturday, 4 October 2008

A Busman's Holiday

Mike's verandah, his gecko and stag beetle

With Cat on her term break from the college and me tired of sitting in front of my computer writing blogs, at last we’ve managed to get away for a few days.

We went to stay with Mike and Air at their home out in the rice fields near Phibun Mangsahan three hours east in Ubon province and have just got back home after a very pleasant few days.

And what did Mike and I do while we were there? We sat at his computer most of the time doing an update of my website, !

This is the one I set up to promote my novel, THAI GIRL and now, fully updated, it has some new stuff about MY THAI GIRL AND I, the book about my life in Thailand with Cat.

I hope you’ll have a look as the updated site as it was an enormous task!

For me the most interesting things on are the eighty or so comments I’ve received from readers of the book (sent to me at which are collected together on a READERS FORUM, and also the various extracts from magazine reviews, interviews with yours truly etc. In other words the stuff not written by me!

The good, the bad and the ugly about the books are all now there for your scrutiny.

Do have a look too at the Picture Gallery which illustrates particular episodes in THAI GIRL… especially if you’ve read the book and don’t know Thailand. It always seems a shame to me that novels have no pictures.

Anyway, Mike is an IT specialist so for him doing this for me was a real busman’s holiday and I’m more than grateful to him for it. It’s a wearisome task so his karma has just taken a big upwards swoop.

I’m admiring also not only of his skill in grappling with HTML and other hellish complications, but also with the calm and methodical way in which he negotiated each hiccup. Believe me these were many and loud and would have had me in a frenzy.

My cerebral software must be missing as I cannot do computers. They are cussed, capricious, deceitful and thoroughly infuriating… and as for the Web! I pity anyone who gets trapped in its tangled threads. There are spiders crawling there and without Mike’s help they’d have been the death of me.

So we sat on the verandah of his rural hideaway, totally surrounded by rice fields, invaded by over-friendly dogs, noisy insects and gekos, the heavy humidity and summer rains sweeping through every few hours… and page by painful page we updated the site.

Less than a kilometer away runs the Mun River, a major tributary of the Mekong and when our eyes were square we wandered down there and gazed across its brown and swirling expanse. With not a structure in sight this could have been an Amazon or a mini-Congo. And when we were hungry we drove back to the bridge with the whole family and sat at red clothed tables on a floating pontoon under a grass roof, trying the best dishes and watching the grey squalls of rain approaching us and blotting out the view.

Secured by three ropes the pontoon felt safe enough but slip the knots and we’d start a rapid passage downstream and end up who knows where. The clumps of water hyacinth swirling in the current were passing by very fast indeed.

How long, we wondered, would it take this water to reach the Mekong, to descend through Laos, past Champassac to the great rapids on the border with Cambodia and on down through Vietnam to the sea. It’s one of great river systems of the world and the awesome power of nature just next to the table was a nice antidote to obsessing about my websites.

Thinking of which…!

This blog gets plenty of visits but of course every blogger wants to find more readers. Maximising traffic is a dark art I don’t understand, but there’s one thing that particularly puzzles me. And somebody must know the answer.

Not so long ago this blog used to receive many visits from surfers doing Yahoo searches. Now it gets loads from Google searches but almost none from Yahoo. Why has Yahoo apparently forgotten my blog?

If you search ‘Thai Girl’ on Yahoo, up pops my website, , (a static site rarely updated which gets relatively few hits) on the first page of the search result. In peculiar contrast, this blog, now doesn’t appear on the Yahoo search at all, or perhaps is hundreds of pages down.

Yahoo used to find it but now it doesn’t.

Can anyone tell me why? The Thai Girl Blog Copyright Andrew Hicks

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Whose Planet Are You On?

Children, rice whiskey, buffaloes and more children

Fall in Klong San Saeb and you're a gonner!

Bangkok... traffic jams, glitter and Coke is it?

Most days I drive the seven kilometers into Sangkha and most days my Bangkok Post is waiting for me at the mini mart. I watch their body language as I go in, waiting for them to say ‘it’s not come yet’ which is a nice way of telling me it ain’t never going to. Then when I’m in luck I go and eat at Fat Ladies’ and read hungrily. We call her Fat Lady because she’s a real charmer, a delightful hostess… a lady indeed.

Back home I go upstairs to my balcony and devour every column inch of the news paper, eager to have contact with the wider world.

In this my rural world it’s all babies and buffaloes, green rice fields, soporific heat, old crones chewing betel nut, grumbles of distant thunder, motorbikes that refuse to start. It’s about as sleepy as it comes.

The newspaper reveals another world. Reading the headlines, I survey the turmoil in the wider world, perplexed. The American economy is imploding, the consequence of profligate lending on over-priced housing and billions spent on bloody warfare. And the bank CEOs have pocketed billions of corporate cash, undue reward for massive failure, a subtle yet legal corruption of the system. Yes, this really is a crisis and a half.

Meanwhile Thai politics simmer angrily as elected prime ministers continue to fall. Two years ago Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was removed by military coup and now Samak Sundaravej, his successor and admitted nominee has instead just been removed by the courts for violating the constitution. His heinous offence was to host two cooking programmes on TV for money, an ‘employment’ which amounted to a conflict of interest. On top of that his conviction for libel has also been confirmed on appeal and he has been sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. (26 September.) (When though was libel ever criminal?)

His party, the PPP that heads the ruling coalition is shortly to be disbanded by the courts because one of its senior members was disqualified for electoral wrongdoings. Almost everyone else is under investigation for corruption and it seems the courts are out to nail all those who were elected by the great unwashed from the countryside. Forty seven people including most of the former Thaksin cabinet and some in the new government have been accused of involvement in an illegal lottery and are pictured in court on the front page of the Bangkok Post of 27 September 2008. Many of them are also up in court on fraud charges connected with a scheme to supply free rubber saplings to poor farmers, so it’s a busy time for all concerned.

Corruption is never out of the papers but because of these curious prosecutions of elected representatives Thailand has improved a place or two in the international corruption ratings and this year is only the eightieth least corrupt country. (Bangkok Post, 27 September 2008.)

The Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy (PAD) whose key policy is hating Thaksin are still illegally occupying government house and the functions of government are being carried out by the PM and his new ministers in rooms at the old airport.

Campaigning to bring in the ‘New Politics’, the PAD had a cunning plan that as the farmers sell their votes and can’t be trusted with them, the voters should only appoint thirty percent of the legislature. Some commentators pointed out that this seems to be not ‘for’ but ‘against’ democracy, so ever cunning the PAD have now said that the other seventy percent should be ‘elected’ too but by narrow constituencies of professionals and others.

The ‘new politics’ of this so called ‘alliance for democracy’ are in reality the old politics of the ruling urban elite, and when they say they’re protesting on behalf of ‘the people’, methinks that really they want to disenfranchise them. Paradox is heaped on paradox.

With Samak gone, a new prime minister now had to be quickly pulled out of the hat which wasn’t easy. All three internal candidates for the job, Somchai, Sompong and Surapong all looked much the same to me with hardly a pong between them. To assuage the rampaging PAD protesters the aim was to present someone who didn’t look like a puppet of former premier Thaksin, still the grey eminence behind the coalition.

The PM they chose therefore was Somchai Wongsawat, a serious looking man who has been presented as being rather nice and who wouldn’t be half as rude to people as Samak was. But crucially would he be Thaksin’s man?

Of course he wouldn’t they said, though this looks a little thin… he happens to be married to Thaksin’s sister. And his brother-in-law’s been phoning from London to tell him who to put in the cabinet.

Thaksin’s reportedly been feeling pretty sorry for himself condemned to exile in Surrey and he’s short of cash too. He’s been ‘forced to sell Manchester City after having his assets frozen as a result of corruption and fraud charges at home.’ (24 September.)

He’ll have a little more spending money now though as it’s just been reported that the sale to interests in Abu Dhabi made him a clear profit of 50 million Pounds sterling which, on an investment of ‘significantly less than 80 Million’ not many months earlier isn't bad going. So I’m not weeping for him any more.

Newbie prime minister Somchai’s a quiet and dignified man and he’s now preparing the required statement of his government’s policies… though he might as well not bother as he’ll be bumped out of office quite soon.

In fact he wasn’t free to choose his ministers even with Thaksin’s help… they were partly thrust upon him by the various parties and factions in the coalition and have not been universally welcomed. As one commentator said, he’s appointed a brewer and a police captain in charge of major portfolios.

The new Minister for Education who has spent his career in telecommunications admitted he knew little of education but said he could ask his wife who’s a former teacher. ‘Many of my cousins work in the teaching field so I know their problems well,’ he told reporters. (27 September.)

The new Foreign Minister who's just off to the UN General Assembly in New York and will have to deal with Thailand’s chairmanship of a forthcoming ASEAN summit “said he felt ‘uneasy’ working at the ministry because he was still not accustomed to making official contact with foreign countries whose perceptions of Thailand are sometimes little known”. (27 September 2008.)

‘Despite the combination of political clowns and gangsters, which includes nominees and relatives of banned politicians from the defunct Thai Rak Thai party, the Somchai government is the main legitimate political force in Thailand,’ said a European diplomat. (26 September 2008.) How true that is, if not very diplomatic!

There’s also an election on for Governor of Bangkok. The Bangkok Post explains that there’s always lots of candidates because the city has a huge budget so there’s loads to be creamed off. A new governor therefore starts by cancelling all major projects and then puts them out for tender again.

One candidate’s campaign ran into problems though. Promoting a policy of cleaning up the canals and providing clean water, she was riding a ferry boat on Klong San Saeb, slipped and fell into the dirtiest water in the world. It’s hard to survive such an experience and the next day her campaign adviser didn’t. This time swimming in a canal to demonstrate how dirty the water was, he got into difficulties and tragically drowned while everyone stood around and called the police on their mobiles.

In other news… an official has said that Thai students lack a sense of nationalism and know very little about Thailand’s proud history. (26 September.) It is a ‘great failing of the education system’ that they know nothing of ‘historical figures’ such as barge steersman Norasingh. While steering a royal barge Norasingh hit a tree. ‘Although the king and his courtiers were unhurt, Norasingh insisted on being beheaded on the spot for putting the king’s life in danger. The king was at first reluctant, but finally, impressed by Norasingh’s sincerity he complied.’

Presumably applying such examples of selfless patriotism, ‘schools will boost activities to instill patriotism in students’, a central curriculum will be developed and students must pass an assessment of their ethics and nationalism.

Is it unpatriotic though to steal trolleys from the state of the art new airport?

The remains of 500 airport baggage trolleys have been found by police in a Bangkok scrapyard. After a tip-off they ‘staked-out’ the multi-storey car park at the new airport ‘and found two men driving around in a white pickup on the third floor with five trolleys in the back.’ (26 September.) When the airport was opened in September 2006 it had 9,000 trolleys but only 5,000 are still left. As usual it was partly an inside job and two employees have been arrested.

‘Policeman Worapong Thongpaiboon of the Suppression of Crimes Against Children, Juveniles and Women Division has advised women not to get carried away if their boyfriends have a video camera or a mobile phone with built-in camera,’ as the boyfriend or ex-boyfriend might post the pics on the internet. (22 September.) ‘I cannot stop couples having sex,’ he said. ‘I can only warn that by the time their nude photos are exposed on a public network, it’s already too late.’

Can you believe everything you read in the papers though? Sometimes in Thailand it's hard.

Yesterday I was at Fat Ladies’ eating khao pat ghai, totally engrossed, as the Bangkok Post told me how George Bush is presiding over the implosion of Wall Street and the end of civilization as we know it. All stirring stuff and I wasn’t thinking of much else, ignoring the hum of traffic and the voices around me.

Sitting at the next table were a hunky Thai bloke in shorts and tee shirt with thick, hairy legs and opposite him a typically trim and pretty girl with torrents of black hair and a delicate profile. I don’t think they were arguing as the loud mix of deep guffaws and fine, high tones was usually followed by cascades of laughter.

Their chatter was insistent and began to intrude on my concentration so I glanced up at them over the top of my newspaper. They had briefly fallen silent but as they began talking again I realized that it was the hunk whose voice was shrill and effeminate and the pretty girl’s was as low and husky as a wrestler’s.

In Thailand as in life, all is an illusion and we inhabit different worlds. There's the city and the rice fields, Thais and foreigners, male and female and it’s hard to have a foot in more than one.

Each world is different, though sometimes same, same… a mixed up muddle, a complex confusion. When small disasters strike the Thais all laugh. Unable to reconcile city with countryside, politics too is an ongoing tragedy and also too often a farce.

Meanwhile Fat Lady keeps stirring and frying and out in the fields there’s work to be done… fertilizer to throw on the rice, weeds to be grubbed out.

Older brother, Lek hasn’t sent the usual 500 baht from his factory work in Samut Prakan, the baby has to be taken to the doctor as he’s got a cold, the motorbike mended and it’s time to think up some new numbers for the lottery.

Far, far away the financial heavens may be falling in and they’re still protesting in Bangkok but here life in the village just goes on.

And I must close the computer and get my Bangkok Post.

Copyright Andrew Hicks Thai Girl – The Blog. Life in the fast lane!

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