Thursday, 27 August 2009

'Thai Girls' v. Western Ones? - To Be a Bitter Man! Revisited

Bangkok Dangerous! A retired farang art teacher with two professional women (a primary teacher and an insurance salesperson). Is he at risk of getting gobbled up?

My last two blog articles have been long and serious and so perhaps it's time to lighten things a bit.

The topic of sleazy old western men proposing marriage to Bangkok bar girls and what each expects from the relationship is an endless subject for debate. Of course really the men are honest and decent and the girl has a heart of gold and only wants to take care of her mother. And they'll live happily ever after with never a tension about money or the fact he snores and won't eat insects.

In February I posted a blog under the above title and it had a huge flow of readers, mainly males of the long nosed variety.

Having today received an interesting new Comment from 'Bluebird',a Thai woman on the topic, I now want to draw your attention to it.

Ugly western men have regularly made offensive advances to Bluebird, she says, on the assumption that 'all Thai girls are for sale'. How can these men expect happiness if they take on a Thai wife years their junior, expecting her to be 'a docile mouse who'll be their whore, nursemaid and housekeeper'.

In my Comment that follows hers, I then regret the fact and ask why Thai womanhood has got this terrible reputation of being open to all offers. Is it their fault, the fault of Thai men who accord them too lowly a status or governments that have connived at rampant sex tourism?

So let's revisit that blog article, please read Bluebird's new Comment and let battle recommence. The truth is out there somewhere!

TO FIND the February blog article, "'Thai Girls' v. Western Ones"...

....scan down the right hand margin to 'Blog Archive', click on February, scan down to 'Blog Archive' again and click on the article's title that should appear.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Can Oxfam Really Help Thailand's Rural Poor?

Home to a large family, this house in our Surin village is quite typical around here.

Once their modest rice harvest is threshed, many of them will leave to find work in the cities as there's no livelihood for them here during the long dry season.

An old hunter gatherer enjoys the luxury of his new kitchen.

The wealthier old men spend every day out in the fields looking for grass for their two or three buffaloes. By feeding up and selling one calf a year, their notional annual income is thus about 10,000 baht or 200 Pounds Sterling.

[This blog is long but please scan down it and you’ll find my appeal for your Comments and thoughts on the wider issues below.]

Tackling rural poverty...

Lifting Thailand’s rural poor out of poverty is the key to the country’s future, but how to do it? I for one don’t have any real answers.

My efforts to promote egg production at our local village school (that I wrote about in the previous blog article) reminds me though of my long-standing interest in the small scale development work of Oxfam, the well-known NGO based in Oxford in the British midlands.

Their philosophy always seemed so very right and principles of sustainability chime so well with the more recent ideas of integrated farming and sufficiency. But how effective can this really be for solving the problems of rural Thailand?

Oxfam still has the right approach but the huge limitation that I see from living in a rice growing village in Thailand’s North East is that with a large population in the countryside there just isn’t enough land to go round. Agriculture is thus only a part of any possible answer to rural poverty.

My wife, Cat, has vividly described for me her childhood in a poor landless family here in the North East of Thailand where they lived essentially as hunter gatherers. Papa rarely if ever had any paid work and so they lived by foraging in the forests and hunting for insects, frogs, fish and rats and whatever else flew or crawled on the face of the earth. Her experience is quite typical of how life has been but now in some respects it’s even more difficult today.

In this way they raised a family of seven children and all the aunties and uncles had similar large broods. All of them eventually inherited parcels of rice land but these are small. When Papa gets old and the land is again divided among the seven children, the tiny plots hardly provide enough rice for their own consumption let alone a surplus to sell for cash. Most families do not have enough land to provide even a marginal living. To add to the problem, the forests that Cat describes as their main source of food are now all gone. The harsh truth is that the countryside can therefore no longer support its growing population.

Agriculture is of course still hugely important and governments and NGOs such as Oxfam can work to make it more efficient but any suggestion that the land is the sole or principle answer to rural poverty would be highly misleading.

I was therefore interested recently to learn something more of Oxfam’s approach to this conundrum as Oxfam and I go back a very long way and I have a lot of respect for its development work. If in my life I’ve done anything of permanent value it was being instrumental in establishing Oxfam Hong Kong, now a major independent Oxfam.

In the mid-seventies when lecturing at the University of Hong Kong I joined the local Oxfam group which ran the usual small shop selling second hand clothes. I then persuaded the committee to allow me to start general fund raising based on articles I wrote for the South China Morning Post on development issues and Oxfam’s work in the developing world.

When Pearl and Dean, the advertising agents for the new mass rapid transit railway were failing to fill their huge advertising hoardings, I persuaded them to let us have some space for free. We splurged on quality posters depicting classic images of starving Africans and the money came pouring in. This way we raised hundreds of thousands of pounds to send back to Oxfam’s head office in Oxford and when the Somali famine hit, we employed a full time fund raiser. Millions came in through the generosity of Hong Kong people, many of whom could remember poverty, and the rest is history. Now Oxfam Hong Kong is a huge independent organisation with its own extensive development programs throughout the region.

For me it was an exciting time. Every year I visited Oxford and had meetings with the Oxfam big wigs, including Frank Judd, then the director. And they in turn visited us in Hong Kong, always staying in my large university flat. At the time China was opening up and there was a steady flow of Oxfam staff planning new projects there. They were interesting men of the generation who’d gone through World War Two and had later found new and exciting work with Oxfam. I best remember Bernard Llewellyn and Guy Stringer, the deputy director, both larger than life characters sprung from a very turbulent era.

Bernard’s wartime experiences with The Friends Ambulance Service in China became the subject of a book he wrote and I’ll never forget Guy telling how he took the first shipment of emergency aid into Phnom Penh after the overthrow of Pol Pot. The stories of a barge being loaded in Hong Kong and towed up the Mekong (where they were charged customs duty on the shipment!) and how their engineers worked on getting water supplies going and restarting the cotton mill are worthy of books in themselves.

Guy and his wife Mary later stayed with me in Singapore when we tried to perform the same miracle again, to launch another new Oxfam, but sadly we hit a brick wall. The Singapore government refused registration of ‘Oxfam Singapore’ with no reasons given and despite the strong support of many individuals that was the end of a great idea.

Only this summer I was saddened to see an obituary notice for Guy Stringer in The Times, Mary having died a few years ago. Characters like these pass one’s way but rarely and I’m grateful for my involvement with them and with Oxfam.

In April I was thus very pleased to see on the agenda of the FCCT (Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand) that staff from the Bangkok office of Oxfam were to make a presentation of a new Oxfam report entitled “The Right to Survive: The Humanitarian Challenge for the Twenty-First Century.” The key point of this paper is that because of climate and environmental change the number of people affected by natural disasters will double and plans must be made to mitigate the impact and to provide additional emergency relief.

I of course went along to the meeting at the FCCT in Bangkok where one of the three Oxfam staff also presented information about work they are supporting in Yasothon promoting the growing of organic rice. According to the hand-out, one farm had actually doubled its yield of rice as well as presumably getting a better price for the organic rice produced. How this was achieved was not explained and while I stood up and asked some questions of the Oxfam panel, I am still intrigued and perplexed as I thought that organic yields would be lower.

It also came as a surprise to me that Oxfam was doing development work here but their website tells me ( that though Thailand is a middle-income country, pockets of poverty exist. Their work here focuses on achieving sustainable livelihoods through crop diversification and developing organic standards and practices. They also promote training of farmers on soil improvement and ecologically friendly pest-control as well as rice breeding and seed selection. Finally, it says, they aim to achieve community marketing so that farmers can get a better price for their crops.

After the FCCT meeting I chatted to a couple of the Oxfam staff and expressed my dismay at the struggle the people in my Surin village have trying to make a living from the land. One of them was distinctly upbeat though and, he said, with a few relevant tweaks from Oxfam they could soon change their lives for the better.

I am still unsure what these ideas might be though and felt frustrated that my questions could not clarify what exactly Oxfam had in mind. I therefore wrote a long ‘stream-of-consciousness’ memo and emailed it to the three Oxfam staff who had made the presentation at the FCCT.

Understandably, all I got was an ‘out of office’ reply from one of them (on 21 April 2009), but I received nothing more. Though I realize public relations is not the focus of their work and that they’d have no time to read a long memo from a nutty enthusiast, I admit I was a bit disappointed at their silence.

I have therefore added the text of my Memo to the end of this blog in the hope somebody reads it and, needless to say, I long for your Comments on the issues raised here, whether you be a Thai or a farang who loves rural Thailand and are concerned for its people.

Middle class urban Thais (who of course run this country) may often know little of the lives of the rural poor on whose cheap labour they rely for their comfortable life-styles. At least Thaksin Shinawatra when prime minister, made an effort to get into the villages and to inform himself, even if this was political grandstanding. Even so, he had no real answers other than pouring in money and, for example, his million ‘rent-a cow’ project lifted nobody out of poverty, except perhaps the overpaid administrators who spent huge sums for each cow put into the scheme.

In strange contrast there are many farang who live, as I do, deep in the Thai countryside who become knowledgeable about country life and farming. I would especially love to receive some thoughts and comments from you. So do please post a Comment and tell me your thoughts on the future of the Thai countryside.

The memo that I sent to Oxfam in April now follows on…

Some Reflections on the OXFAM Global Warming Report

From: Andrew Hicks

1. Your report is impressive and covers a vast canvas. As I have lived for some time in a small rice village in Surin, the case study on organic rice in Yasothon was an interesting focus. I am still perplexed though how it is possible to produce as good a yield as rice chemically fertilized. The number of buffaloes has fallen substantially in recent years and as they are already grazed in the fields over the dry season and the manure from their stalls is used on the fields annually, I do not see where any additional natural fertilization comes from. Mangorn, my brother in law also ploughs in the stubble soon after the crop partly to avoid the scourge of neighbours burning theirs off and the fires spreading so I am not sure what else he can do to improve fertility. I also wonder how pests are controlled.

2. The land in our village is very flat and water seems well managed with the water courses canalized by weirs, so there seems to be little further run-off and water loss that could be reduced. Being flat there is also little opportunity for reservoirs. Small ponds cannot contribute to rice cultivation so I’m not sure how water management can be better achieved. How about seed types that need less water?

3. Mangorn produces good quality khao hawm mali rice and I’ve always thought that the way to improve his income would be to cut out the middle men. If only he could be part of a co-operative or fair trade association that would allow the rice to be bagged and retailed or even exported (value being added locally) without the intervention of so many middle men. How can he do this without getting murdered by the millers?

4. Things are changing fast even in the six years I have been in the village. There is now a labour shortage so that some small farmers cast the seed rather than pricking out each seedling which leads to lower yields. For the first time this year Mangorn used a combine harvester as he despaired of finding labour. The full story and pictures are on my blog at The Tyranny of Rice, 23/11/1008. (See also There’s Fish in Them Rice Fields, 19/1/2008, Harvest Home, 15/12/2007 and Whither the Rice Harvest? 12/7/2007, and many other blog articles on the local economy in the village.)

5. I’m not sure that talking about food security in the context of Isaan is relevant any more. This is now as much a remittance economy as an agricultural one. Families of my wife’s generation typically had seven children and as Papa divides the farm between them, land holdings become pathetically small. The fit thus have to leave the village to find work leaving behind children and grandparents and creating a massive social problem of which you are well aware.

6. How can economic activity be created to keep people in the village? It is hard to see how to improve the efficiency of such tiny land holdings. The ‘modern’ way that tends to occur is that the successful buy up the farms of the failing farmers and larger and more efficient holdings result. This also means more landless families, bringing the problems of poverty and an increasing wealth gap, as for example is so stark in the Philippines. It’s what may gradually happen in Isaan too, unless there is strong official intervention to keep the local economy intact. However, when officials talk about Isaan they tend to focus only on agriculture which is a big mistake.

7. The problem is beyond the scope of small scale development assistance which nonetheless still has a role to play. What is fundamentally needed is an official policy of regional development, devolving official agencies out of Bangkok and more importantly providing infrastructure and incentives for small industry in the regional centres. This would bring jobs and the modern wage economy to the people rather than uprooting them and cramming them into an overcrowded capital and Eastern seaboard. As a stimulus package and a populist policy, regional development going beyond agriculture is an opportunity that is sadly being missed.

8. In our local market town, Sangkha, there is one small garment factory employing a few hundred people that has been set up recently. With lower land and labour costs I hope it is a success as it could be a model for this sort of development. Could Oxfam study it and present it as a model for policy makers? (In passing, Khun Mechai of Cabbages and Condoms fame has promoted a small industrial estate, called T Bird as I remember, in Nang Rong, Buriram and this is a great experiment, but how to build on its success?)

9. Small isolated development projects are of course a drop in the ocean unless they inspire replication and a pyramid effect. This needs the participation of strong local agencies. I often wonder how effective official agricultural extension work is for example. I’ve never heard of it being used in Surin and I wonder if our local farmers’ instead just work traditionally on a hit and miss basis. Language excludes me from a full understanding of what goes on but I do not get the feeling that rice farmers are very professional in their approach. I cannot for example imagine anyone reading a conventional manual on converting their farms to organic rice. How about therefore developing handbooks on integrated or organic farming or whatever in the cartoon style of story book found on every news stand in Thailand? (In the eighties Singapore was having an economic downturn and presented its pay cuts and stringency measures to its populace by means of cartoon books… and why not.)

10. Local schools are another opportunity to promote development aims if you could get local education ministries on side. In our village school, my wife and I are working on a very small scale assistance scheme with the generous help of a friend in Japan, starting first with a free lunch programme… 45% of the children are under their correct body eight and otherwise eat only rice during the school day. (See and, Do They Know It’s Christmas, 12/12/2008.) My daughter in UK has just given us 50,000 baht (sadly not tax deductible) for a project in the school. The teachers who are most impressive, immediately proposed a chicken/egg house which is now newly built and when I get back to the village I will photograph it and post a blog of the story. It is a dream project if done well. The children will do all the work of running the project and I think the teachers see the potential for integrating the project into the curriculum with teaching of mathematics etc.

11. Formal employment is limited in the rural areas so most people start small businesses. Sadly they have limited expertise in managing the money so most businesses should never be started or unnecessarily fail. Nobody does a business plan even on the back of a cigarette packet and they seem to have a limited concept of profitability. If their business generates a flow of cash they just spend the money and have a good time, keeping no accounts. Teaching basic business skills as part of the early curriculum in schools could thus make a huge contribution to poor areas, helping to avoid the many hopeless projects that people throw themselves into, miring them in debt. Within a few hundred yards of our home three of the poorest families bought brand new Nissan pickups (top of the range of course) as these were on offer for a deposit of 9,000 baht. Within a year all had failed to use them to generate sufficient income to pay the finance and all the pickups were repossessed, leaving the families with massive unpaid debt. One of the families has fled the scene and disappeared, probably beholden to loan sharks, leaving their house derelict.

12. I do not yet know if the chicken/egg project would actually be viable as an independent business. Eggs may be so cheap that the capital cost and inputs such as feed will make it unprofitable. At present local chickens are free range scrawny things, but at least they cost nothing to feed. If hopefully raising chickens under cover is viable, a generation of children should leave the school with a grasp of how to do this and most essentially how to manage the money and of the concept of profitablity.

13. A development agency could work on a project such as this and create a blueprint on how to do it, with costings and designs for the building and equipment, feed and finance and with classroom materials such as maths and accounting and cartoon style manuals on how to run the business. Then it would be essential to promote the idea to school authorities and to assist them to launch multiple projects in rural schools. Our school runs from age five to twelve and this is a good age when the children are receptive to ideas such as this. A new generation could be given essential small business skill that at present are lacking.

14. Our school has a large fish pond but at present there is no money for fish food. They want to develop this as the next project, perhaps using organic methods of creating a sustainable eco-system in the pond. They are already trying, but no big fish I think result.

15. Returning to agriculture, in the last six years in Surin I have seen a big diversification into rubber, cassava and sugar cane. Rubber is a long term risk but the story about cassava and sugar that I usually hear is that prices fall during the growing period and money is lost. Farmers generally have no money to put into diversification and when the hoped for profits fail to materialize, they fall further into debt. Rather than focusing on farming, the only answer is for the men to go and work in the factories and building sites and the prettier girls go off to Pattaya, Patong and Patpong. All very sad.

16. Are there no new magic crops that can be pulled out of the hat? Is there anything the Israelis do that does not need heavy irrigation or capital inputs? How about ground nuts, cotton, sorghum and cassava that are key cash crops in the savannah of Northern Nigeria which has a similar climate of rainy season followed by a six month drought. Indonesia grows black pepper and vanilla which are called ‘green gold’ and I wish there was something new for us here in Surin. One can talk glibly about integrated agriculture and growing vegetables to lift people suffering drought out of poverty but in reality it is desperately difficult. Plants shrivel in the heat and even if successful they sell in the market for very little.

17. Raising pigs, frogs, insects, mushrooms and cat fish are all possible projects but it isn’t easy to be successful. Inputs such as feed usually deny a profit.

18. On my blog at there are numerous articles and photos about Mangorn and his struggle to support his family through farming. Also about our efforts at the school and about social problems in the village generally. If OXFAM can use any of the text or photos in any way, I’d be delighted.

19. I have also written on these subjects in a book now widely available at all bookshops in Thailand, called MY THAI GIRL AND I. This is my story of meeting my wife, Cat, and coming to live in our Surin village. (See It is also a vehicle for me to describe in a popular style the crisis in agriculture and for example the struggle of Cat’s brother, Mangorn to feed his family. There is one mention of OXFAM in it. During the late seventies and early eighties I lived in Hong Kong and with my then wife, we joined the local Oxfam group which ran the usual shop and persuaded them to let us begin general fund raising. When we managed to raise many hundreds of thousands of pounds a year Oxford showed great interest and support, we employed a part time fund raiser and the rest is history. Hong Kong was a ‘virgin’ community for such fund raising and I’m sure you know much more about the success of Oxfam Hong Kong than I do. I’m proud though to have been instrumental in getting it started and for several years Oxfam was a big part of our lives.

It is good to have made contact and I shall in future follow your work here more closely.

Andrew Hicks
April 2009

Thursday, 13 August 2009

A Quick Trick Thai Chick Factory!

Children enjoy Guides and Scouting at our village school

Cleaning teeth after the lunch we've been providing for them.
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With a big donation we've just built the school a new chicken house

Headmaster and staff inspect the eighty new chickens.

The headmaster signs for the first 20,000 baht towards the costs.

A record is kept of money paid for lunches and capital items.

Children look after the chickens and record the eggs laid each day.

Three months' feed has cost 21,420 baht, eighty chickens 16,000 and cages 7,500. We now need to raise donations to pay off the 45,000 baht borrowed to pay for them. (Approx US$/Baht 34, Euro/Baht 48, Pound Sterling/Baht 55.)

Helping Out At Our Village School

Times are particularly hard at present for the people in my rice growing village in Surin province in Thailand and as a wanderer from a wealthier world I’d really like to do something to help.

It’s Thai children who have the simplest needs and so the village school in Ban Mahachai is the obvious place to try.

In my blog called, “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, 12 December 2008 I told you about the plan set up through the generosity of a Japanese friend to benefit the school. You can find the details on in which our key project has been providing the children with lunches during the school day.

My blog of 19 January 2009 called “Thai School Girls Are So Appealing” tells how your generous response enabled the lunch program to be continued.

At first our idea was to provide the school with IT equipment but on hearing that almost half the children were below the recommended body weight, we started with something more basic, to make sure they have at least one proper meal a day.

The teachers tell us that the childrens’ general health and their concentration in the afternoon has improved since we started and we are keen to raise more donations to keep the lunch program going. In response to my appeal, readers of this blog gave us many donations for lunches, though more funds are still needed of course!

The new school chicken factory!
The big news now is that we have recently had a major donation of 50,000 baht which has been used to build a substantial shed for raising chickens for eggs. When news came of the offer, the teachers leapt at it, had estimates quickly drawn up and within weeks a substantial shed was built, using that money.

Now eighty chickens, cages and feed for three months have been bought and eggs are being produced. The bad news is that the cost of these was 45,000 baht which has been borrowed and we now have to raise the money to pay off the loan.

At present the shed is at half capacity and on the same figures (ignoring the cost of additional feed) a further eighty chickens and cages for which there is plenty of space would cost about another 24,000 baht. In the longer term this should be our aim.

A first donation of 20,000 baht has already come in to reduce the loan, collected by an energetic friend from his contacts and colleagues in Thailand and Europe. This money the new headmaster received and signed for a few days ago.

However, to pay off the rest of the loan we still need 25,000 baht and perhaps as much again if we are to expand capacity with a second purchase of eighty more chickens. The aim is therefore to raise 50,000 baht if the project is to reach its full potential.

Like the lunch program, I therefore hope the money will come in as it’s a dream project that has everything going for it. All the hard daily work with the chickens is done by the children themselves. Every day a team of three kids are responsible for measuring the feed and putting it in the bins for the chickens, ensuring the water is flowing, and collecting the eggs and putting them in trays. They then have to report to Khun Thongchai, the teacher in charge and account for the number of eggs collected and for any eggs broken, and make up and sign the accounts book.

Another book records sales of eggs to local people and already shows the money slowly flowing in. All this provides a valuable discipline to the children in demonstrating how a business should operate with proper accounting. It always strikes me that as there is little formal employment in rural Thailand, this is an essential skill for the poorest of people running small farms and micro-businesses in the countryside. No accounts are generally kept and nobody knows what if any profit has been made.

At present the eggs being laid are small but their numbers are increasing and the chickens should be productive for about two years. When laying at their maximum, I hope that the eggs will provide sufficient income to make the project self-sustaining and allow a surplus of eggs to be used for school lunches. If the teachers could then include calculating the profitability of the business within the school math curriculum, the project would feed both the childrens' bodies and minds.

That’s why it’s such a perfect school project. Chickens round here are scrawny free range things and this experience of how to raise eggs properly in an efficient commercial way should be immensely beneficial for a generation of children.

We now need some donations to ensure that all the hard work that the teachers have put into the project comes to full and long-term fruition. They are very proud of their achievement so far and immensely grateful for what has been given to the school.

Every Little Helps!
Donations for lunches or the chicken project can be made in any currency to my Paypal account at with reference to Andrew Hicks at

Or do please email me at if you prefer to do an ATM transfer in baht direct to the project’s account with Kasikorn Bank.

Why Donate?
Most people round here are pretty poor. Farming is marginally profitable and there is little paid work. A daily wage is perhaps 150 baht or three Pounds Sterling, yet things such as medicines cost much as they do in the West. That’s why the needs are great and hy a small project such as this can really help the children. Because it’s still small, donations are not tax deductible though every cent, penny and satang is used effectively as there are no expenses or deductions before the money is spent.

Small surely still is beautiful!

Andrew Hicks

The “Thai Girl” Blog August 2009

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Cook Chilli Sauce Burns Pork Frame Uncle

A new line in paints? Good cover, I hope.

Can anyone identify the dishes on the menu?

Cook the menu, yes but who's believe this one!

Infectious enthusiasm for a photo shop.

The saga of Mama’s sickness looks like it’s going to run and run.

The crisis recurred only a day or two after holding the spirit ceremony to stop the shade of her grandmother calling her back to the spirit world. (See the blog article below.)

Since then she has been completely inert, unable to move from where she was lying on the floor and refusing to do anything for herself, clearly still in a state of emotional collapse. Then early one morning I heard noises down in the wooden house and could see the lights were on and that Saniam, who’d been attending her overnight, was up and about.

When I saw him coming up the garden, I went out onto the verandah and asked him what was up. Mama’s ‘mai sabai maak’, very sick indeed and needed to be taken to hospital immediately. Suffering from very bad back pains, she almost had to be carried to the car.

Still hardly light by the time we got to the local hospital, they quickly admitted her to a ward. Clearly her condition was critical and only intensive care would pull her back from the brink. Or so everyone seemed to think.

Saniam stayed with her while we went back to the village to find her younger sister who would surely want to be with her at this difficult time. We drove out to her village and found God, for such is her name, (though as nobody can pronounce God it sounds more like ‘Got’). We then returned immediately to the hospital and to our alarm found an ambulance about to transfer Mama to the big hospital in Surin, the provincial town an hour away.

It was a relief when Saniam and God went with her in the ambulance as we had children to look after back home that we couldn’t leave behind. And yes, the X Rays showed that her spine had collapsed and was crushing her kidneys which perhaps, explaining her incontinence. So as she believed, her transfer to the Surin hospital was a last desperate hope.

Cat and I made it to Surin the next day, having arranged things so that we could manage a bedside vigil for at least five days. That’s the Thai style… the whole family camps out at the hospital, perhaps sleeping on the floor under the bed, though as we had a four year old with us we found ourselves a small hotel and Saniam did the hard overnight shift.

As it turned out, Mama was discharged within forty eight hours and now seems as right as rain. The nice doctor seemed to know one word of English and that was “osteoporosis”, though he was totally lost when I asked about ‘HRT’. I often wonder how Thai doctors can qualify without apparently absorbing any English whatsoever, but nonetheless I had confidence in him and the diagnosis wasn’t very difficult anyway. Thankfully Mama’s kidneys are fine and she now has about six packets of different medicines that she’ll almost certainly fail to take and an appointment for follow up in a few weeks time. So that’ll mean another day trip into Surin which probably won’t advance her state of health one bit but will be useful as therapy.

We did manage a few amusing moments while in Surin though. Slipping away for an evening meal, we went to the Hua Moon Steak restaurant near the Tawan Daeng nightclub that I’d highly recommend for its menu. (082-156-7651.)

The food was imitation farang food of the kind that makes you feel at home but then subverts the cuisine with bizarre anomalies… the mayonnaise covering the salad is sickly sweet, while the steak is massive but with a garnish of only about five chips. Euro-food in Thailand is often a bit different, more confusion than fusion, but what was really good was the menu itself.

For 59 baht you could have, “Cook chilli sauce burns pork frame uncle with rice”, or “Cook the vegetables Yes, pork frame uncle with rice”. Our sides were splitting not from overeating, though I had a generous fish steak (with five chips) and so never discovered what these culinary delights might be.

Can anyone suggest what they could possibly be? A result of misusing a dictionary, though I cannot begin to identify the errors.

I also stopped off at a builders’ merchants to get some paint and discovered that the CIA has moved into the market with an attractive brochure. Remembering that they ran an airline, ‘Air America’ to support their illegal activities in Indo-China during that ill-fated war, selling paints should be no surprise and is much more benign.

Meanwhile, in the hospital everyone was wearing face masks, swine flu being the obsession of the moment. I even saw a photographic shop with a picture of a white looking bunny and a white looking baby on the front called “Virus Studio”.

Perhaps H1N1 is not a virus at all but is really a football score… ‘Huddersfield Town 1, Newcastle United 1’.

Though I remember the economic damage to Thailand caused by the international media playing up the threat of SARS as a good news story. The rest, as they say, is hysteria.

Anyway, on the way back from Surin I insisted on stocking up our little shop that Mama used to sit in all day before she so dramatically withdrew from life. It was fun for her handing out alcohol to the old boys on tick and my losses on the shop were far better value and more therapeutic for her than any medicine. So I’m more than happy to see that Mama is more herself today and is now back in the shop as usual, enjoying the long vigil between customers.

She’s had a hard life and, being a few years older than me, is very old indeed and deserves a crisis or two. I just hope she doesn’t have too many more though. It’s not the first time I’ve seen neighbours dragged away to die, only to be seen wandering down the soi with their buffaloes a day or two later, so perhaps this is normal behaviour.

So how do we now help her deal with osteoporosis and all the problems of ageing?

Should I have a late life crisis myself and how should I now face up to the problems of living in Isaan with an extended family of farmers whose health beliefs are so very different to mine?

Life is a constant process of substituting one problem for the next and I never know what’s just around the corner, living here in Thailand.

At least the mower’s running okay now!

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl Blog” - Retirement and Relationships in Thailand.

August 2009