Sunday, 27 September 2009

Her Papa's A Hunter Gatherer!

In the West there's food aplenty and Pooh Bear and Tigger can get fat on sweet cup cakes. Here in Isaan, the poor North East of Thailand, they have plastic plates but little to put on them. Tiny crabs, shrimps and shell fish are gathered from the flooded rice fields and add flavour to the rice. There's a long tradition of hunting and gathering though it's not possible now to make a living from the forests.

Fish caught in the outfall from our pond.

A bucket of bamboo shoots cut from around the pond.

Cat spent hours chopping and boiling to make them edible.

This crab just walked into our garage...

... so did this frog and ended up getting eaten.

A vicious spear for fish and frogs and whatever gets in the way.

... and this is the bucket of protein Cat brought back one night.

But it's not enough. The young have to work in Bangkok and grandmama gets left holding the baby.

I’ve written before about how the forest in the Surin countryside where my wife, Cat and I now live used to be bountiful and how it abundantly yielded birds and animals to eat, roots, leaves, nuts and fruits. Her childhood was spent gathering food in the countryside and her memories of that time seem to be happy ones.

The trouble is now that every available scrap of land has been made productive and almost all the forest has gone. With increasing population, farming cannot support the population and this unlimited resource of free food for the landless is no longer there. Thus the young and fit have to move away to the cities to find low paid work, often leaving their small children with Mama Papa in the village.

I’d never before thought of Thais as hunter gatherers but rather as prosperous growers of rice, so this is a new insight for me. Farmers and pastoralists wandering the world with their cows are the wealthy ones and the hunter gatherers are all but gone. One thinks only of the pygmies in the Congo, of the Punan in Borneo and the Orang Asli or Sakai in the mountainous jungles down the spine of Malaysia.

I’ve seen people in West Africa who wore nothing but leaves but even they grew crops. I’ve stayed with Dyaks several days up the Skrang river in Sarawak, sleeping under the huge bundles of human skulls tied up with rattan. They lived off the jungle and just before we went out hunting orang utan, they showed me the paws of a bear they’d killed a few days before. They also grew a few vegetables and kept pigs that ran wild in the forest around the long houses. This was fine by me but in the absence of a WC, when I headed off into the jungle to hide behind a bush, the pigs would come running. They were so keen to get up close and personal as I squatted down that they almost knocked me flying.

The only pure hunter gatherers I’ve ever met though were the Sakai in the Taman Negara national park in Malaysia. In the vastness of the jungle we were lucky to come across them sitting in low temporary shelters of palm and leaves. They were very hospitable as they showed us how they whittled the darts for the blow pipes with which they killed monkeys and showed us the roots and the honey they’d recently collected from the jungle. They were delightful people to meet, their most precious possession being the fire that they kept glowing in one of their shelters.

I now realize to my surprise that my Thai wife too is a hunter gatherer. There’s nothing she loves doing more in the village than collecting food and despite the loss of the forests, it’s still out there if you know how to find it.

And it also comes into the house too without being asked! The garage is a cool, quiet place where we’ve caught intruding crabs and frogs, rats and even a scorpion, and all of them have gone into the pot.

Then when it rains heavily at night, the frogs cry out noisily and Cat gets up and goes out in the dark and the wet hunting them. She takes a powerful head torch and a vicious looking spear and returns with several kilos of frogs and fish in a bucket.

We’ve had heavy rain recently and the fish pond overflowed and she made a fish trap of fine netting where the water runs out. This produced quantities of beautiful small fish of the kind that are used to make plaa raa, the foul smelling fermented fish that Isaan people so love.

Then Cat takes the bamboo shoots from around the fish pond and spends ages cutting it into tiny slices and boiling it up to soften it. One dish she made recently was to mix it with rice, chopped pork, various spices and a liberal quantity of plaa raa and fiery chilli to render it totally uneatable by any farang. Then it was wrapped in parcels of banana leaf to make a local delicacy that was truly a labour of love.

She also collects pak ah chet, a leaf that grows on the surface of the pond. And she gathers kee lek from behind the house which is pounded to make a bitter green paste or soup, and at a certain time of the year we go out to the rice fields and climb the sadao trees to collect the young shoots that again are cooked up to make a decent curry as bitter as bile.

Then there was the trap with a blue light that accumulates a huge quantity of insects overnight that are fried up and eaten as a snack. The rice fields are full of fish and crabs, shell fish and prawns, all there for the taking, just like at the seaside, so in some ways the countryside is still nothing less than bountiful.

Nonetheless, you have to have land as there is no longer enough to sustain the whole population of rural Isaan. And that’s why the middle generation has gone off to the towns to find menial and badly paid work.

A few days ago one of Cat’s aunties came in to show off a new grandchild that had just been left with her by her daughter who works in Bangkok. This woman had eight children of her own but with only one of them now still with her in the village, all the others having gone away to the south. She already has two small grandsons living with her, their unmarried mothers gone far away so a third is a real burden, not to mention the cost of milk formula. From time to time her family send back small sums of money her and Papa and the children but for them it’s a poor life, living in what an only be described as a shack. They have absolutely no other income.

The new child is of course a joy, but the burden for an old woman of raising yet another baby is hard. But that’s just the way it is in rural Thailand.

The comfortable middle classes in Bangkok benefit from a vast pool of cheap labour while Isaan is a totally different world.

The village is a real community, though under threat, but it’s sad if more of the benefits of the modern economy cannot be brought to the countryside. That tension is of course what the current political turmoil in Thailand has been all about.

Meanwhile Cat has her farang and a comfortable life, but I respect her passion for living off the land and for not running a mile from the toughness of her upbringing. That’s what makes living in the village more rewarding for me as Cat’s enthusiasm for country life brings me a little closer to what remains of ‘the real Thailand’.

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog September 2009

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Remembering The Ancestors

At the village wat we remember family who have passed on.

Making offerings of food and alcohol to propitiate their spirits.

The animist shrine in the temple grounds.

Tribute is paid to a small laterite rock.

“Tomorrow we go Ban Lamong… take food to grandpapa,” says Cat breezily.

“But he died years ago,” I reply, puzzled for a moment before I realize she’s talking about the annual ceremony at the temple remembering her mother’s dead relatives.

Towards the end of pansaa, the Buddhist ‘lent’, it is the custom of the Suay people to gather at the temple where their family members have been cremated and to hold a ceremony with the monks in their remembrance.

Curiously this coincides exactly with the Chinese ceremony of Ching Ming when families gather at the ancestral graves with food offerings and joss sticks and sweep the graves. I used to watch this at crowded ceremonies in Hong Kong and it looked a happy occasion when all the family made the effort to gather together and honour the departed. It was more like a party than mourning, which was thoroughly healthy and appropriate.

To me it seems a major omission that in the West we have no such custom. We cremate our dead in a clinical crematorium and quickly move on with little ritual or formal grieving. There is no grave to return to and we have no tradition of coming together to remember them at a particular time. Our elders seem to be readily forgotten.

Not so in Suay culture, of whom Cat’s mother is one. Here the spirits of the deceased are all around and need to be attended to and kept sweet. Thus it was that we all climbed into the pickup that morning and headed off to the next village where Cat’s mother had been born and raised.

It was a grey day, heavy with rainy season cloud as we arrived in the temple precincts and parked by the cremation ground. The first small ceremony was to make offerings of food and alcohol to the spirits of the dead. These were placed at the foot of a tree and the old aunties and uncles sat round, pouring alcohol into bowls and presenting the sticky rice to grandpapa.

Then mats were laid on the ground and four elderly monks in saffron robes arrived and sat in a row under the trees. There then began a long formal ceremony in which they chanted the names of those to be remembered and went through the usual formal chants in Sanskrit.

“Bhut thang saranang katchami.”

Then everyone went off to the temple hall while I waited outside. As always there were long announcements on the battered PA system, including lists of small donations given by various locals, often of ten or twenty baht.

Waiting by the pickup I'd noticed a curiosity, a small animist temple right here in the grounds of the Buddhist temple. As I watched, three ladies walked across to it and started making food offerings to its very pagan altar. On this was a large chunk of laterite rock with a ribbon around it, various small figures and the remains of old food offerings. They of course were very amused about the farang with his camera and chattered happily away to me. The one thing I heard was that one of them said they were giving food to Buddha.

I am constantly fascinated by this commingling of Buddhist and animist ritual and the complete failure to distinguish between the two. First of all, propitiating the spirits of the ancestors by the Suay was a wholly animistic ceremony, as appeared from the making of offerings at the foot of the tree. Buddhism and the temple then claim a part as the monks perform their rituals, while on the sidelines further offerings are made to a rock with a ribbon around it.

Just as Christianity, the religion of a jealous god, nevertheless accommodated many pre-christian beliefs and festivals such as that on 25th December, so every organized religion has to absorb existing poly-theistic beliefs and practices. Buddhism is especially tolerant and so happily co-exists with the animism that surrounds it. Monks participating in animistic rituals is thus to be expected but I do sometimes wonder how much of Buddhism actually remains in Thailand once animism has stripped away.

The ladies in the animist shrine said they were giving food to Buddha but what really defines a religion is not the labels but their actual beliefs. Ask a British Christian or a Thai Buddhist what they actually believe in and you’d hardly get a cogent answer. What I suspect though is that the minds of the people around here are filled with a strong belief in the spirits of their ancestors and of the forces of nature that surrounds them. What room that allows for true Buddhist philosophy or observance I have very little idea.

The ceremony in Ban Lamong though was one of the nicer ones and every society should likewise mark an annual occasion when everyone comes together as a family to remember the past and those who are no longer with them.

It strikes me that in this respect our western society is decidedly lacking.

Should we not do this too?

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog September 2009

Friday, 11 September 2009

"Thai Girl" Goes to Hollywood

It’s perhaps every novelist’s dream to see their story on the silver screen, so I’m more than pleased to tell you that my novel, “Thai Girl” has been optioned as a Hollywood movie.

It’s a small studio in Los Angeles called ‘Filmed Imagination’ run by two interesting characters called Daniel Dreifuss and Marius Haugan and that suits me just fine. The big studios often option novels in large numbers and, like a developer’s land bank, keep them indefinitely gathering dust on the shelf in case the story comes into fashion.

For this studio though, “Thai Girl” is a key project and they’re strongly committed to getting it filmed. Marius, a long time visitor to Thailand developed a passion for the book and its story and had little difficulty persuading Dan that it was just up their street. They see the book as having many key qualities that would make it a fabulous movie.

The “Thai Girl” story is set on the beautiful holiday islands of Koh Samet and Koh Chang, in Bangkok and the rice fields of Buriram province. It thus offers exotic locations of sea and islands and Bangkok city nightscapes, together with the softer contrasts of the real rural Thailand. Visually it should be stunning.

As a bitter sweet romance between Ben, a good looking English lad off travelling after university and Fon, a pretty beach masseuse, “Thai Girl” explores broad popular themes of universal appeal. When their two very different worlds collide, Ben and Fon are swept along together, grappling with the eternal confusions of a cross-cultural relationship. As Ben vigorously pursues his passion for Fon, the sparkling Thai girl of his dreams, she resists his advances, refusing to be distracted by a passing foreigner. Will Ben get his girl? Will Fon overcome her natural suspicion of this attractive young guy and fall for Ben?

The key characters are few and the story’s structure is not unduly complex, so it should adapt well as a feature film that’s every bit as compelling as readers often find the book.

A review of “Thai Girl” has described it as ‘one of the top selling English language novels ever published in Thailand’ so the story certainly seems to have a wide appeal. It also has many thought provoking themes that a movie maker could interpret and develop. Another reviewer has called it ‘the definitive novel about relations between Thais and foreigners’, so the movie should be more than just another sentimental love story.

One of the first things that impressed me about Dan and Marius before I signed up with them was that they are very committed to “Thai Girl” and its themes and so, I hope, will make a movie that’s true to the book. I put it to them that the ending isn’t very Hollywood but, they said, two star-crossed lovers called Romeo and Juliet likewise failed to overcome the forces that kept them apart and their story has made some great movies. The happy couple do not have to sail off into the sunset together for it to make it a successful movie.

I’m thus hopeful that an engaging film will emerge that is positive about Thailand, that showcases some of the finest visitor attractions here and is respectful of the Thai people generally. There’s a tendency for movies set in Thailand to focus on a seedy fantasy land of sex and drugs and crime. In strong contrast the “Thai Girl” characters are down to earth, ordinary and real. Ben is fresh and clean living and Fon is not a bar girl but is a serious Buddhist who works hard for her family.

While Ben is intrigued by the Bangkok bar scene, he thus does not waver in his passion for Fon but struggles to understand why young Thai women are so readily treated as a saleable commodity to attract single male tourists to Thailand. When he visits her village in Buriram with Fon, he begins to understand how farming is no longer a viable way of life and that young people, Fon included, have to find a new life for themselves far from home in a perilous world. His experiences with Fon illustrate for him all the stark issues that confront the more thoughtful western visitor to Thailand, an aspect to the story that can give the movie depth as well as just being entertaining.

Finally, what existing movies are there already about young travelers exploring the cultural mysteries of Thailand? Apart from “The Beach”, (which was about an anonymous ‘desert island’ community and made very little specific reference to Thailand), there really aren’t any at all. Given the enduring popularity of Thailand with young visitors, this is thus an extraordinary omission and a huge opportunity for a movie maker.

Current economic conditions aren’t that good for financing a movie but nonetheless the industry grinds slowly on. “Thai Girl” won’t be an expensive movie to make and, in difficult times it’s a great moment to produce a love story that’s poignant and beautiful and plucks at the world’s heart strings.

Writing “Thai Girl” has been a very rewarding experience for me… “Thai Girl”, the movie would be the icing on the cake.

I can’t wait to see it on the big screen!

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” blog. September 2009

Friday, 4 September 2009

Thai Education - A Small Gleam of Light

Any headmaster would glow with pride at the achievement of his school in running so joyful and exuberant a sports festival as the one Cat and I have just attended at the small primary school here in our remote Surin village.

I sometimes read dire things about Thai education in the media… that levels of achievement in Thai schools are depressingly poor compared to those in similar countries and that Thai children don’t read books. Universities are said to be dismal temples to rote learning and conformity where smart student uniforms and glossy degree ceremonies are more important than academic rigour or creative thinking.

On these things I can hardly comment… all I know is that our village school is a delightful and happy place which is just how a primary school should be!

It’s a small school with about a hundred children aged from four to twelve. Funding is short, the wooden upper storey of the building is literally collapsing and the children are all from poor rice farming families. But it’s full of energy and fun, the classrooms are bright with childrens’ work covering the walls and the teachers are gentle and dedicated. I’m sure that the kids will later look back on their years here as a golden time before they faced the uncertainties of finding a life as adults in a place where farming is viable only if you have enough land.

The annual two day sports festival that’s just been held was a big event involving the whole community and it was fun all the way.

It started early with raising and saluting the Flag, followed by a tribute to the King and then a parade.

The first event was a display of dancing by some ladies of the village. I’m so glad this was traditional and dignified and not a silly imitation of the modern pop dancing that’s inescapable on Thai television.

Then came a display of dancing by some of the oldest girls. It’s hard to believe that they’re eleven and twelve, something that perhaps reflects on poor nutrition.

They were then followed by another troupe of girls all dressed in pink.

The performers then all assembled in front of the teachers and VIPs for congratulations on the work they’d done, before the running races got under way.

The children all seem to be tiny but they ran incredibly fast. An over-sixties race was devised to drag me into the limelight, my only problem being that half the field were in their forties. I managed to hit the tape first with my hand but this didn’t count so the little girl in the pretty dress brought a silver medal for me and not the gold!

The second day saw a series of novelty events and races in the morning followed by football on the afternoon. I missed Cat playing for one of the womens’ sides but I watched the mens’ match later. And was it fast and furious… far more entertaining than a dull World Cup match moving glacially towards a penalty shoot-out.

That evening there was a big party in the school hall with food for everyone, a live band and presentation of all the trophies for the two days of events. It was a riotous ending to a memorable event and it went on quite late.

The whole thing reminded me that one thing the Thais are particularly good at is throwing a party and making it riotous all the way. Fun it was but the sports festival was also important as institution building for the school and for developing community spirit within the village.

I have no way of knowing how good the school is in academic terms but that probably is not its only or principal focus. I’m sure the children generally leave the school with basic literacy and numeracy, also knowing their ‘abc’ and able to say ‘siddow pree’ and ‘stannup pree’ and all that is a substantial achievement. In any even, too academic approach is probably irrelevant for the village children.

It seems that Thai education is not over-academic but looks to wider aims of community and nation building, of developing collective responsibility in its pupils, protecting them from the dangers of drug taking and promotes team spirit and good health through sporting activities. And these things our school seems to do very well indeed.

I like and admire the dedication of the teachers to the children and that’s why Cat and I have worked hard, initially with a generous Japanese friend, to provide school lunches for the children. While not exactly malnourished, these little Thai school girls and boys are evidently very tiny and a large proportion of them are in fact under the correct body weight for their ages.

As official funding does not run to providing lunches throughout the year, the children just bringing a small quantity of rice with them to school, Cat and I have been collecting donations from friends and readers of this blog to make sure they have a proper cooked meal with meat and vegetables every day. (See my blog articles, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, 12 Dec 2008, and ‘Thai School Girls Are So Appealing’, 19 Jan 2009.)

A second project has been to build a large chicken shed for egg production. The chickens are now laying about a hundred eggs a day but the money to pay for the chickens and for feed has been borrowed and needs to be repaid. Thanks to readers of this blog, some donations have come in but we still have a little way to go. (See my blog article ‘A Quick Trick Chick Factory’, 13 August 2009.)

Living as I do in this village community, I feel it’s important to make a contribution of some sort and how better a way than this. The school is a real credit to the teachers and to everyone else and is worthy of whatever help we can give.

It’s a bright spark of light that counters the doom-laden criticisms one too often hears about education in Thailand and I love it because it's such a happy place.

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog August 2009