Saturday, 30 January 2010

Introducing My Son, Tony

Tony, aged about three, on his grandmother's knee.

Now aged four and serious, with a tank as birthday present.

Cat's sister, Yut, plucks a chicken for the party.

Grating one of our big crop of coconuts.

Amnuay, still looking elegant as she scrapes the spuds.

A wall of speakers fit to drown all hope of conversation.

The disco king who's come to make it a special Thai evening.

They all remember Tony's party as the event of the year.

Our local teachers are always like this, even at school.

The farang always sit and eat at tables,

But the Thais prefer mats on the floor.

In our family pictures on this blog you may have noticed a little boy reappearing from time and wondered who he might be.

My personal life in our Isaan village with my Thai wife, Cat, became very public something over a year ago when I published our story as a book called, “MY THAI GIRL AND I”. This tells of our first five years together and what it’s like for an old stager like me to settle down in a remote rice farming community with an energetic wife half my age.

One of the limitations in writing the book and these subsequent blogs has been trying to respect my Thai family’s privacy. While I’m free to blow my own cover, I’ve had to think more carefully about theirs.

For similar reasons I haven’t yet told you about the little boy in the pictures but now I feel that I should. We’ve just celebrated his fourth birthday, his name is Anthony, or ‘Tony’, and Cat and I have recently completed the complex process of adopting him in Bangkok.

My adult children, Anna and Mike, are in their thirties and so now they have a little brother, even if too far away, while I find myself the wrong side of sixty with a four year old who calls me Daddy, and very happy I am about it too.

Needless to say, Tony is a delightful child and I cannot now imagine life without him. He’s a tireless ball of energy and full of the joys of spring. He’s constantly observing and analysing everything and, like an ever expanding sponge, absorbing all he sees around him. It’s remarkable to watch him as he develops, equipping himself with all the complex skills necessary for survival.

He came to us when he was only a few weeks old and so he knows nothing else but us. Cat’s family has received him warmly and they cherish him as one of their own, and in that he’s very lucky indeed. Childhood in a village such as this is idyllic as there’s warmth and space and he can run freely without facing too many risks. In a farming community there are always people around and he always has friends to play with. It’s open house all day long, doors are never closed and he has constant stimulus from a wide extended family.

In the West we barricade ourselves inside our claustrophobic nuclear families, presumably so-called because at any time they’ll destructively explode. In Asia all is open and welcoming which makes the Thais the way they are and ensures that this truly is the Land of Smiles.

We’ve just held Tony’s fourth birthday party and it was a big village event with everyone invited. Because they’re busy in the fields with the cows and buffaloes until evening, it has to be a late party and the adults come too. All day there’s food to be prepared, chickens to pluck, coconuts to be taken from the trees and grated, roots to peel. All is hectic activity and fun.

And of course there’s music, which has to be mega-loud. Music-man arrives in a pickup and spends all day setting up a wall of speakers and a stack of electronic boxes with complex knobs and wires streaming out of them. Apart from the fact they’re outside in the open, this is music to raise the roof. It’s so loud it reverberates as it hits my chest but, despite the mountains of woofers and gizmos, the sound quality is excruciating, as is the karaoke that follows.

The garden soon fills up with visitors. A few farang and friends sit at tables, the Thais on mats on the grass. There are of course balloons and presents and a technicolour birthday cake, with food and alcohol in abundance and that’s all just how it ought to be. Thai parties are an extravaganza and ours for Tony was no exception.

I can hardly believe that we’ve now steered him safely through his first four years and that he’s got a Thai passport with a grinning picture and the name, Anthony Hicks. Like raising my own kids, this has to be one of the most important things I’ve ever done.

For me at my age, facing up to baby feeds and nappies and to sleepless nights was a bit of a shock, though it came quite naturally, a bit like riding a bicycle again. And of course this time around it’s been so much easier. Three decades ago, having two babies and two demanding full-time job was always hard, so now with neither of us in formal work and with so many supporters, all desperate to hold the baby, it’s been relatively easy. Mummy and Daddy are usually at home for Tony and the family have been giving him a perfect childhood.

There’s even a little infant school at a local temple and he goes when he wants to and when he doesn’t, he just stays at home.

Cat and I speak English with him and he sometimes speaks a cocktail of Thai, Lao and Suay to the rest of the world. Somehow he manages to switch to English to talk to me, though it’s very comic when Thai words get mixed in too. He knows the colors and numbers in both English and Thai and we’ll try hard to raise him as bilingual in both languages.

Having thus introduced my small son, Tony, to you, he can now begin to feature openly in the continuing story of what should from now on better be called, ‘My Thai Wife and Son and I’.

Copyright Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog January 2010

Monday, 25 January 2010

Jack Reynolds Again - Naming Names

Hardly a day goes by when I don't discover something more about Jack Reynolds, Bangkok's 'grand old man of letters' and author of the novel, "A Woman of Bangkok", whose life I've been researching.

Yesterday I posted in my story below some more pictures about Jack with the introduction to my draft story of Jack's life. And I appealed for somebody to make contact with Jack's children for me.

Today I recieved an interesting article on The Friends Ambulance Unit from a friend in Austalia (Jack was with them during the war years), and I have also discovered the names of his children and some family photos. A good day all round.

These pictures show Jack at home in Sukhumvit soi 8 with his wife, Wanpenh Muthikul, their sons, David, Philip, Steven, Ben and Frank and their daughter, Chandra Meagan with her baby, Mark, Jack's first grandchild.

Jack is looking frail, is using a walking frame and his left ear is bandaged, presumably because of the cancer that was to end his life six months later in September 1984. It looks a happy family gathering, though sadly was probably one of his last.

I have now spent a lot of time tracing Jack's life and have discovered much about him. I would thus love to be able to share all this with his children. As one friend said to me, "They should be very proud of their father".

The married daughter (who worked in an art gallery in Petchaburi road) will have changed her name but the sons, I believe have the name Muthikul Jones.

So where are they now and how can I find them?

Please help!

Andrew Hicks The "Thai Girl" Blog January 2010

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Jack Reynolds - The Search Goes On

Jack Reynolds gazes down from his grave stone.

The first edition of his seminal novel in its original title.

A Pan edition of the book with a snappy cover design.

And a good write up on the back.

Jack enjoyed inscribing his book, this one for John Stirling.

From 1944 Jack spent seven years in China with the Friends Ambulance Unit.

Dominic Faulder's fine portrait of Jack taken not long before his death, appearing on an interview with 'Living in Thailand' in 1983. (Copyright Dominic Faulder.)

I’ve written before about my fascination with Jack Reynolds, the author of “A Woman of Bangkok”, the 1956 novel, just preceding “The World of Suzy Wong”, that established a genre, the Bangkok novel. Since then many such have been written by western authors, including me. They tell stories of torrid affairs with Thai women whose interest was more about money than romance, but more than half a century later Jack’s still sets the standard.

Jack died in 1984, well before the internet era, and I have been trying to learn more about his life and to record something for posterity. I have now written 22,000 words about him and my problem now is to decide what to do with it.

There’s still more to learn about him though and my main gap is that I have not managed to make contact with his children who were born and raised in Bangkok. He had seven children, the first born in the mid-fifties when he was aged forty, and the chances are that they are still in or around Bangkok.

Jack’s real name was Jones and his children are likely to be called Muthikul Jones. The first three were, David, Steven and Philip, one an artist, one a musician, but I do not know the names of the others. I believe that they went to school at the Ruam Rude international school and there must be many who remember them there. They could be in a Thai language phone directory or somewhere on the web. As I cannot read Thai, it is difficult for me to search for them.

Someone, somewhere knows where they are and could help me find them. There can’t be many Thais called Jones so do please help me find them!

I would also like to find more of Jack’s articles published in The Bangkok Post and elsewhere, especially anything about China which generally are his best work. Perhaps you have a copy of one of them in the bottom drawer of your desk or could point me in the right direction.

And one final question. Jack produced a book called, “THE UTTER SHAMBLES”, which was available in the book shops but it seems to have disappeared without trace. Can anyone produce a copy of it?

What now follows is the introduction to my story about Jack Reynolds. I hope it’s tantalizing and makes you want to learn more about him.

Finding Jack Reynolds – Bangkok’s ‘Grand Old Man of Letters’

‘Jack Reynolds’, Humanitarian worker and writer
1st June 1913 to 2nd September 1984

A Rationale for My Search for Jack?

I ask myself, why am I so intrigued to learn more about Jack Reynolds. His one novel, long out of print, is not enough to stir such curiosity, though an element of mystery about its author does intrigue me.

I first saw a glowing recommendation of “A Woman of Bangkok” in Joe Cummings’ ‘Lonely Planet Guide to Thailand’ perhaps as long ago as 1977 when I was first visiting Thailand. Joe now tells me that he’d found a weathered copy of Jack’s novel left there by a previous tenant when he moved into an old wooden house on a khlong in Thonburi, and he’s been praising the book ever since.

Another such story is how Steve Rosse found an abandoned copy in the attic of a burnt out casino in Atlantic City. It had totally fallen to pieces, yet he found the yellowed pages to be ‘a novel of extraordinary sensitivity and insight’. So compelling was it that a year later he was on a plane bound for Thailand to see for himself. ‘Like tripping on a landmine’, it changed his life forever. (

It further added to my curiosity that I too am author of a single novel about the obsession of a young Englishman for a ‘Thai girl’, but that still couldn’t explain my fascination for Jack whose book I hadn’t even had the chance to read. At last a few months ago I found a copy of the book in a Chiang Mai second hand bookshop and wrote a long critique of it on my blog ( , 7th November 2009), and then things began to happen. I was contacted by Michael, a son of Bernard Llewellyn, an Oxfam stalwart I’d known long ago in Hong Kong as it transpired that Bernard and Jack had become close friends when doing humanitarian work in China in 1946.

Both men wrote books about their experiences in China during the war years and, since reading these, along with an unpublished book by Bernard that Michael sent me, I have become increasingly intrigued by them and by their friendship. Bernard, who died aged 88 in June 2008 (see, was an inspirational character and if he and Jack were close friends, then that was enough for me. I thus now wanted to find out exactly who was this Jack Reynolds whose novel about a woman of Bangkok so many readers still talk and enthuse about.

Jack died in 1984 well before the arrival of the internet era so all I could find about him on the net was enquiries like mine asking where to find the book and asking for details of his life. I have therefore tried to find and contact his remaining friends, to listen to their anecdotes and to collect together the few articles written by him that can still be identified. (The small proportion of his articles that I now have is listed in a Bibliography below.)

What follows is therefore a summary of what I have learned about Jack. If I quote extensively from these sources, perhaps with some repetition, please forgive me. My aim has been to preserve any interesting scrap of information as a more permanent record than the yellowing newspaper clippings that inevitably will stay in somebody’s bottom drawer until they are lost forever.

In Bangkok I recently met up with three of Jack’s friends who went to his funeral in 1984 and I have been in touch by email with many more. That they all came forward so readily to tell me about Jack shows in what great affection he was held and that he is far from being forgotten. They know who they are and I want to thank all of them for their help.

If you’d asked Jack about someone writing his biography, I think he’d have laughed aloud and ridiculed the idea. He’s probably right though as he was a private man and he left two fine books by which people can remember him. What now follows is therefore intended briefly to fill some of the gaps in his life story and to answer the queries of the curious that appear on the web from time to time.

In so far as anything can ever be a permanent record, here is my incomplete and imperfect version of the extraordinary life of Jack Reynolds.


So where am I now going to publish the rest of Jack’s story?

That’s my big question!

Copyright Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog January 2010

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Discreet Charm of the Cambodian Child Dancers

The Princess smiles down on the sweet faced rice dancer.

The rice harvesters dance symbolises hope for the future.

There are carrots too but the stick strikes out the timing.

The little ones work on their suppleness.

A still photo makes it look so easy,

But each move has to be as smooth as flowing water.

Rapt concentration. Now spot their feet!

Dancing gives these children a life and multiple skills.

An adolescent becomes apsara incarnate at Banteay Srei.

Health education in the village, unglamorous but so essential.

Anticipation adds to the pleasure but there is always something particularly special in the unexpected.

At the end of a very rewarding week in Cambodia, there could be nothing more to top what we’d already seen. The promised visit to a small dance school near the Angkor temples could surely not be the highlight of all we’d so far experienced but it was to be exactly that.

As we drove out towards the ancient Khmer temple of Banteay Srei we passed through fertile rice fields and neat villages, slumbering in the prosperous glow of harvest time. The road passed under spreading trees and the many farm houses were well built and brightly painted, but then things began to change.

After we’d passed the turn to the temple, I was aware that there were fewer farms and trees, but instead areas of barren scrub and long views to the distant hills. This was a much poorer place and it was here that we found the dance school.

We had come to see the work of the Nginn Karet Foundation for Cambodia (, a privately financed foundation that has been working in the area for more than ten years. It supports fourteen poor villages, aiming to promote sustainable development and the provision of basic needs for a self-reliant rural community through a range of projects. First we saw one of the schools they had built, an attractive small primary school with three classrooms, and then went on to watch a health education project in full swing.

Mention government spending on public health and we think of doctors and hospitals, but in a poorer country there are prior imperatives to deal with. Among these are the provision of clean water, proper sanitation and, most important, simple education in hygiene and child care.

This is exactly what local staff of the Foundation were doing when we arrived at a typical modest farm house, bustling with women and children. The Foundation had provide them with a well and a pit latrine and a lesson in personal health care was now in progress. A smiling lady employed by the Foundation was using a set of hand painted pictures to demonstrate various lessons in hygiene to the group of adults and children sitting on the mats around her. It all looked to be good fun and she certainly had the rapt attention of her audience

I much admire an unglamorous project such as this one. It is easy for aid agencies to fund physical things you can photograph such as wells and latrines and then to walk away. But these are only the hardware and the real value is added by teaching people how to use them properly. Rural life is not a rustic idyll in which people necessarily enjoy good health. As populations grow, as crowding increases and as there are more and more throw-aways that are not bio-degraeable, there is much to be learned. Life expectancy can best be extended by teaching people the essentials of how to look after their health and, crucially, that of their children. .

We then went on to the dance school that is run by the Foundation. This is set in spacious gardens with shrubs and vegetables and with several buildings and open-sided pavilions in which the children practice their dance.

The children from nearby villages opt to study either traditional dance, classical dance or music, all of course in the Cambodian tradition. In total there are more than 150 children and some of them were lined up in files to greet us as we arrived. They ranged from tiny children to young teenagers.

It was explained to us that a condition of joining the dance school is that they also keep up their regular education. This is possible as government schools run two daily sessions so that children have half their day free. Thus these children are not only assured of making progress in their conventional education but also are schooled in the fine art of Cambodian dance.

The aim is not to produce teams of dancers to wow the tourists but to preserve Cambodian dance and to make these children its custodians for the future. With decades of turmoil so recent in the country’s past, the survival of the traditional arts can not be assumed and initiatives such as this one are very much needed. It is also intended to re-sanctify Cambodian dance as a royal and sacred art by returning it to its proper setting in the ancient Khmer temples.

We were then given a display of dance that I shall always remember. I have seen traditional dance in many places such as Bali and Thailand but always these are put on for the foreigners and while wonderful, are sometimes a little showy and impersonal, with gaudy costumes, spotlights, big amplifiers. This time there was none of that.

It is hard now to describe or explain just how spine tingling was the children’s performance and why it affected me so. Partly perhaps it was because it was so unexpected and because the dancing was so perfect, so simple, so unadorned.

We could see the childrens’ hard work and dedication as the little ones limbered up, working on their flexibility, holding poses that would defy anyone not trained from an early age. And I hugely admired the dedication and skill of the teachers we met. Theirs is the credit for creating what we saw, working tirelessly from day to day to give the children an iron self-discipline, a togetherness and an art form for life that is truly magical. Especially when you remember the awfulness of Cambodia’s recent past and how very poor the present still is, this school is truly a remarkable place.

The children of course were enchantingly beautiful, all of them, and the simplicity of their dress, just a sarong and a white tee shirt, gave them such discreet elegance and charm, and with such innocence and grace. Having so many times seen the dancers carved in stone on the great Khmer monuments, for me they truly evoked the spirit of that time. They were apsaras incarnate.

The dance was thus truly magical, a performance that had me transfixed. There are those rare occasions in the performing arts, in theatre, music or dance that send a shiver down your spine and for me this was one of them.

I asked how the school is funded, always a crucial issue for any such project. The Foundation’s fund raising has always been done on a personal basis and a new focus is on obtaining individual sponsorship for the children. A scheme just started this year called, “Giving a Future to a Child Of Angkor”, ensures that each child is given the equivalent of US$ 20 per month for attendance at the school. This compensates the family for the loss of the child’s services in the home or on the farm and helps ensure that money is available for clothes and good nutrition. Children from further away are provided with bicycles for the journey and thus it is a tough day to cope with both regular school and to go to the dance school as well. While the local children clamour to join, the cash is desperately needed by their families and will help them all to stay the course.

The website, shows photos of all the children that need sponsorship and has details of how a child can be chosen for tax deductible sponsorship at US$250 per year. This way you can give to a child of Angkor, ‘a gift of education, art, happiness and a promising future’. (Enquiries to

A last unexpected performance for us was when we were all taken to the temple of Banteay Srei nearby. With the sun falling and the tide of tourists almost ebbed away, we were treated to one last dance in the precincts of the temple. Dressed in a red sarong, a single girl put on a perfect performance, a fragile figure against the harsh laterite stone of the temple wall. Like a sprite from another place, she was no longer a mere child, a messenger from the gods perhaps.

Then it was all over and she became a little girl again, chatting to her friends, laughing and joking as adolescents do. And it was time for us to go back reluctantly to our own world.

We were so very fortunate that day to have visited the dance school and I wonder how they all are.

It was a day I shall not easily forget.

Copyright: Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog January 2010

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The Beauties of Angkor

Angkor, the ancient capital of Cambodia is a haunting place in which you'll surely find great beauty. In each of the temples there are many beautiful girls, full figured and voluptuous and wearing only a sarong. It was Kent's quest to find and to photograph as many of these as he could.

As the sun falls, the many visitors leave the great Angkor Wat.

A face on the side of one of the Angkor Thom city gates.

Ta Prohm, left to the trees and jungle by the French.

Stopping more damage by the trees is now not easy.

Approaching the towers of the great Bayon temple.

Offerings at a living shrine in the heart of the Bayon.

Two of the huge faces that gaze down on awed visitors.

Said to be Jayavarman VII's first wife,Jayarajadevi.

The King's second wife, Indradevi, bids us farewell.

Angkor, the ancient capital of Cambodia, is a haunting place in which you’ll surely find great beauty.

Over a wide area, there’s an almost endless number of stone temples, each one with different qualities and in them you’ll find many beautiful women. The ‘girls’ we were looking for when I was there recently, that Kent so obsessively photographed, have fine head dresses and body decoration, are full figured and voluptuous and wear only a sarong around their waists. These women of course lived almost a millennium ago and are now figures in stone, the apsaras or devatas that appear on all Khmer temples.

Who were these women and where are the men? It is Kent’s unswerving mission to try to answer that question. (See and

At the temples you’ll also find beauty of a more transient kind, the girls and women who see out their young lives, waiting for tourists to buy the scarves and trinkets that they sell. The stalls and these vendors are at all of the temples and either they’re intrusive or an essential part of your Angkor experience, according to your attitude. For me at least they add both colour, charm and a warm Cambodian welcome.

They certainly do their job well and they know how to work a customer. As soon as you arrive at the temple, they’re crowding at the door of your minibus offering you handfuls of postcards and Khmer scarves.

‘Mister… buy postcard! Ten for five dollar. Okay you not buy now… later maybe come back.’

They don’t take no for an answer and in remarkably good English they’ll draw you into conversation.

‘Mister, where you come from? What’s your name, mister?’

And when you say England their eyes light up and they say, ‘Capital London, population sixty five million,’ and rattle off a list of statistics, right down to the names of the football teams. Often it’s a captivating performance and they can do it for any number of countries whose tourists come to the temples.

I asked one little girl aged twelve the capitals of all the obscure countries I could think of. ‘Bolivia?… La Paz. Mongolia?,,,Ulan Batur’, and only after eight or ten capitals had rolled off her tongue did she finally get stuck on Venezuela.

When you then wander off to go round the temple you are a marked man. You are her exclusive sales territory and when you get back, she’ll greet you by name. She’s written it in biro on her palm. On one occasion, a little bored with the hassle, telling the kid I was Adolf Hitler, I felt a bit of a heel when she called me Adolph as I returned.

When you don’t buy from them they then alternate between giving you beseeching and angry looks. Mine doesn’t lose hope of a sale until I’m right inside the minibus, when she stands and balefully gazes in at me through the window. I haven’t bought her postcards so I’ve now condemned to her to a lifetime’s hunger and suffering, I suppose.

At one remote temple I chatted too long to a particularly articulate child as I waited for my friend to survey the devata. I really didn’t want to carry any more cards so as I said goodbye to her, I offered her all of my small change in Riels. It was certainly more than the mark-up she’d make on a set of postcards.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Sorry… cannot take money from tourists.’

I often ask these children how they’ve learned such good English and they always tell me they learned it from the tourists.’

‘Don’t you go to school?’ I press them?

‘I’m saving money to go to school… my dream. Can you help me, please?’ comes the reply.

Sometimes they admit that they go to school for half a day and sell postcards for the rest of it. The Cambodian schools run two shifts a day so half the day is free. How each one comes to be selling at the temples I have no idea though, perhaps because their family has one of the trinket stalls. All I can say is that they are children of great charm and ability. I wish them well and that they don’t one day get turned away from selling outside the temples.

So I ask myself, do all Cambodian children have these special qualities or does a competitive market select the prettiest and pushiest to sell to the tourists?

Their language ability is certainly remarkable though. In many parts of rural Thailand the English teachers at least in the junior schools cannot speak a word of English, yet here these tiny tots are fluent and their pronunciation and diction is excellent.

At one temple, I found myself chatting to a Japanese tourist about this, indicating the little girl who’d just been talking to me.

‘Watch this,’ he said, and walked over to her, looking to me for my reaction. She was chatting to him in Japanese.

Some of the older vendors I met were equally impressive. One attractive young woman with lustrous, sad eyes told me how much she regretted the current political in-fighting between her country and Thailand. How wrong that Cambodia was being pushed around in this way, she complained.

Another twenty year old selling pirated copies of English language novels about Cambodia actually knew what it was she was selling. She had read and could discuss in a sensible way the novels she had enjoyed, something that would take a confident literature graduate in Thailand, and she little more than a street kid.

The really nice thing about Thailand though, as compared for example with being a tourist in India, Morocco or Bali is the absence of hassle. Rarely are you approached by vendors and if you say you’re not interested, they’ll back off with great dignity. Thailand’s greatest asset, despite a minority of rip-off merchants, is surely the gentle dignity and grace of its people. That said though, their inability to use the English language, when compared to the Cambodians puzzles me.

Malaysians of course speak excellent English, but neither the Cambodians nor the Indonesians were colonized by the British and yet their English is so much better than the Thais’. Perhaps their peoples are simply different in how they wish to apply themselves in life. For the Thais even a foreign language that can give them career perhaps is not so important, I surmise.

I thus find differences in national characteristics fascinating, especially as the human experience is basically the same everywhere. Why for example, are the little girls of Angkor so much more assertive than their counterparts in Thailand, a place with similar and overlapping cultures? An obvious answer is that Cambodia is poorer and so they are more desperate for a sale. The struggle for survival in Cambodia has long been very raw and this could a partial reason… though unfortunately that doesn’t explain Laos. This tiny buffer country has been trampled over and laid waste for centuries and is now perhaps the poorest and most backward of the lot, but the Lao people seem to be even more relaxed than the Thais.

Eight years ago in Cambodia, after I’d crossed a very choppy Great Lake in a tiny boat and arrived on the fringes of Battambang, there waiting on the river bank were rows of boys holding up placards advertising their guesthouses, behind them several minibuses into which we were firmly but gratefully ushered. It was active salesmanship of the very best kind.

In contrast, in Laos, when going down river on a slow boat to Luang Prabang, we stopped at a village where there was a row of stalls on the bank selling bananas and snacks. At each one sat a vendor who stolidly remained seated. We sat in our boat and looked at them and they sat and looked at us. They only received a handful of boats a day, yet they didn’t even bother to walk the few yards to the boat to offer us their wares, as would always happen on any train or bus in India or Thailand. Despite their poverty they almost willfully failed to make a single sale.

The Protestant work ethic of northern Europe and the Confucian values of China that have spread southwards into Viet Nam must contribute to national characteristics, but throughout Indo-China and Thailand the people enjoy shared values as Buddhists and thus should be more similar.

The ancient Khmers of course were aggressive enough to create a vast empire receiving tribute from much of what is now Thailand and Laos. Their king, Suryavarman II, build the vast, arrogant monument that is Angkor Wat while, the most hyperactive of them all, Jayavarman VII built the Bayon and so many of the other great monuments. What then drove them to these extraordinary logistical feats of ostentation and display?

On our visit to the Bayon we were taken round by Robert McCarthy, an American archeologist with a Japanese agency, working on the continuing conservation of the temple. He explained to us the restoration of the southern library, their research on the bas reliefs and the structural stabilization of the central tower. As Kent kept clicking away recording the many fine ‘girls’ on the towers of the temple, Bob too shared with us his similar fascination with these devatas, pointing out their many intriguing details.

Particularly fascinating are two very distinctive womanly figures that look to be real individuals. One is thought to be Javavarman’s first wife, Jayarajadevi who died young, while the formidable looking one on the right is said to be Indradevi, his second wife who was sister of the first wife. Intimate details such as these humanise the temples which make it strange that the complex and sophisticated world of the ancient Khmers so totally disappeared into oblivion and that we know so very little about them.

Presiding over the whole scene at the Bayon are the many huge, serene faces carved on the towers that eternally gaze down on the human comedy in shorts and tee shirts that parades beneath them. Who they are and what they represent is constantly disputed by the scholars, but they probably represent the faces of three different gods, that it the devata, the female guardian goddesses, deva, the male gods, and sura, the demons.

Whatever they represented to the ancient world, for me they powerfully symbolize the continuing identity of modern Cambodia as you constantly see the same strong bone structure, the same broad noses and full, square faces in every town and village you visit.

The Khmers indeed are striking people, often with the serenity that their forbears captured in stone, though on my many visits, people have sometimes been surprisingly open in telling me the sorrows of their past. Somehow I always sense that the ocean of suffering so recent in Cambodia’s past still lies not very deep beneath the surface.

The big historical mystery of the ancient Khmers, of course, is why did their empire crumble so rapidly? Though that inevitably is what empires always do.

The greater mystery perhaps is why did the kingdom rise to such prominence in the first place. How could a king such as Jayavarman VII have assembled the resources and skills to construct these vast monuments. Such profligacy just couldn’t last. The lessons of lessons of history should therefore teach us that the seeds of decline are often sown when political leaders pursue unjust wars and build self-aggrandising follies, both religious and secular.

What most fascinates me though about the fall of empires is that there often is no bounce… that they fall headlong and so far. So often the richest civilizations slip into the greatest disarray and poverty. Think of Egypt, China, India, Central America. Even Greece and Rome, Spain and Portugal became the poorest of the European nations.

Cambodia too is among the poorest of modern nations and Isaan where I live in North Eastern Thailand, an outlier of the Angkorian empire in which many of my neighbours are ethnic Khmer, has long been poverty stricken. In contrast to the earlier technological and artistic achievement of Angkor, the region slipped so very far.

Here, unlike in an African village, there is no tradition of carving, no decorative arts, no artistic life, other than music, and the few handicrafts I see such as basket ware are utilitarian and unadorned. Even with growing prosperity, there is little concern for the aesthetic, except as a public statement of wealth.

So what broader lessons does the fall of ancient empires now hold for the world’s great super power and for the West in general?

Answers please on a postcard or as a Comment below!

All I know is that Angkor is a beauteous place and I identify with its people as they struggle to sell a scarf or two, hoping for a better life for themselves and for their children.

Copyright: Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog January 2010

Saturday, 2 January 2010

I Stare Into The Jaws of Death!

Thais have a varied reaction when you show them a vicious looking snake that's just bitten you. Either it's to say that this type is a particularly dangerous snake or more seriously that it's best fried in ginger and garlic. I was in agony after a Laotian wolf snake had bitten me on Koh Chang. How was I going to get through the experience, if at all.

The Jaws of Death!

Never, never, ever make jokes about being bitten by snakes!

I’ve just been staring into the jaws of death and it wasn’t funny. The jaws were small, the jaws probably of a Laotian wolf snake, but they might have killed me and by God, did it hurt.

We’ve just been staying for the New Year on Koh Chang one of Thailand’s loveliest islands and we took a chalet on White Sands Beach, under the jungle canopy hard up against the foot of the mountain. The monkeys come down in the evenings and there are wild boar up there so it’s still nature red in tooth and claw, including the rash of bars and discos on the sands.

On our first night, despite it being the dry season, it began to rain. I lay awake in bed listening to the rain beating on the corrugated iron roof for a bit but, not having seen rain for a few months, went outside onto the verandah to have a look. In the lights of the surrounding huts I could see that my shorts hanging on the verandah rail were getting wet so I picked them up to move them under cover.

Then I felt something soft fall onto my right foot and immediately came a stabbing pain. As I turned I saw something slither away into the pot plants moving very fast. I wasn’t sure what it was and at first I thought must be a centipede.

I blundered back inside the hut rudely waking Cat and Nan and lay in agony on the bed massaging my foot. I broke into a sweat. I felt dizzy and sick. This looks too bad to be a centipede so it must be a snake, Cat tells me.

Tropical snake bites can be fatal so, I guess, I’m now staring into the jaws of death.

Cat goes and calls help from Thai friends nearby who get up and gather round looking extremely worried. “What’s the remedy for centipede bites?” I ask them.

“Kill centipede, squeeze shit out and rub it on the bite.”

I think I’ll assume it was a snake. We haven’t caught the thing yet anyway.

I’m still lying on the bed, the worst pain of my life now tracking up my calf and into my groin, while outside the hunt for the snake begins. Suddenly there’s a hubbub. They’ve found it curled up under one of the pots. Figures are dashing to and fro and there’s a banging sound. They’ve killed the snake.

I have a great respect for local knowledge on country lore such as snakes and I watch their faces. They look grave.

“We know this one. Very bad snake. Very dangeruss!”

It doesn’t look too good for me. I need a doctor pronto.

There’s nobody who can drive my pickup so I have to drive it myself, my right braking foot a blazing ball of fire. We get to the local international clinic which says it cannot treat me but arranges an ambulance to the government hospital on the far side of the island.

It’s a good long run over the hills and almost vertical hairpins so it’s just getting light as we arrive. Now early morning, it’s very quiet and an English speaking nurse checks me in and takes my pulse. We show her the snake and she checks a poster showing the local snakes that are dangerous. When she can’t find it, she does a Google search and says she thinks it’s a Laotian wolf snake, a small snake that hunts frogs and lizards at night. This one isn’t poisonous, but they can't take any chances with the identification.

The doctor comes and I learn more about snakes. One type of snake bite is neurotoxic. The venom causes extreme drowsiness which is the neurological system closing down and the beginning of a quick death. The other poisonous bite affects the capacity of the blood to clot and the victim slowly bleeds to death from all orifices and internal bleeding.

If I’m lucky, it could be another type where the snake disables the prey with shock and extreme pain caused by toxins injected into the blood. It’s certainly hurting me enough to disable an elephant.

What they have to do, it appears, is to admit me for observation for 24 hours and take regular blood tests to check that coagulation is normal. But what if it’s not, I wonder. How can a small public clinic on a Thai island cope if there’s a severe crisis? What can they do to stop me bleeding to death?

I’m not usually squeamish about having blood taken but the first nurse manages to squirt my blood all over my arm. I sink into a whirling pit of dizziness and put my head between my knees. Perhaps this is it then, a new species of snake that can do a double strike. The blood’s gone everywhere because it’s not coagulating properly and the snake’s toxins are now fatally attacking my neurological system.

Yes, it was an anxious few hours with little Cat could do to distract me. I was admitted to a ward to lie and stare at the ceiling. At first the pain had been so bad I didn’t much care how it stopped, but now it was easing a bit and I was getting more reluctant to die.

The hospital was excellent and soon reported that the first blood test was normal. I slept the night with the usual interruptions for checks of temperature and blood pressure and for more blood letting. By morning I was still alive and it was still raining.

It was a dismal day and I dressed and sat out the front of the hospital watching as the night’s harvest of farang males who’ve fallen off motorbikes are brought in to be patched up. Of these there were three in all that morning.

One had bounced down the road on his beer belly, removing most of the skin. Two others riding a motorbike through the jungle had gone straight on where there was in fact a bend in the road. Lying unconscious and hidden in the undergrowth at three in the morning with about five fractures between them can’t have been the best way to spend their holiday, but I’m told the hospital has about twenty of these road accidents to deal with every day.

My own problem was beginning to look relatively minor in comparison. These lads were in real trouble.

As for myself, I was now going to be okay.

The Laotian wolf snake it was that died.

Copyright Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog January 2010