You would be hard pushed to find Baan Nong Weng on the map – I first came here 6 years ago and have been back most years since, staying in one of the many thousands of almost indistinguishable villages in Isaan, the dry dusty north eastern region of Thailand that borders on to Cambodia and Laos.
For the British Thailand is our most popular long distance vacation spot so the word Thailand instantly conjures up visions of Phuket , Ko Samui or Bangkok but it can be argued that Isaan represents the soul of Thailand – and indeed all its strengths and weaknesses. The strength of self help, community and family on one hand and the conservatism, die hard habits and inability to manage expenditure and quickly incur debt on the other. Although despised by urbane and educated Thais it should not be forgotten that Taksin Shinawatra was twice democratically elected leader of Thailand (as well as buying and selling Manchester City before he faced renewed protests that he did not meet the Football Association’s fit and proper person test !) and the foundation of his support was the poor villages of Isaan – on one hand he genuinely related to the Thai peasantry and on the other he understood realpolitik and $10,000 to each village committee bought a lot of gratitude.
And it is hot here – very hot.
Last night at dinner I felt very humble – twice over. It was my friend Ampai’s birthday and a grand feast was prepared to celebrate. Her two sisters’s helped prepare the meat through the day, her father walked in from the fields where he normally sleeps guarding his cows and chickens at night and other family members and some neighbours attended, coming and going through the evening. I think I counted 14 of us with fewer kids than normal – just Boumi 8 who has not seen his father for over four years although he lives in a neighbouring village, Chai 7 and Ning 15 already wedded to a mobile phone and receiving evening visits from Bong 30, a well regarded young man who has clearly got marriage on the mind.
I sense the family would have no objection as Bong works hard, is ambitious to be a self employed building contractor and I think is keen to impress. Indeed he wired in the portable air conditioning unit that I bought from Tesco Lotus as a (selfish?) gift for the family without charging for his time and he brought two bottles of Pepsi as his contribution for the feast. Ning’s sister Nee Yan 17 is already married has a young daughter of 9 months who is left with Ampai’s sister as Nee Yan has gone to the coast with her husband to earn money as a labourer. This is the reality of life in rural Thailand – the remaining kids look after the 9 month baby through the day as Ampai’s mother is getting older and her sisters are busy preparing meals during the day.
My mate ‘Boy’, just seven when I first visited is now 13 and a trainee Monk so is living at a Temple in another village about 10 miles away as they had some vacancies for some trainee boy monks . His father Chouan has always struck me as able and intelligent and did much of the work when Ampai built her house in the family compound. He is now a Monk and Boy too wants to follow his father’s footsteps – as do many young male Thais from the provinces.
So why so humble other than the fact my host insisted that whereas everyone else sat on the floor I was given a chair and small table for my mashed pot at oh and sautéed mushrooms?
I think it was because everyone was so happy with what they had and just to be eating together. I noticed that Ampai’s Mother was not present and was told she had stayed in her house next door to watch TV as she would struggle with the barbecued chicken without any teeth. The family and myself have offered to buy her dentures but she has always refused..I found it difficult to understand that a mother would not walk 15 paces to join the family gathering even if just to squat on the floor and have a drink but Ampai said ‘It is not important – she likes to watch TV’ and it was true – this family will do anything to help each other and are comfortable in their own skin. Me? I would be only too quick to take offence if my mother aged 95 chose to stay home rather than go out for dinner with us. (‘For Heaven’s sake Mum – don’t use age as an excuse. You might not be with us next year’ And sadly she’s not)
And when I asked who the old man was who I had never seen before I was told he was a neighbour and Ampai’s mother had invited him to the gathering. He told Ampai he had never had such a meal before in his 70 odd years – we were talking Rice, soup, vegetables, Pork, Chicken and Ampai had asked him ‘Do your children not prepare meals like this for your family – we do it once or twice every year?’
The answer was No and for this old man who had lived next door for almost 50 years this was a first and perhaps the culinary highlight of his life. I was happy for him – and that this family maintains its bonds but humble to be reminded yet again how much I take for granted. I calculated my daily income is 5 times what this family earns between them in a month.
I thought all Thai (and Buddhist ) families were like this one but who was looking after this old man – I guess as in all societies there are good and bad and filial and less filial. Ampai has 9 surviving brothers and sisters and at any given time it seems there are some married with homes elsewhere, some living in the family compound herein the village here at Bang Nong Weng and others working away and trying to send money home to help provide for Mother and Father.
Ampai’s sisters have children who in turn will help provide for their parents in old age (which is why so many Asian families breed so readily) but who is going to provide for Ampai?
For seven years she has hiked with me in the Himalaya, Alps and Andes and I often wondered if she might even hold the Thai female altitude record as she once crossed a 5500m Pass with me in a snow storm in Tibet on the Eastern flanks of Everest. You don’t see many Thais in the Himalaya, in fact I have seen just one Thai family once in Kathmandu. She has travelled the world, saved some money and built a home but it is time for her to be thinking about her future.
Perhaps her future should be with the able Bong? Ning is a nice girl but at 15, even in rural Thailand, should not be thinking about marriage. There are a lot more people for her to be calling on her mobile phone but Ampai’s biological clock is already 45 minutes past the hour. This seems an obvious match to me with with one or two mindset adjustments needing to be made but it should be possible? Perhaps I have a new vocation looming as a Thai matchmaker?
And if so will this be my last visit to Baan Nongweng?
I have been here almost a week – and as per normal the only westerner which means I frequently hear the word Farang’ (Pronounced Falang) as although to some I am now a slightly more familiar face than I was six years ago for most I am still an object of curiosity.
Every day I try and walk for 90 minutes which is either through the searing heat to or from the river for a swim or if I am more sensible at the end of the day through the dry paddy fields and despite being a Geographer I have never quite worked out the ritual and yearly timetable for Rice Growing. The fields are always a hive of activities with people walking back to the village with mushrooms gathered from the forest or escorting cattle or Water Buffalo back to the village.
It seems to be that Thais either do not trust each other or have cattle that need constant company – how many Dairy Farmers in Dorset are squatting under an old oak musing on life day after day, year after year, decade after decade? What do these people sitting in their do all day? I don’t see any with radios or books but whenever I walk along the paths between the fields I see a bike here, a scooter there and sure enough when I see some buffalo a hundred yards away I look around and inevitably see someone squatting under a wide brimmed coolie hat.
And when I walk along these paths each day trying to maintain some semblance of fitness I am greeted with shouts of exclamations or questions or greetings! Who knows as pitifully, despite a multitude of visits, my Thai barely extends beyond ‘Hi’ and ‘Bangkok’ and at least 50% of those words are a corrupted English.
I have decided that the dogs that gather around me when I walk through the fields are like the Thai people – noisy but not threatening. God knows I can talk and have never quite managed to get the words ‘telephone’ and ‘talking quietly’ in the correct balance but I am a rank beginner when it comes to not being able to manage conversational volume control!
And clearly the louder the btter – at eight thirty this morning a loudspeaker truck slowly drove down the lane entreating everyone to vote Number Two (or was it Three) at the forthcoming elections. If the volume was a reflection of popularity (or desperation) Candidate number two is home and hosed!
As I write two children are hovering around – it is school holidays and Boumi and Chai are keen to go to the river. I also have a new friend who sits on the table next to my laptop as I type – a baby owl who lets me feed him and who seems to sway more to Pavarotti than Nina Simone. He has been the highlight of my visit and every day when I sit down to write or edit images Ampai or one of the kids will retrieve the owl from wherever he has slept overnight and place him next to me. Did you know owls often sleep standing up and balanced on one leg?
As one gets older there is so much to do and only so much sand left in the Egg Timer. I have shared part of my life hiking in the mountains of the world with Ampai for seven years but like most Thais Ampai loves her home, the land she has bought to grow rice, her family, her village and her country.
She should be with Bong – not trekking through the Alps or Himalaya with an aging hiker.
Bong seems a nice guy and I think I need to sign up for Course 101 in Thai Matchmaking.
Will I be returning to Baan Nongweng?
I probably will but I probably shouldn’t.
© Michael Bromfield 2012