I first came to Ban Nong Weng in 2006 and I am pretty sure I have been here every year since. It is a small village of maybe 300 or so inhabitants in Isaan, the hot, dry, north eastern region of Thailand, that many people believe provides the economic (and perhaps spiritual?) backbone to Thailand, if for no other reason than the fact that, for generations, the people of Isaan have flocked to Bangkok, Pattaya and cities throughout Thailand in search of employment and provide the labour force for so many activities.
Ban Nong Weng has a Temple, a couple of itinerant stores incorporated into family homes and everyone knows everybody else. Every family has land in the surrounding area, where they grow rice and vegetables, raise chickens and let their water buffalos roam. The picture could be replicated in hundreds of thousands of similar villages throughout South East Asia. It is situated almost half way between the small towns of Rattanaburi and Samron Thap or between the larger provincial towns of Sisaket and Surin.
Almost 6 years ago to the day I wrote an earlier article about Ampai and her family in Ban Nong Weng, which you can find here.
Today is my friend Ampai’s 40th birthday. In Thailand birthdays are rarely celebrated and presents not exchanged – I did not see anyone give Ampai a gift today!
There are more important priorities in life, but I encouraged Ampai that she really should be celebrating this birthday. After all in the west many of us consider our 40th Birthday to be the last hurrah of our youth and a final confirmation that we are passing through the doors into Middle Age.
So it was agreed.
Ampai returned to her village last week and I headed off to Bangkok for Lens Replacement Surgery with the venerable Dr Chate at Bumrungrad International Hospital, an eye surgeon I would trust with my life, or at least my sight. (Was I to rue these words two weeks later – see the postscript!)
I had Lasix Surgery with Dr Chate in 2006 and he repaired a hole in my Retina last year. However this year, after my second eye procedure, an infection developed and he was initially reluctant to let me leave Bangkok, but finally armed with two eye drops for my left eye (one every hour and the second three times a day) and one for my right eye (four times a day) plus a course of antibiotics and painkillers if necessary, he consented to let me fly to Ubon Ratchathani yesterday afternoon.
That was just as well as I had booked and paid for the flight anyway!
He would prefer I returned to Bangkok after a few days for another check up rather than heading into southern Laos, as Ampai and I plannned for a few days of exploration, but I promised I would be back in 7 – 10 days and sooner if there were any complications.
I told him the good news was that, with the aid of my family sending me reminders in case I dozed off, I had been religiously taking the antibiotic eye drops every hour as instructed. The bad news was I had got the eye drops mixed up!
Anyway yesterday I took the short 70 minute flight from Bangkok to Ubon Ratchathani and was delighted, despite my eyes being misty from the continual deluge of eye drops (is it right or left eye due next and with which bottle?), I was able to read without the use of glasses for the first time in 7 years.
Ubon is one of the larger cities in Isaan and is located on the mighty Mekong river close to the Laotian border and within five minutes of my arrival Ampai and her lifelong friend Suwanna had arrived, together with one of Ampai’s cousins, whose car had been hired as a cheaper option to a taxi.
I have a lot of time for Suwanna, who I first met 12 years ago and who is a month older than Ampai. Their mothers were friends and neighbours and Ampai and Suwanna went to school together but Ampai left at the age of 12 to become a housemaid/home help, factory worker and doughnut seller on the beach at Pattaya before she was 16, whilst Suwanna continued with her studies and eventually graduated with a degree from a Bangkok university aged 21.
Despite their varying paths through life they stayed in touch and as close friends regularly meeting when they, like most Thais, return to their village for family celebrations and National holidays, like Songkran or Thai New Year.
But in early 2017 tragedy hit Suwanna’s family. By then she was the Manager of the Personnel Department for a Thai automotive group based just outside Bangkok and well paid by Thai standards, when sadly her younger brother had a stroke in his late twenties. The initial prognosis was not good, as it was unlikely he would emerge from the coma he was in and if he did he would likely be a paraplegic at best.
On the whole Thai health care compares favourably with most of Asia but it is fairly common for hospital patients to be accompanied by a family member and Suwanna took leave from her job so she could be with her brother, who after several weeks defied the odds and emerged from the coma. He was transferred to another hospital still with Suwanna in tow and slowly got some feeling and movement in his limbs and had to learn to talk again.
Eventually it was decided he was well enough to return home which would have to be modified for a bedridden patient and, as Suwanna’s parents were too old to look after a handicapped son, Suwanna decided she would have to resign her job and would move back to Ban Nong Weng to look after her brother. Apparently her employers were reluctant to lose her and told her there would always be a position for her, if she was ever in a position to return.
Over the years I have seen Suwanna with Ampai in Pattaya and Bangkok and we once went in a small group to the island of Ko Wai near Ko Chang. She has always been hardworking at her jobs and reluctant to take time off and I asked her how she felt about giving up her work after 15 years and moving back to her village.
Like most Thais who are dedicated to their family, there was no decision to make, as duty and responsibility to family made it the natural thing to do and also like most Thais, Suwanna prefers to live in her village with friends and family. Ampai has travelled the world, but is never happier than in her village and would happily live there forever. Again I refer the reader to the postscript!
Before her brother had his stroke, Suwanna had been planning to take a holiday in Hong Kong, but that had been long forgotten, as looking after her brother became the focus of her life. So when Ampai and I, plus my daughter Sarah and her partner James, were all meeting up in Hong Kong this last January, I asked Ampai if Suwanna would like to join us as our guest, as a break from the travails of her past year, and so Suwanna also turned up in Hong Kong with Ampai, for what was both Suwanna’s first flight and her first overseas trip.
So it was good to see Suwanna again when I arrived at Ubon yesterday and, what a surprise, she was also sporting a new partially close cropped hair style!
No sooner had I got in the car than Ampai said ‘Michaen?’ (Thai’s inevitably substitute ‘n’ for ‘l’ which they cannot pronounce), with a slight hesitance that is a dead giveaway that Money’s involved, a subject Ampai is reluctant to raise or discuss.
I had suggested that to mark her 40th birthday she invite Monks from the Village Temple to visit her home and bless her, but apparently this was a big no-no, but one could invite the Monks to the home for breakfast and they will bless the house, which should bring good fortune to the family and ancestors.
Ampai had previously advised me this was not an option, as all the Monks from her village were spending two weeks at another temple, but she had found out yesterday that their departure had been delayed and they were available.
However, food for all the Monks for breakfast and the family and neighbours, who would also attend, would likely cost 15,000 Baht (£400/$550) and she was reluctant to confirm this without my saying so. It turned out that this figure also included all the seafood and drink for the evening party that was planned and, in any case, as hosting Monks is a mark of great prestige and it was my suggestion, I told her to call the Temple and it was definitely green for go.
The TV in Ampai’s home had recently died and I was planning to replace it or give her mine from Pattaya, which is relatively new and I would get a new one on my next visit, but I wanted to get Ampai something special for her 40th, so I had previously asked Ampai what she wanted as a birthday present.
Thai’s are not big on presents, but if pressed, the answer is usually one thing only……………….Gold! This explains the fact that there are gold shops almost on every street the length and breadth of Thailand and several in most shopping malls.
So our journey to Baan Nong Weng was punctuated by several stops to look for a new TV – Ampai selected one at Tesco Lotus, only to discover it was out of stock, so that decides it – she gets my 65 inch TV from Pattaya and I will get a replacement.
However, we were more successful in procuring a 2 Baht (23 carat) bracelet at one of the two gold shops in the Sisaket Tesco Lotus complex, which only left the serious shopping – fish, meat and vegetables from the Sisaket Market, whilst I decamped to a nearby coffee shop.
We finally reached Baan Nong Weng in the rain at 8pm in the evening – some five and a half hours after I had landed. No TV but Gold and Food in hand and, as Meat Loaf famously sang, ‘Two out of Three ain’t bad’.
Somehow 15 months had passed since I was last here with my school years friend Richard Trollope in January last year and, as per the last twelve years, every time I come Ampais’s house has expanded again – it is now fully surrounded by a concrete patio, which in turn has been roofed and provided three big rooms surrounding the original house which she started building about 10 years ago with the proceeds of an overseas position as a nanny/au pair, which I had helped arrange.
And as Ampai’s mother has divided the family land between their 10 surviving children, they are all building a variety of homes temporary and permanent, like a family compound. The plan is for seven of the siblings to be neighbours – that should be fun!
And at present the family house and Ampai’s ever expanding giant house dominate the compound!
This is true communal living with children, grandchildren, cousins and a variety of animals all living together and, if a child needs help, the nearest available adult is quick to assist or provide a cuddle.
I speak not a word of Thai, but after 12 years, I am a familiar face and a variety of people including Ampai’s aged mother came up to say Hello and inspect my eyes. Ampai’s nephew Baumi, who must have been about four when I first met him, has long been an animal lover and his expanded menagerie now includes some Guinea Pigs and a Pet Rat in two cages and a lovely little baby owl, who was wandering around the floor in search of food and then flying up to perch on a rafter.
And, once the truck was unloaded, food preparation started, as the Monks were due in under 12 hours.
I was so impressed as neighbours, friends and sisters all pitched in, collectively sorting food, including separating only the best grades of Rice for the Monks.
Ampai said everyone would be getting up at around 3.30am to start cooking for the Monks, who were due to arrive from the Temple at around 8am and I said that would be about the time I went to bed, as I planned to watch the Bayern Munich – Real Madrid Champions League Semi Final from 0145 to 0330.
And so it transpired – I went to bed and grabbed a couple of hours sleep and got up for the football, which was thoroughly entertaining – I won one bet and lost another, but as I have been on a four week winning streak, can hardly complain. And, sure enough, by the time I went to bed at around 4am after a 2-1 victory to Real Madrid in Munich, the house was a hive of activity, with food and cooking going on at a various locations inside and outside the house.
Not more than three hours had passed when I was woken.
‘Wake Up Wake Up – don’t you want to watch pretty Thai Lady welcome Monks into her house?’
Indeed the Lounge was stripped of all furniture, TV and table and mats were set on the floor for the Monks to sit. The rest of the family, friends and neighbours were already all seated on the floor of the patio that surrounds the house, but there were seats for Ampai’s father and myself on the assumption we were not agile enough to sit on the floor for an extended period and quite correct as far as I was concerned.
There was a happy buzz of conversation, excitement and expectation, with many of the women wearing more formal dress and the guys either in clean T Shirts or pink shirts and sashes. Ampai explained that only the Monks could enter the house and that no one could be standing (and therefore at a higher elevation when the Monks were in the house).
The sky was overcast, heavy rain was forecast and I was wondering which would arrive first – the Monks or the rain!
As it was, it was the Monks, as the whispers went out ‘The Monks are coming’ and, sure enough, a group of orange robed monks made their way along the short Lane from the Temple on the main road, perhaps 400 metres away.
The Monks gathered outside and then one by one walked through the crowd after the Head Monk had acknowledged the welcome and wished everyone good luck. Ampai and her mother and some of her 9 brothers and sisters sat outside the front door and everyone else sat around the house.
Everyone had their hands pressed together in a wai, the traditional Thai gesture of greetings and respect , throughout the visit but at the same time everything was very informal with everyone chatting away, keeping an eye on the children and the food that was waiting.
People were getting up and moving around but, to maintain their mark of deference, were crouching or stooping down as they moved around. Everyone encouraged me to go over to the window and take pictures of the Monks inside the house, so I eventually waddled over on my knees and everyone laughed, gesturing that it was OK for me to walk.
And then the chanting started, with the Monks chanting inside the house and everyone outside chanting a response, wishing for good luck and good fortune for everyone. By this time the temperature had dropped and the rain was pelting down on the corrugated tin patio roof.
It was difficult to be anything other than impressed by the spirit of community and friendship that everyone was demonstrating and how much such a simple matter as the visit of the Monks meant to the people and how everyone enjoyed it. I have to admit, I had tears in my eyes and was so glad I had encouraged Ampai to do this, as it clearly meant so much to everyone.
The family had collected a set of individual trays on wheels from the Temple, so that all the food that had been prepared could be wheeled along the floor to the Monks, but there were so many Monks in the lounge and mats put on the floor for them to sit on, that it was decided that it would be best if the Monks came out and served themselves from all the food that had been prepared.
The Head Monk came out to check all was OK and then we had a line up of all the Monks in their bright orange and saffron robes, whilst everyone else sat around chatting with their hands still pressed together in the traditional wai of respect.
And last but not least, I noticed two old women dressed in white were serving themselves and Ampai confirmed they were two Nuns living in the Temple, but they were not allowed to eat in the house with the Monks. Instead, they were given a position of prominence outside the house, near the main entrance.
Sexism is still well entrenched in Asian Buddhism and accepted without rancour it appears because people looked at me incredulously when I asked why they did not eat inside with the Monks.
It was clearly a silly question because ‘Everyone know Nuns are not so important’.
It is very common for Thai Males to spend a period of their life as a Monk – Ampai’s brother Chuan now 46 was a Monk living at the Temple for two years, as was her younger brother Deeow for 5 months. Her brother Jort is now wondering if he should be a Monk for a while.
And whilst the Monks were eating the envelopes were prepared and each Monk received a gift with maybe 100 Baht (£2.50 /$3.50) for the younger Boy Monks and 200 Baht (£5/$8) or more for the elder Monks.
I assumed this was going to be funded by myself and/or Ampai and her family, but apparently friends and neighbours were all keen to contribute, because donating to the Monks will bring good luck to the givers and their families.
Ampai and her family then went into the house to distribute the envelopes to the Monks and all that remained was for the Monk to sprinkle water on everyone outside, accompanied with a light thwack by a special stick brought from the temple. People were shouting out to make sure the Monk did not forget the ‘Farang’ (Foreigner ie Yours Truly) and a specially heavy thwack was reserved for me and the small children to be met by great hoots of hilarity from the audience.
The traditional importance of the Monks throwing water is still strong in the rural areas of Thailand and anyone who has been in Thailand for ‘Songkran’ (Thai New Year) knows how this tradition has subsequently been developed into a major tourism event promoted internationally.
As a result a combination of over exuberant Tourists and the Thai Tourist Authority have developed Songkran into a national 3 – 5 day Festival of organised mayhem or Water Wars with many tourists being equipped with high pressure water guns, which are continually being refilled as they roam at will around tourist areas. Indeed, one risks being drenched in ice cold water if you are anywhere near a Bar or Tourist area or soaked to the skin with ice cold water as you sit in a songtheo (open bus) or drive your motor bike. After experiencing Songkran once, many expatriates resident in Thailand decamp to a neighbouring country to avoid the mayhem and carnage on the roads which Songkran has come to represent.
But in Ban Nong Weng water was gently sprinkled in the traditional manner.
After the Chief Monk had sprinkled water around on everyone then poured water from containers into individual glasses in front of them, as the Monk recited a Chant, everyone silently wished good luck to friends and family past and present and then poured the water over the roots of nearby trees and plants, presumably a gesture to the Circle of Life.
Ampai had asked me to place my hand on her shoulder and later explained this was so she could include my family in her wishes.
Then the Monks took their leave maybe 75 minutes after they had arrived and many gathered their robes around them and over their heads as they hurried down the lane in the rain back to the Temple.
And finally – once the Monks had eaten, received Alms, wished Good Luck for everyone and departed – everyone else could share all the remaining food and have their own breakfast and I could go back to bed at 0930!
And when I woke three hours later everything was amazingly spotless and cleaned with all the bowls and dishes washed and stacked and ready to be returned to the temple.
I asked Ampai how many times a year the Monks would make ceremonial visits to homes in the village and she thought maybe 12 -15 times but it varied. When I asked her what the Monks would do with the Alms they had been gifted, she said they would probably be spent on toiletries etc. but, if the Monks were not short, then it would probably be given to the Temple to fund building works and maintenance.
Now that part one of the day was completed, all that remained was to prepare the food for tonight’s party, which meant a trip to Ban Nong Luang, the neighbouring larger village to buy beer, whiskey and soft drinks, and, by the time we got back, Suwanna and Ampai’s brother Chuan were already grilling fish and people were gathering – most of the males drinking and chatting and most of the women were cooking.
Me? I was already writing the first draft of this article, whilst it was fresh in my mind!
That evening, when everyone was eating, I had prepared a few words thanking everyone for being so friendly to me during all my visits over the years and I presented gifts to Ampai’s mother (who is either arthritic or almost crippled – I’ve never worked out which) and of course the gold bracelet for Ampai.
Suwanna and Ampai improved on my Google Translate and my words and their translation were greeted with hilarity, but when I finished, one of Ampai’s cousins wanted to speak, to thank me for funding the Monks visit and the Party and told me they would always be friendly and hospitable because they were good Buddhists.
Then Suwanna joined in, saying she wanted to thank me for helping her when her brother had his stroke and she was close to tears, which almost started me off and then Ampai’s mother hobbled over. Other than words of greeting and departure on all my visits we have hardly spoken, because I don’t speak a word of Thai and she has hardly ever left the village in her almost 80 years. She said she was so grateful for all the support and help I had given Ampai over the years and how Ampai had been able to support the rest of the family and they had all prospered as a result and she wanted me to know how grateful they all were and that she would always wish and pray for all the best for me and my family.
By this time the music was blaring – and to understand the true meaning of the word blaring one really has to come to Thailand – and people were dancing. Elders, brothers, sisters, neighbours, husbands, wives and toddlers and I persuaded Ampai’s mother – the matriarch of her family – to take to the floor demonstrating the expressive hand and finger movements that typifies Thai dancing.
And then Baumi, who I first met as a four year old but now a very tall, quiet and serious 16 year old, hoping to go to university, took my iphone and insisted I too join the dance floor whilst he filmed.
That must have been the first time I had danced for 25 years and invoked cheers of support as I tried to mimic Thai expressiveness.
There were many faces in the crowd that were familiar but to which I could not put a name, including Jack, one of the son’s of Ampai’s elder sister Ann, who has lived in the family home looking after Ampai’s ageing parents ever since I have known the family.
The last time I had seen Jack was in 2006 at the Temple of the Mount in Bangkok, one of the most revered shrines in Thailand. At the time Jack was a Monk and based at the famous Temple and we met him by chance as we ascended the steps to admire the view over Bangkok from the Temple ramparts.
As I sat down exhausted after 15 minutes of dancing in the high humidity, I could not help but be impressed by all those around me and grateful that I could share the day with them.
In Western terms they have very little – the minimum wage in Thailand is around £7/$10 a day and most of the people there were subsistence farmers and doing odd jobs here and there. Family members working in Bangkok or wherever will send funds home for the others.
To the people of Isaan all foreigners are seen by definition as ‘rich’.
And in my case the contrast could hardly be more extreme, as I am fortunate to be have been what most western people would call very wealthy for many years.
However one of the few positive things I would say about myself is I have never forgotten or lost touch with where I came from and the maxim……………..
’Always be good and fair to people on the way up because you are surely going to pass them again on your way down’.
In truth, I probably find it a lot easier to associate and mingle with those who have less than those who have more and I am certainly more comfortable in a Thai village than I ever was at a Parents Evening or Speech Day at one of our kid’s schools.
So perhaps a feeling of shared origins (of not having much) helps me feel ‘at home’ or be ‘at ease’ when I am in Ban Nong Weng.
Suwanna was telling me how she had a high regard for Baumi, as he always popped in to check on her parents when she was working in Bangkok and she said he wanted to go to University and he should make it, because between his mother,(Ampai’s sister Ann) and his stepsister who has a job in Chonburi, they should be able to sponsor his fees.
That was something I could understand and relate to, as I was the first member of our family to go to university but only because the government paid my fees and gave me a grant that covered about 80% of my living expenses. From memory my parents just had to pay £75 or about $180 (then) three times a year but without external assistance, I would have never been able to go to university.
Suwanna reminded me that I had asked if I could meet her brother, who she was now caring for and we crossed the lane to go to his house, where I was introduced to Amnuy Inpanya, more commonly known by his nickname Na.They had made some modifications to their home so it was wheelchair friendly and the hospital had provided a wheelchair and traction bed which is positioned facing the TV with Swanna sleeping in a bed beside him in the Lounge.
Na’s speech was still slurred (but at least he was speaking) and whilst he can now move his legs he cannot walk. He was due to go back into hospital the following day for two weeks of therapy and acupuncture and Suwanna will sleep in the hospital with him, so she is fully up to speed on how best to care and look after him.
Suwanna’s other brother is married and has a job and three children, one of whom has changed schools so she can live with Suwanna’s family and share the caring responsibilities.
I felt sad for Suwanna. 40, attractive and intelligent, but what does life now hold for her? Her parents are in their 70s and clearly the responsibility of caring for her younger brother is going to fall on her shoulders for the foreseeable future. Not much opportunity for a social life, boyfriends or a husband or maybe I am painting too bleak a picture or maybe that’s not a problem or issue for Suwanna? Indeed Suwanna told me she preferred living in the village.
If Breakfast with the Monk’s and a day celebrating Ampai’s birthday has shown me anything, it was that the people of Isaan do not need much and will make the most of whatever they have.
Despite the people at Ampai’s party having very little in material or western terms, they have far far more in my opinion, as they were all happy and content with their lives and grateful for what they have – friendships, togetherness and support from friends, family and neighbours.
And Suwanna’s actions and body language throughout the day was not that of someone who was resentful at having to return to her village but more of someone who was liberated to contribute – whether looking after her brother or helping her friend Ampai prepare for the Monks visit and subsequent party.
The spirit and mindset on display throughout the day is really priceless and beyond value.
Birthdays are not big in Thailand – I did not see anyone give Ampai a card, gift or even say Happy Birthday but everyone for sure enjoyed a day of togetherness and shared pleasures.
I told everyone that in the west 40 is a major birthday because it marks the end of one’s youth and there is no denying that at 40 one is passing through the gates to enter Middle Age.
Whilst I personally would love to have the chance to re-enter middle age (!) this age thing is of minimal importance to people like Ampai and her family, neighbours and friends like Suwanna – they are what they are what they are and age is irrelevant. And they accept people as they are with no regard to age or appearance.
I was so pleased that I had encouraged Ampai to return to her village to celebrate her birthday because the whole day gave pleasure to so many.
And I felt very humble, grateful and privileged to have spent the day with Ampai and her family – it was the best day of the year so far by a long way and it is no bad thing to be reminded that, whatever your age, it is never too late to learn from the good deeds practised by others as they live their lives.
The days following Ampai’s 40th birthday were not uneventful.
Whilst we spent 5 days based at Champasak on the mighty Mekong River exploring southern Laos, I developed Cystic Monocular Edema, a blurring of the vision that effects perhaps 3% of patients after Lens Replacement surgery. This restricted my ability to read, write, drive at night, recognise facial details and perhaps most importantly watch football on TV. After seeing two specialists in Bangkok, I am advised that I should recover my vision over the next 3 – 6 months!
Of far more importance was the decision Ampai made two days ago in Pattaya that, after 13 years, it was time for our lives to go in separate directions – ‘You to the Left and me to the Right’ – at least for the time being.
Anyone knows that nothing can dissuade an Isaan woman once her mind is made up and my efforts to do so probably made a difficult situation worse for both of us.
Ampai is now back in her village at Bang Nong Weng with her family which is where she told me she wanted to be on the very first day that we met over thirteen years ago, when she was selling doughnuts on the beach.
And what a journey – she has travelled the world, climbed over two 5400m passes on the flanks of Everest, hiked with me on 4 continents, built a fine home and acquired a daughter by adoption.
So the last 13 years have been rewarding for her in many ways and I have learnt and benefitted so much from her good nature, laughter and companionship – except perhaps how to be a better person. And it seems that maybe she will fulfil the proposal that I thought was in her best interests, when I wrote about her here six years ago.
Ampai has long harboured a wish to spend some time in a temple as a Nun and may now take the opportunity to do so and reflect upon her future.
© Michael Bromfield