Thursday, 8 November 2012
......... My novel, THAI GIRL, is a story of how English student, Ben, goes backpacking in Thailand with Emma, his girlfriend from university. There are tensions between them and Emma dumps Ben on the tiny island of Koh Samet, their ultimate tropical paradise. Ben then falls for Fon, an enigmatic but flirtatious beach masseuse who refuses his advances but slowly is drawn in................ I have received many emails from readers alternatively saying that Emma or Ben are insufferable and that Thai women or western women are money grubbing and awful. Some of these comments are posted on the Readers Forum on www.thaigirl2004.com and I find them fascinating because different readers react so differently to the book and its characters. ................... I have just recieved another message from a reader which is particularly interesting because she has spent a considerable time in SE Asia as an NGO volunteer. Her uncompromising views thus cannot be dismissed lightly as being from someone who is ignorant or not well-disposed to Thailand............ Her unexpurgated comments now follow............ I just read your book, THAI GIRL, which I found in an op shop in Australia. I've spent the past 5 years going to and through Thailand so was curious to see how it was written about.....well the scenery and setting certainly rang true, also the sense of discombobulation that first time travellers experience. But as a female I found the female characters to be absolutely awful. I know you were trying to create a sense of empathy with the Thais but did you have to make Emma such a horror? And frankly, having seen first-hand the grasping greed of many Thai girls and the terrible consequences of their overwhelming desire for money on naive Western men, I couldn't see anything in the female Thai characters that would cause any guy to 'fall in love'............. I don't pretend to have an understanding of men, but who would fall for the sob stories and rapaciousness of child-like women who see sex as a monetary transaction? I've sworn, after spending the past couple of years working in SE Asia, to never return to Thailand again. A big part of this decision is due to the constant demands for money, even from supposed 'friends' and even while already volunteering all my time to NGO work. I really fail to see how any self-respecting man could find any happiness when their entire personal value is monetary and not based on intelligence, kindness, humour; all of those necessary attributes to fulfilling relationships................... Are men really so shallow?........... Helen................................................................................ Wow say I! There are loads of issues there for comment, but just a brief defence of my female characters from me.......................... Wasn't Emma entitled to her post-university depression, especially in the face of Ben's overwhelming personality! She then had the courage to dump him and to go off and enjoy Thailand without him. And as for Fon, the 'Thai girl' of the title, she pushed Ben away and never asked him for anything. Surely she breaks the stereotype that Helen asserts?.......................... So what's your view? Are Thai women so rapacious and western men so shallow? Do please post a Comment.............................. PS If you'd like to read a case study, non-fiction this time, you could try my later book, MY THAI GIRL AND I.............
Thursday, 5 April 2012
Wednesday, 21 December 2011
Wednesday, 9 February 2011
The Cambodian flag flies peaceably above the first temple at Preah Vihear, known to the Thais as Khao Phra Viharn and I cannot now believe that blood is again being spilled in this futile border dispute. The conflict has no real substance but is merely the result of extreme nationalism being fanned by politicians on both sides of the border seeking to distract attention from internal problems and to impress the electorate. It is so ironic that two Asian nations are scrapping over a border that was imposed on them by French colonial Indo-China in an unequal treaty that the World Court then had to interpret.
Bullet holes from the Khmer Rouge era are clearly visible.
The biggest losers are the traders for whom the temple was a livelihood.
A sacred place, it should be enjoyed as a shared heritage.
I wrote the following article in October 2008, never thinking that the dispute would gather momentum for so long. Nothing has changed. Things have only got worse and more blood has been spilled. When will everyone come to their senses?
Thailand’s Temple of Doom?
I am so sorry that Preah Vihear, the Cambodian temple on the Thai border has once again become a political football, souring relations between the two countries.
Called Khao Phra Viharn in Thai, it is just two hours from where we live and I keep on going back as for me it is one of the most magical places in the world. I’ve been there ten times in the last few years and I want to go another ten.
Though the Khmer temples at Angkor are grander in scale, the natural setting of Khao Phra Viharn is beyond compare. It sits at the top of a cliff and as you stand there looking down at hundreds of miles of Cambodian plain and mountain spread before you, just behind you a thousand year symphony in stone, this must be one of the most remarkable places in the world.
The temple often acts as a lightning rod for tensions between Thailand and Cambodia as it is the Cambodian and not the Thai flag that flies over it. In 1962 the International Court of Justice decided a border dispute referred to it by Cambodia, ruling that the temple was within Cambodia and that the Thais must withdraw their troops. The Thais were outraged and have never forgotten this slight from the minnow to the east.
Now managed by the Cambodians in a pleasant state of sleepy under-development, little girls and old ladies wander through the ruins beseechingly selling postcards and cold drinks and whenever there are tensions between the two countries, the Cambodians assert their authority and close the temple to visitors. Whether the pretext is pollution flowing into Thailand from the stream below the temple or a Thai helicopter allegedly overflying Cambodian airspace, it always spells doom for the poor vendors who abruptly lose their livelihood.
The decision of the Court was that maps drawn up during the French colonial era and at least implicitly accepted by the Thais placed the temple in French Cambodia notwithstanding that geographically it is within Thailand. Standing on top of a gently rising escarpment and cut off from Cambodia by the cliff, it must always have been approached from the Thai plateau.
The usual presumption is that international borders follow the watershed. In this case the watershed is the cliff edge, which would put the temple within Thailand, but the Court concluded in this case that the treaty ruled otherwise. Unequal treaties by which colonial powers sought to extend their territory are nonetheless taken to be valid.
The latest saga is that Cambodia has now made an application to UNESCO for the listing of the temple as a World Heritage Site and again the Thais are outraged. The new Thai government seems prepared to co-operate but the opposition Democrats have made it a major issue in domestic politics, attempting to bring down the government. Charging that a deal had been done to allow the Cambodian application proceed in return for a casino concession for Thaksin Shinawatra, the shadowy power behind the PM, the opposition has obtained a court injunction to stop the government supporting the application for listing and has stirred up extreme nationalist fervour against Cambodia.
The whole conflict is damaging for all sides. If the Thais could only accept the reality of Cambodian sovereignty over the temple and support an application for listing, there would be benefit for all, especially for the poor vendors in the temple.
The approach to the temple from the Thai side is scheduled as a National Park so the Thai authorities already collect entry fees equivalent to those charged by the Cambodians for the temple itself. As the access and the only population centres are on the Thai side, the benefit of virtually all associated tourism primarily benefits the Thais. The Thai province of Si Saket is one of the poorest in the country and desperately needs its one significant tourist attraction to be promoted by harmonious progress to a World Heritage listing.
The current dispute could now close the temple and sour relations between the two countries for years, thus doing considerable self-inflicted damage to Thailand.
The more intransigent the Thais prove to be, the more the Cambodians will try to develop the approaches to the temple from their own side. There is talk of foreign funding for a major road through the jungle, of building a cable car up the cliff and, perish the thought, of casinos in the vicinity.
When I first visited the temple seven years ago, the view from the top was totally untouched by humanity. Though the jungle had perhaps been stripped of the best timber, there was not a road or a man-made structure in view for a hundred miles in any direction. Now already there is a dirt road with trucks crawling along it like ants and small shanty towns at the intersections. I fear what the future will bring. The great charm of the temple is that it remains under-developed and innocent, but all that soon may change.
In recent times it has been the focus of violent conflict as it was one of the last strongholds held by the Khmer Rouge long after the fall of Pol Pot, the genocidal leader of Cambodia. Indeed one of their cannons still stands high on the hill facing back towards Thailand.
Now once again the atmosphere is laden with doom and it all seems so sad. As I walk up the steep stone avenue towards the temple steadfastly refusing all offers of postcards, the little girls gaze hopefully at me. ‘Okay, mister. Not buy postcard now, but maybe later come back.’
Maybe but maybe not.
My heart usually melts for them or for the boy who in competent English tells me his life ambition is one day to go to school. My hand slips into my pocket for a few baht, always to be rewarded with a million dollar smile.
The temple and the simplicity of these people thus enriches me and all who go there, while the barrenness of racist nationalism and partisan politics that is now rearing its ugly head diminishes all of us. In this most beautiful of places the petty behaviour of politicians could not be more grotesque.
Wednesday, 8 December 2010
This crab wandered in and paid the price.
During the rains there's frogs and fish in the rice fields.
These tiny fish are delicious deep fried.
And this was the trap that caught them.
A spicy dish of bamboo shoot is highly prized.
But it takes much time and effort to prepare it.
Rural Thailand is changing fast, often for the better, but as always there are winners and losers. For this child, change will not come fast enough and he may have little choice but to join the cohorts of cheap labour that migrate to the cities to fuel the modern economy, thus maintaining the comfortable life-style of the middle classes. The land can no longer provide a living, except for those who own substantial farms and work hard and capably.
But it was not always that way. Once there were forests and food for free.
I’ve written before about how 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 chili 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’.
It still leaves the question though that the countryside has been stripped bare and is no longer capable of sustaining those with little or no land. In times of trouble there is little now for them to fall back on.
Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog December 2010
Friday, 29 October 2010
Central World Plaza, the massive retail mall in Bangkok that was devastated during the political protests only a few months ago has opened once again. Comparing this picture to the scene of destruction that you will see if you scan down this blog is remarkable.
This is a tribute to the resilience of the established political and commercial powers in Thailand and to the ability of this society to bounce back following seismic tremors.
I admire these qualities very much but there is perhaps a negative side as well. If the elite that controls Thailand restores the shiny facade but fails to deal with the grey reality that lies behind, then greater problems are only stored up for the future.
The privilege of the moneyed Bangkokian to shop in cool, marble malls has been restored but it is still the rural migrants who do the construction and factory work and run the city for dismally low wages. There is little then to send home to Mama Papa who squat in the dust back home in the village.
Amazing Thailand, Resilient Thailand, a country that is admirable in so many ways. Nonetheless, for her sake I desperately hope that she can learn to adapt and change in the very near future as her essential problems will not just go away of their own accord.
Andrew Hicks The Thai Girl Blog October 2010
Wednesday, 20 October 2010
'Are rural people living in Isaan truly poor' was the theme of a blog article I wrote some months ago. Rather than add more questionable generalisations to the debate, I made it a 'case study' of Cat's old auntie and uncle and I described their hard lives in detail... how that had raised seven children farming rice on a very small holding of land and eking a living digging crabs in the fields and selling noodles. (If you scan down, there are pictures of them and their home and farm.)
Now in their seventies the worst has happened. They are both fragile and as thin as sticks, but to keep body and soul together working life has to go on. They have to fend for themselves as little money seems to come in from their adult children who are far away and have many mouths to feed. The old man has continued to take his three buffaloes out to the fields every day and she to walk miles around the villages carrying heavy baskets over her shoulders with a clay barbecue to cook and sell noodles. That is how they survive from day to day.
Now he has suffered a collapse and is in hospital forty miles away in Surin. He seems to have blackouts and now is partially paralysed down one side. He has been hospitalised for several weeks and it is impossible to guess the outcome. The story that comes back to me is that as he never eats meat he doesn't have enough blood and so is very weak and they seem to be despairing of him.
She too has had a collapse, perhaps exhausted by the responsibility of managing the animals and getting into Surin to look after her husband. Now she is home but she is very much at risk.
While some of the basics of medical care are covered by the state, being ill is very expensive and I just don't know how they'll manage. In the struggle to get by, I'm sure money will be their one consuming worry.
He always has a gentle smile and is the perfect gentleman, the very best of Isaan farmers. She has enormous spirit and is the life and soul of the party but it is now terrible to see her so down.
I don't know what good luck could come their way but I only hope it does as they are among the nicest people I know.
The Thai Girl Blog October 2010