Sunday, August 21, 2016

Village Life in the 1970s

Continuing the writings of my wife Thip, when she wrote about her family and growing up in the Isaan. She did this as part of a series of short essays for her ESL (English as a Second Language) classes in Santa Barbara, California, during the first decade of our marriage [2000-2009]:

(Photo of Thip at the time she is writing about, 1970s)

Village life by Thiphawan Suphannaphoowong Gault-Williams
The life in our village was very simple when I was young [in the 1970s and early 1980s]. Children didn't have any toys. We used to play with banana stems. We cut banana stems and made a shape like a horse. We rode banana horses around the village. It was very safe because our village didn't have any cars in those days.

Now things have changed in my village because children don't have to play with banana horses any more. Children play with toys or ride bicycles around the village. It is not safe like it was before because there are too many cars now.

Children used to go to school together. We walked to school. We played together, we shared food and ate together. Now things are different. Children go to different schools depending on how much their parents can afford to pay. They ride bikes to school or some kids' parents drive them.

People used to go to temple more. For example, when I was young I went to temple with my mom to give food to the monks. I would see around ten to fifteen people at the temple [every morning on non-special observance days]. But now it is different because I see around five to ten people at the temple.

People used to spend time together and eat together often. For example, the Pawet family had lunch with my family often and spent time together with us. Now things are different because people have to buy food. This is different because before people used to hunt. People have their own televisions but before they didn't have any TV. People have to work to pay bills but before they didn't have bills, except the bill for gas to light up at night. We didn't use to have electricity.

I miss my life when I was young a lot because I think it was so simple and people were not too busy like now.

(Our family friend Tah Long, in front of our village home, 
walking his buffalo while on his cell)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Khun Mae

Continuing my wife’s writings about her parents:

My Mother by Thiphawan Suphannaphoowong Gault-Williams

My mom was born in Udon Thani province, northeast Thailand. She is a hard worker and skinny. She is also helpful and a lovely mother.

My mom is a hard worker. For example, she was born in a farm family. She worked at a rice farm and grew rice one time a year. The way she worked was to stay outside in the sun or rain to work no matter what kind of weather, she still kept working from morning until around 5-6 p.m. to help my father. It took her around 3-4 weeks each time to finish planting. Also she had to take care of the farm for four months until the rice was golden ready to cut. She also grew vegetables and fruit for our family. She grew melons, cucumbers, long beans, cabbage, mangoes, bananas, and coconut on our land. That's why she is so skinny, because she is a hard worker. We always had good food.

She is very helpful. For example, she helped me to take care of my daughter from the time my daughter was born until she was fifteen years old. When I gave birth to my daughter I was twenty years old and I had to work to support my family. My mom had to take care of my daughter while I worked in Bangkok. It was far from my hometown. I would see my daughter only one time a year for one or two days each time. Everything depended on my mom to take care of my daughter for me.

My mom was a very lovely mother. For example, she cares about her kids.She took care of me, my sister, and my brothers. I think she loves everyone of us the same. Sometimes my brother and I did something wrong like not listen to her when she told us to not go away from the house, but we sometimes did go. When she came back from the farm she had to look around for us. She was worried about where we were. She still did not get mad at us.

Last year I saw my mom. She was old. She was seventy-five years old [now 81 and in full dementia] and not so healthy. She had high blood pressure and back pain. It is very painful for her. I hope she will be with my family until I can go back to Thailand and stay to take care of her back, the same as when she took care of me when I was young.

I love her so much.

(When Thip and I first met and I first met her parents, 1999)

[note from Malcolm: Thip did go back to look after her mother and that is how we came about to be here, now]

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Khun Paw

Thip wrote about her family and growing up in the Isaan when she was taking ESL (English as a Second Language) classes in Santa Barbara, California, during the first decade of our marriage. Beginning this series of writings by my wife, here’s what she wrote about her father, the man I call Khun Paw:

My Father Tah Nah by Thiphawan Suphannaphoowong Gault-Williams

Tah Nah is my father's name. He was born in Udon Thani province, Northeast Thailand [1933]. His father's name was Boon Mee and his mother's name was Tung. He came from a farmer's family. For example, when I was young [1970s] he grew rice on our rice land, cucumbers, long beans, cabbage, napa cabbage, squash, and watermelon.

After the rice season, he would buy cows and buffaloes to sell. He bought them from around our village and he sold them in other villages and towns. He had to walk to move the animals. Sometimes he had to sleep overnight from village to village before he could sell the cows and buffaloes. In those days, he made very good money and all the money he made he always gave to my mom to use and save it.

When he was forty-five years old [around 1978] he began to practice the Buddhist religion more than when he was younger. When he woke up in the morning at first he prayed to Buddha before he meditated. Sometimes he would meditate for five hours and sometimes he went to eight hours a day.

He sometimes stayed in the temple for three months for Buddhist Lent. He woke up in the early morning to meditate and then after that he went to the hall to meet the monks and people to pray to Buddha and listen to the monks teaching. Sometimes if my dad had some questions he could ask a monk to tell him the right or the wrong way to meditate.

For example, when he meditated, his mind went to see the monk and stayed in a very nice place. In that place many people listened to the monk. Then he went inside the room with a red carpet. The monk said that the way my dad's mind went out right away was a good sign because it was the right way for people to meditate. Sometimes their minds went out and saw different things. Each person had different things, not the same. Sometimes it's good for people and sometimes it was harmful for people who were easily scared and afraid because sometimes their mind went to see things that were scary.

After he prayed to Buddha in the morning he went to cook food for the monks. My dad was the cook and he made the food taste so good. Many times he told me the monks ate a lot of his food and he said, "They must like my food." Sometimes my dad would cook bamboo salad, fish soup, or barbecued fish. For example, when he made fish soup he would add fish sauce, salt, green onion, celery, tomato, and Thai chili. He would then add small pieces of Tilapia fish. After he gave food to the monks and had breakfast he went to take a nap and then mediate again in the afternoon for a couple of hours.

In the evening he would meditate again and then he went to the kitchen to meet people and have something to drink, but not food. When my dad stayed at the temple sometimes he ate only one or two meals before noon. After he took a rest and drank some tea or cocoa, then he went to the hall to meet the monks. He would pray to Buddha before he went to another mediation. Then he went to sleep late and then woke up in the early morning at 2 or 3 a.m.

I like to eat my dad's food a lot. When I go back to my hometown to visit my family, I always have my dad teach me how to cook. I have learned how to make fish soup and how to do good on barbecuing fish. My dad told me the way to make a good soup is to add different kinds of vegetables or herbs. For example, each vegetable has a different taste. Ginger smells so good and is good for people who have gas in their stomachs. Onions are good for people who have a cold to help keep their breath well.

Now my dad is seventy-seven years old [now 83 in 2016] and he still prays to Buddha in the morning and evening and then meditates. He still teaches me how to love, to give, and to share without expecting something back.

I always remember all the things he has done for our family to take care of us and teach us to be good people.

              Dad, you are my father.
              Dad, you are my teacher.
              Dad, you are my friend.
              I LOVE YOU!

(Khun Paw on the way back from Thung Yai, December 2013)

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Boy's Life

I suspect it’s true for most male expats in Southeast Asia that we live somewhat of a boy’s life; especially if one is embedded in the countryside.

More than any other time in my life -- including as a boy and then teenage lifeguard on the beaches of Bayville, 1954-1970 -- I go barefoot more often than not. When I do wear footwear, it is merely thonged sandals.

(BTW, these are the best sandals I’ve ever owned. This is actually my second pair. Unfortunately, they are no longer in style and if I get another pair, I’ll have to order from the ADDA website. But, here’s why these are so good: 1) only two pieces. The strap is part of the pad mold. The more pieces, the more potential tear; 2) the thong is well-engineered, not a simple pole of rubber, but a slim oval that fits comfortably between the big toe and the second; 3) check the pad out. It is a curved dish, providing a bumper for the feet all the way around; 4) not visible in this pic, but the pad itself is thick, allowing for a lot of spring.)

Likewise, I am shirtless for most all of the day and tan all the year’round. I’ll put a shirt on for sai baht; when I attend temple; the rare times it’s cold; and when I’m traveling, but that’s about it.

Shorts are the item of clothing I wear most often and never with underwear -- too hot. The only other things I might wear are sunglasses and/or my “cowboy” hat.

Like a kid, I don’t have too many responsibilities. I mean, I do if I choose to make them, but the ones that are mandatory are few. My wife takes care of our day-to-day logistics pretty well.

Also like a kid, I don’t worry too much about money. I don’t have a lot of it, but what I have is stable and enough for my wife and I, with a little extra to spread around. That being said, however, I must say that few foreigners could live in Thailand on my kind of budget.

At no other time, except when I was a kid in summertime, have I lived outdoors so much. Nine hours of every 14 daylight hours (during the season of the summer equinox) are spent outside structures. And, oh, the natural beauty that surrounds us!

Best of all in this “second childhood” is something you would not have in a childhood: my wife and I have our lives under our own control, to succeed or fail. It’s all on us. The only potential unknown is our health and the health of our family in the future. For this, all we can do is treat our bodies and minds well and trust in our karma and fate.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Tam Nah, 2016

This year’s rice transplanting (tam nah) seemed to be the best of all I’ve had experience with. I’ve been part of about seven, now, and each year my participation levels vary, so it’s a little difficult to be entirely objective. I’m left with the impression, though, that it’s been the best since I retired here, including 2009.

By “best” I mean that it was well executed, it didn’t “drag on forever” and everyone remained upbeat throughout. A key reason for this was that -- like last year -- Sawt’s wife Nui’s family from Chaiyaphum joined us. We had more people working both farms (one after another), which made the entire job go quicker. Few outside helpers were hired, as most everyone was related in one way or another. I like that.

The way tam nah goes is this:

All rice paddies except for the seedling paddies are churned-up and leveled with the use of a mechanical buffalo and water (the seed paddies already had this done to them earlier in the season, at the time of gam kha). The seedlings are then transported to the freshly prepared paddies. Small bunches of seedlings are then pressed into the mud, by hand, keeping uniform distance. Of course, by the time the transplanters are bending over in the rice paddies, the paddy embankments have been mowed with a grass cutter (tatya) for their safety from possible snakes.

From the beginning to the end of tam nah at each farm, the family basically moves in, working, eating and resting at the farm; some even sleeping overnight.

Now that I think of it, the expanded kitchen and bathroom at 9 rai no doubt contributed to the success of the work there, too.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Bann Nah 37 - Tred

A number of features of our new farm house did not originate with me; like the lancah noi (little roof; Lungpaw’s suggestion); the build out of supplemental structures on the south side (Thip’s idea. I had wanted them on the larger section of the pad to the north, away from the best views); and the tongue and groove porch flooring (Thip)... Our stairs can also be added to this list.

I had had a very unassuming, fully functional and inexpensive stairs designed, originally. But, my wife didn’t like it and wanted to get our head monk’s thoughts on a design. Well, of course, when he came up with something completely different, more expensive and totally outside the symmetry I was trying to create, I wasn’t thrilled. But, I was stuck with it because you don’t ask a monk for their thoughts and ideas on something and then not follow through. Besides, Thip would never go counter to Lungpaw’s advice.

Now that the tred (steps) are in and the stairs are nearly completed, I must bow to Lungpaw Boon Long’s design. It is beautiful and welcoming. Sure, it’s not as cheap or as well protected from the rains as mine would have been, but the beauty and strength of it is impressive.

Through this very long period of Lott and Naht’s building the stairs -- and constantly conferring with Lungpaw in the process -- I’ve learned something very important about stairs. If you’re going to have them at all, they need to be inviting. You have to build them in such a way to cause people to want to climb them, not take them on as a chore. In a way, stairs are portals. They need to be attractive enough so that people will jump through them.

The stairs are not done yet. The other railing needs to go in and the rail posts -- technically called “balluster” -- need to firm up the rails. None of this work is likely to happen any time soon, as it is now rice season and everyone’s out working their farms. Sam Lott is working his family’s land and while he is away, Sam Naht is back to working in the temple.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Outdoor Kitchen

While I was away on my 14th trip to Lao, my wife and I were in occasional communication whenever I had Internet access. She kept talking about a “new project” she had in motion, but wouldn’t get into specifics for fear of my displeasure.

“I promise I won’t get mad, sweetheart,” I kept telling her.

She still kept her secret.

I was pretty sure what it was about, but played along. After all, I’d find out soon enough when I got home.

Sure enough, when I returned I found a much larger outdoor kitchen in process of construction out at our 9 rai rice farm. Like she had done when I was away on my 11th trip to Lao -- this time last year -- Thip had hired her brothers to build an outdoor kitchen big enough to accommodate all immediate family members for when they worked on the farm as a group. It was also big enough to incorporate an outdoor bathroom.

I wasn’t mad or even disappointed. Sure, there goes a large part of the view to the south, from ground level, but Thip had made sure to keep the roof low enough as to not block out the view from Bann Nah’s porch. I appreciated that my wife had finally recognized that we now needed to wrap up phase 1 of building Bann Nah, take a break from new construction, and use whatever we had left over to fill our needs for the immediate future.

Most everything in the expanded kitchen was built with wood and roofing we already had from Lungtah Mai’s old shack. Paying family to do the work was cheaper than hiring out and it benefited them, too, not only the pay but the long-term usage during rice seasons: shelter from the sun and rain, and plenty of room to prepare food and eat.