Memories Of Prasart
Some time back I downloaded and saved a video clip that had been posted on You Tube by Phrakanong, called “The Country Life”, about life in Isaan. Every now and again I bring it up on the computer and watch it – and I am taken back to the time I shared there with my Thai wife, Natalise, when we came back from Australia in October 2000 to have some time with her parents and children.
Nat and I have spent the night at her sister Amorn’s house in Sathon – after we arrived from Australia about 11.30 p.m. last night on a British Airways flight. Neither of us has slept very well and we are preparing to repack some of our belongings into cartons so that we can take them with us to Prasat. Our plan is to share some time with Nat's two children and with her mother and father whom Nat has not seen for some time. Who knows, we may even stay in Prasat.
It is quite surprising what we have left here after vacating our apartment prior to going to Australia. That was a hurried departure from Krungthep due, in the main, to consideration for Nat's safety after threats and harassment from her ex-husband, Sarawut – an unstable drug abuser made crazy from the effects of amphetamines and alcohol. When we left Krungthep at that time we asked Tep and Jut (my brothers-in-law) to collect our belongings which we had packed into cartons and left with the security man at our apartment. Tep is Amorn's husband and a really great guy – a retired school teacher from Nakon Sawan, he now helps Amorn with her business. Jut is married to Malee, Nat's elder sister. Nat's family in Krungthep are not rich but they are comfortable and very close.
Right now, Nat and I have started to pack the cartons and bags that we are taking to Prasat and placing them in one area ready to take to Mor Chit for the trip to Surin province. We are planning to leave tomorrow morning but, for the present, I feel apprehensive about Nat being on the streets around Soi 11 as Sarawut has said he will kill her. That was some time ago and we reported that to the police at Bangrak who said he was known to them. He is not a very nice character as he has a history of abuse and abduction of Nat in the past in their marriage. Nat seems to be loathe to walk too close to the area near the apartment building and that only serves to reinforce my apprehension and preparedness as he could be anywhere.
It is now early morning at Amorn’s house where Nat and I are waiting for two taxis to come to pick us up along with the many items of baggage that we are taking with us. We have too much to fit into one taxi – with cardboard cartons, bags, a backpack and a guitar. Thai taxis are not as large as taxis in Australia so it will be quite a squeeze, even with the two cars – and we must be at the bus terminal early to make sure that we are able to get seats. I have to admit to being a tad apprehensive after all I have read about bus services in Thailand. Joe Cummings gives timely warnings in the Lonely Planet guide about the mortality rate of bus passengers in Thailand and I have no desire to be an addition to the statistics – but Nat seems to be quite relaxed about the whole business. Who am I to worry? After all, we are traveling on a government service and I am told they are much safer than the private bus lines. Nat has made this trip many times and survived unscathed.
The preparations for departure from the bus terminal conform to the usual Thai patterns of organised chaos and I wonder if we will ever get away on time. Mai-pen-rai is the thought that keeps running through my head – we will get there, eventually.
Once clearing greater Krungthep it is nice to sit back and take in the Thai countryside – something that I have not had the opportunity to do before this. Everything is so green and fresh looking and I start to feel as though I can now relax and enjoy this trip – although I have to admit to a certain apprehension about what awaits us in Prasat. This is my first visit to Isaan.
We are scheduled for a lunch stop along the way and refreshments are included in the price of the bus ticket. The stop is a highway roadhouse where fuel is sold and there is a noodle-style market-place adjoining, where we are supposed to eat from a selection of prepared dishes that are kept warm in glass-fronted counters. Nat is quite happy to sample the food on offer but nothing appeals to my taste so I head over to the Roadhouse to buy a chocolate bar and an ice cream. Really, that is all I feel like eating.
Unfortunately, we discover that the bus has a flat tyre just as we are about to continue our journey. Of course, there is no spare available on the bus or at this stop so help must be sent for from somewhere further along the road. Eventually, a pick-up truck arrives with a couple of Thai men who are stripped to the waist and one of them disappears under the bus to place a large hydraulic jack so that the wheel can be removed. This seems to take forever but the wheel is, finally, removed and further delay occurs because the wheel has to be taken away to some place further up the road so that the tyre can be repaired.
Two hours have gone by and we are about to depart our lunch stop. The flat tyre has been repaired and we are now headed along the highway toward Prasat.
Nat is talking with the driver and his assistant and they have come to some private arrangement – not uncommon in Thailand – where a bribe is involved. Our ticket only takes us to Prasat bus terminal but the village where her family lives is another 15 minutes along the highway that leads to Ubon Ratchathani, off to the right along a narrow sealed road that joins the highway at right angles. The driver has agreed to drop us at the T-junction in return for a small extra fare – obviously which will go into his pocket. I suppose it is worth it otherwise we would have to use a sawngthaew to travel from Prasat to the village and it is starting to get late, now.
After departing Prasat we are soon at the T-junction where the driver stops and unloads our belongings in a heap at the side of the road. There is a motorcycle taxi on the corner at the other side of the road so Nat tells me to wait with our belongings while she goes into the village on the motorcycle to arrange transport for us to her parents’ house – a distance of about 2 kilometres. Before I can protest she is on the motorcycle and is disappearing up the side road in a puff of blue smoke. I feel like a proper dill, standing beside this busy highway guarding this pile of boxes, guitar and bags while buses and other traffic roar by. I suppose the passing Thais are thinking “what is this crazy Farang doing standing here in the middle of nowhere?”
We are now losing light fast but Nat has returned to my spot on the side of the highway, with a Thai man who is driving a small 2-wheel Kubota tractor (they are called Mini-taur) towing a farm cart. We have loaded the bags, guitar and cartons into the cart and are riding back down the long, narrow, straight road that leads into her village where her parents live. The land on either side of the road is flat and lower than the road and is used for rice crops but, here and there, is a solitary tree that stands seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
The village itself is quite small – composed of mostly high-set houses constructed of timber with fibro-cement or iron roofs. Surprisingly, all of the roads are bitumen surfaced and we are now turning into a left branch of a cross-road intersection with a small general store on one corner. Outside one of the houses, further along to the right, is a group of people waiting for our arrival – so I guess this must be the home of Nat's parents. There is a lot of excitement and introduction going on and people are busy greeting each other with the traditional Thai wai but nobody speaks English except Nat. I think life here is going to be difficult from a communication point, to say the least (as Thai is not my strong suit at this early stage). That seems to be no problem for the kids as a Farang in the village seems to be creating quite a stir – and they are not concerned about the language barrier nor shy in wanting to hang around closely. Introductions completed, we get down to the serious business of sharing a few drinks before getting into some food.
Mamma and Pappa have already prepared a comfortable bed for us in one of the upstairs rooms and, when all the neighbours have gone, I am shown the shower and toilet arrangements – a detached block building about 2 metres out from the back door. It doesn't bother me – I have used squat toilets before, and cold showers – I'm just grateful to get clean and fall into bed. They had gone to the trouble of making sure we had mosquito nets on our bed and there was a lovely cool breeze coming in from the open windows on the verandah outside our room. We both slept very well until the roosters started crowing before daybreak – but I was able to endure that until the PA system came alive out in the street with the Thai national anthem playing at maximum volume, followed by the news. That was enough to get me out of bed, so I staggered downstairs to find Nat had already made coffee for me. I told myself I can cope with this.
Nat’s mother and father have proposed that we build a small house on a plot of vacant land next to their own house and we have stepped out the area to see if something would fit in. It would be tight but it could be done. One of the big problems for me is how to get the materials that I would need to do the construction so we have taken a trip into Prasat town to look at some building material merchants to get an idea of what materials are available and the prices we would be looking at. Technically for me the building operation would be quite simple, however there are a few things to consider such as ready-mixed concrete availability and more importantly the legality of building such a house. What to do! One other option would be to complete the semi-finished house that Nat and Sarawut started to build on land of their own in the soi behind where her parents live. Again, legalities worry me. I know that ownership of property and transmission within a Thai family is largely determined by who is listed in what order in the House Book – so how could a mere Farang hope to understand that can of worms? For a start, I will not be able to own the house in either case as it would need to be in Nat's name (maybe even not so if we were to build on the spot that Pappa and Mamma suggested) – and what if Sarawut decides that he wants his share of what has already been done with the almost-completed house and comes demanding money? I cannot really see us going down that path so I have discussed our options with Nat and I really think that we should just share some nice times with her family and return to Krungthep for a while before going back to Australia. She agrees that is what we should do.
One of Nat's sisters, Jeab, lives across the road with her husband, Apichart (who is head-man of the village) and their two children. He visited us in Krungthep in our apartment before we went to Australia and he seems to be a decent guy (he doesn't mind a drink on a hot day). He said we will go fishing and he will teach me how to catch fish out in the wetlands behind Pappa's rice crops. I went over to his house and he showed me this large pond he has dug behind the house where he keeps the fish he has caught. I had only been standing there beside the pond for about 5 minutes and my legs had turned black – totally covered in mosquitoes. He thought that was quite funny.
At the moment here it is harvest time for the rice crops and there is quite a lot of activity around the village with heavy bags of rice starting to fill the storage barns on Pappa's and Apichart's properties. It is hard work, with Pappa going out to the fields early in the morning and not returning until just before sunset. He has this small, thatched-roof platform out in the middle of his rice fields where Jeab usually goes around midday with food for Pappa – but that is now done by Nat since we are here. To be honest, I think the real reason Pappa goes out there every day is to get away from Mamma's badgering.
When he returns, he and I sit on the wooden platform each afternoon in front of the house having a few drinks – me with Bia Singha or Leo and Pappa with his Lao Khao. We don't talk too much though – while the kids play their games out in the street and Nat joins in with them. I think it's lovely to see her being able to play with the children as I know she misses her kids when she is in Australia – but it will be a while before we are able to take them with us to live there. Nat has to have permanent residency before we can apply to take her two children – and there is also a custody issue to be sorted out in the court in Surin before they will be allowed to leave Thailand.
Around 4 PM Nat and I usually walk up toward the temple, where there is also a small school for the younger children to visit for pre-school lessons (and child minding) from the monks and lay teachers. There is also another general store near the tsemple, where we buy small treats for Nat's children, niece and nephew such as ice blocks and potato chips – and maybe some beer for me. Afterwards we go out into the field beyond the back soi to bring the buffalo in closer to the house and I was amazed how gentle these creatures are. All we have to do is untie the rope from around the small bushes where they are tethered and they merely follow us wherever we go. This is a nice contrast – this peaceful environment. But I am a big-city person and, in every practical sense, so is Nat. There really is no opportunity here for us to generate income, therefore we do really need to be in a city. Nat was operating her own clothing outlet before we met – just the same as her sister Amorn does – actually it was Amorn who gave her the start in Krungthep by taking her under her wing when Nat was very young.
We are nearing the end our second week here and it really has opened my eyes to see the hardship that many of the people in the village must cope with – for me, the hardest thing would have to be the boredom. But I guess it is not that way for long-term residents who were born to this environment – they really do seem to enjoy life and the companionship with neighbours. It's something I don't see in Australia – you could live next-door to somebody for half a lifetime and never get to know them. There is a social structure here that seems to benefit everyone and people look after each other – the older ladies gathering in groups at the front of each others' houses in the mornings to sit on mats to talk and chew their betel nuts while the men are away in the fields. Nobody seems to care about the stained teeth.
I have seen only a very small portion of village life but when I look at Phrakanong's video a certain sadness comes over me as I realise something, that was a way of life for a long, long time, is gradually disappearing, even in Asia – and certainly gone in the West. Part of me wishes I had been born into that lifestyle – its simplicity and earthy authenticity, laced with a peace that is so far removed from what we, in the West, now know.
It is about 7 PM, dark outside, and the sawngthaew is waiting at the front of the house to take us into Prasat to connect with the bus to Krungthep. I know this is going to be an emotional moment for Nat as she is leaving the people that she loves, once again, and going to who knows what or where. Most of the afternoon I tried to give them as much time together as possible without intruding – I feel sad about her leaving again but what can I say or do?
We are on the bus to Krungthep but tonight we will be detouring to take in Nakhon Ratchasima to pick up and drop off passengers. Nat has fallen asleep in the seat beside me, her head resting against my shoulder – and I am wondering what thoughts she must be feeling and if she's dreaming. Sometimes I try to come to terms with the rights and wrongs of removing someone from an environment that they love and where all those that they love still live. Often wonder if we Farangs are doing good or doing damage by asking Asian women to come to our home country – is a more affluent lifestyle really that important? Or are we forgetting the most important things in life – love and that close family bond – to chase an illusion that we will never really be able to catch?
There is a certain peace, tranquillity and quaint charm about rural Thai village life although I do think that it could become old quickly. While the people are happy and smiling on the surface, poverty is a real problem. Villagers may not go hungry, but the meagre finances they have many not extend much beyond basic food necessities. There are of course all sorts of village politics going on in the background which foreigners aren't often privy to, as well as a multitude of social problems like gambling, prostitution and drug use, all of which can be as prevalent in villages as they are in the cities.
On the final point you make, about taking these flowers away from their country, that's something I wrote about many years ago, and I do feel that in many cases a Western guy taking a Thai lady to the West may in fact be doing her a dis-service, even though he may well think the complete opposite.