Well we’ve been in Thailand nearly three weeks now, four if you count the one at the start of our adventure. Although I’ve written lots about school life, I’ve been reluctant to make too many generalising comments about the nature of Thai society and culture in case they were wrong but vast comparisons between it and England flit around in my brain almost constantly. Whilst I still obviously can’t claim to be an expert, staying with Tae and her family has given me the opportunity to ask my endless questions (always patiently answered), and to observe many aspects of village life in rural North-East Thailand. So, as we come to the end of our present stay, I will attempt to explain it as I see it.
Family is still very much at the heart of society with at least three generations living under one roof or a cluster of roofs on one plot of land. But it extends beyond this to relatives living in the same or nearby villages. In many cases, people spend so much time with their neighbours that this community forms a much larger family. For whatever reason – habit, heat, or community? – people spend a lot of their time sitting in the shade in front of their houses, in view of the road, which inevitably results in much more interaction between them.
Tae and Joon are very much in the minority, having jobs that take them beyond this village; most other households grow rice and other vegetables, keep chickens and can make or build most of what they need to be self-sufficient. So spending all your time at home or in your rice fields with your neighbours naturally forges strong ties, much like village or small-town Britain a few generations ago I suppose. The main downside, purely from a teacher’s perspective, is that this contentment with the simple life leads to a lack of aspirations which can make it very difficult to make kids see the point of staying in education. A difficult obstacle to remove, if indeed it should be.
As well as helping each other harvest and build, villagers cooperate with other jobs. At this time of year, entire village streets and one side of main roads are covered by massive sheets of blue tarpaulin which is then covered in drying rice (usually being pecked at by hens and their chicks!). Obviously this causes a fair amount of disruption for road users, and one person can need the space in front of several houses or fields for their carefully raked crop. But all of it is done so peacefully; house owners negotiate turns and road users patiently let each other pass.
Photographs of village life: the rice harvest, an outdoor barber’s, the petrol pump, the temple walls and Tae’s garden.
Kids play on the street or their front yards together, entertaining themselves with very little guidance, but also (consequently?), generally not much in the way of mischief either. Rules pertaining to health and safety for these unsupervised little people are also non-existent. After over two months in Asia, I now barely even flinch at the sight of a small child holding a huge knife or brandishing other sharp pieces of metal; riding on the front of a motorbike; wandering around precariously with a lit candle, incense stick or firework; sitting in a car childseat and seatbelt free; paddling with friends in fast flowing rivers… The list is endless. I’ve no idea whether there are accidents but it certainly seems to result in good balance, coordination and resilience!
Many things are instilled in kids from a young age, by parents (I assume) and schools. They dress very smartly, stand to sing the national anthem every morning (some public places play it at 8am and 6pm daily), then the prayers and recitations that follow encourage them to honour and respect their parents, teachers, leaders and king. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, young people are taught to wai their elders when they see them (as well as when they are given something or hand work in) and this is reinforced by seeing adults do so to one another. Everyone is meant to finish every sentence with ‘kaa’ for females and ‘kraap’ for males as a sign of politeness. As another mark of respect, at the start of every lesson, the head of the class says, “Stand up please” – which they do – then, “Good afternoon teacher, how are you?” The teacher replies, “I’m fine thank you, and you?” Then they chorus, “I’m fine thank you,” and wait to be told to sit.
Here are a few more pictures from the primary school last week:
My favourite class:
Our massive lunch!:
I know I’ve mentioned the drugs tests previously but, in general, teenagers seem to retain quite a lot of their innocence because of this cultivated attitude of respect but also, I think, because they continue living in their families and wider communities. It seems to result in a very inclusive, friendly school environment too, where you rarely, if ever, see a child alone and where I had to define the word ‘bullying’ for Tae because it was a new and foreign concept for her!
Another consequence of this is that (Tae says) there is not much crime. Certainly the streets feel safe to us, aside from the plethora of hostile-seeming guard dogs which howl every night!
As a nation, they are very proud of their heritage and their forefathers, having been the only country in the area to have retained its independence from Western control. There is also a deep-seated love for the king and queen, pictures of whom adorn billboards and walls in shops and houses. Each year there is King’s/Father’s Day (on December 5th) where everyone prays for the king and wears yellow (the royal colour) and pink (this king’s colour because he was born on a Tuesday). Flags of yellow and blue (the queen’s colour) fly alongside the Thai flag outside every school and government building, as well as many people’s homes.
These photos are from King’s Day when we went into school for about an hour and watched the ceremony involving singing, teachers signing something in turn, a few speeches and the presentation of some certificates. The white jacket and black skirt uniform is reserved only for this day and can only be worn by teachers who have passed a test.
The 5th December and the Queen’s Day (in August) are occasions for everyone everywhere to give everything a good tidy up! On Tuesday morning, after the usual 6am loud-speaker broadcast of the local news, the village chief spent a long time imploring the villagers to clean their houses, clear rubbish from the streets and generally spruce the place up a bit! Dutifully, on our car ride to school that day, people were out in force sweeping, pruning and burning their rubbish.
Although a bit annoying if you want a lie in, the news from the province is a good means of bonding the community. The village chief is responsible for turning it on and off, and makes announcements when necessary. He also attends a monthly chiefs’ meeting in the nearby town of Khukhan then holds a village meeting to disseminate the information the next day.
Another village affair is a funeral. Sadly we’ve learnt more about this aspect of Thai society than we would have liked this week. Last weekend, a few streets away we noticed the tell-tale loud music playing from dawn until late, and extra plastic chairs under a temporary shelter to house visitors and villagers. Then on Sunday we found out that a teacher from school had died in a car accident on Saturday night. Tae went with other teachers from school to pray at his house where his body lay in a coffin (about an hour away) on both Sunday and Monday evenings.
On Tuesday morning Tae told us that an elderly next door neighbour had passed away in the night so we have been able to hear the lots of people, music and, from time to time, monks praying over a microphone for several days. The gathering and praying can last any number of days but Wednesday was the day of the teacher’s funeral. School closed at lunch time so all the staff could attend the cremation in a temple or rice field near his home. On the anniversary of a death, friends and family take food and other offerings to the monks at the temple to ask them to pray for the deceased: we joined the family as they did this very early one morning in our first week here for Tae’s father.
For me, the teacher’s death brought back memories of losing colleague-friends and the way a school’s pupils and teachers deal with it. However this was very different. In Thai culture (possibly due to it being a Buddhist nation though I don’t know enough about that), people don’t show negative emotions (at least publicly) as to do so is a ‘loss of face’: no anger, no irritation, no sadness. Imagine Britain that way and you can see why instead we have road rage, bullying, arguments and more crime. They focus on ‘sanook’ – fun – and certainly seem to laugh a lot. Society as a whole just seems calm, pleasant and polite.
Given this, the escalating riots in Bangkok (and those previously) seem surprising and very much out of character. I have no explanation other than that they must feel very strongly about their cause. All we’ve seen of it here is a truck of red-shirted government supporters driving through the village a few days ago, talking on a megaphone. I did read, though, that police took down the barriers, thus allowing protesters into the government grounds and dissipating much of the tension. Also I think they paused their action for King’s Day. Very Thai.
I’m sure there’s lots more I could say but I’ll stop there. I must emphasise again that this is just a snapshot, filled with generalisations, to which there are probably many exceptions. I hope any Thai readers will forgive inaccuracies and perhaps correct me!
We’ve had a great time here, getting to know people properly and have been shown amazing Thai hospitality by Tae and her family. On Saturday we catch a bus to Bangkok then fly to Burma for a whole new culture! It’s one of the countries we’re both most looking forward to so we’re quite excited!
I’ll leave you with a few pictures of last weekend’s trip to an elephant village (including a snake show!):