The village centre is a rough circle of beaten earth. A long chute made out of corrugated tin stretches from the edge of its only solid structure to a stone well that collects rainwater and mounds of rubbish sit heavily on either end of the clearing. They make a good home for the many ‘Ngu How’ or Cobra that live alongside Annie’s extended family.
Her grandfather has just died and she and her relatives are stoically washing his body and preparing him for the afterlife, reincarnation or whatever end we all go to.
A shirtless man with one arm stumbles into the clearing. He is joined a few moments later by a man with one leg., together a kind of grisly double act. The arm was lost to a tree felling accident and the leg to a cobra bite. Hospitals were expensive until the introduction of the 30 baht act. That was too recent for the double act, they are in their 50’s or perhaps their 40’s. People age quickly in the chonderboat, the Thai name for the countryside. Countryside is too quaint a word for the Thai hinterland that makes up the majority of the country. I have no idea who these men are. Hardship is written on the many faces. There is no nobility in poverty.
It is often difficult to identify the precise nature of relationships in Thai culture as there are so many aunts, cousins, second cousins all referred to as ‘sister me’! So many mouths to feed.
One gets used to this and I suspect that if you have lived cheek by jowl with someone since you were small then they are a sister or brother in most respects.
Another farang is sitting beside me in the clearing. Traveling with a friend and his friend’s Thai wife, Som, he boarded a northbound bus one day after arriving in Thailand. His holiday is destined to end badly. He is an innocent at 60 years old.
Dear is walking from the fields when he sees her first.
History is repeating itself but nobody is listening and so he is destined to be a fish sauce smear on the wooden planks of the porch of her father’s house where we sit.
Hailing from Essex a flight into the Thai hinterland seems mysterious to him, as does the Siamese eyeliner Dear wears.
New to Thailand, he sits in the broken village blind to the filth and the desire and deceit and does not recognise himself in the chickens and goats that like him, wait to be turned into food, lumber or gold.
Dear is a good girl and not a prostitute. She works to take care of her family. She has a father who is younger than most foreign boyfriends she has had. He is rooted to the ground by a 40,000 baht gold Buddha medallion around his neck. It was bought from money that farangs gave to his daughter in return for her company. He smiles, dissembles, goads and demands. He watches his daughter dote with a savage servility on the man who has been served up to her. Her heart, however, belongs to daddy.
She has a brother who does not work. This familial state is symptomatic of Thai rural culture. Children are insurance against old age and poverty. They are duty bound to take care of their parents. The opposite is true of western families in which the responsibility often falls upon parents to financially care for their children, sometimes until those children are in their thirties.
It is difficult to ascribe to either position unless the circumstances recommend themselves.
Everything the farang says sounds like it was poorly ghost-written from the collective conceits of hapless foreigners in love with very ordinary Thai girls.
Dear told me that she can demand a high price from Thai men who enjoy the fantasy a ‘good’ girl can curdle in their imagination, and that they are willing to the tune of ten thousand baht and various gifts for a date or two with Dear, who having no patience with their sensibilities, prefers to deal in hard currency.
She asks me if I think she is a bad person, not caring how I answer.
She fetches and carries while he sweats and begs, waiting for the tipping point. He has no holiday plans, only a longing.
Her face has pulled all sense from him.
His hand, in sleep, lets the word search puzzle book slip from his fingers. His confinement is emotional, dependent. Bars are not needed to keep him dozing in the sweaty hammock that hangs above the hard packed earth of the village. From the pages of the book falls an identikit picture that matches his looks completely.
Everyone knows that Thai men make up about 51% of the prostitution traffic in Thailand but that they are more careful about it than farang. Na, or ‘face’ must be preserved. You won’t see a Thai man walking hand in hand with a hooker in Bangkok or Pattaya, they would not lower themselves and do not understand why western men do it so readily. Thai people are discreet on our behalf, limiting the sights and sounds of prostitution to specific areas; Patpong, Nana, Soi Cowboy or the cities of Pattaya and Phuket.
Outside of the regular and obvious prostitutes Thailand has many demi-whores. There are many, many girls and ladyboys and men who turn a trick or two to help pay university fees, for mum’s operation or for a new Iphone. Freelancers just down to Bangkok for the weekend try their hand on soi 4 and the internet dating sites are packed to the rafters with girls who would like a boyfriend but absolutely need paying customers. Next time you go to the Beer Bar on Soi 7, look at the faces of the hookers you see.
Dear masquerades as a non-prostitute, meeting Thai men who are convinced of her story sufficiently to pay for her company. She has several ‘giks’; semi-boyfriends or sex buddies. One is a bus driver who met her when driving her from Cha-am to Petchabun. So smitten was he that he paid her ten thousand baht every time they met. His monthly salary cannot be much more than this. I met him once, he was thin and unassuming in my presence. She is a big earner, dripping with gold as is her father and she waits for the ultimate boyfriend action to carry her across the oceans to England, Finland, America or anywhere where the streets are paved with gold. This particular farang is doomed to months of late night calls and messages in English that she will not read. He is destined to corrupt the air with desperate, breathless appeals to a love she cannot afford to own.
As her grandfathers body is tenderly prepared for water and burial, the cockerel, that bird of dawning, sings aloud in a foreshadowing of the discordant trumpets that will accompany the dead man on his journey around the temple. The cock whose trumpet to the moon, it is said, prevents the spirits from walking abroad. The cock in that village of Long Boong makes the day auspicious, wholesome. No Khmen witch has the power to charm in this gracious time.
Later as I watch her face in the midst of her families smiles I wonder how much I have alienated Annie from her culture. She is sad beyond words and shows her loss. She knows she couldn’t go back easily to this village life.
The air is thick with a beautiful, exuberant kind of magic: of incense and smoke and music. This is the beauty of Thailand and its people. A living museum that we farang are only able to watch and sense. The poverty of this village and its people is breathtaking. Their need and their greed can be annoying if we don’t remember the places they see every day and the lack of what we call civilisation.
A house, now abandonded, is said to have housed a ladyboy witch named Ring who came from farther north. She was able to channel a Chinese ghost to possess her. Her influence was benevolent but much of the Khmen magic is the opposite. Charms to find a rich husband or make someone sicken and die are spoken about as commonly as any other aspect of village life. The feeling is not so much one of being in the presence of a ‘Wicker Man’ society as one of waking up in the life and times of Thomas Hardy and his rural magic in all its ‘otherness’.
Trapped in poverty village girls tutor the young in ways to trap a foreign husband. Larger houses with trucks and cars in the drive ring the outside of the village. Here, the hastily married farang stare from their windows into the unforgiving afternoon heat of Isaan. Maybe they did not drink the blood of their wife’s monthly, poured secretly into their whisky, maybe they did?
Now they are prisoners; too old, proud or scared to leave penniless. The wife has the house in her name and a pretty penny it cost. All of his sweated savings. Thai law prohibits most foreigners from owning even a patch of earth in which they can be buried.
Lust and foolishness are the magical grease that oil the village bad girl’s cunning. Life for her is reduced to a simple spell. For us foreigners our relationship with Thailand is more complicated but once the spell is cast someone must fall.