Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Hint of Paradise in Phayao

We arrived in Nan's village of Baan Thung Te at night after a two-hour drive south from Chiang Rai, and all I could tell in the dark was that after a winding journey up into the hills, the streets were paved and empty of people and the houses I could see were built close together.  In the morning I opened the back door to our home and saw this.

None of my photos of this panorama (and I took dozens, at all hours of the day and even night) do it justice.  The brilliant green of rice fields and the mist-enshrouded hills are jaw-droppingly breathtaking.

After two years together, it was my first visit to Phayao, the northern Thai province where Nan grew up.  We were to take possession of the house built 15 years before by her aunt, Ban Yen,  which has remained empty since her death from cancer five years ago.  Nan's mother, Yuan, and her husband, Bong, live next door and you can see a couple of her chickens.  She doesn't eat them or their eggs but just treats them as the family's pets along with two dogs and a cat.  Lest I become overly romantic about rural life, notice that on the pole between the houses is a loudspeaker which wakes the village up at 6 a.m. with Thai country music (called luk thung) and pep talks from the puyaibaan (mayor).  Not long after, the street is filled with farmworkers on motorbikes and in trucks powered by homemade engines without benefit of a muffler.

I was there for a week and Nan for two and the job of cleaning began immediately.  Nan was a fierce taskmaster, enlisting the help of brother Nok, on holiday from electrician's school in Chaing Rai, and yours truly who lugged armloads of crap to the storage room under the house.  At least a dozen years ago, Ban Yen was joined by a Belgian who lived with her for a year and who bought her every kitchen convenience (i.e. water purifier, bread and ice cream makers, and an espresso machine), now all coated in rust.  A huge refrigerator he filled with food now sits idle (we used a smaller one for our limited supplies).  A pile of CDs included all the hit artists in Louvain from the 1990s.  He shipped from home wine glasses and beer steins, and also ceremonial plates and mugs with the crest of some kind of fraternal order, the "Prinses de Louvan," in which he was a member.  When Ban Yen sent him packing, he took only his collection of wine.  Two sections in a large cabinet remain locked, the keys missing, with his curios visible through glass doors.  I thought about trying to contact him via the internet, but was told he had had leukemia and probably was dead by now.

There are only a few surnames in this village of 300 families.  Yuan and Ban Yen's father was named Phetsanu and probably a third of the villagers are Nan's cousins.  Her grandfather accumulated considerable land which includes the sticky rice field out back and at least two-thirds of the town is surrounded by farms.  When the rice crop is harvested in December, it will be replaced with corn for livestock feed.  Nan's grandmother died last year and now her house sits empty like Ban Yen's did before we arrived to claim it.  The village is well organized and divided into 12 sections and most of the lanes are paved.  But there is an unpaved section of the highway out of town that remains dirt because either Baan Thung Te or the neighboring village ran out of money.

The bright lights of Bangkok appeal to most country-born Thais as little more than a source of income rather than as a place to live permanently.  In my five days there I got a much better understanding of how and why Nan loves her home. She wants to return after she graduates from university and, perhaps, uses the degree to work for a couple of years.  My retirement income will allow us to live very well.  She did her best to make me feel comfortable, including making "American breakfast" for me, Nok and Edward, Ban Yen's son who is being raised by Yuan.  She even made me drip coffee, knowing how I dislike the instant stuff Thais drink.

Part of Nan's plan for establishing our presence in her village was to buy a new TV.  This took some time for me to accept, since we can visit no more than every few months.  Besides Edward, the house was full of kids ("cousins," she explained) after we arrived.  We got the set and assorted supplies on a visit to Chiang Rai's new Central shopping center.  Hooking up to Yuan's deep dish antenna cost 1500 baht, half for the channel box, with no further charges for using it (is this legal?).  The antenna brought in over 200 channels and 90 radio stations from all over Asia, but only the Asian Food Channel and Russia Today offered programs in English.  I paid for a DVD player that amazingly played "Rio" and "Transformers 3" that I brought on a thumb drive, making the kids very happy even though there were no Thai subtitles.  I also got them a DVD of "Men in Black" which did have subtitles, and they loved it.  Edward's favorite toy, however, was my iPod.  He played "Angry Birds" until the battery ran out, charged it and played some more.  We've decided to give it to him.

I made lists on my iPad of what I would need to live for a longer period in the village.  Internet came first.  The AIS phone connection was iffy at best since we were probably too remote to merit a cell phone tower.  Once, on the roof next to the antenna, I was able to download email and send a tweet, but it didn't last.  These are the houses of our neighbors to the north and they keep a pig close to our bedroom.  I didn't smell it (aging proboscis) but Nan did and wants to complain to the mayor.  The pigs grunting did trouble my afternoon nap.  Besides moving the pig, my list includes a desk and book cases, reading lamps, something to do (offer English lessons to school kids?), a motorbike, and a good source of ice cream (perhaps in Chiang Kham an hour's drive north).

On our first day home, surrounded by the dust of a cleaning frenzy, I noticed villagers passing our house dressed in black.  I learned they were going to the funeral of a man who died when he hit a pothole while driving drunk on his motorbike (later I saw an impromptu roadside shrine for him).   In the afternoon they returned to the temple for the cremation.  A couple of days later was the full moon wan phra (monk's day) which ended Phansa, the annual Buddhist rain's retreat, an occasion for everyone to celebrate by taking food to donate for tamboon at the wat.  Here in blue is Nan's great aunt Sa, a proprietor of one of the village's two small stores and the town's chief money lender (I've blogged in the past about her notorious grand-daughters, Ben and Bo).  The northern-style temple contained lots of colorful icons and some banners that I had not seen before unique to Lanna Buddhism.  One aging monk and two younger assistants read all the notes included with all the donated food to the assembled gathering (I mentioned my son and parents).  Water blessed by the proceedings was poured onto the bushes and flowers surrounding the simple building.

Wherever we walked in the village we were surround by children like the Pied Piper.  I may have been the first farang to visit since the Belgian left years before.  People (mostly "cousins") invited us into theirs homes, many of them raised off the ground, constructed from huge planks of wood (perhaps illegally cut), and furnished very simply. This is a poor farming village in one of the poorest provinces and there were pregnant ladies, babies and children everywhere (and husbands often missing, or off to work in Bangkok or Taiwan).  I was invariably offered kanom (desserts) of rice wrapped in banana leaves by our hosts.  Nan talked in the northern dialect of Thai with the mothers of friends who have left to work or marry, and the kids mugged for my camera.  One friend had identical twins just learning to walk, and at her house they slept in an oversized cradle hanging from the porch rafter like a swing that her father had spent a month constructing, and now the grandmother pulled a cord to make it rock.  The warmth and friendliness I encountered everywhere gave me a peek into a communal society that no longer exists in the West where the individual is primary (Life as a child for few years in a small town in North Carolina was similar, except for the segregation of blacks).

It's not exactly a rocking chair, and the laundry will have to find another place to dry, and Bay Yen's antique motorbike will need to go, but this porch outside the front door of our home in Phayao is not a bad spot from which to watching the passing parade.  It's not a question of whether but of when.  I'm not yet ready to give up the virtual comfort of the internet and hope I can eventually have Skype conversations with distant friends.  My life in Bangkok is getting busier.  I finished my paper on Buddhism a couple of days ago, but the conference may be delayed since the university remains isolated by flood waters.  I'm scheduled to teach more classes in English and Linguistics next month if temporary quarters can be found.  If I can continue to be nourished by reading material, music and movies, the move to Baan Thung Te will be a plus rather than a retreat or escape.  Friends have issued warnings about the inaccessibility of rural health facilities, but I'm determined not to fade away in a hospital, so that's no bother.  At least there will be a steady supply of kalamae, the dessert speciality of northern Thailand which tastes a little like caramel but is much more addictive.

When I got returned to Bangkok I went to decompress with Jerry about the experience.  He spends 10 days a month in a village in Surin near the Cambodian border where he built Lamyai and her family a two-story house.  We traded stories, noticing similarities and differences.  He has a couple of years on me and knows it might not be long before he could have to give up his sociable Bangkok life for permanent rural retirement.  The mind might be willing but the body has limits.  Both of us are fortunate that big hearted women have chosen us to take care of in ways beyond imagination.  I was nervous before the trip because I'd heard all of the horror stories about farang taken advantage of by their wife's country relations.  But even more, it was the uncertainty -- what was I getting myself into?  On a different note, I also didn't want to be seduced by romantic notions of a remote paradise.  I was determined to look at Phayao with unblinkered eyes.

I have to say that I was pleased and surprised by the hint of paradise I found in Phayao.  Now if we can just relocate the pig and get my Facebook page to load, all would be perfect.


Blue-eyed Gaijin said...

Nice post! I met a woman in Japan 2 years ago who was from Phayao. Her name was Canchana Harnjing. Does your wife know of her? I would like to get in touch with her if possible. I am planning on moving to Thailand, to the Phayao region, in a couple of years when I retire.

Blue-eyed Gaijin said...

Good post! I met a woman named Canchana Harnjing 2 years ago while living in Japan. She was from Phayao. Does Nan know her? I would like to get in touch with her if possible. I plan on moving to the Phayao area when I retire in a couple of years. For me Thailand is Heaven on Earth. Thanks for all your posts, Dr. Will!

Blue-eyed Gaijin said...

Has the flooding in Thailand had an impact on your day to day life in Bangkok?