As regular readers of this blog will know, Mos and I live in Thailand. Sometimes we travel around the world for work. But we live in Thailand. And nearly a year ago we, left our house in Chiang Mai, and moved to Ba Na Kam. A small village, in the north-east of Thailand, nestled between a number of vast lakes, themselves encircled by the Mekhong river.
Our work abroad was a big deciding factor in this move from Chiang Mai. With us being out of the country for six to eight months per year it didn’t make sense for us to keep a large house with gardens. Instead, we made the decision to rebuild Mos’ parents home in Ba Na Kam. The new house would be much bigger, more ‘western’ and house all of our family. Mos’ parents, brother – Foamy, Sister – Fern and Ferns boyfriend – Golf. With all of the family under one roof, everyone’s living expenses would drop, and we could leave the country without moving all of our belongings into storage.
The village of Ba Na Kam is tiny. The residents are all latex farmers, there are three small shops, each selling meat, vegetables, bottled and canned goods and prepared, single serve meals in plastic bags. At one end of the village there is a shed with a horizontal opening at the front that is covered loosely by a sheet of corrugated tin roofing. This is the village petrol station. Inside, there are two drums of fuel, one petrol, one diesel. On top of each is a hand-pump, hose and a glass cylinder which shows the quantity of fuel being pumped.
There are only three roads into the village, all three are potholed, muddy and unlit. Which hardly comes as a surprise when you consider that they have to weave through ten kilometers of rice paddies and latex farms in order to reach a main road. These roads are regularly maintained by residents, who will fill in the holes with dirt and twigs. But once a couple of buffalo, a pick-up truck and some motorbikes have used the road, all of their hard work has vanished.
The houses in the village are all largely traditional Thai structures. Many of the houses are on stilts with sheltered areas underneath to keep farm equipment, dry clothes and to socialise. Concrete is starting to slowing creep into the construction of the newer or recently renovated or repaired properties. But you can still find the odd older house made entirely of the much prised teak wood.
Walking down the main road of Ba Na Kam you will see nothing but smiling faces. A few pointing fingers, and a few children screaming ‘Farang’, which translates to ‘foreigner’ but is usually used when referring to any non-Asian person. In this area of the country there are very few foreigners, so the children get very excited when they see one!
You’ll also see plenty of chickens, dogs, puppies and maybe a pig. If you come at the right time of day you’ll have to step off the road to let a heard of water buffalo casually stroll past as they make there way back from the swampy grazing ponds to their home on the other side of the village.
We’re lucky enough to call this village home. A village where everyone knows everyone by first name. A village where everyone works very hard, for very little, but they will always offer you food and drink. A village where friends sit and talk outside their homes and welcome any passers by to join the conversation, and share the whiskey.
I already knew I was lucky to live in this village. But, a few nights ago, and in tragic circumstances, I really got an insight in to this community.
It was about 19:00. Our family was all sat on the seating area at the front of the house eating what was left of dinner, sharing whiskey and repairing a large green fishing net. Mos and I were just about to go to the shop and buy some milk when we heard some shouting from a few houses down. We listened for a minute, trying to figure out the context of the noise. Then I noticed my families faces all change. They went from cheeky eavesdropping neighbours trying to catch some gossip, to alert, serious and concerned friends, all within a few seconds of each other.
Before anyone had a chance to explain what had happened, we all had head-torches on and had walked down to see the lady that was now screaming. Other neighbours soon also joined us.
This womans son had gone to spread fertiliser on their rice farm five hours ago, and no one had heard from him since. The woman had sent friends and the mans daughter out to the rice field to find him. The reason for the sudden concern from the villagers was a phone call from the daughter. She had found her father, face-down and motionless in their rice paddy. Immediately, people jumped onto motorbikes, pick-up trucks and tractors and rushed to the farm. Within a few minutes the mayor of the village was speaking over the emergency public address system informing the whole village what was happening. Minutes after that announcement was made, the entire village had arrived. Torches, motorbikes, dogs, babies, children, sticks and homemade stretchers. The road was now full of people, all at the womans house, all trying to ask where her farm is and how they can get there to help.
The women of the village all set to work cleaning the house, making a bed, and comforting the mother. They hoped for the best, but we’re clearly preparing for and expecting the worse.
About twenty minutes passed, as the crowd of concerned and equipped villagers grew. Then, heading towards us came a pick-up truck. The first one that left to go to the farm. It was driving slowly towards the house. Once we saw it, we knew the search was over. We knew the man could not have been resuscitated. We knew that behind those two headlights, coming slowly towards us, was the body of the man the whole village had been looking for.
The crowd of villagers stood in silence as the truck backed up into the house. The body of the man was carried into the house by those who had helped bring him back. The villagers who were now returning from their search started to gather around the house. Shortly after everyone had returned the volunteer ambulance from the neighbouring village arrived. They assessed the man and pronounced him dead. The police were called, as they would need to officially document the event. The villagers stayed well into the night to offer comfort to the family.
The following day, outside the house, the villagers had erected a large gazebo, laid down bamboo mats on the floor and garnished makeshift tables with plenty of food. Even today, two days later, villagers are still at the house, making sure the family have food, shelter and friendship to help them through the grieving process.
Our village may be lacking in various aspects of modern western living. But we do have one thing that I’ve never experienced in the UK. A real, honest and pure sense of community.