Community

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.

Chief of Police

Today I completed one of those manly life goals that I like to call a man-bition. Today I became the owner of a pick-up truck. It’s big, it’s blue, it has four doors and a big diesel engine.

For those of you who are judging me and thinking ‘what do you need a big blue pick-up truck for?’. Well, I live in the mountains of Northern Thailand. And 1,000 kilometres East from my house (by mountain road and dirt track) is our latex plantation, along with our families home and their latex plantation. And from December this truck will be used to transport our combined latex harvest to market every other week. Currently our family use a single scooter, making multiple trips, with bags of latex balanced on the back. Each one weighing fifty kilograms.

I know, you can’t wait to see this truck that I am so chuffed with. I warned you, it’s big and blue. And here it is, under our porch, an hour ago being cleaned by Mos.

Yesterday we met up with the previous owner to have a test drive. And it drove well, the brakes were very soft, but usable. It was all round much better than trucks that were being sold for twice the price that we also test-drove.

Today the previous owner drove the car to our house where we completed the purchase. Shortly after we took the car to a local garage to get some small bits seen to, along with the brakes. This was the start of a fairly memorable day.

As we pulled into the garage, two guys ran out to help us. Then immediately started analysing and poking around. They said that we’d got ourselves a very solid and reliable car. Then I asked them to look at the braking system. They took it for a drive and agreed, it was too soft.

The garage itself was two bays wide. each filled with a car. The mechanics rolled one of them out to make room for our new truck. Within minutes it was lifted up and had three guys pulling bits off and showing us, as we sat there watching TV only metres from the action. Mos was very pleased, as the mechanics and their wifes/girlfriends were all from the south of Thailand. Southerners have a very different dialect to the rest of Thailand. And up here in the mountains Mos can sometimes feel as alienated as me by the language.

After a couple of hours of talking to the mechanics wife and watching our new truck gradually being dismantled we had a full diagnosis. They suggested new hoses and pads for the front brakes. We agreed, and along with a list of other less challenging tasks we left them too it and went for lunch in a street restaurant opposite.

Once we’d eaten our superb fried pork, noodle and sauce, we headed to a nearby ice cream shop on a scooter that the mechanic had lent to us for free.

As we left the ice cream shop we noticed a police man writing up a ticket on the scooter. Knowing from previous experience that if he knew a farang (white person) was driving the bike he would add a few zero’s to the fine we walked past and waited for him to leave.

Once we got back to the garage, we apologised and handed the mechanics wife the 400 baht (£8) fine in cash. The woman snatched the ticket and refused the money. She immediately picked up her phone and started talking in a calm but clearly angry tone. A few seconds later she hung up the phone. And was smiling. She explained to Mos that the Chief of Police for Chiang Mai is also a southerner. And, all of the high-powered southerners in Chiang Mai gather for after-work drinks and food at this garage, on this sofa. She said that we didn’t have to worry about the ticket.

When the mechanics left to pick up spare parts we also decided to head off. I needed a haircut. But with no car, and with my usual hairdressers being too far to risk a helmet-less journey on the borrowed scooter we jumped in a tuk-tuk. I love tuk-tuks. Mos hates them.

After a successful haircut, a quick drink and snack in our favourite bar and a return tuk-tuk journey we arrived back at the garage. By this time they had just finished putting the tyres back on and lowering the truck back to earth. As they did, people started to arrive. They where the south Thailanders that we’d been told about earlier. Among them, the chief of police, two senior officers, and a lawyer. All from the south. And all very friendly. They immediately started offering my whiskey and various meat based snacks. The police chief looked over our paperwork for the car and said he could rush through the new license plate. Another officer took our scooter ticket and said he would cancel it at the station tomorrow.

We sat and chatted for a while, exchanged phone numbers and asked for the bill. They had itemised everything they’d done throughout the day. This included changing the entire braking system; brake pads, drums, disks, hoses, fluid… the lot. They also tuned the engine. Cleaned the heads. Tweaked the suspension. Replaced the front light units, including new bulbs. Changed the oil. Fixed and interior light and cleaned the whole engine bay. This took three men eight hours. And the total came to just under £300. To put that in perspective, I’ve paid £155 for a single brake disc in the UK, and that’s without labour.

Along with the fantastic service and work completed on the car, we had also gained a handful of new contacts that will be great to have in the future. When isn’t it useful to be the drinking partner of the chief of police?

Archery

Mos and I have been looking for a hobby to get us out of the house and to give us something to do together. And there is a lot to chose from around here. Volunteering is also something we’d like to look into at a later date. After looking around at a few different options we decided to give archery a go.

There is a very good archery club not far from our house (about 12 minutes by scooter). It’s on the same site as Stardome golf club right on the south-west corner of the old cities wall. It has a shop, which stocks all sorts of archery goodies along with a large selection of camping and outdoors gear. There is also a little coffee shop in the range and most importantly… free WiFi. Also, and arguably more important to the development of are archery skills, they have a team of very good instructors.

The range itself, assuming you’ve never been to one is not to dissimilar to that of a golf driving range. And if you’ve never been to one of those, I’ll describe it. Next to the coffee and archery shops there is a concreted area about 30-meters wide and four deep, the shooting platform. The platform is segmented into stations, each with a bench, an arrow rack and a hook to hang your bow. The shops are one side, and on the other an expanse of grass the same width as the shooting platform reaching back to about 100-meters. This area of grass is surrounded by netting, designed to control and catch stray arrows. Arranged on the grass are targets each about two meters squared with a paper archery target on. They are made of compacted foam blocks and are placed at head hight using wooden stands. There is one target per station on the platform and each target can be moved forwards or back to a suitable distance for the archer at that station. The platform itself is shaded by a futuristic looking metal roof with fans to keep archers cool.

I had previously emailed the club to enquiry about lessons. A few hours later Mos and I had booked in for a 30-minute ‘discovery’ course. During this half hour we learnt the basics of archery, along with the rules and regulations of the club. For example, everyone has to collect their arrows from the target at the same time. A simple but brilliantly effective way to stop people getting impaled by accident. A slice of common sense that is rare in Asia.

We each practised using a Samick Polaris recurve bow. ‘Samick’ is the brand, ‘Polaris’ is the model and ‘recurve’ is the type of the bow. In modern archery two basic types of bow are used, the recurve and the compound. The recurve bow is probably the type you picture when you think about archery. Similar to the classic longbow of English medieval archers and the bow of Robin Hood. A recurve bow is actually a bit more advanced. It gets it’s name from the tips of the bow curving forward, almost pointing to the target. This gives it that little bit extra power. A modern recurve bow has three components, the grip and the two ‘arms’. I don’t know the proper names. The ‘arms can be made from laminated wood or a special plastic/fibreglass/carbon fiver magic material. And the grip can be made from anything solid. Ours had a wooden grip and plastic ‘arms’.

A compound bow on the other hand looks like it was a design collaboration between a military special forces unit and Batman. It contains pulleys, dampers, buffers, sights and all sorts of other gadgets. And although they looks like they have many strings, it is infant one sting wrapped intricately around the system of pulleys. The reason for this engineering madness is to enable the archer to hold their aim for much longer. The pulley system on a compound bow means that as the archer reaches full pull and is ready to release, the amount of force required to hold the string in that position is much less than a recurve bow. Resulting in more time to acquire the target and hopefully a more accurate shot.

The only difference between my kit and the kit Mos had was the arrows. We both had a set of seven fairly beaten old carbon fibre arrows. But mine were longer. The arrow length is determined by how far back you pull the string. My arms are longer, I pull back further, so needed longer arrows. We also had arm guards, to stop the string slapping our forearms and a leather finger cover for pulling back the string.

Towards the end of our session our targets were looking pretty destroyed. So we decided to have one more round of seven arrows on fresh targets. Head to head, husband versus wife. We both hit the target with all of our arrows, so that was already an improvement on earlier shots. But the real question was, who won… Well, Mos got closest to dead centre (by two millimetres), but, I got the highest points total. And we all know, consistency is a winner.

We both did better than we’d expected, although I was slightly better. I imagine that’s down to my English blood line and the possibility of being a distant relative to Robin Hood. To prove that we are both now capable archers we’ve stuck our targets on the wall at home. Hopefully the tax man takes note next time he visits.

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