Living in the village, beyond anything else, feels incredibly normal. Yet there are a thousand small things that make living here a totally different experience to any that I have had before.
Buildings here might only have a floor and a roof, empty space existing where windows or walls would usually be. It is common for houses to be built entirely from Bamboo. Strong straight poles used to construct a frame and then bamboo that is split and flattened to create walls and floors. Those who are wealthier can afford concrete houses with brightly-coloured, corrugated iron roofs. These too are built with a bamboo frame and “filled in” with concrete. The house I lived in is like this, but cracks have appeared in the corners of the rooms where the concrete is falling away from the bamboo frame.
Windows do not have glass here but have wooden shutters instead, blocking the heat of the sun when they are closed, allowing the breeze in when they are opened. Still the rooms that catch the afternoon sun get stiflingly hot by the evening, especially in the fast approaching Hot Season.
Most furniture, if there is any, is built from beautiful pieces of Teak trunkwood. Stools are made from solid lumps of wood (which makes them almost impossible to move). Sofas do not seem to exist here, instead people lie or squat on the floor. Beds too are a rarity; most people sleep on mattresses on the floor. Mine was still covered in its original protective plastic wrapping so everytime I moved at night I would make a rustling noise. This keeping of things in their plastic wrapping is common in Thailand. The local outdoor gym equipment still has strands of plastic hanging from and around them, even though the frames themselves are old and rusted.
Though there is a lot of vegetation, grass is a rare sight and when it exists it is usually of the dry sun-bleached variety. One house in our village has a neatly turfed front lawn and every time I cycle past I cannot help but wonder if they are wealthy, for that is the impression having a growing green lawn here has, nestled in amongst the other dirt yards.
It rains rarely in the current season but I actually love it when it does. The backdrop of grey clouds somehow accentuates the vibrant colours of the plants in a way that no amount of bright sunshine can do. Sometimes when I run through the woods after it has rained, with the burnt orange leaves on the trees and the ground, I cannot help but be reminded of a damp Autumn day back home.
It has, at times, been much colder than I expected. I have worn my thick fleece on many an evening and some mornings I have been able to see the breath of the children as they stand in assembly. Their uniforms are not designed for cool weather, and on cold mornings like this, lessons are moved outside into patches of sunshine.
It was getting warmer the last few weeks I was there, and with the heat has come the insects. The ants that I remember from my time in the Philippines are suddenly everywhere. A little tickle on my arm and I look down to find a small red ant crawling in between my blonde hairs. At night, flying ant-like creatures are attracted by the light inside and swarm around the ceiling. These particular insects seem to get everywhere and are totally useless. Their wings get stuck on all sorts and they simply shed them, running around and around in circles afterwards with no means of navigation, until they eventually seem to die in your food or on the floor.
Lizards live on our walls. Spiders are less common and seem to haunt the toilets most frequently. Cockroaches have landed on my head in the middle of the night when I go to the loo and crawl around my ceiling before I go to bed. I have learnt and employed the tactic of simply not thinking about it.
I go to bed early here, and get up early too. By 9pm, most people have gone home and most nights my family have gone to bed. Since it got warmer we all shower before bed to cool down and we all seem to be getting up earlier. My alarm moved from 6.30am to 5.30am so I could exercise in the cooler morning air.
Being ill here is when the heat gets to me most. I have had a couple of colds and a sick bug. I caught the sick bug from Namchai in my second week and after clearing up her sick, I ended up throwing up all over the bathroom floor, with Sinuan thumping my back as hard as she could to help me get it all out! Luckily the bathrooms here are designed like wet rooms and everything can just be washed down the hole that leads outside. Nothing breaks down barriers quicker than a tummy bug.
Illness here is not seen in the same way that we see it in the west. When I caught the sick bug, everybody thought it was because I couldn’t handle spicy food (although I have since proved to them all that I can) and I couldn’t explain that I had simply caught something from Namchai. That idea just didn’t seem to exist. When I caught a cold, everybody blamed the weather and told me it was because it was going to rain that I was ill.
The concept of transference does not seem to exist here. Kids cough over your food and the adults say nothing. It is not uncommon to use the same knife for everything, be it fruit, meat or cutting bamboo. I’ve heard eating chilli helps to kill bacteria and I am grateful I can eat spicy food for this reason.
Everybody here has an outdoor kitchen and nobody cooks inside. Most things are cooked over a small fire or stove and on cold nights people gather around these in groups to keep warm. Often small fires are built on the roadside and neighbours come together to share the whisky that is passed around and jumpers shared.
People eat all sorts here. Insects and rodents are not uncommon. Anything that can be shot or gathered for free is eaten. Lipo frequently comes home brandishing something new to eat, whether that is fruit picked from a tree on route home from his work 5km away or the rat he shot that morning. He has an ancient old air rifle which has to be manually pumped full of air before it can be used. He can often be seen wandering around early in the morning with it, or cleaning it late at night with a glass of whisky.
Raising a family here is very different to the UK. Children are given responsibility from an early age. They are certainly not molly-coddled in any way. Instead, they are expected to learn to use knives and scissors from a young age. Children both at home and at school can be seen wielding machetes and sharp knives, cutting down bamboo, chopping wood and playing with fire.
Canes are also still commonplace. If a child misbehaves continually, they can expect to be hit by a long, thin piece of bamboo. In fact, this is not limited to the disciplining of children. I have seen a woman beat her husband with a similar bamboo cane when he refused to go home and wanted to continue drinking at Sinuan’s. I felt uncomfortable but everybody else thought it was funny.
I have mentioned before that Sinuan runs a little pub-type enterprise. It is not a bar as you might think of it, simply a wooden bench outside in the yard. Locals come and go and buy whisky to either drink on the bench or to take home. She sells white whisky in two measures, 100ml for 20Baht (about 40p) or 250ml for 50 Baht (£1).
For a long time, this pub outside Sinuan’s seemed to be somewhat idyllic. People came and drank together. It is Thai custom to always offer others some so it created a warm atmosphere in which everybody drank together. Mostly it seemed harmless enough and it provided an amazing opportunity for me to practice my Thai but I also saw the darker side of it while I was there. I found out after I left that KHT had no idea Sinuan sold alcohol, and had they known, they would not have placed a volunteer with her.
I do not like to drink every night, 2 or three times a week is enough for me, but here, for a long time, I struggled to have 2 nights a week off from drinking. Everybody wanted to drink with me and, as welcoming and inclusive as that was, I didn’t want to drink every night! By the end, my Thai is good enough and the locals know me well enough that I can always have an excuse up my sleeve, and nobody minds.
I came to realise quickly who the alcoholics were, the same people would turn up every night to drink half a bottle of whisky, some would even appear on a morning for a couple of shots or a bottle of beer before work.
Men especially seem to drink every day and it seems to be completely accepted. Women tend only to drink on occasions. I was surprised to find drinking so common here but I can also understand it. In a place such as this, there is not a lot to do on an evening, so many people drink for entertainment.
On the other hand, I have seen men squander their money here, to later be told off by the wives or, in the case above, beaten by them. I have seen men who do not pay but drink anyway and drive Sinuan to tears. This is rare and it seemed to be forgotten the next day when the same men turned up with a desire to drink and cash to pay.
Drunk driving/riding is commonplace and, though accidents seem to happen only occasionally, I have heard numerous stories of people riding into ditches when drunk.
Luckily, most of the time these crashes seem only to inflict a few bruises, as people generally rarely go above 30mph (40km/hr), and with good reason. Nobody wears a helmet. Everybody cuts the engine and freewheels downhill.
Cars are a luxury so most people travel by motorcycle. Even the kids. I am often overtaken on my pushbike by one of my students, sometimes as young as 9 years old, and usually with several friends squashed onto the back. Everybody rides with their toddlers standing between their legs and it is not uncommon to see bikes with whole families crammed onto them.
I love being part of a small community such as this. It is impossible now for me to go anywhere without meeting somebody I know and having a conversation with them. I have made many friends, and will miss them a lot. I am pleased to have learnt Thai to the degree that I can have a proper conversation with people now.
I know I have a thick accent because those I know well sometimes have to translate for people I have just met, but nevertheless I can make myself understood.
Learning the language inevitably gives insight into the culture, and as I begin to understand more of the language, so too I think I have understood a little more of the culture. In some respects I wish I had learnt more Karen, because I wonder what I would have learnt about Karen culture from their language. But with only a couple of months, I think Thai has been more useful.
One of these moments was when I discovered the true meaning of “Ow”. “Ow” is used in place of want in the English language. For example, “Ow mei?” means “Do you want more?”, literally “Want or not?”, or so I thought for a long time. It wasn’t until I started translating this into other situations that I started to realise it did not mean want at all. I said “Ow bei Tonsai”, thinking I said, “I want to go to Tonsai”. It was met with fits of hysterics but nobody could explain why.
It wasn’t until a month ago that I found out that the more literal translation of “Ow” is in fact “get”. Thai language does not have “take”, but rather, “Ow bei”, which literally means, “get-go”, or as we would say, “take”. So to say you are going to get something, you also say, “bei ow”, “bei” meaning “go”. Suddenly it dawned on me, when people asked me “Ow mei?”, they weren’t asking do I want more, but do I get more. In stark contrast to the English saying “I want never gets”, here, get, gets. There is no distinguishing between wanting something and getting something.
This helped to explain something I see in some of the Thai children that troubled both me and Maddy. It comes across to our English minds as somewhat spoiled. But this simple insight into language transformed my understanding. Suddenly it began to make sense why children just take what they want when they want it.
There is a strange contrast here between poverty and decadence. Children whose parents cannot afford soap or shampoo, or toothpaste, and yet somehow they afford sweets and biscuits and a multitude of other unhealthy snacks. Partly I think there is a lack of understanding and education surrounding food and healthy eating but I wonder if it goes deeper than this too. I wonder if it is a simple as the child saying he or she “gets” sweets, so instead of insisting they eat a proper meal of rice, they get sweets.
The kids here are of course absolutely lovely. They are almost always smiling though often excruciatingly shy. One of the first things I learnt in Thai was how to say “Mai Dong Ai” (Don’t be Shy), because I could not get my students to talk. As time has gone on, they have become friendlier and friendlier. Being a white-skinned farang, and the only one in the village, they love to touch my skin and hair, fascinated by how different it is from their own.
Of course, living with two kids (and their friends half the time) as well as teaching can be exhausting. As Namchai and Namsup have got more used to me living with them, so too they have become less afraid of walking into my room, or if I have locked it, banging on the door until I answer.
Most of the time I love playing with them, but after several months, especially with Namchai crying a lot of the time, I feel ready for a rest and a little bit of space! Although I am sure after a week away I will be missing them! They love to be swung around and chased so a lot of the time I feel like a big kid again!
Namchai is nicknamed “Booby” and I cannot help but smile every time I say it.
The family have welcomed me into their home in a way that has made me feel relaxed and part of the family. The longer I stay the more at home I feel and the more attached I get. Sinuan and Lipo are well liked in the community and I can understand why. They are always smiling and friendly.
The view from the house is stunning, and I never get bored of it. Many a morning Lipo has called me outside first thing on a morning to watch the sun rise above the mountains. The mist hangs in great sweeps in the valleys but our house hovers just above it. It is fresh and beautiful and I will miss it, along with everybody I have met here.