My Thai Father-in-Law

Back home in Australia I was talking to a friend of mine the other day. Both of us are in our fifties and we came to the similar conclusion that it’s very difficult today to find people who you could call “real characters”. By real characters we mean people who due to their attitude or little eccentricities tend to stick out from the mob. In the main these people can be quite ordinary and yet still have a distinct worldliness even though they may not have seen much of the world. My friend and I felt that the dearth of real characters has been brought about by the increasing preference today for style and image over human substance.

Young Tho Rakna

In Thailand I would have to admit to bias, but a person here in the Kingdom who I feel truly deserves the tag “real character” is my Father-In-law of 28 years – Tho Rakna. Although I first met him in 1981 when I paid my first visit to his home in the Isaan village of Ban Phutsa it wasn’t till our next trip in 1984 that I began to get to know him. This was difficult because for the first three days after we arrived he was dead drunk. But after he began sobering up after his latest bender I began to get to know a person who has become quite special to me.

Over the years my wife Mali has told me many stories about her dad’s life. Born in 1923 in the village of Ban Phutsa (where he still lives today) his family was relatively wealthy. Back then as it pretty much is today in rural Thailand, a family’s wealth was determined by the size and number of rice fields owned. By all accounts he was pretty wild in his younger days. When he and his friends roamed the village, many villagers would literally pull up the timber ladders that led up into their homes and probably locked up their daughters as well.

He married in his mid twenties. My Mother-in-law came from the next village – Ban Ta Bong. Apparently another family legend has it that the marriage occurred roughly about the time paper Baht notes were first introduced to gradually replace Baht coins. When he paid the Bride price to his future wife’s family he is reputed to have paid it with counterfeit notes. By the time the fake notes had been uncovered, the marriage was already 6 months old and the first child on its way.

Tho Rakna and family

Although he came from a farming family he has never really been a farmer. Most of his working life was spent as a trader. Traveling over much of North-East Thailand for about 35 years by foot, buffalo cart or whatever transport available. He mainly sold woven mats and kitchen utensils. Back home in Australia sitting on our Buddha table we have one of the copper drinking bowls that he used to sell. He would be away for months at a time but quite often after returning home and having had a few drinks he would boast that he had a wife in every village in Isaan. To this my Mother-in-Law would say simply “well go and live with one of them”. Apparently this was all that was needed to take the wind out of his sails.

One feature of his early life really illustrates this man and his attitude to life. The special feature is that in all his life he has never worn robes. For a man of his generation and coming from this part of Thailand this is quite unusual. Most Thai men usually spend some time as a Buddhist Monk because it is both a tradition and a family and cultural expectation.

Tho Rakna bucked this trend and all his life steadfastly refused to enter the Sangha. This is not to say that he is anti-religious or against tradition – just simply that it was not for him. In fact his live and let attitude to life together with the peaceful balance that he has achieved especially in his later years marks him as a true Buddhist. That’s a personal view.

Although a rare visitor to the village Temple he still carries out charitable acts – regularly giving rice to people down on their luck. A great lover of all animals he has always refused to eat the meat of any cattle or water buffalo that he has owned. Although he will eat chicken he steadfastly refuses to eat duck because he likes them.

Mali and her dad

In human terms he is pretty much a loner and is fairly quiet (except when he has had a few drinks) which again makes him stand out in the boisterousness of Thai society. His quiet personal dislike of cant and hypocrisy brings out an impishness in his nature. As stated above he is a rare visitor to the village temple and is on record as saying that the Sangha has become a “rest camp” for many of the monks and an excuse to gossip by lay people.

On one memorable occasion we were all down at the temple attending a ceremony when to everyone’s surprise my father-in-Law walked in. The head monk expressed surprise and pleasure that he had come to which dad succinctly replied “I wouldn’t be here if I was sober”. Now let me hasten to say that he wasn’t drunk, but was just gently stirring my Mother-In-Law who was a devout Buddhist and a regular visitor to the Temple.

About 8 years ago one of his Grand Daughters got married to a man from Bangkok. A very intuitive man ,Dad felt that the marriage was doomed from the start (he was proven right as it didn’t last 12 months). The wedding was held in the village. Whilst all the family and guests donned their best clothes for the wedding – Dad in contrast came along attired in his standard summer gear – baggy shorts, bare-chested with just his pakemah (male sarong) tied around his waist. Afterwards the groom apparently complained that his wife’s grandfather must be a bit simple. What the city-boy didn’t realize was that my Father-In-law simply had no respect for him. After I was told about it, I thought what a great way to make a statement.

dad and family

Tho Rakna is now 82 years old. He has been a widower for 4 years but is still remarkably healthy. After a lifetime of smoking like a chimney, Whisky SiSip, and numerous motorcycle accidents he has a remarkable constitution. In the autumn of his life he often regrets the passing of friends and acquaintances from the past, but finds solace in his family.

Each year at the end of our trip he always farewells Mali and myself by simply saying “Farewell, good luck and prosperity”. The two great lessons that I have learnt from my Father-in-Law are that like silence, true contentment is golden. The other is that although our lives may appear to be hum drum and inconsequential from time to time, if we dig deep most of us will discover a richness of experience that we tend to overlook.

In Thailand there is nobody who I respect more than Tho Rakna – dare I say it not even the King.

Bill

28 responses to “My Thai Father-in-Law

  1. Hello Bill,

    Thanks very much for introducing us to this gentleman. Reminded me of my own grandfather.

    I laughed when I read the part about him entering the temple and proclaiming that he wouldn’t be there if he wasn’t drunk. My grandfather had a similar relationship with my grandmother and the Catholic church.

    Much respect to people who live their lives the way the way they want to live them and to the fullest.

    It’s nice to come on this site as opposed to some of the others that are geared towards farang in Thailand. You would be unlikely to see anything this positive written about the in-laws there.

    Thanks again for a great read Bill. I’ll be looking for your blogs in the future.

  2. Sounds like an interesting man.

    But how you can even compare a self proclaimed womaniser, a drunkard and a conman to the King (of Thailand), and even worse your respect for this man over the King is, to me, beyond belief.

    To me, a clear case of lese-majeste.

    I for one will be avoiding your future articles.

  3. What a nonsense response. First of all, the vision of the person you have in your head does not exist. That is a fictional creation that is the end product of years worth of stories.

    Remember, the greatest hope we have is in exercising the muscle that lays dormant above our shoulders, namely the brain.

    This guy deserves utmost respect for an excellent post about an excellent, and a REAL man.

    Thanks again Bill.

  4. A portrait of an honest man -what you see is what you get -no frills, no false “front” -take it or leave it. Sadly such people are rarely encountered, as they are considered, in the west, at least, an “embarresment” to their families – who often pretend, in many cases, to be far better than they really are, – and locked away in “Residential Care Homes”. I hope you get the opportunity to tell your father-in-law of the obvious respect and affection you hold for him.

  5. Great article.

  6. Thank you BF, Khun Don and Diego for your kind comments. Yes Tho Rakna is a very special man (again I admit to bias). In a sense it was a bit difficult to capture this mans life in a 1000 word plus weblog. Within those bounds I tried to in an honest fashion describe his character warts and all

    The interesting thing is that there are probably a lot more people just like him of all ages in Thailand who deserve to have their stories told.

    Bill

  7. I have read your blog and find it very distasteful becos you compared a womanier, a cheat and adrunkard with the revered thai king.
    This blog is for people to share interesting things common to mankind, not for you to sing praises of a drunkard and womaniser.

    In future please refrain from using the blog to further your personal agenda.

  8. A good post, thanks for telling us your story

  9. grat post, hope to read more stories from you

  10. Wow what a week. I used think that Culture Shock was something dreamed up by some pop sociologist. Boy was I wrong.

    In response to Superman’s balanced criticism of my Blog I offered an apology to The Thai people if I had inadvertently insulted them. I still stand by that apology. In the final analysis it probably was a poor choice of words but again no offence was intended.

    Also thank you BF for your spirited defense of my Blog.

    Final comments. I disagree with the main thread of Oceanic Experiences comment which seemed to be that as a Farang that I could be lectured about my ignorance of Thai culture and yet at the same time have to accept some very offensive and unsubstantiated remarks about my own western cultural background. Oceanic Experience makes the same mistake that a lot of Thais make which is believing that all Farangs are cultural Oafs .

    I think a lot of Thais would be surprised that a lot of Farangs (hopefully I am included) do take the time to get to know and appreciate Thai culture and yet have a reasonable expectation that if they make a cultural gaffe they will be forgiven.

    Again in saying that I am not trying to avoid what I said in the last paragraph of my blog

    In the final analysis much of what I feel about Thailand is captured in my personal website. http//www.isanvillage.com. I would appreciate it , if Oceanic Experience and all the others who criticized me to please read my website.

    Feel free to criticize it , but don’t take words out of context or consciously look for faults as I believe happened to my Blog but accept it for the spirit in which the website is written.

    Once again , I sincerely apologise for any offence that I have caused.

    This will be my last comment on this particular Blog

    Bill

  11. Interesting story about your in-laws, more needs to be said about the “common man”, people that “go their own way”,etc.

    The comparison of your dear father in law,etc, well Bill, not being a Thai, you might not understand fully what’s happened!

    Please continue your stories, you must have many yet, but kindly understand, once you say something, that’s all that others can judge you by.

  12. Thanks Superman, that’s good advice. I believe you are referring to the last paragraph of my Blog. Do I regret that last paragraph? Yes I do, simply because there was probably half a dozen different ways I could have finished my article and made the same point.

    I was fully conscious of what I wrote, but there was no disrespect intended either by accident or design. I don’t believe I was making a direct comparison between the two people mentioned. Its just that I only know one by his well deserved reputation and the other who I have known intimately for 28 years. Respect is I believe a common flow on when you truly get to know somebody. I wasn’t consciously attempting to place an ultimate value on that respect only on the height of that same respect.

    If I have inadvertently insulted the Thai people by my comment, then I am man enough to offer my heart felt apology (I genuinely mean that). In that apology I also include those 2 mean spirited commentators – As you said Superman – “words are all that people can judge you by”

    Once again Superman thank you for that gentle rap over the knuckles. It helped me to put this issue in perspective and douse some of the harsh words I was intending to say about the 2 commentators mentioned above.

    Cheers

    Bill

  13. I respect your opinion. You have the right to express them.
    But you should also respect the feeling of Thai people who read your article (at least your blog is named – thai-blogs.com )

    From your last sentence in the article, it seems that you don’t understand my country and its people well enought.

    My English is not good enought to explain the impact of the last sentence to you. Give this article to your thai friend , especially about the last sentence and ask them about the comment . They may be able to explain the Thai feeling about it to you.

  14. Your last sentence is very offensive to Thai people
    feeling!!!!!!!

  15. God damn FARANG!!! Don’t even know what is appropriate to say and what not!!!!!!!!

  16. Oceanic Experience

    BILL, I guess you are quite an well educated person. As per your blog above it appears like you known your father-in-law for more or less than almost 25+ years. Which means you have known and learnt a lot about him personally from time to time. Let me ask you, how can you compare between something which you have known so closely for so many years with some other thing which you have not at all known or spent at least if not personally even for a single moment. You cannot compare respect in-between known and unknown.

    My point here is you said you show a lot of respect to your father-in-law than anybody else in Thailand. It is good to know that you really do that. But how can you compare your father-in-laws respect with somebody else whom you don’t even know anything at least if not for a single moment? To put it more simple, a respect comparison statement can only be stated when you have more or less equally known in-between at least two or more different personalities. You just cannot come to an conclusive decision just because one you have known for so many years and other not even for a single moment.

    It would have been more better if both the respectable comparison personalities are more or less equally known for some time frame period before you dare to make such an statement. Then only it makes more sense to say of what ever you dare to say about. In other sense, you could have compared your own family members whom you have known for so many years with your father-in-law. That kind of respectable comparison would have make more sense out of your above blog.

    By the way one more thing is you have not born and bought up with Asian kind of rooted culture and traditions to understand the meaning of respect towards others. In most of the western kind of born and bought up culture there is no such respect word used towards either teacher, parents or others. They only know how to point middle finger upwards to show their respect.

    Show me in the whole world which country king ( if have ) has such an respect than compared to Thailand King? Forget about the King, just compare your own individual self. What kind of respect do you get back in your own country than compared to what you have experienced in Thailand for the past so many years? Where and how do you think all this so called respectable manners could have rooted in Thai people when the King himself is not rooted with it? All this sweet smile, respect, traditions, cultures are still in such good state just only because the Father and Mother of the country are good and well rooted in it. If parents are not good then for sure the children will also end up not to be good. That is why the western culture sucks than compared to Asian culture. For example lets imagine your own respected father-in-law with the above stated rooted credits of drunkard, womaniser etc… is a King of some country. What kind of culture & traditions do you think that country people will be rooted with later on?

    And you being an western personality, you just simply cannot talk and compare the Thailand country King with some one personal of yours. The whole Thailand people know Thai King for so many years than what you do.

    Blog, freedom of speech is good to write, when it makes more sense out of it intellectually. If not no point writing it. Don’t write things just to please ones own ego just because of name and fame from the good comments of others…. drop the EGO now… drop the EGO journey….

    be happy always…

  17. Hi Oceanic experience et al,

    First off: The Thai king is a human being.

    I think that is what Bill was trying to get across here and actually I found his comparison at the end to be pro-monarchist.

    Life is too short to deify human beings, and unless I wasn’t paying close attention to HM The King’s last speech he said “I am not a god” – I am open to criticism.

    Did he not say that? Did he not say that if you say I am not open to critiques then you are denying me my humanity? Look at the text of his last birthday speech – that is not lese majeste (as everybody who wants to kick freedom of speech down the stairs in this country likes to trot out) that’s what he said.

    That’s the version of the Thai monarchy I agree with. I’ll take that at face value and enough with self-censorship.

    Besides, all Mr. Bill was doing here was profiling a guy who he knew better then anybody else knows anybody, including the thai monarch, as he knew him. Warts and all.

    And, I thought it was a great post. Thanks once again Bill.

  18. Oceanic Experience

    Hi BF,

    I guess either you have NEVER completely read or maybe you have NEVER completely understood of my above comments. I NEVER said that King was not a human nor I NEVER said you are not allowed to make comments on the King.

    It was a great Blog about his Father-In-Law as individual who lives and lives a life of what one believes. Even the above complete blog reminds me of someone in my own personal family life who lives an very much individual life of what one really wants to and believes to live on.

    My whole point was, how can he come to an conclusive statement of respect in-between 2 persons out of which one person is known to him when the other is not. Still don’t understand?

  19. Bill, if your father in law knows you compared him to the King he might get up and kick your ass.

  20. Do you know how hard Thai King has been working for his people? HM is the one who always care for his people, I means he always put his people beyond himself, that is why you cannot say such a statement.

  21. world travellor

    Bill, I understand where you’re coming from because, like you, I am an Australian and, as such, come from a relatively egalitarian society.

    Thailand is still very much a feudal society, but it is also Buddhist. The Buddha himself was once a prince, Siddharta Gautama. When the Buddha renounced his princely ways and embarked upon a path of self-liberation and enlightenment, he also renounced the religion to which he was born: Hinduism. The Buddha’s message of fundamental equality of ALL humans did not sit comfortably with the intrinsically heirachical structure of the religion he came to reject. He denounced the caste system of Hinduism. Many of his original disciples were refugees from the discrimination incurred by being born into low caste. Mahatma Ghandi attempted to demonstrate this fundamental Buddhist concept of equality and compassion when he renamed the Indian untouchables, “harijan”, or “Children of God”.

    In an open and questioning society, the comparison between kings and paupers is not only justified, it is also in keeping with the fundamental principles of Buddhism. One can appreciate the love the Thai people have for their king, and no-one disputes this….(to be continued).

  22. world travellor

    ….but this does not necessarily mean that open discussion or healthy questioning as to whether monarchies are ultimately the fairest form of governance should never be permitted. For any society to evolve, freedom of speech and an active ongoing debate about the nature of its politics (to which a system of monarchy is inextricably linked) must be allowed – even if some aspects are deemed to be insensitive to the general feelings of the status quo.

    Having said this, I don’t suppose Bill would necessarily want to agree with what I’ve just pointed out: I’m sure he doesn’t view his comments as intending to be revolutionary. All he mentioned in passing was something relatively harmless, and from his own personal perspective. That personal perspective has been influenced by the free, open egalitarian and democratic culture in which he has lived, Australia. It is because of this cultural egalitarianism, where even kings are viewed on the same level as paupers, that actually makes me proud to be Australian. And I think this appreciation of innate equality for all is not something to shy away from – even if it might be at odds with the status quo of Thai society. On the contrary, I think it’s something beautiful.

  23. world travellor

    Afterall, the Buddha himself rejected the status quo of the day when he rejected Hinduism and its heirarchical caste system. He wasn’t too much concerned with offending the sensibilities of the Indian masses when he preached his message of equality and compassion for all. He saw kings and queens as fundamentally the same basic human beings in need of the same self-liberation: that desire is the root of all suffering. In the Buddha’s eyes, Bill’s father-in-law would viewed in exactly the same light as the King of Thailand, and be deserving of the same respect.

  24. julia Cassaniti

    I really liked your blog about your father-in-law. I just came across it randomly on a google search and, unusually, read it through to the end. Thanks for sharing the life of this special man.

  25. I definitely love reading your insight and learning from your blogsite. Thank you for the interesting and informative article. – Diego

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