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.
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.
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.
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.
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.