Category Archives: Country Life

Entrusting Your Hair To A Thai Barber

Thais from a Farang point of view appear to be a very laid back and tolerant nation of people. Although many aspects of life are taken quite seriously, the defusing effects of Sanuk soon kick in and bring things back to natural balance.

One issue that I find Thais take quite seriously (and yet is still a Sanuk event) is personal hair care. In short, you won’t stay in business long as a hairdresser or barber in Thailand if you give lousy haircuts.

Irrespective if they are rich or poor, Thais pay great attention to personal hygiene, neatness of dress and above all a well-groomed hairstyle. As such Thai Cities, Towns and even some villages abound with hairdressing establishments. Hair Care even comes with its own traditions and superstitions such as Monday being a propitious time for a haircut whereas Wednesday is deemed to be unlucky for a cut.

mali in the chair

Another aspect is the scattering of cut hair over water for luck. It would be rare for me to visit Thailand without being instructed by a female member of the family for me to take a plastic bag full of their freshly cut hair out to the rice fields and scatter it over a river or canal.

hair on water

But next to the mechanics of hair care and lets start with the Ladies first. When Mali and our daughter Natalie visit the Kingdom several trips to the hairdresser are usually involved. Mali revels in this and will go to one hairdresser one day just to get her hair washed and visit another a few days later to have it styled and cut. When she has it done at the village hairdresser, she can also catch up with all the local gossip, who’s sleeping with who, the weather and listen to another opinion on Thaksin.

natalie at hairdresser

Through all the professionalism at the hairdresser “Thai Time” still reigns supreme and many hours can be whiled away in the hairdressers chair. My daughter had her hair straightened a few years ago, which involved a six hour process including a meal brought in from a local restaurant.

And now for the men. One aspect of male haircuts that I find endlessly fascinating is that more often than not is that you tend to end up with not the cut that you asked for but the one the Thai barber subtly believes you should have. As such at times I have emerged after 45 minutes with my hair much neater but still the same length. Other times the barber has whooped so much off that I have ended up looking like a mature aged schoolboy.

But I don’t want to sound like a whining Farang. For a relatively small outlay in Baht, you usually get a very meticulous haircut, your neck and shoulders massaged, the hair in your nose cut and sometimes your ears given a perfunctory cleanout. When I am standing at the cash register I think of how much a haircut in Australia costs (more than having the oil in your car changed).

Of course like a pub or a bar you sometimes find a hair cutting establishment that you keep gravitating back to. Mine is a barbershop in the Isaan town of Phimai. It can only be described as a real “Blokes Barbershop” – crud on the walls and ceiling, the obligatory “men’s magazine” calendar on the wall and the chairs a bit worse for wear.

My favourite anecdote of this shop (run by a two man partnership) was about 5 years ago. I had ridden into Phimai from the village for a haircut, but when I arrived at the shop I found the senior barber dead drunk and sleeping in the doorway of the shop. He wasn’t in any physical distress and had the contented look of a tomcat on his face.

I stepped gingerly around his body (careful not to step over it) and entered the shop. I was soon followed in by two more Thai males. One of them was smiling broadly while the other was poker faced (although I suspect not out of disgust but simply because he had seen it all before)

The person who seemed to be the most amused by it all was the junior barber who was left to shoulder the wheel that day. A few days later I was walking past the barbershop and I noticed that the formally prostrate barber up on his feet, bright eyed and bushy tailed as they say and giving superb haircuts.


The Building Of Village Temples

The age of Cathedral building is probably well and truly over in the west but in Thailand the desire to engage in temple construction shows no sign of abating. The landscape of Thailand is already covered with Wats, Shrines, and spirit houses. These of course include iconic Wats such as Wat Phra Kiew, Doi Suthep and Wat Tat Phanom.

But at the same time new constructions and renovations are going on all the time. Travel around the country and you will see new temples rising out of the ground and bamboo scaffolding around existing buildings. More often than not this will be happening in Thai Villages.

Ban Phutsa Temple

Virtually ever Thai village has a temple in its environs. The village temple holds an iconic place in Thai culture. The size and construction of these temples reflect both the economic status and the spiritual imperatives of each individual village. As such the Temple buildings can range from simple timber to quite grand constructions that can rival similar temples in Towns and Cities.

The decision to build and renovate temple buildings has much to do not only with economics and spiritual desire but also with Village politics. Thais place great store in earning merit which includes both the giving alms to members of the Sangha and the upkeep of their temples.

ban ta ban meditation huts

But sometimes the decision not only to build but how to build involves subtle “logger heading” between the Lay and the village monastic community. A Case in point is a village that I know called Ban Ta Ban in Isaan. The Achaan of the village temple is a former Phra Tudong (wandering ascetic) who recommended that a small meditation complex be built. The Financial movers and shakers in the village wanted an ordination hall. In the end they compromised and built both.

This reflects the enormous respect that Thais have for the spiritual leadership of the Sangha. Although it’s the Lay community that appears to initiate Temple projects – in the end it’s the monastic community that determines how the temple complex is used. The village of Ban Phutsa in Isaan where I spend much of my time during annual visits to Thailand once had an Abbot who was – how can I put it kindly, leant towards the grand. As such on his recommendation several quite expensive buildings were erected in the village temple complex. The new Abbot is more of a traditionalist and who places more store in Vipassana meditation and a market garden that he has established to feed some of the poorer people in the village. As such many of the grander buildings are rarely used.

Another aspect of the Thai character is the desire not only to contribute to the construction of new temples but to build one in its entirety. This does not appear to come from personal ego but instead is the ultimate in spiritual fulfillment. There are numerous projects of this nature all over the country. I am aware of two of these projects.

Khorat Temple

The first is a large temple being built outside of the City of Nakhonratchasima by a Thai “action hero” movie star. Apparently he does most of his own stunts, which has involved a few narrow escapes. As such he felt compelled to initiate his project as a way of giving thanks for the “good luck” that he has been endowed with.

The other project (which I have only visited once back in 2003) is Wat Pa Nam Yoi, which is located on a hill on the border of Roiet and Mukdahan provinces in Isaan. From the hill you have sweeping views over the Isaan landscape.

This project can only be called “huge”. It came about after the Abbott of a small village had a dream, which apparently told him that a new temple needed to be built on the hill,and who then initiated it. I have pasted two photos above that I took in 2003, but they don’t do justice to the staggering dimensions of this temple. It is being funded by donations from right across the country. The irony of it is that the Abbott is from the forest tradition of Thai Buddhism and lives simply in a hut in the forest outside the new temple.

As a Farang with an “Ikea Furniture” love of simplicity I am often perplexed by what drives Thais to so heavily invest in temple construction. I often believe that the literal billions of Baht spent in this manner would be better spent on eradicating poverty in the country.

On the other hand although I don’t quite understand I have in turn learned to appreciate both the desire and the spiritual fulfillment that Thais get from their involvement in building Temples.


Watching An Isaan Rice Harvest

Fact: Thailand is the worlds leading rice exporter. In contrast the rest of this Blog may be not as factual or reliable. After traveling for many years to Thailand I have had a growing (no pun intended) interest in how rural Thais in Isaan relate to the ever-important rice harvest.

Each trip back to Thailand, my wife Mali and I spend a fair chunk of each trip in her home village of Ban Phutsa in Isaan. We generally return each year from Australia around the end of October. As such we tend to be there from the beginning to the end of the rice harvest in and around the village.

rice harvest

When we arrive, it is generally just the lull before the storm. Moving around the village you can see people getting ready by sharpening rice sickles, stacking and repairing rice sacks but in the main just relaxing before the maximum physical effort that will be demanded in the coming weeks.

As the landscape begins to lose the last of the green and slowly turns to brown the rice is ready to be picked. Due to Isaan having the most marginal land and fickle weather in the Kingdom, no mistakes can be made. Unlike the lush rice fields in central Thailand which can manage at least two harvests a year, in contrast Isaan farmers basically only get one harvest per year. They have to get it right each year or suffer the consequence.

For about a month there is constant frenetic action in all the districts of rural Isaan. One of the initial headaches is organising labour. This seems to be done in a variety of ways. Many farmers simply do it themselves with their families or sometimes they engage friends and neighbours to help. Once they have harvested their fields, they in turn go and help the neighbours harvest their crop. But in the main most farmers have to employ day labour to clear their fields which often means having to borrow the money to pay their wages.

returning from the fields

Early, on each day of the harvest you will see groups of villagers, their bodies covered head to toe ( including their heads with scarves and balaclavas) to ward off the sun climbing into utilities and trucks to begin the journey out to the rice fields and a day of heavy labour. Nothing stops this process. Last November we attended a village wedding – after the wedding breakfast in the morning, I noticed several of the guests quietly climbing into trucks to go back out and continue the harvest.

Once out in the fields, the farmers begin the harvest. Moving slowly and methodically through the fields, the rice stalks are cut with sickles and then tied in sheaves and dropped behind each worker. All the time the farmers keep an eye on the weather – a sudden downpour can often mean days of trying to dry out the rice. Sometimes there are other problems – last year, the rice fields around the village of Banphutsa still had so much water in the fields, that many farmers literally had to paddle boats out to cut the rice.

The farmers tend to break at midday to have lunch and rest for an hour or so. Many farmers will have a shot or two of rotgut whiskey sisip to take the ache out of their shoulders and backs. On several occasions over the years I have been riding my motorbike out along a rural road and been hailed over by complete strangers in the fields to have a drink or share their midday meal. I never cease to be humbled by the hospitality of Isaan people.

After lunch and more hours of work, the farmers pile back into their trucks and in long convoys motor back to their villages. As you pass them late in the afternoon, the people are visibly tired but nothing seems to subdue the laughter or take the smile off their faces.

drying rice

Of course during the weeks of the harvest not all the activity is out in the fields. Traveling out on the roads you constantly come across trucks loaded with rice or people moving from one destination to another. The roads themselves are often used for a secondary purpose. Farmers quite often lay tarpaulins on the flat sealed roads and dry their rice on them. Local drivers just shrug and detour around the tarps on the road. In local towns during the harvest, the streets are clogged with farm trucks and their owners doing business.

It has always amused me to be standing in a Bank queue when a farmer walks in with his face still covered with a balaclava and nobody pays any attention. If that happened in Australia I would probably involuntarily raise my arms or spread-eagle on the floor.

And then finally, the harvest is complete and the farmers then need to assess gains and losses.

In the final analysis, the harvest is in practical terms economic activity. Farmers are tested by the vagaries of rice prices, debt payment and the basic need to provide food and shelter for their families. One of the traps has always been debt with the end result that much of the sweat of their labour is passed onto others.

threshing rice

But there is some light at the end of the tunnel. The bigger money from my observation is the value adding to the harvest such as the husking and milling of the rice and its final transportation to market. Once the province of Chinese families, their role is now being challenged by a growing number of village entrepreneurs like my good friend Khun Bong and his wife Nid in the village of BanPhutsa. By means of hard work and savvy borrowing, Bong has moved on to buy both a tractor and a rice thresher. He now makes more money from ploughing other farmers land and threshing their rice after the harvest than he did by simply being a farmer. More power to him and people like him.

Likewise many farming families are now scrimping and saving to send their children to the growing Technical colleges in the towns and cities so that they have a more prosperous future than simply working in the fields.

But for the time being once the harvest is complete, its time to relax for a while and then get ready to replant and start all over again.

Back in Australia when we stop off at an Asian supermarket to buy our Thai Jasmine rice I can now appreciate the effort it takes to create that product. I now devote my previous indifference to the meat and potatoes that I buy at Woolworths.


Buying A Thai Truck

truck calendar

Ever gone out shopping intending to buy just a few things e.g. a tube of toothpaste, a kilo of cheese or a carton of beer but end up buying something much bigger and vastly more expensive. This can range from anything such as a wide screen TV to a bargain basement return plane ticket to Thailand.

Sometimes you congratulate yourself on how much money you have saved with your spur of the moment purchase. Other times you end up clutching your head in both hands and say – “what possessed me to buy that”

Right now I am in the middle of such a dilemma. Last November whilst on our annual holiday in Thailand and over a few beers with some friends in the Village of Ban Phutsa in Isaan I asked a question. Random conversation often leads to random questions especially when consuming beer. The question I asked was whether it was possible or easy to buy a “Rot Tuk Tuk” or Thai truck.

The question came from simple curiousity. The Rot Tuk Tuk or Rot Itan as it is more commonly known in Isaan can be seen frequently in various parts of rural Thailand but never as much as in Isaan. In some respects I would argue that it is probably one of the most recognizable symbols of North-East Thailand.

village truck

I asked the question because although the old fashioned farm truck was still a common sight they appeared to be in danger of being eliminated by modernity. Thais living in an evermore prosperous nation with an expanding road network seemed to be abandoning the old work horse in favour of shiny new Utilities (Pick Up Trucks) from Toyota and Isuzu and bigger trucks from the same stable.

When I visited Isaan for the first time in the eighties, the Thai Farm Truck was the equivalent of today’s Hi Tech. Moving down rural roads and out through the rice fields with the distinctive “ Tuk Tuk Tuk” sound from the diesel pump engine that it was powered by, it was the ultimate can do machine. It’s simplicity of design, robust strength and the stamina of a 102 year old alcoholic meant it was a farmers best friend.

But getting back to that beer session in the village last November. When I asked the question it seemed to develop a life of its own. Soon the half dozen people sitting around the table including my wife Mali were talking with great animation about the virtues of owning such a vehicle. Although the shiny new Utilities were increasingly more popular they couldn’t haul as much rice, tapioca and people as the Rot Itan. The bigger trucks conversely were seen to be in many cases too large and expensive for village people. The Thai Truck was given the thumbs up as the perfect medium.

The short of it was Mali put the hard word on me. How about buying a Rot Itan so that we could set up a family business in the village. On the spur of the moment I said OK, why not. I was further advised not to buy a second hand one but to have one built brand new. That surprised me, as I wasn’t even aware that they were still building the old fashioned vehicle anymore.

The estimated cost between 250 and 300 thousand baht which compared to what was going to be purchased –was not supposed to be a great deal of money. Again I said OK – GULP!!!!!.

truck chassis

The next day we journeyed from the village to the nearby town of Phimai to order our truck. In a large workshop on the outskirts of the town we started to make our decision. The workshop and its environs were cluttered with tools, three existing trucks being repaired and two new truck chassis being welded. Over to the side were two brand new trucks near completion.

painting a truck

Both of them were being painted in the elaborate colours that make this vehicle so distinctive. A husband and wife team ran the business. After dispensing with the social amenities we settled down to business.

After discussing options we settled for a large vehicle and the biggest diesel possible for the vehicles size (I hope I’m not getting to technical here). The truck would also be constructed with a tilt body so that it could be used amongst other things for hauling and dumping land fill. We finally settled on a price and the deal was finally done.

One big catch – due to the size of the business and the large number of orders being received from as far as away as Khon Khaen we were going to have to queue. An estimated wait of four months. We agreed and paid a small deposit.

Two days ago and four months later back in our home in Australia, Mali received a phone call from her sister Porntip in the village. The truck was pretty much ready but wouldn’t be picked up for another two weeks so that they could wait for the start of the rainy season for luck.

The truck will be picked up on the day by family and friends including Mali’s Dad who we are going to name the truck after. From the workshop the truck will be driven to the main Wat in Phimai where its revered abbot will be asked to bless it. From there it will be driven home to the village and housed in the new garage that has been especially built for it. That night there will I suspect, be a humungous big celebration? The next day it goes to work.

The main regret about it is that Mali and I won’t be there to see it. That’s the drawback of being a commuter tourist who only gets to see the kingdom five weeks of the year.

Was buying the truck a sound financial decision (that’s Farang rationalization kicking in). I really don’t know but after almost thirty years of taking back from Thailand in terms of experience, it’s a nice feeling to be finally able to give something back.

If the business does not ultimately go as well as we had hoped I will always be able to find solace in the old Zorba philosophy

“ everyone from time to time needs a little madness in their lives”


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.