Saturday, April 26, 2008

Wedded to her village


TOADS in the toilet, ants’ egg for breakfast and frog farming. These tales unfold in Andrew Hicks’ latest book, My Thai Girl and I, which tells how a 61-year-old Englishman set up home in a Thai village with his wife Cat, a rice farmer’s daughter half his age.

According to the author, living these past five years in a village in Thailand’s arid north-eastern region has been a great experience.

“Something different, something special. I am able to observe the rhythms of the seasons and life in a rice growing village,” notes the former London corporate lawyer and law lecturer in Hong Kong and Singapore, who also authored law books such as The Company Law of Malaysia and the best selling novel Thai Girl.

Hicks, however, is quick to add that “it is not a place that I choose, as it is my wife who wants to live in her parents’ village.”

“Many, many disadvantages (living in a remote village which is about eight hours by bus from Bangkok). It is uncomfortable. Quiet. In some ways lacking in stimulation. There’s the problem of connecting with the wider world (he can’t get a decent English newspaper),” he relates.

The only farang (Thai for westerner) living in the village of 132 houses, he also has to come to grips with the exotic Isaan delicacies such as fried insects and fermented fish spiced up with volcanic chilli.

Still, he enjoys village life, as his energetic wife is stimulating. “Cat is always organising something. Right now she is building a chicken coop,” he says, adding that a significant part of his day it taken up by writing. Hicks admits that his typical day is atypical of village life – waking up to the crowing of cockerels, taking the cows to graze, and planting padi. “I live an urban life in the village,” he says.

On the impact of his existence in the village, the farang says he has changed the villagers’ aspirations.

“I have a (concrete) house which is 10 times better than anybody else’s. And they realise that their houses are not as big as they think they are,” he explains.

“Raising their aspirations is in a way disturbing and may not necessarily be a good thing, as in Thailand there is a mad rush for materialism, which is very contrary to the principle of Buddhism.”

Inevitably, Hicks says, some young women in the village are inspired to marry a farang – even if there is a compromise in marrying an older man – when they observe the changes (a nice house and travel to England and France) in Cat’s life.

“Very often Cat is jokingly asked, ‘will you find me a farang?’ and everybody laughs. But the questioner is serious. However, it is not easy, as I don’t have many single friends. So it does not actually happen,” relates the blogger, who writes about his life in

“The women’s motivation is materialism. When you are poor, you want to come out of poverty. From the point of view of a woman, marrying a foreigner will give her resources that can lift her and her family out of poverty,” he explains.

Poverty is evident in Isaan (Thailand’s northeast) where the farmers only plant one crop of rice a year because of the persistent dry season and sandy soil.

“The villagers literally do not have money. But the poverty is not glaring, as people are adequately fed, and they are happy,” he says.

He adds that the idea that the villagers are poor is somewhat a misnomer as “they are rich because they have achieved harmony with nature and satisfaction in life without all the urban trinkets.”

The Hicks contribute to the welfare of the village. They teach English to schoolchildren and provide – together with some Japanese friends – free lunch and books to about 95 students.

Living in rural Thailand, Hicks discovers, means he is not only married to his wife but also to her family, her village, and their collective way of life.

“That’s a stark contrast to the individuality of the West,” says the farang.

(Published in The Star on April 26, 2008)