Extracts from the book
Extracts from the book Thai Girl by Andrew Hicks
1. You Lucky Guy!
Even though my precious laptop computer was audaciously stolen from under my nose only a few moments ago, I’ve just been told I’m a very lucky guy!
Pushing through the touts flogging sexy movies at Pantip Plaza, Bangkok’s manic six storey computer bazaar, I stop on the ground floor to admire a gleaming display of new Chevrolet cars. They look so tempting and lush.
I’m sitting daydreaming in the driver’s seat of a drop-dead gorgeous one ton pickup, when a fresh-faced young American pops his head in through the passenger door.
‘You gonna get one of these?’ he asks with infectious enthusiasm, as if he’s known me all his life.
‘No, actually… I’m just looking,’ I reply, with my usual stiff-upper Britishness.
‘They’re American, man, so buy one… built right here in Thailand.’
We chat for a few moments and, with his engaging warmth and openness, he quickly prises open my entire life story. I tell him how I was a lawyer in London half a lifetime ago, about how I escaped to lecture law at a university in Nigeria and later at universities in Hong Kong and Singapore before ten years at the University of Exeter in the south west of England.
‘That’s wild,’ he says as we part. ‘And now you’re early retired, living in your new house in Surin with a sexy Thai lady… and just published a bestselling novel. And today you’re even thinking of buying an American truck! Well, I guess that’s gotta be every man’s dream!’
Soon after the sneak thief snatched my laptop while I was eating in the crowded food hall upstairs, his words come back to me. Every man’s dream? ‘Gosh’, as we greying Brits still say, is that right? Well yes, even if I have just been robbed, I really am a lucky man.
It’s still a novel experience for me living in Thailand married to Cat and I ask myself why there seem to be so many of these peculiar cross-cultural unions out here. Is it right, this pulling power we western wrinklies seem to have in a less wealthy country? What do our young Thai girlfriends and wives expect of us? What’s the deal exactly?
Meeting the American in Pantip Plaza reminds me of the lyrics of Bob Dylan, the iconic sixties singer-songwriter whose nasal wailings often reveal universal truths.
“I’ll buy you a Chevrolet! I’ll buy you a Chevrolet! I’ll buy you a Chev-ro-let…
Just give me some of your love babe! Just give me some of your love!”
So maybe that’s all it is… these unequal relationships are little more than an economic exchange. The women are only in it for the money the cynics will say, which bothers me because in the words of another pop icon, money can’t buy you love.
I’m not too worried though as the romantic in me insists that our accommodating Thai ladies do actually like us oldies for ourselves as well as for our cash. As they lure us into matrimony they tell us we have good hearts and that we’re handsome too.
So it’s east to delude myself that we are indeed something a bit special. We’re rare and mellow like a vintage port, increasing in value as we mature in texture and pinkness with each passing year.
2. The Chatuchak Marathon
‘Come on Andrew. Why you so slow?’ says Cat with a smile.
We’re in Chatuchak market in Bangkok, the hottest and most crowded market in the world and I’m carrying a load of stuff that Cat’s just bought.
‘Cat, do you really have to find the same stall you went to last time? We’ve been up this alley twice already.’
‘It had the best tee shirts. Find it soon, no problem.’
‘But I’m parched and it’s bloody hot.’
‘You not like shopping with me, Andrew? Next time I go alone!’
Cat looks daggers as I slump against a wall and mop my brow. I’m not sure marathon shopping’s my strongest event.
In this hard world there are many things that endanger a new relationship and one of them’s going shopping. You shop at different speeds, you want to look at different things and you keep losing each other. And in Bangkok the heat and humidity multiply the tension by ten.
For a couple like us with our different cultures and language, there are so many mountains to climb, especially as I’m almost twice Cat’s age. As she’s a keen marathon shopper and we live near Chatuchak market, the Everest of all extreme shopping events, I’m in for a rough ride.
Chatuchak market at the end of the Skytrain in Bangkok is a vast warren of stalls selling everything you’ve never needed, ranging from lingerie to leather goods and live lizards. It’s so big you can’t find anything and if you stumble on what you want, you’ll never ever find it again. The market opens only at weekends and as most of Bangkok’s ten million shoppers converge there, it’s a struggle even to move. Worst of all, under the rows of single storey corrugated iron sheds, it’s hotter than hell.
Think of the Marathon des Sables where mad people run marathons across the desert every day for a week. Think of the toughest triathlons, of Ironman competitions and rowing the Pacific backwards. Nothing comes close to the rigour of shopping in Chatuchak with Cat.
It isn’t that she spends a lot but she spends her money so carefully. She’ll search for hours for a single item or for the tee shirt stall she went to last time. We probably won’t find it today because it’s closed though it must be here somewhere, she insists.
I’ve come with her to Chatuchak precisely because I wanted to, but it’s going to be a major test of my stamina and of our relationship, an initiation, a proving ground. After more than four hours of this, I’m now wondering if I’ll be able to pass Cat’s marathon shopping test.
Thailand teems with attractive young women so why am I chasing after this particular one so hard? Cat looks quite ordinary and in jeans and tee shirt with no make-up of any kind, you’d never notice her in the river of dark faces that flows past you on every street.
The stereotype of a ‘Thai girl’ is of a sultry beauty, poised and inscrutable who passively reclines, polishing her nails and purring when stroked, but my Cat is the very antithesis of all that. With her restless energy, she’s small and strong, fit and feisty, boyish even, a female action man. Every moment of her life is precious and has to be lived to the full.
In stark contrast, I’m grizzled and serious, a little pompous and academic but she bosses me around as if I were a puppy. I love her for her toothy smile and for the life force that she shares with me, so I’m now determined to make this work, even if it means following her round Chatuchak market for hours on end, dragging shopping bags behind me.
So far we’ve had a good few years together and this is the story of those years, a story of living together in our home in the far rice fields of Thailand. I shall try to tell it as honestly as I can as, while novels are two a penny, this is a true account of the real people with whom I now share my life.
3. To The Back of Beyond
It's horribly early in the morning, still dark and, after a wakeful night on the bus all the way from Bangkok, I feel like death warmed up. Cat's still bright and sparky as she usually is, though perhaps a little nervous about taking me home to see her folks. We’ve only known each other a few weeks and this trip's pretty important for her, as of course it is for me.
The bus is packed full of stoic migrant workers briefly returning from low-paid jobs in Bangkok to their homes in Isaan, the arid rice growing region in the North East of Thailand. At the bus station in Sangkha, a small market town in the depths of Surin province, we're the only ones to get off.
I retrieve our bags from under the bus and look around. The bus station, the usual bleak, concrete structure, is totally deserted except for an expectant knot of touts and tuk tuk drivers. There’s still no glimmer of light in the sky.
Though I’ve known Cat so short a time, she's keen for me to meet her family and I want to meet them too before I fly back to London in a week’s time. She’s been insistent that I should only come if my intentions are serious and I feel a strong sense of obligation to her. I’ve also come because I'm overwhelmed with curiosity about her family. She's told me so much about them all, her parents, her three brothers and three sisters and the armies of relatives and I'm wondering what they'll make of the tall, greying suitor from another planet.
Cat's in her late twenties, though like most Thai women she looks younger. That makes me about twice her age and certainly old enough to know better. I’m sure that if I saw an old lizard like me with a girlfriend little older than his own children, I wouldn't approve at all. Nonetheless I reassure myself that though we’re so different in every way, we can offer each other much the same thing and that is a totally new start in life. For me, not having much to look forward to, this is very special indeed.
The tuk tuk drivers are now joking with Cat as she barters for the fare to her family home. The village of Ban Sawai is about seven kilometres out of town and they're asking ninety baht which seems a bit expensive. One of them compromises at eighty baht and we follow him across the concrete to where he slings our bags into the back of his tuk tuk. It's a decrepit old three wheeler, consisting of a sawn-off motorcycle with a single front axle and a rough body for passengers tacked on the back. We climb in under the roof of rusty tubes and dirty canvas and the tuk tuk wheezes slowly out of the bus station as a hint of light appears in the east.
We pass through Sangkha town which is just waking up, past shuttered shops the same as everywhere in rural Thailand, past builders' merchants, furniture and hardware stores, a Thai temple lost in the trees, past the post office, down the side of the market and out onto the pot-holed road towards Sikoraphum, the next town down the line.
Now we're bowling along the open road, the tuk tuk singing and straining at full belt, going at least twenty miles an hour. The air is fresh in our faces, bringing all the smells of the countryside as we cling on tightly, the wheels bucking and bouncing on the rough road. On either side I can see plain wooden houses, some on stilts and some of concrete, interspersed with rice fields. Soon it's mostly rice fields, scattered with trees, relics of the forest that stood here so very recently. It's rapidly getting lighter and Cat grins at me as I stare around in wonderment.
'What time are they expecting us?' I ask her.
'They not know when we come.'
'You mean you didn't phone them?'
'I speak to Mama a week ago, but we come any time, no problem.'
This is Thailand where time is of no significance.
'How far now to the village?'
'Already there… Ban Sawai,' says Cat.
I look ahead down the long straight road and there's no village apparent, just a sign which says bizarrely, "Ban Sawai, City Limit".
Now there are wooden houses on both sides of the road, then a school and more houses. I’ve hardly had time to blink and we're almost out the other side of the village before the tuk tuk begins to slow.
This is to be the moment of truth and it's time for a reality check. Here I am in the back of beyond and I’m about to meet my girlfriend's family for the first time. I’ve come to see her home and way of life and to find out if this short-lived thing between us has a hope in hell. I admit to feeling distinctly jittery and I think Cat is too. She hasn't been back in a while and bringing home a boyfriend, especially a greying farang, an exotic long-nosed foreigner, is a big thing for her. In no time at all, the whole village will know about it and they’ll be coming to check me out, me, the first farang on the block.
The tuk tuk turns right into a narrow soi, a straight gravel track, lined with trees and widely spaced wooden houses on each side. We pass several before turning left through a gateway and stop in front of a two storey house. I look around, feeling stiff and a little dazed. So this is Cat's family home.
It's now almost light and I can see a decent looking house in front of me, one of the better ones in the village. It has varnished double doors with carved dragons while the ground floor is a wooden structure in-filled with rendered blocks, the upstairs clad with rough weather boards, topped off with a green corrugated zinc roof. The house almost spans the plot and is surrounded by trees, though as usual there's no hint of a garden. In a rice farmer’s home where life’s hard, there's little time for the luxury of making things look tidy.
Cat pays off the tuk tuk driver, tipping him the ten baht she’d haggled off at the bus station and he shoots off down the soi, kicking up the dust. As we pull open the front door, secured only by a piece of string, there seems to be nobody about. Cautiously I step inside.
The ground floor of the house is one big empty room of heavy wooden posts and beams, the floor and walls of unpainted concrete. It's dark and gloomy in here, though with a little money and effort it could be a beautiful room.
In front of us is a doorway to the back of the house. As I dump our stuff on the dusty floor, I hear shuffling noises inside. The door opens and a stooped figure in a sarong slowly emerges, somebody small and with a pronounced limp. Could this be my prospective mother-in-law?
4. How I First Met Cat
Confronting my future on the threshold of the house, I have a rush of self-doubt. This just has to be crazy! How have I got myself so entangled, me an old one with greying hair who should be sitting back and growing roses in a Devon village. I’m now involved with a Thai rice farmer’s daughter and I’m about to present myself as her ‘boyfriend’ to a mother who's much nearer my age than she is. This just has to be wrong though it’s much too late to turn round and do a runner.
It’s said that your life passes before your eyes as you drown and something like it happens when you first meet your mother-in-law. Standing there in the semi-darkness, the events of my short friendship with Cat came flooding back.
‘Where did you meet your Thai girlfriend?’ people always seem to ask.
It was at a reception at the French Embassy in Bangkok, I like to tell them. I was chatting to the First Secretary when I saw her across the banqueting room, elegant and petite in a white cocktail dress. I begged to be introduced and just as we eased our way through the glitterati clutching our champagne glasses, a silver haired butler shimmered up to her carrying a pyramid of Ferrero Rocher chocolates on a silver tray. I watched as she took one, deftly removed the gold foil and put the chocolate to her lips. She turned to me with a dazzling smile and said, 'Delicieux, monsieur', and from that moment on I was utterly lost.
But no, it wasn't like that at all!
A few years back, I was staying in Phuket for Songkhran, a good place to get hot and very wet during the Thai new year water festival and Cat was working there as assistant general manager of a family-owned retail food outlet.
The first thing I said to her was, 'I’ll have a piece of papaya please.’ And she said to me, 'Two pieces? Only twenty baht.’
That's good salesmanship I thought, and what a lovely smile.
Yes, I did buy papaya from her but actually it was just a noodle stall on the roadside where she worked with her oldest sister Durian and husband, Tong. Cat was helping them in the high season, making som tam and grilling chicken and catfish and that was how I first met her.
Because the papaya was good, I went back the next day and bought some more and as the days went by and as I still liked sweet papaya, I learned she was studying for her degree at an open university in Bangkok. Working with her sister gave her something to live on and enough time to study and go to Bangkok for her exams.
Her most difficult subject was English language, she told me, and she desperately needed some help with her forthcoming exam. As I was old enough to be her father, it didn't seem too forward for me to ask if she could teach me some Thai and yes, of course I could help with her English.
So that’s how it all began and how, some weeks later, I found myself at her family's wooden house in Isaan, eight hours from Bangkok by overnight bus, wondering just what exactly I’d got myself into.
Thailand teems with pretty girls and with some beautiful ones too, and though they're shy and demure, they don't always look away as you cruise idly by. Despite their modesty, they’ll sometimes meet your eyes with a smile and with a charm and playfulness that leaves us feeble males grinning foolishly.
Cat didn't strike me as one of the beautiful ones when I bought my first papaya but I liked her natural poise. I liked the way she talked to me, holding my gaze with never a flicker, sitting still as a statue as later we discussed English verbs. She was totally comfortable in her skin, as the French like to say. And her English, though far from perfect, was good enough for her to tell me her story and of her hopes and aspirations for the future.
She told me about her big sister Durian who had spent many years as a Buddhist nun in a temple before working as a chef in Phuket. She told me about how she was now living with Durian and Tong in their tiny room at the back of the beach, getting up to go to market most days at 4.00 am and selling food late into the night until there were no more customers on the street. Durian, the mother figure in her life, fifteen years her senior and still a strict Buddhist, imposed a firm discipline on her.
My first family trip out with them was to a big temple, Wat Bupparam to take offerings and to make merit for the next life. The four of us piled onto Tong's motorbike and sidecar which they used for carrying food from the market, and headed off along the steep roads of Phuket island. After burning joss sticks and milling around with the crowds, we bought a huge quantity of squid which we barbecued on the dirty patch of ground behind their room. As we gorged ourselves and drank beer, I couldn’t help noticing how desperately poor their living conditions were. I enjoyed their company and found myself coming closer to Cat, though I quickly sensed I was going to have to like her family too.
Our charade of language learning was soon forgotten and we sat and talked, mainly about her family and past life and about her village school in Ban Sawai. She told me how, as a good student, she went on to high school in Sangkha aged twelve, riding the dusty road on an old bicycle every day until at eighteen she left for Bangkok in search of work.
Soon she registered for an external degree at Ramkamhaeng University but as there was no money, the treadmill of low paid work was unavoidable. Proudly Cat showed me her staff cards for The Mall, Bangkapi where for several years she worked as a sales girl selling clothes. I saw photos of her with her fellow workers in the glitter of this consumer paradise, looking bright and optimistic despite her desperately low pay and lack of prospects.
She told me in graphic detail of more horrible jobs, such as the frozen chicken factory where she worked ten hour shifts, day and night at eight degrees Celsius, cutting chicken for export under the lash of the supervisor's tongue.
Then came her chance to leave Bangkok for Phuket to work with Durian and perhaps to make some progress with her degree. When I first met Cat, she had already passed half the overwhelming range of subjects that make up a degree in Political Science which was a major achievement
From the window of the hotel room where I was staying in Phuket, I could see their food stall, a rusty contraption on wheels with a dirty tarpaulin roof standing on the edge of the road in front of a half finished block of shops. Somehow they were always there from early morning to late at night, seizing every chance of a sale, chopping and slicing, pounding and grilling, braving the tropical heat and downpours that daily swept over them. It made me with my pension and eternal holiday feel something of a parasite and I was wondering how I was going to fit in with all of this. I would just have to go and find out.
Meeting a new partner is a momentous event whose significance is only apparent with hindsight. In contrast, meeting your girlfriend's mum is pregnant with meaning. I was now feeling distinctly queasy as I gazed around me early that morning inside a village house in Isaan and watched as the door slowly opened and the elderly figure emerged.