The new novel by Andrew Hicks
My Thai Girl and I
How I found a new life in Thailand by Andrew Hicks
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.
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.
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?