When I think about the time we moved to our little piece of Thailand two years ago, I remember a certain amount of apprehension and uncertainty about how we would be received in the village. My wife Nok is not from here, so she was as much a stranger as me, or maybe a little bit less strange than me, but still a stranger.
After just over two years, I can say that we have received a very warm welcome, everyone has been very friendly and helpful, we have tried to reciprocate, always keeping in mind that we need our neighbours far more than they need us. Mae Mut seems to be a quite harmonious village, Nok says that her home village is not quite like this, distance from the city is one of the reasons, I think, and also the fact that there are still very strong family ties, which means that whatever work there is gets shared out quite evenly, the few people with little or no land end up working in construction, which seems to be going strong. A simple life, but no real poverty and no unemployment.
Respect for older people plays a very important part in Thai culture, people will generally be aware of the age relationship with whoever they are talking to and they will address them accordingly. Everyone has a real name which is hardly ever used and a nickname which is the name everyone knows them by, to this nickname is attached a prefix according to the age thing as explained above, Pee for an older person, Nong for a younger one, for older people the equivalent of Uncle, Auntie, Father, Grandmother etc. regardless of whether one is really a son, nephew etc.
Por Dom is (sort of) our neighbour, he looks after a small longan orchard that borders on our garden on behalf of an absent landlord, he grazes his cows there and generally keeps the place clean, he still works his rice field even though he is nearly 70, he’s a strong guy, last week I saw him lift a bag of cement by himself. As you can see from the picture, he is a cheerful soul, speaks in a loud voice and has always a joke ready.
The Thai government has a number of programs to help small farmers, from research stations that study different crops and appropriate technologies, to centres that are available for study visits and agricultural workshops. The link between the civil servants working in agriculture and the various villages is the Mohr Din, loosely translated as the soil doctor. One can be found in every subdistrict or village, it is generally a smarter farmer, with an interest in new solutions and a willingness to experiment and share his knowledge.
The Mae Mut soil doctor is Loong Leurn, he is in regular contact with the local agricultural office and will know for example when a new rice variety is available or where to get various (free) soil amendments or seeds, the government is keen to push organic practices and a competent soil doctor is a great help. In this picture Loong Leurn is holding baby Serena on the day we went to get sunn hemp seeds for growing before this season’s rice crop.
Loong Sombun is the unofficial vet of Mae Mut village, like the soil doctor, this is a job done on a voluntary basis. While not a university trained vet, Loong Sombun has a life long experience with farm animals and knows what to do in most cases, he gets most medications free from the government and gives out free vaccines for dogs etc. He is also the village treasurer.
The Thai village system is a good example of grassroots democracy in action, the village elects a head man every four years and regular meetings are held to discuss issues that affect everyone, from water access to drug enforcement to health services. Every village in Thailand receives one million baht a year to spend on infrastructure and how this money is spent is decided at village level. The headman is in charge of all infrastructure works, generally the yearly budget is used to buy materials while all the labour is done for free and everyone contributes his or her time accordingly. The local subdistrict office also holds stocks of things like roof tiles to be distributed free to repair any storm damaged homes.
In this picture the Mae Mut headman is addressing one of the regular village meetings which are always held at the local temple, with the senior monk also in attendance. Everyone refers to him as Por Luang, the big father, a reference to days gone by when the village headman was usually a very senior village elder. Our headman is a very active and competent one, everyone is satisfied with his work and he keeps being re-elected.