Arriving back in Bangkok, after our holiday in Malaya, my dad was displeased to learn that he could not immediately dispatch me to my next school.
I was delighted, of course, to spend another two weeks with Mum, and we travelled on the overnight train to Ubol Ratchanthani, in the extreme northeast of Thailand. My father spent two years in *Ubol , as it was known, at a teacher training facility run by TUFEC: Thailand-Unesco Fundemental Education Centre. Aren’t you glad I told you?
(*Ubol, pronounced Ubon)
The Unesco staff and other teachers were accommodated on the campus of the centre, away from the town which was hot and dusty with a feel of the wild west about it. When you went into town you were never sure what eccentric or alarming things you might see.
My mother and I used to go into town in a samlor, the Thai variation on the Cambodian cyclo-pousse. You can see one in the forefront of the above photograph. The carriage was basically the same, but in Thailand the driver rode at the front.
At the time I was not aware, but somewhere in Ubol there is a memorial erected by former allied forces who were POW’s of the Japanese in WW2. The monument is in gratitude, for the assistance received in secret by the POW’s, from ordinary Thai citizens.
Interestingly, one of my father’s colleagues in Ubol was the widow of one of those POW’s who died on the so-called Burma Road. I don’t know if she was aware of the monument.
There wasn’t much to buy in Ubol itself, but I believe my father had a “contact”. Who this man was, or what he really did, I think everyone preferred not to know. At frequent intervals, though, he would turn up to talk to my father and soon my mother would squirrel away another luscious bauble. Gemstones were readily available in Burma and Laos. This “contact” of my Dad’s must have been a resourceful bloke, as I heard one time he actually smuggled baby elephants across some border or another.
As Ubol could furnish only the basics, Mum did most of her shopping in Bangkok and then hauled it home by train in a big scotch cooler.
The journey my mother took could be accomplished in an hour by air, but she opted to travel overnight instead, never mind the discomforts she often encountered during her frequent rail trips.
The train was often delayed due to obstacles on the track, water buffalo for example. One time, when the train was held up, a fellow passenger got out to go and check and returned looking a bit pale, with the upsetting information that the train had just run over a person.
Part of the difficulty in dealing with accidents was that if you got involved, you were assuming responsibility. Thus, even if the victim was still alive and in need of help, he might well die before anyone would assist. In the case of my mother’s train, presumably, it was more a matter of who would clean things up, which would have been a challenging task. In due course, though, the train proceeded and my mother, undaunted, still refused to travel by air, saying that her baggage would be deemed too heavy, which was certainly true, though it could have been managed.
There seemed to be a lot of very needy people in Ubol, and some of them were in a very bad way. There must have been a leper hospital in the area, and sometimes you would be accosted by someone who was missing various bits of his or her anatomy. I was not afraid, or revolted by these people. I just felt overwhelming empathy for them. I don’t think my mother ever gave them money. I am sure my father would have told her not to, just as he had instructed us both, on our first day in Cambodia, to tell beggars to “go away”. I always seemed to be able to put myself in the other person’s shoes. Except most of them didn’t have shoes, of course.
What I wanted to do was help, but once more, I felt impotent and useless. What could I really have done? There were so many causes in Asia. Where would one even begin?
Ubol was right on the Lao and Cambodian borders. When I was away at school, I got a letter telling me that the town had burned down one night. The blame was attributed to Vietnamese communists, but I don’t think it was ever proved.
Perhaps the fire that leveled Ubon Ratchathani was a blessing. It got a chance to start literally from scratch. From what I read on the Internet it is now on the tourist map with a large number of attractions and fancy hotels. It’s a little hard to imagine. Quite a few of the attractions are historical and natural and would have been available for exploration in the 1960’s, but sadly I never heard any of them mentioned.
The campus where our house was located was remote and without transport, there was nowhere to go, so I entertained myself talking to Tong, our sweet gardener. When I cleaned my shoes, I used to chase him around the garden with the Shinola pad. I didn’t intend to paint him with it, but for some reason he always ran when he saw me coming!
One evening as I went into my bedroom I heard a noise like a sudden downpour and I went to the window to discover I could not see out.
We were being invaded by flying ants. They poured in through all the cracks and under the door. They were everywhere, in our hair, down our necks, crawling all over everything, in a frenzy of sex and then shedding their wings which were impossible to contain.
I did not sleep well that night as the wingless creatures still seemed to be everywhere, including my bed.
Tong, however, was delighted the next day to see all this mess under the house which was on stilts. He managed to collect up the now deceased ants and cooked himself up a meal that seemed to please him a great deal.
The house was surrounded by trees and some were big jackfruit trees which had large, thick leaves. Red ants used these leaves to create their nests which were the size of a football. When Tong spotted one of these nests, he would get a long stick and wrap a thick cloth around one end which he then set on fire. He would hold the flame beneath the nest until it came unraveled, so that a great stream of ants fell out. These were collected in a bowl and made into Tong’s lunch.
Sometimes when you flushed the toilet in that house, ants would fall out instead of water. At night you listened to creatures in the ceiling. It sounded as if they were holding trotting races. We had rats as big as cats in the store room and there were plenty of snakes, some of them poisonous and sometimes you would see them winding their way up the railing toward the house. Then someone would go in through the back door and dissuade them with a long-handled brush.
I was quite fond of this wasp, however. He started to build a nest on the brick wall by the dinner table. He didn’t attempt to hurt anyone and I soon noticed that when we opened the front door in the morning, the wasp was waiting with a little ball of mud. He would fly straight to the nest and mold it gently into place. When he was done, I followed to see where he would go and I saw him fly down to the flower bed beneath the stairs to roll together another mud ball.
The wasp nest was still there when I left for the last time. I think he taught me to be interested in the really small inhabitants of this world.
Apart from the various creatures that shared our campus, there were other things that made the place a bit creepy. Outside my window there was an enormous bamboo thicket. The creaks and groans bamboo makes take getting used to. The smallest wind would set it going. Which was all fine when Mum and Dad were home, but one night they went to a party leaving me home alone. Given that we lived in a wooden house, there were always noises, quite apart from the wretched bamboo. At night it was very dark. And it was well known that houses were constantly broken into.
By the time my parents got home I had worked myself into a frazzle, thinking constantly that someone was creeping up the stairs. Which made me unreceptive of my mother’s somewhat unusual, inebriated state. There I was, all in a state of nerves and all she could do was giggle. My father appeared sober but I would never expect sympathy from him.
If my parents were away for a few days, dear old Tong was recruited to sleep under the house, presumably to discourage thieves. Maybe he would have chased them away, although sometimes they came armed. One time my father inadvertently scared one off and later found a small sickle where the man had dropped it. A very nasty-looking item.
There were other interesting things, such as the day when the maid servants and gardeners all seemed excited. My mother inquired to know what it was all about and was told that the next door gardener had had a fit and it was because a pi had jumped out of a kapok tree into him. (A pi is a spirit) The big problem about that was that pi’s don’t live in kapok trees. Well. Somehow it all resolved.
There was always something going on. Just as long as we all stopped at four o’clock every day to wave good night to Tong, as he pedaled off on his bicycle. He would always call out “Goo Nig!” and you just had to run to the window to wave and to respond. “good night Tong!”
Bless you, Tong. You were one of the nice people of my childhood.