For my thirteenth visit to Thailand, I was impressed by the number of Thai women I kept meeting who seemed to want to speak out about their personal lives. They are no longer content to simply follow the tradition of doing what is expected of them but to instead take responsibility for their own lives and do what is in their best interests. I am going to back track to my latest post entitled Chiang Mai – Post COVID where I met in the park next to where I was staying a lovely Thai woman who commented in almost perfect English that she ‘liked my toenails’. I actually could not believe she had said that because in the past Thai women have been reticent to talk to farangs (visitors from other countries) out of conditioning, shyness, or a bit of both. Managing to have a conversation to find out more about each other, I noticed she was smartly dressed prompting me to ask what kind of work she did. She replied that she was ‘just a housewife’ to which I answered that this was a job in itself. Pushing the envelope further, I dared to find out more about her life so asked what her husband did and if she had any children. She responded that her husband was a retired engineer and her son was eleven years old. Of course, she was bored because her husband just wanted to put his feet up after working so many years at a job that perhaps he never really liked but stuck with to be the provider that he was expected to be. While he just wanted to relax, she was ready to move on and do something with her life.
This is a familiar story in our western culture but not so much in the Eastern culture. There are probably many reasons for this but I can’t help wondering if it hasn’t got something to do with the success of Thailand’s main industry…tourism. Thailand has been a major attraction for tourists who want to experience the culture and sites that this part of Southeast Asia has to offer. The King of Siam’s hiring of Anna Leonowens, a British teacher, to educate his children way back in the 1880’s, precipitated a trend that contributed much to Thailand’s opening up to our western culture. The close relationship which developed between this adventurous woman and King Mongkut was immortalized in the 1956 hit musical The King and I with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. This part of Asia was gaining in popularity in both Europe and North America for its tropical climate and gorgeous beaches as a great place to escape from the cold of winter. Thailand quickly became a haven for the British tourists who discovered not only its beautiful beaches and warm weather, but a peaceful country with welcoming people who drove on the left side of the road just like they did back home. They loved it! They too had a ruling monarchy with a king who was loved by his people for the dedication he had for his role and country. As for King Mongkut, in return he took as much interest in the western world. Members of the Thai royal family and those who served them were encouraged to get their education abroad in the UK and the US.
There is something else we need to remember about the Thailand: it has never been ruled or dominated by another country. Viet Nam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and many other parts of Asia have all been at some point in time under the protection of a foreign country. If you go back into its history, Thailand has been invaded numerous times but never defeated. Does this not show how tenacious the Thai people have been and still are? It’s no surprise to see how COVID has tested their tenacity but through it all they have come out of it still smiling with a genuine desire to please those of us who want to come back and enjoy their beautiful country. However, it’s especially noticeable with the Thai women working in the tourist industry which comprises a huge part of Thailand’s economy.
I can only guess as to why I am meeting on this trip and not on previous ones, women who are beginning to stand up for themselves. Admittedly I am encountering those women who are running their own business whether it be in restaurants, running a hostel/hotel, or selling in a retail store or at a market. Of those women, many have chosen to do this on their own after many years of marriage and bringing up children. This was unheard of when I first traveled to Thailand in 2008. We were hearing the secret stories of how Thai women were treated by their spouses where there was alcoholism, physical abuse, or just plain disrespect and laziness where the wife was doing all the work. This is no longer the case. Over the years many Thai women have been servicing tourists and observing how many of the women were travelling on their own. Making an effort to learn more English, they gained the courage and the knowledge needed for them to see that they perhaps could do the same. What they saw was having an impact on them. Their eyes were opened to such possibilities for themselves. They had enough of staying with a ‘no good’ husband. They wanted to see the world like we western women were doing. So slowly they have been gathering up their courage to put a stop to this. Woman’s lib, if that is what you can call it, was beginning to take on a Thai way of life. Once their children were able to look after themselves with the help of a grandmother or some other family member and they could start making their own money to support themselves without a husband’s salary, they realized that they could possibly make it happen. I spoke to one woman who dared to achieve her dreams by working three markets in Chiang Mai with her clothing business to make enough money to own two homes. One home is now for her husband and some other members of the family, while she maintains a second home for herself and her daughter. This seems to be an arrangement that so long as the husband is taken care of by a mother or some member of the family, he’s happy enough to let his wife go to do her own thing. Thai couples don’t want to go in for long messy divorces but wish to remain at least as friends. Seems like a good example for some of our western families who have split causing multiple problems among the younger generation.
Language or the spoken word is such an important tool for really getting to know people of another culture. My Thai vocabulary is very limited and almost non existent after a three year absence despite some tutoring from a young Thai woman several years ago. None the less, this time here is opening doors for me to get to know more Thai women who have improved their English language skills. One young lady, Phyo, who has a good command of her English, has opened up to me about her past life history and how she has become what she is today which is the owner/operator of an inviting home based business of selling outstanding coffee and shakes from her front yard which she calls Sweet Home. Fortunately it was right around the corner from 2Cs2Sons where I was staying so I was one of her regulars going to her for my morning coffees. Although her business is little more than a month old and facing competition from the numerous coffee places on Samlan Road, she is gaining new customers every day. Sweet Home couldn’t be a more appropriate name for such a sweet lady.
It is only fitting that I share with you a little bit of Phyo’s life story as a refugee from Myanmar which probably explains why her English is so much better than that of most Thai not so much for vocabulary but for pronunciation. As most of the western world knows, Myanmar, once called Burma, was a British colony influencing the Burmese to adopt their English way of life which was expected by all the countries colonized by Britain. We also know how hard Myanmar has fought under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi to keep its democracy from being taken over by a cruel dictatorship which has been in power and keeping the country under its thumb for far too long. Phyo had to overcome the challenge of living amid such political instability as well as the loss of her mother at the early age of five and a father who was incapable of supporting his family due his severe alcoholism. Despite this unstable family background, Phyo was able to put herself through university thanks to an aunt who supported her dream to be a teacher when others did not. Phyo is married to a Burmese chap and has a lively three year old daughter who is learning three languages with help from Mom.
During my stay at 2C’s2Sons, I had a first rate view of a Thai family who revealed to me the true meaning of a family pulling together to run a business and provide a decent living for up to three if not four generations. The women far out numbered the men and were definitely running the show. They did the cooking and ran the restaurant on the premises. One of the grandmothers cleaned my room every Sunday. There was an older, white haired man who seemed to have adopted the role of overseer but actually appeared to be quite lost at times as the women bustled around carrying out their duties. The younger generation would hop on their bikes or motor scooters to take off for school after an early breakfast at their restaurant which was open to serve their neighbours and tourists as well. Unfortunately, English for those left to run the place was limited, making it difficult for me to find out how they were all related, what they all did while away for the day, or what their hopes and dreams were. I could only guess based on what I was seeing everyday which began early in the morning about 6 am. My room was downstairs where the restaurant and motor vehicles where located so I had a built in alarm every morning. Piyada, the only person who spoke English, had a job as a hotel manager elsewhere. She was in charge when I stayed at 2Cs2Sons three years ago before COVID and at that time was studying courses for her chosen role as a manager so she has fulfilled one of her dreams. She has two sons for which the compound is named but unfortunately, I seldom got to see her. Piyada’s cousin, an extremely capable woman, who seemed to be the most in charge was always in a helpful mood. Nevertheless, despite her limited English vocabulary, we somehow managed.
Another woman who made an impression upon me was Tia whose restaurant I spied on my second night in Chiang Mai as I was walking along Samlan Road searching for a small place with Thai food that looked inviting and had prices within my budget. Kebabs and Salads lured me in and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, it made such an impression that I told my friends about it who immediately wanted to give it a try. They weren’t disappointed either and came back several times to always be rewarded with a delicious and filling pita bun or tortilla filled with fresh veggies and a choice of chicken, pork, shrimp, or chickpea patties all for 100 baht which is about $4.00 Canadian and less in US dollars. Traditional Thai dishes are also available such as that famous Pad Thai, sweet and sour chicken or pork and many more. Although there are oodles of small mom and pop restaurants and street vendors all selling the most popular Thai dishes none seem to meet the standards of Tia’s restaurant where all this fresh and delicious food is cooked by her husband which I only found out she had at the last minute. He kept himself well hidden keeping us well fed.
There are so many Thai women who deserve to be lauded for their hard work and ambition to get more control over their lives. These ones I’ve shared with you in this post were the ones who are outstanding examples of such women because they were always there providing me with good coffee, great food, and a comfortable bed to sleep on. However, there were brief encounters with others whom I met on my forays to the numerous markets in Chiang Mai who will always be in my thoughts as well and they are pictured below.