In my first few years of life I grew up in northern Thailand. Thai was my first language. My father is an anthropologist and he and my mother lived in Thailand for many years and first lived in a small village in the Isan province in the early 60′s. They made good friends with the shopkeepers living there, Mr. and Mrs. Ngao. These two helped my parents to settle into a small thatched one room house where they lived for a couple years. My father went on to teach about Thailand and Buddhism over many decades at the University of Washington.
Here are some pictures from their time in the village and also other parts of northern Thailand…
As I returned to the village over several visits I saw as the village dramatically changed. In the early 60′s the villagers had lived as they had been living for centuries, keeping a few farm animals, mainly farming rice by hand, making hand made clothes and practicing Buddhism with underlying animist roots.
Essentially they were living as a self-sustaining village with a few amenities of modernity. Though we may want to idealize this, there were serious challenges in the village. Rice farming is back breaking labor. My mom once told me of a story of how she had been working out in the fields with the villagers and she had said that this seemed like an idyllic life. One villager admonished her that she could pick and choose when to come and stay but for the villagers they had to do this work all their life.
Some of the villagers faced calorie deficits and there was no easy access to modern medicine if serious illness developed. But though there was strong physical hardship, the villagers were interwoven in centuries long traditions of practicing Buddhism, honoring the local monks and celebrating traditional holidays, often with rice liquor and traditional “khaen flute” music.
By the 80′s and 90′s I watched as the village became increasingly modern. Television, refrigerators and indoor plumbing arrived, dirt roads were paved and young village men and women began to leave for Bangkok and jobs abroad to make money. In 2005 when I last went back, the village had been emptied of most young people. The elderly and some children lived in the thatched stilted houses, waiting for the return of their family. Traditional food foraged from the streams and fields to supplement the primarily rice diet was often supplanted by processed snack food. For the first time I saw children who were overweight.
The radical change in village life saddened me. Modernity and changing economic conditions had deeply affected the villagers. Like many small towns and hamlets throughout the world, a great diaspora has occurred as young people flee to the cities to become the engine for economic growth. And yes while we shouldn’t idealize the challenges of pre-modern living, the empty Thai village has become emblematic to me of a world in crisis, where deeply woven traditions have been discarded for the promise of wealth or at least economic security. And often what truly happens is simply exploitation of the millions of new city dwellers, forced into cheap labor and high rents.
Looking at these pictures reminds me of a few things. They are recording of a time that is now long gone: the beauty and fragility of a traditional life based in community and the foundations of the local land and belief. It reminds me of a genuine desired for connectedness- my parents reaching out to build bridges with the Thai people, to strive to learn and understand and to connect with a common humanity while at home racism and civil rights issues were tearing the country apart. But it also reminds me of the great toll of modernity, where ancient ways of living have been torn and frayed by the pressures of global industrial capitalism. It reminds me of empty villages, and young men working in Dubai and Singapore to build the highrises for the wealthy, women working in brothels in Bangkok and children left at home for long periods with grandparents.
I think about this picture of Thai monks and Karen villagers in the late 60′s with some of the first trappings of modernity, a western umbrella. They are looking out at the camera and I wonder what they are thinking, what they are seeing, how they view their future. Buddhist monks spend much of their time contemplating impermanence, the suffering and sadness that all things must end. But they also turn away from the trappings of wealth and craving to sit in silence, to allow for a deep quiet to settle in, a silence that underlies and supersedes all our striving, anxiety and confusion.
So when I look at this last picture I understand that we cannot turn back the clock, but we cannot keep hurtling ahead at this breakneck speed, this terrible churning and hungriness that is quickly devouring the Earth and its traditional peoples. We have become like Hungry Ghosts, the Buddhist term for those souls who forever wander the afterlife with extreme thirst and hunger, with insatiable hunger that can never be filled. Our challenge is not to turn back the clock, but to find a way through this perilous time that honors the land, its people and honors our own beautiful trembling hearts.
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