Issue: 12.02 2/14/2011
by: Ken Klein
Reflections on my life in Thailand

Saying that I am not a practicing Jew might be a galaxy-sized understatement. But, I am a Jew, proud of my heritage. Surely you know others like me. You won’t see us at services, not even on holidays. Where I might differentiate myself is that I live in a small rice farming village in Central Thailand.

The first time I entered my soon to be wife’s village, I noted one interesting fact. This was a village with three temples and no Jews. Even then, I wouldn’t say that I had a calling, but that it seemed the most logical place to build a home as my wife is family oriented. This was her dream, and I didn’t really have any place-specific dreams at the time. And if they went to all that trouble to build the temples, it would be inconsiderate not to oblige. It reminded me of an old joke:

A passing ship finds a Jew stranded on a deserted island. He had been there for twenty years and had proven himself to be quite resourceful. They found a lovely home that he had crafted from indigenous materials. There was a workshop set-up and an outdoor kitchen. And behind his home were two religious looking structures.

“They are temples,” he explained.

“Why did you build two of them?” they questioned.

His face turned tight. He grew angry and pointed at one and said, “That one! I’ll have nothing to do with them!”

I do find myself at the temple for holidays. There are candles. There are processions. Incense is burned. Once a year there is a festival where the residents gather and walk around the temple three times. I like that holiday. It’s ritual. It’s a gathering. There is a buffet. And chanting, I like the harmonious sounds. People smile when they see me there as if I validate a part of their lives by attending. They all know me. My wife’s father is one of eleven siblings.

One of the temples is on a hill, tucked deep into the forest. I walk back in there sometimes. It is a meditative place to sit with a view over the rice fields. In the late afternoons the monks light a fire and pump herbal steam into a small sweat lodge that they built in the woods. I spritz and they make me a cup of herbal tea afterwards.

Sometimes, I think that Thai people are the lost tribe. They love shtick, and chicken soup is such a regular part of the diet that there is at least one specialty soup restaurant in near every village. Some have many as they compete for who makes the best soup. But, I am here for family and that carries obligations. They respect my need for solitude, but if you are alive, you get involved. Lately, I am driving nephews to special after-school classes.

I make a left turn out of my driveway and onto a thread road that takes me to the Asian Highway [pronounced AH-see-An] a mile down the road. Highway One runs through Central Thailand from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, connecting the major cities. Another left and I run ten miles up and five miles left to a small town where I daily take my nephews for extra schooling. One boy is nine years old and does not read well.

There is a ninety minute wait while the tutoring proceeds. I wander into the nearby town and walk about. Sometimes I walk the back country road where the school is located. To the west, rice fields flow into mountains, over and beyond lies the border to Burma. This is my desert island of sorts. There is not much to do, so I observe.

An older lady sits at a cement table in front of the school. She has a three wheel motorcycle that is about one third the size of a golf cart. A large basket strapped to the front is filled with snacks. There is a large basket on the rear, filled with soda bottles and an ice bucket.

A glass of soda, 5 baht [about 15 cents] a snack, 5 baht. I can’t help but wonder how much she makes on each as the children file out during the break in the class. I watch as she pours. Four cups equals the price of the bottle of soda. Maybe she can get 12 cups worth from a bottle. There is the cost of the ice and cups. I estimate that 50% is profit and figure the snacks at the same margin.

Mel Yahre was my business and personal mentor when I lived in the USA. When I had to face the trauma of firing an employee for the first time, I could call Mel. He understood, he had the answers and shared with sympathy and compassion offering experienced advice that went beyond business to life.

Mel would appreciate the simplicity of this ladies operation. After a minimal investment in inventory, she could open and close her business with little effort. Not more than five minutes and the entire enterprise could be tucked neatly in storage baskets until the next day. One price fits all makes life easy. The children might buy something before or after school as well as during the break, and she would be there, three hours a day. I can calculate her profit at between $3-$5 a day. This may not seem like much until you consider the realities of her world.

A meal in the local restaurant costs 60 cents. A field worker doing back-breaking work all day earns what she makes in only three hours. It’s a tidy business that deserves respect. There are no accounts receivable, no phone calls to uncollected debts, no electric or overhead, no waste, no employee issues, just a few cents profit with each sale and watch the children enjoy. That was what I saw. I knew if Mel were here with me, he would see the same thing. He would be making the same calculations. That is just what we do. A part of how we perceive.

I spent time walking trade shows in the USA with Mel when we were both making a more than decent wage from our labors. We looked at products, probable profit margins, creativity while calculating the difficulty of setting up the booth. We never discussed what car we might buy or the latest high end TV. If we purchased anything, it was more likely a funny neck-tie. After all these years, the shtick is more memorable than the cars we could have bought.

We walked the trade show and talked about what we might do if we had not been so fortunate. Mel told me he would walk along the side of the road and pick-up discarded tin cans to recycle – a few cents each.

There was a definitive appreciation of simplicity. Our lives were busy. Decisions were made daily. Complications and problem solving were a fact of life. There weren’t too many problems if you were picking up cans along the side of the road. The lady selling snacks and soda in front of the after-school school had it good. We held simplicity of life in high esteem, maybe because it was not easy to incorporate into our lives.

Lives get complicated. Even having moved to a rice farming village in Central Thailand, there are still chores. There are children to be driven to special classes. But, life here is much slower and affords time to relax and reflect. The lady selling the snacks has a peaceful aura about her. Imagining Mel here - brings him to me. I can see him making the same calculations that I did. I can hear him thinking the same thoughts. That is the lasting value of a friend and mentor. He would see the simplicity. He would nod in approval.

I return to my village on back roads, making a loop rather than return via the highway. Thin threads of road carry me through fields of rice and corn. Orchards fill with bananas and fruit. Farmers are returning home as the sky slides to light-orange dusk. The mountains fall to silhouette. The well behaved children drop off to sleep in the backseat. I can picture Mel sitting next to me in the front seat though I know the journey halfway around the world is an improbable trip. We have spent enough time together that having him here in imaginary form is not a stretch. Mel would sit quietly looking out the window. He would appreciate the peacefulness.

When I turn into our drive there will be a greeting from our dogs, reliably excited by the return. We live in a compound of four homes and three generations of knitted family. Life is a shared adventure. Someone will be roasting dinner, several dishes will be prepared. There is a never discussed division of functions. I have a car. I am the driver. Life is simple.

Ken Klein writes about life in Thailand. He can be reached at
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