Changing Thailand, Not Changing Thailand: Of Water Buffalo, Work Elephants, and Cultural Persistence

Karen Connelly was a Rotary Exchange student in Phrae Province, northern Thailand, in 1986-1987 as a 16 and 17 year old. She published an enchanting memoir about her experiences in Phrae Province Dream of a Thosuand Lives: A Sojourn in Thailand in 1993, a book that won the coveted Governor General’s prize for Canadian Literature.  I can indeed understand well why the book won the prize.  Her descriptions of Phrae bring alive the world of northern Thailand in the 1980s.  She describes well work elephants, water buffaloes, rice fields, the unusual food she ate (chicken feet!), and the beautiful Buddhist temples. Accordingly, I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in Thailand, living abroad, exchange students, or culture shock.

But most effective are Connelly’s descriptions of her relationships with the Thai people she met: her host mother, Rotary Club “fathers,” teachers, friends, and others she met during the year.  In her description, Connelly relates well the difficulties in learning the Thai language, and adapting to the culture of Thailand.  Her capacity to do this in my view is outstanding—and I have special knowledge of this too, because I also lived in Phrae in the early 1980s.  In my case I was a 22-24 year old Peace Corps Volunteer.

Admittedly, when I lived in Phrae, I was different: a little older, and of course male.  Nevertheless, Connelly’s description of life in Phrae, and especially the playful relationships she established with the people of Phrae resonated deeply with me.  So did her frustrations with being a young expatriate in a sea of Thais, as she struggled to learn a difficult language, while dealing with the many stereotypes Thai had about farang, Canada, and the rest of the world.  We also shared a need to separate ourselves from the enthusiastic sociality of Thai society and bury ourselves in books, writing, walks, daydreaming in order to satisfy the western need for a solitude which was inevitably interrupted by Thais concerned that we were “lonely.”

I do though take exception to one point that Connelly makes in an introduction to the book she wrote for the American edition in 2001.  She claims that the world she observed in Thailand in 1986-1987 is now in the past, irretrievably so.  In large part this is because indeed, the charismatic elephants, water buffalo, and rural lifestyles that so enchanted her are disappearing from Thailand. I returned to Thailand in 2010 and 2011, and can agree that this is indeed the case.  There are indeed no more water buffalo in the fields—they have been replaced by various kinds of diesel-powered tractors. (Thai farmers have let me know that the “metal bufallos” are a lot easier to take care of then the real thing, less ornery, and can plow longer without rest and a wallow).  Really all that remains of the enchanting parts Connelly described during her Rotary year are the Buddhist Temples, and the ubiquitous monks in their orange robes. The charismatic elephants are around, but mainly for tourists to whom under-employed mahouts sell rides; no longer are random work elephants found walking down the road, as they were in the 1980s.

But in my eye, the really important things about northern Thailand have not changed as much as she claims.  Especially, the very human elements that Connelly describes so well are still evident.  There is still a playfulness in the relationships between people that is uniquely Thai.  There is also an open curiousness about the rest of the world couched in many of the same stereotypes Connelly and I dealt with in the 1980s.  The Thai are also just as quick to laugh, and have fun.  I suspect that they are just as quick to worry about expatriates who enjoy the solitude of a walk, or time alone with a notebook writing letters and diaries, too.