A tale of the simple life in Issan with a bit of financial debt, drug dealing and machete-swinging thrown in.
Ever since my first visit back in 1987, I had visited Thailand dozens of times before moving there with my family in 2011. Each time I came, I saw something new that fascinated me to the point of believing that no other place could hold a candle to this magical Kingdom. Of course, I was wearing the proverbial orchid tinted spectacles most of the time.
When we moved from the UK to India and then on to Thailand, I firmly believed that I had made the right move for myself and my wife and son. We’d said goodbye to dismal Britain and were here to stay. What follows is an excerpt from my first book, Bangkok to Ben Nevis Backwards, and it covers a fairly torrid time when those original beliefs start to transform into a rather stark reality that bears little if any resemblance to what I believed was what this country stood for.
Here's a list of the characters in this real life drama:
Jum – My wife
Yai Kit – her mother
Yai Dee – her Aunt
Tom – My son
Yai Leeuw – Yai Dee’s girlfriend
Megan – Our West Highland Terrier
One of my weaknesses, and also Jum’s, is that we tend to be a little too soft and never seem to learn from our mistakes. Okay, I’m mainly talking about when dealing with those people who are born to take advantage. So let’s look at Jum’s family. Not a great track record to be honest, and we always ended up being taken for a ride.
I’ve already spoken about the land issue, thanks to the Three Bitches, but that doesn’t even come close to what happened next.
A few days after the fish and spider floor show, I could sense that Yai Dee had started to get bored of us living under her roof. Our house was still being built, and I could not wait for the day that we finally moved in. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated her hospitality and all, but this was a tiny house and the two not-so-young lovers probably needed their personal space back.
The only thing holding up the builder’s progress was Yai Dee herself, who insisted on overseeing literally every swing of the hammer – and she wasn’t slow in coming forward as far as criticism was concerned, either. We lost two complete teams of builders thanks to her vile tongue, and I had long since given up trying to influence the way that our house would be built; she knew best apparently.
We’d tried looking at local schools for Tom, and I had also been to look at a few with a view to starting my teaching career. Neither exercise was entirely fruitful and we’d decided to wait until the house was built, most probably rent it out, and then move to the city for better prospects. We’d kept this plan quiet from Yai Dee because we weren’t sure how she would take to strangers living next door.
One lovely morning, after going to the local temple for prayers, I was starting to speculate how she’d react to this news when I heard a wild screaming that told me I’d not have to worry any more. She already knew!
Jum had been speaking to her friends in Kalasin about schools and housing, and Yai Leeuw had been eavesdropping. She’d reported directly back to her surly paymaster, and all hell was being unleashed. Although I had a basic understanding of Thai and knew more than my fair share of swear words, there were dozens of new ones suddenly ringing in my ears on that peaceful Isaan morning. Even the builders had stopped their work to listen – not that they usually needed an excuse!
Jum was forced to listen as Yai Dee called her all the names under the sun, and a few that came from a far darker place. She then started picking up stones and throwing them in Jum’s direction. As one of them hit my wife square on the forehead, I intervened and shoved Yai Dee hard enough to knock her over. She then tried to pick another stone up, more like a rock, and had a mad look in her eye that scares me to this day.
She never got the chance to throw it because Tom stood in-between us, and one of the builders restrained her. ‘Phil, we have to leave!’ Jum was stating the obvious but within twenty minutes we’d removed all traces of our belongings and relocated to her mother’s house. Bizarrely, Jum and Yai Kit were on better terms and if anything, this had made their relationship a little less shaky. I was furious, and what made matters worse was the fact that I was due to fly to Bangkok a few days later for a 3 week TEFL training course. I’d already paid about £700 for this but now I felt as if I needed to stay.
As we discussed this potential nightmare, Jum’s phone rang and her face turned from a frown into a beaming smile as she shared the news. ‘Megan is at the airport!’
Amidst all the chaos we had yet again forgotten about the fourth family member. We’d planned to house her at Yai Dees, but that wasn’t going to happen now. Yai Kit wasn’t a dog lover, but despite this she had Jelly and Euro, both Thai mongrels whom we loved.
Two hours later myself and Jum were at Kohn Kaen airport in the cargo section. It had been nearly two months and the bill was horrendous, but we didn’t care. Maybe now we could start to function as a family once more!
Here was my latest list:
1. Collect Megan (obviously)
2. Find somewhere to live in Kalasin city
3. Job and school for me and Tom
4. Sell or rent our house once built
It was more and more obvious that I hadn’t really thought things through – plus I still had to sort out our bank card issues with our UK bank. There was less than £1,000 in my account by now, and I still had to pay the builders.
My thoughts were interrupted by an approaching airport cargo vehicle beeping its horn. The side doors swung open and there she was – our darling Megan! She instantly recognised me, and the weirdest bark was emitted as I approached her and waited for the airport employee to open the cargo case we’d bought back in the UK. She darted straight past me and into her mistress’s arms and I looked on as the mutual admiration club made up for lost time.
Her voice had all but disappeared thanks to a mixture of stress and barking too many times, but apart from this, Megan Hall was in good health and we drove back to Ban Mai Chai with the missing piece of the Hall family jigsaw puzzle finally intact. Yai Kit was non-plussed when we introduced Megan to her, but the family dogs were quite friendly with Megan and before long she was following Jum everywhere she went, just like old times!
It was New Years’ Eve and I couldn’t wait to say goodbye to 2011. A somewhat bizarre 365 days and although most of it hadn’t panned out too well, I really hoped that the next set would be a little kinder to us all. I decided that I had better pack for my trip to Bangkok.
Note – at the time of this event, I firmly believed that I was required to complete a 3-week TEFL course before I could start teaching. I held a bachelor’s degree from the UK and had also completed an online TEFL course but was inclined to believe that I needed more for teaching in a government school.
We didn’t bother celebrating the New Year, and the next day I rose early to prepare for my flight and onward journey. I had already booked a hotel room in Bangkok for seven days, and would look for cheaper lodgings after a few days into the teaching course.
The school term ended in March and this was the best time to look for a teaching job. This would be the first time that I’d be alone in Thailand since being married, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a little bit excited. I really hoped that everything would run smoothly back at the ranch – surely they could behave until I came back, couldn’t they?
My brother-in-law, Lot, drove me to the airport and I said a slightly tearful goodbye to Tom and Jum before climbing into the old pickup. We’d bought this for Jum’s father about seven years ago, and since his demise nobody had even cleaned the poor vehicle. Less than four hours later I was in Bangkok and had checked into my new home for the next week or so. I called Jum and she wasted no time in telling me to look after myself and to stay away from any bars or massage parlours… as if?!
How could she even think that I would be interested in this seedy side of Thai culture? The very cheek of the woman! Then she went on to say that Yai Dee had moved the boundaries separating our land from hers, and had reclaimed around 20 metres of it!
I was furious but warned my wife not to do anything hasty. In fact, she should wait until I returned because that old bag would have done this deliberately to provoke Jum into kicking off. Yai Dee had a history of violence and rumour has it that this evil old witch had previous form for stabbing people!
Of course, my advice would be ignored; it usually was.
My hotel was based on Sukhumvit road, a lively tourist area, so I took a shower and headed out for a few refreshing beers. When I say a few, I mean about seven or eight; I kind of lost count, and enjoyed this rare slice of freedom. The next day I awoke with a mild hangover, and for the first time in three months I pulled on a pair of smart trousers and a shirt and tie. By the time I had reached the MRT station, I was sweating like a stuck pig. Jesus it was hot, probably close to 40 degrees and not even 8 a.m. – how would I cope when I started teaching?
Thankfully the train was nicely air conditioned and I played Spot the Foreigner, as I soon realised that most of the travellers were Thai and they seemed to be copying their British counterparts on the London tube. If you’ve ever taken the tube, you’ll know what I mean when I say that to a man, or woman, each of these commuters was engrossed in the daily newspaper, and conversation was non-existent. Same-same, but different.
Following the printed instructions, I changed trains at Siam and hopped on the Bang Wa line before jumping off at Si Lom station. The entire journey had only lasted twelve minutes, and the TEFL offices were just over the road from the station.
As I reached the front door of the offices I felt the vibration of my phone in my back pocket, and delayed my entrance to answer the call. The receptionist briefly looked up from her breakfast without making eye contact, and quickly went back to chowing down as I heard my son’s frantic voice on the other end of the line.
‘Dad, Mum has been stabbed!’
‘Tom, calm down and tell me what happened?’
My son breathed deep, then told me that despite my own advice, Jum had gone to Yai Dee’s house early this morning with several family members, including Bitch Numbers 1 and 2. There she had physically uprooted the boundary posts and returned them to their original positions. I could tell what would have happened next.
Yep, Yai Dee had then appeared with her girlfriend and a huge shouting match had ensued. At the peak of this verbal battle, Yai Dee had marched straight up to my wife, produced a large machete from out of nowhere and had aimed a strike directly at Jum’s head. Jum had apparently raised her left arm and managed the block the strike. The machete had gone deep into her arm just below the elbow joint. Yai Dee then twisted the machete until the bone cracked.
Not a single family member had stepped in, and as my wife fell to the ground her assailant calmly removed the blade and returned to her house, lesbian girlfriend in tow.
‘Tom, where is Mum now?’
He said that he alone had arranged for Jum to be taken to the nearest hospital, and that was where he was calling from. She had lost a lot of blood but was now stable, Thank God.
A sudden voice made me look up, startled. ‘Are you Philip Hall?’
A middle-aged European man was watching me with a concerned look on his face. Somehow, I managed to speak. ‘My wife has been stabbed, I have to go…’
Without waiting for an answer I turned around and returned to my hotel. I tried in vain to get a refund for the unused nights packed up and jumped into a taxi. I’d probably lose the money from the TEFL course and more besides.
Why, oh why, did this have to happen right now? Of course, when an emergency happened I usually started blaming people before I calmed down. Despite the terrible nature of this scenario, I reverted to type and cursed my bad luck. It was only when the plane had landed in Kohn Kaen that the full force of the attack hit me. My wife could have died, had she not reacted so quickly! Then I started to blame myself.
Why hadn’t we stayed in India? Why hadn’t we stayed in the UK? I began to piece together the whole sorry set of circumstances that had led to this near-tragedy:
1. The debts – my fault.
2. Selling our home to pay the debts – also my fault.
3. Choosing to come to India – my fault.
4. Giving up on India – my fault.
5. Coming to Thailand – my fault.
Okay, it wasn’t me who swung the machete, neither was it my fault that dear old Dad had Dementia, but everything else – my fault.
How could I make everything right? So far it was all losses and practically zero wins.
I hailed a taxi and during the two hour journey to the Kalasin municipal hospital, I had plans and lists going through my mind like never before. This terrible event had put a hold on everything, and it struck me how much I loved and needed my dear wife. What would we do without her? Jum had been the rock in my life that I so badly needed.
As the taxi ploughed through the Isaan countryside I noticed the rice fields and saw that they were a hive of activity, with hundreds of labourers hunched over picking up the harvest. Jum had been born from this very stock, and it was the same people who had very nearly ended her short life.
Then I started to feel anger and hatred towards her auntie; I had given this woman the benefit of the doubt so far, but that had been a big mistake. Once I established that Jum was okay, I would do my utmost to deal with Yai Dee. I would give my all to this mission, because this vile woman deserved punishment and she was going to regret her actions for the rest of her life!
Finally we arrived at Kalasin Municipal Hospital. There were dozens of people sitting in the Outpatients area, and I noticed one poor fellow had what could only be described as a six foot metal pole protruding from his skull! He had a buddy who was holding the object, and I could only imagine how that had happened. Thailand was not at all health and safety conscious, and this hospital bore testament to that fact.
Apparently Jum was on the 3rd floor, and I called Tom’s mobile for directions. A few minutes later I saw my 13 year old son rushing towards me; I could see that he had been crying. As we hugged he told me that Jum’s family hadn’t even come to the hospital with her – in fact, Bitch Number 2 had made a joke about how overly serious Tom was being about the whole attack!
This was the very same woman to whom we had given 30,000 Thai baht a few years earlier to set up a business with her boyfriend! (I say ‘given’ because when you lend money in Thailand, you may as well consider it a gift because you’ll never see it again.) The business had been quite successful – until the police had become involved.
Unbeknownst to us, The Bitch and her boyfriend had used the funds to buy a shedload of methamphetamine tablets and set themselves up as the premier drug dealers in Ban Mai Chai and the surrounding villages. They were quite the entrepreneurs right up until the point where they tried flogging their wares to an undercover cop. Her boyfriend went to prison; this was at a time when the government was cracking down on criminal behaviour. We then received another call for help because if he didn’t come up with 20,000 Thai baht in the next week, he’d probably be jailed for twenty-five years. Thailand does not muck about when it comes to sentencing, but their law enforcers are fairly open to the odd financial deal.
Of course, being the softies that we were, we dug deep and stumped up once more. So if you were wondering why I had issues with Jum’s sisters, hopefully this will clarify things a little! Now, as we walked into the small hospital room, I could see my wife laid up in bed. She looked as pale as I had ever seen her. The golden skin that had attracted me to Jum in the first place was now looking sallow and unhealthy. She still managed a weak smile, and I did my best not to show my concern.
A few of her old friends were in the room and these good people had been helping Tom look after Jum since her arrival. Family? Nowhere to be seen. Despite their poor track record, I struggled to come to terms with their behaviour.
Jum had lost a lot of blood and had already endured a long operation, during which the surgeon placed a metal pin in her elbow to assist the healing. The cut had been so deep that it had pretty much sliced through her bone, and the way that Yai Dee had twisted the machete had snapped the remainder as if it were a twig. ‘Have you spoken to the Police yet?’ I asked Jum – stupid question, because how could she have? She needed rest, not the added stress that I was creating. But when you have nothing but plans and hope, this type of horrific incident scatters them to the wind, and my head was hurting as a result. In my heart however, I had one thing in mind.
I didn’t even know how yet, but I would make Yai Dee accountable for this murder attempt. It was now my only real objective.
Apologies for what probably seems like too much information, I wrote the book after my stint at teaching in Isaan and much of it was written in a different frame of mind to how I feel now.
The next excerpt will show exactly why my opinion of this country changed so dramatically and I do welcome your comments about both this section and the next, hopefully to be continued…
Thanks for reading my words and if you’re interested in my book, it is now available from Asia Books in shops all over Thailand.
Phil Hall was lucky enough to teach at a government school in Isaan from 2012 to 2013 and thoroughly enjoyed this experience. He also has a book published called Bangkok to Ben Nevis Backwards.
It takes the reader on a journey from the UK to India and finally Thailand. Debts, Dementia, poorly planned emigration, self discovery, family bonding and attempted murder are all part of the highs and lows of this 18-month true tale. This is an excerpt from the same book with a few alterations.
Visit Phil's website / Visit Phil's Facebook page
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The best advice I have ever heard concerning Thai women came from a drunk man in a bar. "If you're going to marry a Thai woman, make sure she's an orphan."
By Steve Schertzer, Thailand (14th November 2018)
Really appreciate the comments everyone :)
Part two is in a week's time but I know that you all will 'get' what happens.
Aaron - thanks man :)
By Phil Hall, Oxford (20th October 2018)
Phil; that wasn’t Thailand you were in, it was hell. Your tale of woe, although at the extreme end, echoes that of every chalkie I’ve met in Thailand who tried to ignore culture. In every country in the world, foreigners tend to congregate in national and cultural groups and there’s a reason for it. :)
By John V, Thailand (19th October 2018)
Mate just bought the Kindle version on Amazon and read through it within 24 hours. I had a blast reading it! It's a very heartfelt and endearing tale, and glad to see a fellow chalkie sharing their story.
By Aaron, Incheon, Korea (16th October 2018)
Case in point, keep the leeching family at arm's length from Day One. Give them NOTHING, because they will only expect more and never show one ounce of gratitude for it.
By Tony, Surat Thani (13th October 2018)
What? No ladyboy in the family? Then it would be your genuinely average Thai family.
By Michael, Denmark (13th October 2018)
Good writing. His life up country sure was interesting.
By Ryan, Bkk (13th October 2018)
My sincere advice is to get your family and yourself out of that province as soon as possible.
When irrational people can't think properly, they always resort to violence.
Even if you have to accept some kind of social welfare for the time being, at least your family and you will still be alive.
I am not being dramatic when I say, consider yourself lucky to be alive.
By Bob Johnson, Bangkok (12th October 2018)