Saturday, 16 July 2011

You can choose your friends ...

Getting married the second time around has brought me one blessing ... I was spared the curse of the Mother-in-Law. This is because my Thai wife, who will be known in this blog as Ouam, was snatched by her dad as a baby, wedged into his bicycle's carrier basket and pedalled out of a Chiang Rai hick town as fast as his bandy legs could propel him amid a hail of ancient Chinese musket fire.

So my wife didn't really ever get to know her mother. Not that it stopped her dad trying to provide plenty of substitutes. At last count he was up to official wife number five - although apparently there are at least that many again in the many hilltribe villages he used to visit as a peripatetic doctor.

My wife comes from a colourful clan, and they've provided me plenty of fodder for stories over the years. Take her father - or as he's better known in the hills around Mae Sot, in Thailand's wild west province of Tak - "Mo Kee Mau'' or "The Shit Drunk Doctor''. He had a penchant for a tipple, you see, or at least he did until the booze almost did for his liver. After that, he sensibly switched to valium, of which he prescribed himself an inexhaustable supply. Of course, a man with a wife in every village must be in need of some serious relaxation - imagine being nagged at in six or seven dialects. He also apparently has lung cancer, although I've never seen any proof, and he's still going fairly strong while enjoying the odd crafty wheeze on the occasional fag.

He had other good reasons to want to numb the pain. When he was a young man, he was hit by lightning. A friend perished. He survived. Local lore has it that he was never quite the same after that, and some of his more erratic behaviour over the years has supported the theory that he's a few prawns short of a pad thai. (He comes to stay every once in a while, on an endless shuffling circuit around siblings. Generally he is sweetness and light for the first few days, then a mischievous, irascible and increasingly impossible bastard thereafter. By the end of week two, he has usually effected the first of his escape attempts. After the second or third time hunting him down in Bangkok's backstreets, my wife will throw the mother of all tantrums and ship him off to whoever's turn it is next.)

The Shit Drunk Doctor is a dangerous chap to be around, it seems. Long after the lightning strike, he was part of a government anti-malaria team that was kidnapped in the hills of Umphang, a stunning tourist destination on the Burmese border which was once a hotbed of the communist insurgency, its picturesque hills full of guerillas in the mist. Anyone interested can read about his abduction and my efforts to reunite him with the boy soldiers who executed three other doctors in the team in this article I wrote for Time:,9171,457391,00.html

There's also this piece I wrote,9171,268237,00.html in which my wife and I retraced the steps of her great-grandmother, who left her home in China's southern Yunnan province to walk to Thailand with her parents. We managed to track down the King of the Dai, who pointed us in the right direction of the village her ancestors hailed from. A tearful meeting ensued. And I got to see from where the Shit Drunk Doctor and others of his clan had inherited their thirst for lao khao (rice whisky).

There are plenty of other colourful characters related to my wife dotted around the northern provinces of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Lamphang and Lamphun. I spent one lost weekend making lao khao with an uncle who was the village's official moonshine man. I met the crooked former senior police general, who fed me beer for breakfast as he sheltered from mafia types he'd double-crossed behind a 12 foot barbwire-topped fence, enjoying the fruits of his retirement - or rather, the "inactive post'' to which he'd been transferred. I met the clan's illegal loggers, who used to take my wife out into the forests to hack down venerable teak trees on moonlit nights. There was the iron-fisted auntie who parcelled the family's extensive rice fields into ever smaller plots to be doled out to dissolute nephews and nieces with bad attitudes and gambling problems. And the cousin living in breast-beating, garment-rending seclusion after her farang husband ran off with their 14-year-old maid.

With a Shinawatra looking likely to reassume the reins of power in Thailand, I've also been recalling the dark days of Thaksin's War on Drugs. My wife and I love all things Lanna, and were enthusiastically building a traditional teakwood Lanna home (with legal wood, I hasten to add) in the village where we have some land just outside Chiang Rai city. However, our ardour cooled after two cousins were gunned down by balaclava-clad thugs on motorbikes two doors down from where we were building the house. No one disputed they were yaba dealers, but still. The house remains unfinished, and with a new War on Drugs being mooted, may remain so for the foreseeable future.

My wife also went to high school with some real crackers in Mae Sot. I remember passing through this Wild West town one Songkran on the way back from covering the annual bareknuckle boxing match between some of Thailand's and Burma's hardest men. We pulled up to the abode of one of her high school buddies whose parents dealt in gems from Burma, where a high school reunion party was to take place. Their home was a three storey French chateau replica boasting acres of marble, family portraits in oils, and teak floorboards wider than my waistline. At midnight, her friend roared out of the garage astride his Harley Fatboy and wove in and out of the tables, shooting real bullets skyward and ululating like a Basra housewife.

Life in Thailand is never dull when most of your inlaws are outlaws.

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