Monday, 1 August 2011

An idiot's guide to building a house in Thailand

When the men on their motorbikes finally came, black balaclavas pulled down over granite faces, guns tucked under sweaters, no one in the village was really surprised. Not even Cousin Daeng and Cousin Bum, who were laughing and tossing back lao khao, rice whisky, as the bullets scythed them down. Not even my wife's brother, Pi Met, who reportedly was next on the list.

Ah yes. The list. The list of 'drug dealers' proclaimed as holy writ by the Dear Leader, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. A list every bit as sinister and risible as anything dredged from the dark reaches of Kafka's fevered imagination.

As a matter of fact, Cousin Daeng and Cousin Bum were drug dealers. Sure, they sold a bit of weed to tourists looking for a toke or two. They sold the odd yaba pill too when the occasion presented itself, no doubt. But they were strictly small time. And they were also farmers, and home owners, and husbands, and fathers.

It was a still and sticky morning, barely past breakfast. Flies buzzed around the pooling blood as the makeshift ambulance collected the bodies. The local police didn't want to know. 'Take them to the temple,' they said. Cousin Bum's wife sobbed, crumpled and confused. Cousin Daeng's wife was away working in Bangkok to help pay for their daughter's school fees. Bum's kids ran in circles, wide-eyed, unsure if this was all a game.

And by now my wife was frantic. 'Honey, we have to pull down the house'. 'Pull down the house? What are you talking about? We haven't even finished building the house. And my parents are supposed to be coming to stay soon. Remember, those nice people who gave us the money to build it in the first place?'
'Yes, but you don't understand. They are going to kill my brother.'
'What? That's ridiculous. Your brother hasn't done anything wrong.'
'It doesn't matter. We've got to pull down the house, and he's got to go away for a while.'

My lips twitched with a thousand reasons why none of this could be real. But something in my wife's tone gave me pause. 'This isn't the time to argue. You listen to me. This is the time to shut up.'

How had this quiet village in the gently rolling foothills of Chiang Rai, with its shimmering rice fields and somnolent ways, become the scene of a reign of terror? There had to be some mistake. But there wasn't. This was the war on drugs. This was as real as it gets. And it was getting far too close to home.

I felt like someone was waging a war on my sanity, on two fronts. Even as our dream of home ownership in Bangkok was going to hell in a sticky rice basket thanks to a vicious ex-military conman who saw the stupid farang coming from a mile away, so our dream home in Chiang Rai, a painstaking teakwood recreation of the classic Lanna home my wife's grandparents had inhabited, was crumbling before our eyes.

A couple of months earlier, Thaksin had declared his fatwa on drug dealers. It hadn't seemed much more than a headline back then. Like some comic caped avenger, the Prime Minister boasted of how he could leap intractable social problems with a single bound.

Pi Met wasn't a drug dealer. He was the salt of the earth. In the five years I'd known him, the worst I'd ever seen him do was sell the odd illegal lottery ticket to supplement his meagre military pension. He was an ex-soldier, border patrol. He'd given the best years of his life for his country, and his left leg above the knee besides. On a dawn patrol one hot jungle morning on the Cambodian border, he had heard the terrible telltale click as he stepped on a land mine. He had waved his men away before taking the brunt of the blast. Now he hobbled about on a cheap fake leg that chafed at his bandaged stump. But he never complained. Just got a faraway look in his eyes sometimes.

He'd given the best years of his life for his country. And now that country wanted him dead. Because he was on the list. That fucking list.  What a joke.

Pi Met owned about 10 rai of prime rice land, roughly half way between Chiang Rai town and the Burmese border. He sold half a rai to my wife and I, at less than market value, so we could build our home. Some years earlier, he had sold another small parcel to a neighbour, who decided to renege on the deal. Money was owed. Face was lost. Words had been exchanged. Bad blood persisted, along with a state of cold war.

We will never know for sure. But it seems likely that this neighbour, jealous of the big teak house being erected on Pi Met's land, or simply suffused with spite, or perhaps both, had had a quiet word to the local constabulary. And now Pi Met was on the list. So he had to go away. And our house, our unfinished house, with its gleaming teak floors and rough-hewn teak clapboard walls and bueng wow
(kite-shaped) roof tiles and classic kalae, had to come down.


Friends and family pitched in. Each board wrenched from its frame twisted the knife a little harder in my heart. But each nail prised loose was likely one less in Pi Met's coffin. Within a couple of days, nothing but concrete poles and joists remained. The roof tiles were stacked in a friend's backyard shed. The timber divided up and stashed under canvas in the dark recesses beneath several nearby homes.

By the time the war on drugs ended, more than 2,000 'dealers' would have been summarily executed without trial, as many again arrested and jailed. Over 300,000 addicts would surrender and enter treatment programs.

The scourge of methamphetamine abuse is just as real and perhaps even more widespread today. Our Lanna house remains scattered over a smattering of backyards. Our Lanna dream lies in tatters.


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