And now for something completely different. The photo above, which is actually of Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, gives a hint to the central theme of this post in case the heading hasn’t given it away already!
One of the real joys of writing the blog is the number of people I “meet” from around the world through exchanges of correspondence and, as a result of detailing the building of our house, the many, many readers who have dropped in to meet both us and the house and share unique stories on their plans for living in Thailand.
Peter Ferdinand is an Australian who bought my eBook “Building a House in Thailand”, which you can also do HERE 🙂 and since then we have exchanged a few emails on various topics. In the last few days Peter has shared one of the most unusual and inspirational stories I have heard of a farang in Thailand and I thought you might be interested to read about his experiences. This media article from 2015 gives you a clue to one aspect of Peter’s story:
I find it a strange combination of circumstances that that coming from Australia, a country that battles huge fires every summer, Peter moves to Thailand and finds himself doing exactly that!
Peter lives in Lampang province, which is situated south of Chiang Mai in the northern part of Thailand surrounded on three sides by Myanmar and Laos. You can find more information thanks to Wikipedia HERE.
I will let Peter tell his story:
On a personal level, we had a rather busy March this year (2017) with forest fires. Things were pretty crazy for 4 straight weeks and in the end, all of our efforts were for nothing. The fires won, or should I say, the people who light the fires won. Our firebreaks failed in many places and near the end of March, the fires crossed our final line of defense for our local forest temple, Wat Mon Phraya Chae and the wind was pushing the fire straight towards the temple.
The Army gave me a platoon of soldiers led by a corporal who spoke some English so we had to try to clear an emergency firebreak to defend the temple. Even the monks came out to help us and after about 2 hours we had created a reasonable firebreak. The troops thought they were done, but I told the corporal to have a 5 minute break then were were going to head into the forest to fight the fires directly. One of his most frequent responses that day was, “Are you kidding?”. Every time we completed one task, I would let them rest a bit before pushing them on to achieve even more. I will give them credit though. They did everything I asked of them and they worked hard.
Facebook can be a very powerful tool sometimes. I would write long posts about our firefighting efforts which I published in the Lampang Facebook page and then my wife would provide a Thai translation. On one day, I posted some pictures of a helicopter configured as a water bomber that I saw a couple of years earlier and mentioned that it would really help our efforts if we could get this helicopter here. Sure enough what shows up a couple of days later? The helicopter. The Army even supplied a Bell 212 type helicopter with a water bucket as well on a couple of days but the main chopper was from the Department of Environment.
On one day, we were working the same fire so I got to observe the pilot’s skills up close and personal as he dumped his water over me. I had watched this pilot’s skills develop over the course of a week and by the end of the week, he was flying missions with great precision and without any wasted time. Because I was on the ground where he was dumping, I was able to observe how much he overlapped his dumps and how well they hit the fires.
On another night, there were still fires burning in the hills near Ban Sadet which is about 20km north of Lampang. I had my wife and two other ladies with me in the car while we went out chasing the fires. It is a bit of a hit and miss process driving in the dark using Google Maps and just good luck to find dirt roads that will lead you in close enough to the fires. On this particular night, the fires were quite bad with a fire front of several kilometres. We were trying to approach one fire and found ourselves on a narrow dirt road heading uphill and things were starting to get difficult. There was no turning around on this road, so I had to push on hoping to eventually find an area where I could turn the car. It is just as well it is a 4WD SUV as we were slipping around a bit due to the steepness of the road in some places. Every now and again, we would see glimpses of the fire as we slowly climbed the hill.
Then out of the blue, I found myself in the courtyard of a small forest temple. This was a perfect place to park, but not a good situation for the temple. The fires were within 50 metres of the temple and there was only a young monk there all by himself. So we deployed quickly and started to tackle the fires close to the temple and after an hour or so, we had managed to control them somewhat so we retired back to the temple to rest and wait for more help to arrive. The interesting thing was that once we arrived, the word got out to the local villages and as we were sitting there, motorbikes started arriving with locals and firefighting gear. This was a great relief as these guys were able to make a real dent in the fires. As much as I hate to admit it, at 55 now, I am finding it harder to fight fires in the steep terrain. I don’t have the stamina to work in the hills while fighting fires the way I did 2 years ago.
There was yet another temple that was being threatened by fires. At this temple, the monks had their own tractor and had cleared large firebreaks around most of their temple grounds, but the fire was coming at them from a different direction so they were bulldozing a firebreak and were asking for help. We had already been fighting fires near this temple for 2 or 3 days. This turned out to be an interesting day. Each year the government creates a “war room” to respond to the fires and the Governor of Lampang Province announced via Line that he was going to visit this temple to have a look at the situation in person. All of a sudden lots of people started to arrive at the temple to “help” but was mostly an opportunity to be seen by the Governor. I was deep in the forest when the Governor made his announcement and it took me over an hour to get back to the temple. I was following a trail to get back to another fire front when I came across the Governor walking out with some photographers in tow and my wife was there as well. So the Governor has a chat with me with my wife translating and the photographers busy taking pictures. The outcome of this was that the Governor promised that he would supply our volunteer group with some more firefighting gear which was greatly appreciated.
As the fires were reaching an end (or so I thought) the General in charge of northern Thailand decided to fly in with his personal Blackhawk chopper and check out the situation as well. I heard that while he was flying around the hills looking at the damage he asked “is the farang still fighting fires?” He knows me from a couple of years ago when he made a small presentation to me in front of the media to recognize my efforts to fight the fires. It seems that a lot of people have heard of me and people even come to help out just for a chance to work with me. Every time I come out of the forest, whoever I am with needs to stop and get a group photo with the farang for their Facebook pages.
I hope that it will be possible to meet with some of the government agencies responsible for looking after the forests and parks and try to help them develop strategies to mitigate the problem for next year. I have a feeling that we will have their support because we have the support of some of the major TV channels. My wife has the numbers for channels 3, 5 and 7 up here and they have ours as well. If you want to hear something crazy, when the TV crews find fires and don’t get a response from the government, they call us to see what we can do about the fires. So we end up with a group of volunteers responding faster that the government and then the news teams are following us into the forests to film it and get it on the news.
There’s an interesting YouTube interview with Peter, which you can watch below. It is a mix of Thai and English spoken words so stick with it. It is so motivating to see a westerner actually getting involved with the Thais in such a constructive way rather than settling into a more passive retired existence such as the life I and many like me lead.
This is Peter’s introduction to the video:
Krungthai Bank wrote a short story about me in their November page of last year’s calendar that they give out and Mazda spent an absolute fortune shooting a 15 minute video about the work that we do to protect the forests. They sent up a full production team and hired a famous celebrity to do the interview which aired on TV a while back. They were doing a series of these stories about different people helping their communities and the person who got the most views on YouTube would win a prize.
The video shows some of the work Peter does to get schoolchildren involved in forest management, which he described to me as follows:
What has been interesting is how far the stories spread within the Thai community. We had a team from Kasikorn Bank drive up to deliver some backpacks and other things to me at our local temple as a donation to help the children we teach. I’m not sure if I mentioned that my wife and I provide a free English class on Sunday’s to local kids. We teach the kids English using the environment as the main subject. They learn all about how trees take CO2 and give us oxygen and we take them into the forests to build check-dams, to plant trees and to see for themselves how much damage the fires have done to the forests. We explain how this affects the people in Bangkok with flooding because the hills can no longer absorb water as all of the topsoil gets washed away in the wet season because all of the grasses and small plants that hold the soil together get burnt out during the dry season. So the children get to learn English and learn about how they can help to look after the environment.
Next year, we hope to do things a little bit differently. We want to engage the Royal Forestry Department and Department of Parks in some meetings to discuss an overall strategy to see if we can reduce the impact of these fires in our area. Perhaps we can come up with a model that could be implemented on a wider scale.
And in a general observation about Thailand’s struggle to maintain its natural heritage Peter tells me:
I am not sure how much you travel around Thailand with your lovely wife, but I do a reasonably regular trip to Bangkok and also take the wife and mother in law to all sorts of places around Thailand, so in the dry season, the wife and MIL are looking at the scenery while I just tend to see the smoke plumes everywhere. Two years ago, I did a lot of driving around the northern provinces and it really looked like people were trying to burn all of northern Thailand into the ground. There were fires burning everywhere. If you drive at night and there are hills in the distance, you can see the long fire-lines burning at night which you just don’t really see during the day.
These fires are a major problem, not just in Thailand, but all over South East Asia and the solution is not as simple as I would like it to be. The more I learn about the reasons behind these fires, the more I realize that it is going to take a lot of effort to solve.
Just this last weekend, my wife and I went about 50km north of Lampang to Ngao to help the Department of Parks, locals and students to plant trees in an area where the forest had been encroached. The head of the local Parks office says that the local villagers have stripped 10,000 rai of forest land for their own use and the Department of Parks is in the process of investigating and reclaiming this land. It was an interesting experience. We had to drive very deep into the hills to get to this area. I could only take my 4WD half way and had to leave it at a village. Then it was into the back of a 4WD pickup with raised suspension for the serious stuff. We had to drive for almost another hour to get to the area that had been cleared and it really was in the middle of nowhere. If you were driving down highway 1, you would never see this set of hills and you would have no idea just how bad the encroachment problem is.
Thank you for sharing your story with me and others Peter.