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Yesterday I enjoyed the slightly odd combination of spending the morning hosted by the Thai army and then the afternoon wandering through some of my favourite wats (temples) close(ish) to the army base. I started out thinking that both topics would fit into the one post but since then I have split it in two with the army experience in this post and the next one called The Wats of Loei to be published shortly.

For those of you who follow my Facebook entries about my life in Thailand you will already know that Gaun’s younger sister’s son Game was recently conscripted into the army for two years shortly after his 21st birthday. My entry at the time read:

Conscription is alive and well in Thailand. Young men on turning 21 are required to report to their local Amphur (a government office) on a nominated day and participate in what Gaun calls a “Lucky Dip”. Balls are selected from a bowl and if the colour is black you are free to go but if red then you are in the army for the next two years. Unfortunately we were out of town when this was happening so I missed out on the photo opportunity.

I only raise this because Yuan’s son Game (Yuan is Gaun’s younger sister) had to undergo this process just before Songkran (Thai New Year) in early April and he ended up with a red ball much to his dismay but the general delight of the family. He is a bit of a playboy and the feeling is that the time in uniform will settle him down. We will see.

Game with Peng at his farewell party at the family home. He has since lost that haircut as you will see shortly!

The first three months of basic training are pretty intense with all phones, money and cigarettes being confiscated and almost no contact with family allowed. Last week Game phoned his mum to say that they were allowing the first family visit after one month’s training and he provided her with a list of essential supplies to bring – food, phone and soft drinks. Yesterday was the day.

Game is training locally at an army base in the next province to us called Loei to the west (left on a map) a two hour’s drive. Yuan and Gaun were up at 3:00 am cooking enough supplies to feed the whole army while I made an appearance at 4:00 am after the coffee machine had heated up. We headed off at 5:00 am with a full load in the pick-up including Yuan, Lud and Peng and after an easy early morning drive on a road (the 210), which is normally very busy later in the day, arrived at the Loei army base at 7:00 am.

The first priority of the morning was the unloading of food and setting up campsites under the trees surrounding the central area where the cadets would be assembling. Not just us of course but many families of the conscripts who were making a day of it. The nature of Thai commitment to family was in evidence as the participants seemed to incorporate a range of generations from babies to grandparents. Nobody does anything on their own in Thailand. Pick-ups (utes for Australians) are so popular because you can transport the entire family in bulk (something the government is trying to stop – good luck with that).

This is the conscripts meeting area in the army base. It is surrounded by accommodation blocks and classrooms.

Such as this one. You can just see a few families set up under the trees in the foreground.

A better view here.

Slogans written by old men in bombproof bunkers well behind the front line. The same the world over.

Registration was the next priority to match family to the conscript.

Signing in. Lud, Gaun and Yuan (hidden). The young guys in the dark tracksuits are second year conscripts so senior in the hierarchy to the first year guys – more later. Some of the older ones seemed to be army instructors without rank showing.

The official start time was 8:00 am and shortly after that a briefing session was held for one nominated member of the family plus a single farang on what the conscript training involved and what food was on offer (always essential information in a Thai sense!)

A slide show and a talk from a training officer. An army photographer capturing it all (plus me of course).

Lud was the nominated attendee so Yuan and Gaun took it all in from the window before getting bored and heading back to the food.

All in Thai of course so I have no idea what was going on but I tried to look interested and smiled when the camera was pointed at me. Just another day in Isaan really 🙂

Meanwhile Peng had stayed to protect the food and on our return she burst into take my photograph mode. Needless to say she had already tucked into the papaya salad! You can see why the pick-up came in useful to carry the food can’t you!

The core of my Thai family. My wife Gaun, her younger sister Yuan and brother-in-law Lud.

A display was provided to kick the day off. These guys were the more advanced group of year two soldiers I think.

They gave a demonstration of shouting and shooting (not real ammunition – well no one fell over anyway).

The shooting bit. The army photographer in the background.

The next part was so unexpected and for an outsider really interesting. One member of each family was asked to attend the official area and it was here that each recruit was formally reintroduced to their family. It was a moving and very personal moment that has no comparison in the west that I know of in an armed forces environment. It once again demonstrated the super strong family structure of Thai society that extends even to a depersonalising entity such as the army.

Lud was volunteered to be our family representative. He was one of only two males in this batch and wasn’t too comfortable about being in the spotlight.

The conscripts meet their family for the first time since they left to start their training. This is Game less hair.

The flowers are offered to the parent/family member.

And a sign of respect given son to father in this instance.

It was mostly mums or female relatives in this lineup. The people without soldiers were part of the next group.

And then the formal hug.

Thais rarely show emotion in public and almost never physically touch even to the extent of holding hands and this is the first time I have seen tears being shed – by both conscripts and their family. A bureaucracy like the army does everything for a purpose (note the photographer in action) and I wonder what the reasoning is behind this structured display of emotion.

A young daughter meets dad.

And mum a son. You’d think that at this stage of our existence we would have moved beyond mums giving up their sons to be trained for war wouldn’t you.

This ceremony was repeated many times as each group of trainees reunited with their families in this fashion. Once each group had completed their ceremony they were free to join the full family group and EAT!

Grandmum? The emotion of the moment is captured here as a soldier is taken to the family group.

Game meets Yuan.

In the group next to us a son is reunited with dad as mum did the ceremony in the tent.

The best bit for Game – junk food and lots of it! Plus a massive amount of “real” food. Four large whole fish, three other meals, rice, biscuits, cakes, soft drinks and on it went.

This lot should keep Game going until the next visit.

The whole family have turned out at the group next to us. A good example of the inclusiveness of Thai families (in general of course. Plenty families don’t work as in any other society).

Extra food was brought to give to year two trainees and army trainers.

Their families weren’t invited so the food is shared in true Thai style. If you are walking down a street in Thailand and you come across Thais eating (and that’s not hard to do as it is a 24/7 occupation) it will be likely you’ll be invited to share. I have had it happen in all sorts of situations.

The food being handed over to year two conscripts.

And taken away.

Shortly after the greeting ceremony was complete a call went out to those with families to “adopt” the soldiers whose family hadn’t been able to attend. As I have said before the concept of being alone and left out in Thailand is a foreign one. There was literally a rush to the meeting area and all the family-poor soldiers were brought to individual family groups.

This group including Game (on the far right) stopped by an instructor. None of these guys were in uniform but the cadets obviously knew who they were.

No email or Facebook for a month. A lot of catching up to do. The was the next priority after food, This is Game’s adopted mate.

I mainly add this not for the group at the front but because you just can’t keep a good Thai girl out of a photo. Peng, my stepdaughter, at the back. She’s a happy soul like her mum.

And again. Peng…………………

And selfies are required of course.

A family shot. Yuan, Game and Lud.

The scenes I shared previously of sons hugging mums are just so unusual as I have said. I have been here four years and have never seen anything like it. To prove the Thai “normal” have a look at this photo. Although there is touching between the family members it is not intimate and feels quite awkward (Gaun taking the photo not me so I am not making them shy). This is as connected Thais normally get.

The final organised part of the day was when the recruits were called up to collect army food to give to their families.

Waiting for food.

Food is doled out.

Chicken, rice, vegetable and papaya salad of course (being an Issan army unit).

Off to the family.

Once the food was eaten we packed up and headed off for the rest of the days activities. I can remember the once a term visits my parents were allowed when I was in an English boarding school aged eight. I can imagine Game might have felt a touch of the same loneliness I did when the day ended but I am sure he is making new friends that will last a lifetime as well. From what we saw a lot of the emphasis was on teamwork and looking out for each other as I am sure it is in armed forces around the world.

I thought I would leave you with this last photo of a dad and daughter. I think it reflects the contrast between the life as represented by our need for soldiers and life as it should be – simple and colourful 🙂

As always I am slightly overwhelmed at my good luck in being allowed to be so involved in my Thai family’s life and the exceptional insights it gives me to the non-tourist side of life here. I hope you have found it equally interesting.

Thanks for reading.