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