As we travel through Thai villages, lets talk a bit about Thai village life, and how it compares with what tourists see.
Its clearly different from life in the cities. The average Thai village has about 100 or so families, and less than a thousand people. Most people are involved in agriculture, often an acre or so of land attached to family homes that could be a fruit orchard or rice paddy. The average village might might have a few ourdoor cafes, a beauty salon, and some mom & pop convenience stores. There will usually be a school for grades 1 to 6, but higher schooling might require the kids to travel, and even board in a larger town. There are rarely banks, clinics, supermarkets, restaurants or department stores. Although if the town is on a major road, there might be a 7-Eleven, a petrol station, and maybe a mini shopping centre. Usually, there are few emergency services in the smaller villages.
Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist. The practicing of Buddhist beliefs are central to many Thai people, particularly the older ones. For example, a Thai villager might visit temple most mornings before 7am, which might require a walk from the village. He or she would bring an offering of food to a small group of monks that lead prayer and chants. On auspicious days, the monks might come into the village and lead prayers at a central village centre, which is where an elected village Head Man (a Puyaiban) might make announcements about village affairs, announce who has made sizeable donations to the village fund, distribute mail (which otherwise won’t be sent to villagers’ individual houses), and perhaps work to settle disagreements among villagers.
Thai villages usually come together for festivals. Religious festivals are many, and most have specific customs associated with them, such as releasing paper air balloons (Kornfai) into the air or decorated banana leaf boats onto ponds, which is usually accompanied with making a wish. Kids then play and adults are treated to performances. Some towns celebrate the harvests of fruits they’re famous for. Others celebrate local heroes that made it big.
Compared with other countries in the region, class lines are not so rigid. Although the village head man and the abbot of the village temple will be held in high esteem, there is less status anxiety, and individual prestige is attained more by his or her contributions to the temple, skills in farming, or other contribution to the community. Although family bonds are important, Thai social organisation does not revolve so tightly around an integrated extended family, and individuality is more accepted and celebrated. Friendships are very important, and a friend is either a dinner friend or a death friend – meaning you would die for them – and this is particularly the case for men. Although the father is usually the head of the family, thats not always the case, and the family head is less strict and authoritarian than in other Asian cultures. The women of the family usually sell at the markets, which usually means they hold the purse-strings – this usually means children are healthier and better educated.
Of course, Thailand is urbanising. Rapidly too. About 50% of Thais live in cities today, and that increases by 1% every year. Thailand’s cities are attracting the young and educated from rural populations into higher value sectors of the economy, especially nearby tourist centres such as those along this line. Rural village populations stagnate, then they age. Often, the elderly Thais are less able to look after farms, so when they retire they sell their land to bigger agribusiness, factories, or strip malls especially along major roads.
So change is afoot, but there is plenty of authentic Thai rural life to be seen, especially from the window seat of a train.