EPISODE TWENTY- EIGHT – ABLUTIONS, FOOD, FUN AND FOLK
We are well into the 21st century, yet the majority of the 70 million inhabitants, of the Country at the heart of South East Asia, prefer to use squat toilets. When I am forced out of sheer desperation to use one, most often at a roadside gasoline stop, I usually end up in unimaginable embarrassment as my knees lock past the 90° mark and I have to wait until a rescue party arrives. I am told that less than thirty years ago many people in our village had to dig themselves a hole in the garden if they wanted a poo-poo and if you were lazy constipation was a bonus. What intrigues me is the preference for squats when everyone now has the option of raised toilets. It is not unusual, where raised toilets do exist, to see the seat raised and footprints on the porcelain rim! Not only that, but many people still have their toilets outside the house in a small free-standing shed. I can hear you thinking; ‘Does he really expect me to believe all of this?’ But wait; there is more.
Rather surprisingly many Thais seem to view the common shower as a fairly modern invention despite the fact that it was an invention of the ancient Greeks.
‘The ancient Greeks were the first people to have showers. Their aqueducts and sewage systems made of lead pipes allowed water to be pumped both into and out of large communal shower rooms used by elites and common citizens alike. These rooms have been discovered at the site of the city Pergamum and can also be found represented in pottery of the era. The depictions are very similar to modern locker room shower, and even included bars to hang up clothing. The ancient Romans also followed this convention; their famous bathhouses can be found all around the Mediterranean and as far out as modern-day England. The Romans not only had these showers, but also believed in bathing multiple times a week, if not every day’ (Wikipedia).
Still many people do not install them in their homes and even if they do the older folk probably won’t use them. Instead they prefer to carry on with the old method whereby a tap or hose pipe fills a square stone or concrete open tank on the floor or sometimes a big plastic garbage bin (a concession to the modern world) which will be located in the outside toilet or inside if there is a bathroom. From there the water is scooped out in a small bowl and poured over the bather. I have used this method of ablution many times and considering the efficiency and cost saving it doesn’t really surprise me that many people don’t change.
Most of Thailand does not have a main sewer drainage system; precast concrete ring septic tanks are used for toilet waste. Grey water from washing up, showering and washing clothes is run into the garden or a channel to the road; and there you have a cheap, simple and efficient plumbing system. Last but not least, hot water is only required for bathing (not washing dishes) in the north and north-east during the dry months between December and March. Even then most people don’t have water heaters so you just have to move a bit quicker. Mai pen rai.
Food – Western influence and Obesity.
Although most Thais are small in stature they consume a considerable amount of food and most of it is spiced with chillies and garlic. At least three meals a day punctuated by several snacks is normal. Rice is eaten at virtually every meal and generally speaking the food, which is freshly cooked, contains herbs, vegetables, chicken, fish, seafood or pork, is nutritious. Fish sauce is used a lot in cooking for flavour as is sugar, too much in my view which is always on the table as a condiment to be sprinkled on soups, pad thai and other noodle dishes. Thais cannot go long without food and if they do they can become very tetchy indeed. You can set your clock by many of them who eat, on the dot, at eight in the morning, noon and between five and six in the evening.
Unfortunately the fast food industry has established a strong presence nationwide and the effects can be seen in the young whose parents indulge them at MacDonald’s and KFC. The focus on the epidemic of childhood obesity highlights how serious the problem is in the Western world. Statistics show there are good reasons for alarm. Obesity isn’t easy to outgrow. Of adults who were obese during pre-school age, one in three will still be obese in adulthood. While the problem in the West has been building for decades, Thailand’s childhood obesity problem is a more recent phenomenon. Un-enlightened parents can be somewhat oblivious to the situation, as many don’t realise their child is obese. The causes of increasing childhood obesity are fairly simple and visible. Today’s younger generation takes in too many calories, favours “junk food” that has little nutritional value, consumes soft drinks and beverages packed with sugar and calories, and spends too much time on sedentary activities like watching TV and playing computer games rather than taking part in outdoor physical activities, sports or exercise. Sport has a low priority in Thailand which is evidenced by a lack of status internationally in any sport other than Muay Thai boxing.
The hectic pace of modern-day life, combined with the growing trends of both parents working outside the home and the relative affordability of fast food, are at the root of the obesity problem. The young are increasingly making their own food choices, and it’s no surprise they tend to choose junk food, energy-dense and high in fat, salt and sugar, but low in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients provided by the natural Thai diet. Nearly every Thai town has a shopping mall and several fast food outlets within a child’s easy reach. Nearly every house-hold has a television, and computer games at home or at a nearby internet café are available to most. Obesity is not just a dietary problem; it’s a lifestyle problem. While schools usually make an effort to guide students toward healthier choices, the solution must originate from home. Ideally, parents and teachers should work together to coordinate effective, enduring solutions. One of the most effective tools against obesity is family meals. One or two generations ago, most families ate breakfast and dinner together at home. That was a different era, and it will take some effort to make the necessary adjustments to work schedules and life patterns. But parents need to take responsibility for their child’s weight, and that requires that they supervise what their children are eating.
(There are a number of in depth surveys available on-line on the problem of obesity in Asia)
You will hear Thais laughing all the time. Watch the ‘Soaps’ and you’ll wonder why. If you are a Brit. be especially aware that we have a sense of humour that is not understood in all of the Western world. So in Thailand, with its totally different culture, you will be farting against thunder most of the time if you try out your prehistoric jokes and witty repartee. When you get too many blank stares or polite smiles you know it’s time for a re-think.
When I write I can express myself easily. Oh no, I hope that’s not too immodest? I’m still not sure whether I hate myself more for being bumptious or less for being boringly commonplace. When I talk, in Asia, I have to think too much. So I’ve nearly perfected the art of talking to myself and playing two characters. It’s amazing how well we are able to communicate; maybe I should have done it years ago. But don’t be put off by my self-indulgence because you can amuse a Thai. Just keep it simple.
As in many countries in the world the gap between rich and poor is widening. Thailand still holds on to the class system which may be perceived to widen the gap even more. The well-educated Thais and those in the higher class generally are responsible, respectful, polite and honest. They are very easy to deal with business-wise and are trustworthy. I feel that the more fortunate, educated younger Thais who come from poorer families will eventually narrow the gap between the classes, because they are more adventurous. They will travel and bring more modern ideas and cultural experience back to Thailand. I would love to see the class system disappear and I see a great future for Thailand if old cultural taboos could be set aside and these young people are listened to but I fear it may take another generation or two and not in my lifetime. I will view from afar.