room with a view
November 2, 2006
our ‘house in the country’
Linguists and other boringly serious (or seriously boring) people have often pointed out that a word in one language might carry different connotations from the equivalent word in another. Take ‘house’, for example. Westerners have a pretty good idea of what a house is like but the average house in the Thai countryside, in terms of robustness and comfort, would not, in our eyes, even come up to the standard of a garden shed. Being made of wood they are fairly easy to dismantle so when you move house you can literally move your house with you. When you buy a house in the country it’s worth checking first if you are buying the land too or just the timber that the house.is made of. Hilltribe houses can be even flimsier- ours is pretty solidly constructed out of strips of bamboo with a sort of thatch covering (see picture).
When I first bought a flat in town the builders seemed rather surprised that I wanted a kitchen. Good cheap food is on every street corner so it’s an exceptional person who can be bothered to cook. In the countryside the ‘kitchen’ is often a small area outside where there is a charcoal stove and sometimes a bottled gas ring. Furniture such as chairs, tables, beds, is definitely an optional extra.The average Thai eats on the floor, that’s one reason why they are so fussy about people not coming in houses with outside shoes on and about keeping the floor swept clean. They don’t notice dust and cobwebs higher up as they rarely sit and eat on the ceiling. No Thai house, though, is complete with pictures of the King and an aged monk, or a shrine for offerings to the spirits. Most rural families I know use the house as such only for sleeping: other activities (cooking, chatting, working around the place, sometimes even watching TV) are done outside.
Then there’s the toilet/bathroom. In towns showers and flushed lavatories are becoming more common but the norm in the countryside is a large container full of water which you either pour over you as a shower or down the hole in the ground that serves as the toilet. Few Thais take hot showers, even in our winter (when temperatures can sink as low as 13 degrees celsius). The idea of a sitting in a bath strikes them at best as comical- ‘soaking in water, that’s what you do to clothes’, one said caustically.
I was reminded of these observations by seeing a house someone had just built nearby. The front is on a street with a straggly collection of uninteresting houses huddled together; the back looks over a beautiful expanse of rice fields with mountains in the distance. Where do you think the owners put the rooms with a view? Why, at the front of course; the back is a windowless surface of brick. Thais go to great lengths to keep the sun and, unfortunately, light out of their houses.I was once asked to explain the meaning of the phrase ‘it’s a nice sunny room’ to some Thais whose English was good enough to understand every word. What they could not understand was how a sunny room could be nice. When I showed the same two Thais (both doctors) my pictures of Angkor Wat, they said “but it’s all broken, how can you call that beautiful?” That more or less sums up the attitude of many Thais to old things, including houses. Certainly the Thais I know are very reluctant to live in an old house, or even one that has been occupied before. They claim they’re afraid someone has died there or that it has collected bad spirits. Not surprisingly, most builders are also experts in demolition.