Photography: Dean Barrett
Saeng, a little Thai boy was born ten years ago in a rather small village of Kanchanaburi, merely a stone's throw from the famous World War II bridge over the River Kwai. It might seem that the place is not so far from Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, but, actually, there are still many remote villages in the area and Saeng's story resembles that of many other Thai children today.
Saeng's father is a primary school teacher and one might expect that Saeng must have been raised in a modern way instead of according to old Thai traditions. However, when Saeng was about one month old, his father took him to the temple near his house. There, he requested a Buddhist monk to bless and name the baby. It is a tradition and belief of the villagers that a newly born baby should have a proper name (which is always selected by a respected monk) so that his future will be bright and prosperous. In this case "Saeng" means "The Bright Light from the Sun."
About one week later, his parents employed astrology to choose a good day to shave Saeng's head. The purpose was to let the new hair grow better and more perfectly. It was done during a full moon period. And after the shaving, the grandparents or a respected friend were asked to bind a tiny holy white cord on each side of the baby's wrist, as a means to protect him from evil spirits.
Saeng was also fortunate that his mother had time to take good care of him while he was an infant for Saeng's parents had only one other child. In this village, some folks still had the firm belief that when a baby boy is about two to three years of age, he must hav a "pigtail" or "top knot" hairstyle which would help to make him a strong, clever and happy boy. Therefore, many of Saeng's friends still had pigtails or top knot heads until they left school. But for Saeng, his father didn't believe in such a tradition, so he refused to do it with his son.
As time went by, Saeng got to know more and more about life and its surroundings. He learned to behave correctly, the manners required on different occasions, etc. However, as his was a small family, not much responsibility was required from him; he just had to obey the teaching of his parents and that was enough.
Saeng's house was located near the temple, so it was very easy for him to get acquainted with the monks and temple life. He had learned many things by the time his parents took him to attend some religious ceremonies. At the temple, especially during Wan-Phra (Sabbath day), there were foods and fruits offered to the monks by the local folks. The kind monks would always give some food to the little child and many other poor children living in the area. Some of Saeng's friends even joined the temple as novices, bringing merit to their parents.
When Saeng was about four years old, his father sent him to the kindergarten which was not far from his house. The first day at school was quite an experience for the little boy. He was left alone and had to learn to stay with strangers and depend only on himself for many things. There were many children crying to be sent home. but for Saeng he seemed to like it. He had learned from his parents that a school is a good place to attend, so that he could learn better and explore more interesting things each day.
In Thailand, until about 60 years ago, only men could have a chance to learn to read and write. It was because most of the teachers were monks. But now, with the modern educational system, both sexes have an equal opportunity to learn anything they want. All studies are now centered in schools, not in the temples. Almost every village has a primary school. It is compulsory that every family must send their children to school. It begins from six years old onward and it take about seven years to finish. At least the children should be able to read and write enough to understand normal contact with other people.
Life in school for Saeng was very interesting and pleasant. He could dress decently and was always well fed. But for some other children, the uniforms were rather shabby, they had no shoes and sometimes even no food or lunch. Sometimes they could not come to school because of housework. They had to help their parents look after the younger children or take care of cows or buffaloes in the fields. Therefore, most of the time, the absentees were the poor children. It was ironic that while Thailand kept exporting good rice abroad every year the poor farmer could hardly afford to provide lunch for his children when they went to school.
Saeng was also lucky that whenever his parents had time they took him to many interesting places. He visited Bangkok and saw the zoo, the National Museum and the Grand Palace. No doubt it was an indirect part of a good education. Little by little, the child could see how the country had developed outside his village. Sometimes his father took him to nearby provinces to show him how other people made their living so that Saeng should realize that life depends on work.
Saeng made new friends - children from rural areas. They were clever but because of poverty and lack of opportunity they had not learned much about the outside world. But they were experts on how to grow crops and catch fish and frogs for meals. And also during the rainy season, they learned to pick bamboo-shoots or mushrooms from the forest for eating (and selling as well). But life for those children was hard. So they just had to help themselves in every possible way. For example, a toy was made of a cast-away coconut shell or bamboo rods to replace the dream of getting good toys to play with.
Every two or three months, a volunteer medical team would visit the school. They came to help check the children's health. Sometimes they found illnesses among the children. Skin diseases and malnutrition were the most common. What the doctors could do for such cases was simply to give some medicine and make suggestions. Only the most serious cases were taken to the hospital.
Children living in the town were rather spoiled by their parents who often gave whatever the child asked for. But children from the villages herding the cows or buffaloes in the fields just wished only that they could have enough food to eat every day and, if possible, just a little bit of extra money to buy an ice cream from the vendor in the afternoon. Some of Saeng's classmates - those who liked to come to school in spite of the responsibility of taking care of the younger children at the same time - would take the young ones along and let them play nearby until the class was over.
Thai children, perhaps because of the gentleness of Buddhist teachings or perhaps because of the beauty and natural charm of an agricultural setting, are usually obedient and respectful to their elders. Thailand knows little of Dr. Spock and his recommended methods but anyone traveling to Thailand will agree that the children of Thailand are both fun-loving and instilled with a sense of responsibility at an early age.
© Pairoat Prokkaew 2007
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