Behind the smile

For the thousands of people who visit Thailand every year, the country fully lives up to its reputation as ‘The Land of Smiles’.

Visitors may be whisked from place to place by coach, train or limousine. They will pass through prosperous-looking towns and cities straddling good main roads and may never appreciate that Thailand is really a nation of tiny and often remote farming villages. Visitors may be forgiven for concluding that almost everybody is engaged in the tourist, service or entertainment industries in some way.

In fact, almost half the population is involved in farming of some kind. Few visitors get to see the poorer, rural areas of Thailand where the daily struggle with poverty and deprivation may be an inescapable fact of life for many families.

Few Thai farmers become wealthy from their land. In good years – without drought, flood or pests – many farmers with small areas of owned or rented land are lucky if they can harvest enough rice, fruit and vegetables for their own family needs, with maybe a little left over to sell. Just finding the money to buy basic necessities can be a major problem. Many families are trapped in a cycle of poverty and debt.

Even if a family is self-sufficient for food, a desperate shortage of disposable income may mean that anything more is a luxury, including even basic education for the children. Primary and secondary education are theoretically compulsory and free, but fees must be paid for higher vocational training and tertiary studies.

Despite the early free tuition, thousands of children still do not attend high school.  Often, children do not go to school simply because their parents can’t afford to pay for bus fares, daily lunch or the other expenses associated with education.

Boys from such impoverished backgrounds have the option of ordaining as novice monks. There are usually around 90,000 novices in Thailand, aged from about eleven to eighteen. Although often reluctant to ordain, the boys can then study entirely free at monastic high schools without the expense of uniform, food or accommodation.  On completion of their high school studies, most boys disrobe as novices and look for work. Girls don’t have the same option but sometimes, with their brothers taken care of in monasteries, there may be sufficient spare money to ensure at least a basic education for the daughters in the family. If there isn’t, the girls must usually seek unskilled employment or work in the family rice paddies.

For many youngsters, the biggest problem comes at the end of junior or senior high school. After three years at school, students can sit the entrance examination to study for skills at vocational colleges in three-year or five-year courses. Alternatively, after studying for six years at school, they can try for a university place. Many are quite capable of continuing their studies beyond high school and may be desperate to do so, but a simple lack of funds makes further education no more than a dream. Without the money to pay fees or expenses, they are left only with the options of working in the rice paddies or seeking unskilled work in the cities.