Pik is my oldest Thai friend. She and I have known each other for almost 25 years (I am slightly older than her). She married my friend Marc in 1990, and their daughter Pepo was born in May 1991.
Although their marriage didn't last long, Marc sent money regularly for Pepo's education, and recently she earned her bachelor's degree in film studies from Rajabhat University in Bangkok.
A month ago Pepo found an entry level position in Bangkok with the Kantana Film Company with a decent starting salary.
Stefan, a young man from Germany, met Pik in the hills of Mae Hong Son Province in 1994 where they were both working--Pik as a trekking guide and Stefan as a silversmith. They fell in love and Stefan became Pepo's surrogate father.
In 1995 Pik gave birth to a son, Caspar. I remember Caspar when he was only two or three years old at the time I returned to Thailand in 1997 following a year in the States. At that time Pik and Stefan and the kids were living high in the hills of Mae Hong Son outside a Shan village overlooking a spectacular view of the bordering area of Burma. Their compound became a regular stop for me in my travels in northern Thailand in 1997-98 and early 2001, partly because it was a remote kind of paradise.
In 1999 their daughter Tara was born, followed quickly by another daughter, Miriam, toward the end of the year 2000. Tara was only two or so and Miriam just a baby when I visited the family in early 2001.
They were--and still are--perhaps an unusual family by Thai and even by Western standards. Never very affluent but always hard-working, they believed in a living philosophy of closeness to nature, limited materialism, healthy food, and a "balanced lifestyle" incorporating both work and and plenty of leisure.
This lifestyle was never easy for them. For example, soon it became clear, as the kids grew older, that the school in the Shan village would not be able provide an adequate education for their children. As the kids grew older, it became necessary for the family to move closer to the cities of the north, and away from their homemade paradise in Mae Hong Son.
By the time I returned again for annual visits in 2005-2007, Pepo was living with Pik's parents in Doi Saket, a town just a half hour's drive east of central Chiangmai. Later, Caspar joined Pepo there, and the kids began attending school in Chiangmai.
Around this time, the family acquired a house in Doi Saket while keeping the property in Mae Hong Son. It was here that I last saw everyone during my last trip in August 2007. Pepo was 16, Caspar 11, Tara just 8, and little Miriam only six years old.
Now Pepo is 23 and succeeding in Bangkok while her younger brother and sisters are fast-growing teenagers: Caspar is 18 and attending a technical school, Tara's15 and preparing for a year's exchange study in Germany, and little Miriam is already 13 and just starting the new school year as a high school student in Chiangmai.
While still keeping the Doi Saket house, the family began moving piecemeal but more or less permanently to Chiangmai about 2-3 years ago.
Currently they rent a 2 1/2 story shophouse not far from my hotel, and Stefan also rents a small shop in a heavily touristed lane in Chiangmai's old city where he sells his silver jewelry and custom-crafted silk screen t-shirts.
Life hasn't gotten any easier for them. Though solidly middle class, they have never been as affluent as the typical Thai-farang couple. Every baht they make is hard-earned. The combined rent of their shophouse and store is about 14,000 baht per month ( a little less than $500) which seems very cheap by Western standards but which I know from my own experience can seem quite expensive under the circumstances.
As the kids grow older, the family faces different kinds of problems. Today Pik and Stefan complain about having to pay so much for the IT gadgets the kids desire: the laptops, cellphones, and other items that most Thai youngsters seem to require (and take for granted) in this wired new millennium.
They worry that their teens are wasting too much time in front of their own individual screens, and that this type of activity will negatively impact their education.
Certainly these kind of worries will sound familiar to Western parents, too.