People often return from exotic holidays thinking ‘Now, THAT’S where I want to end up when I retire!’ For Sylvia and Ken Corley, Thailand was such a location. They fell in love with the country and its people on their very first visit in 1986.
And after numerous return trips to the country dubbed ‘The Land of Smiles’, they finally moved there permanently in 2001 – a decision spurred by Ken’s ill health and consequent early retirement. Sadly, his condition deteriorated over time and he passed away in August 2010, leaving Sylvia a young widow in her early fifties, far from her island roots. Many would have upped sticks and returned home in this situation, but to Sylvia’s credit she has carved a niche for herself in Thailand and her presence there is both appreciated and needed… by the locals in particular.
Travellers to Thailand generally aim for the frenzied hub of Bangkok, or the nightlife and beaches of Pattaya just two hours away. Others head to the islands whose stunning scenery was featured in the Bond movies, or more recently, The Beach. Backpackers are drawn like moths to a lantern to infamous Full Moon parties and a few might venture inland to the cooler hill country at Chiang Mai. But it is unusual for anyone to brave areas where they’d be the only foreigner, let alone where hardly anyone speaks any English.
Yet it is here at Roi Et, in Thailand’s north-east rice basin nearing the Laos border – without a tourist in sight – that Sylvia bases herself for part of the year and where she admits ‘it’s like going backwards in time’. Her other home is nine hours’ drive away at the well-trodden Pattaya coast and the two places are worlds apart in terms of character. The common link is her closest friend and former housekeeper, Wanida, who hails from the countryside at Roi Et and whose family have accepted Sylvia as one of their own and vice versa.
Ten years in Thailand have given Sylvia time to assimilate into a rather different lifestyle to that on the family farm back in St Peter’s where her mother still lives. Yet this farming background most likely honed her current appreciation for her rural environment where she says she happily ‘wanders around the fields seeing how crops are cultivated’, visiting the rice factory, and taking an interest in the local cows, buffalo, and pigs and where chickens roam freely. Gates are never locked and there is a lack of boundary between the rural homes, typically built upon stilts. The local supermarket? It’s 30 km away…
What other cultural differences has she faced? ‘Everyone greets you with ‘Where are you going?’ which we regarded as an invasion of privacy at first!’ she laughs, ‘And people always ask your age as one of the first questions’. She has learned never to raise her voice or get angry as you ‘lose face with the locals and get no attention’. They soon discovered that it was preferable to let the locals do their shopping as ‘having a white skin automatically meant that items were more expensive’. For the first few years, Sylvia was the only white woman on their security-guarded estate on the outskirts of Pattaya, although she notes there’s more of an international mix now; European men have moved there with their Thai wives as well as several Russian families, all taking advantage of the low cost of living, slow pace of life and year-round warm weather.
There are just three seasons in Thailand, with one thing in common: heat. Winter, hot season and rainy season blend seamlessly into each other with the wet season running from July to November. April and May’s hot season ‘really took some getting used to’, Sylvia confesses. The monsoon in the rice- growing area is more extreme and the winter evenings cooler. When the couple designed their second home there four years ago Sylvia acknowledges that lessons had been learned along the way, ‘A patio can never be too big and a roof should always be lined with foil to keep the heat out!’
The pace of life in this predominantly Buddhist country is slow. Sylvia says that arriving late is considered normal and requires no explanation. Time itself is measured on a six-hour clock (9 pm being ‘3 o’clock evening’) which she found confusing at first. Her day tends to start early and like the locals she rides a bicycle or hops on a motorbike taxi to shop daily for fresh food.
Although Sylvia has no children of her own, she has helped numerous youngsters through selfless hours devoted to charity work. Sparked primarily by the plight of those affected by the Asian Tsunami in 2006, Sylvia has continued to immerse herself in helping those less privileged. Reassuringly, she concedes that the expats do an excellent job in fundraising for the Pattaya Orphanage and nearby charities but it is perhaps in Roi Et where Sylvia has really made a difference. Having witnessed the appalling conditions at the local school, she felt compelled to intervene. Amongst other problems, there was no covered area for the students to sit outside, and the ground turned to mud during monsoon season. The ‘sports equipment’ transpired to be a sheet of old metal – used as a ping pong table. The loos she described as ‘very depressing’. Students wear hand-me-down uniforms, often without shoes… Above all, she found herself deeply moved by ‘these happy faces that needed so much help’.
With her altruistic streak reignited, Sylvia sought the assistance of a Jersey friend, intrepid swimmer Neil Faudemer, to help raise sufficient funds to improve the school’s conditions dramatically. Her public Facebook page attests to that success, with before-and-after photos for all to view. Still, the charity work remains ongoing because Government funding in Thailand is limited and parents pay just 10p a week for a nursery place. Schools are heavily reliant upon generous donations in order to survive and the locals help by ‘paying merit’ – a Buddhist tradition whereby giving away on one’s birthday is revered more than receiving.
Does she miss Jersey at all? Sylvia says that Thailand’s New Year’s Eve celebrations remind her of our Bonfire Night, complete with fireworks, singing and dancing. She misses Bean Crock, Jersey Royals, daffodils in bloom and our long summer evenings – in Thailand it gets dark before 7 pm.
On a rare but recent trip to Jersey she says she was dismayed by the Waterfront developments, and the proliferation of luxury apartments leaves her fearing unaffordable accommodation for our future generations. She agrees that the coastline is as beautiful as ever and that our island remains clean.
So, would she return? Only if the Thai Government changes its tolerant policy towards expats, she explains. She confesses she’d have a hard time adapting to our stringent ‘health and safety rules’ having lived so long in a place where these are quite lax. Perhaps we in turn could learn a few lessons from that laid-back attitude in Thailand…
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