The German Thai Link

Village Life


Beyond the family, the next larger unit of social organization is the village. Although there are regional variations in house styles and crop cultivations, and the setting may vary, in essence Thai villages are remarkably similar, revolving around well defined climatic, religious, and farming seasons. The typical village contains around 100 to 150 households, or an average of 500 to 700 inhabitants. The houses are nearly all simple wooden structures, elevated on stilts as protection against flooding and unwelcome animal intruders and also to improve air circulation. A small wooden granary, also on stilts, is often found beside the house, together with large earthenware jars in which rainwater is stored for drinking. Most villages now have electricity but water for washing and cooking comes from canals, rivers, or ponds, or, in the arid northeast, from communal wells.

On the village outskirts are the local school and the wat, or Buddhist monastery, sometimes adjacent to one another, sometimes at opposite ends of the village. The school is generally a simple wooden building, perhaps a single room where several classes are held simultaneously; an essential feature is the flagpole upon which the Thai flag is ceremoniously raised each school morning and lowered in the evening.

The monastery, constructed and maintained largely through local donations and thus reflectiong the village's wealth, is often separated from the community by an open field to give the resident monks maximum privacy and seclusion for their relgious activities. This grassy expanse also serves as the village common, a place where children assemble to play kickball and where local fetes are held.

The village is self-governing, led by an elected headman, or phu-yai- ban, who until recent years was always a man; since 1983, however, women have also been eleted to the position. A candidate is not affiliated with any political party but must be a literate Thai house holder who has resided in the village at least six months and be at last 25 years old. If he retains the villagers' esteem, the hu-yai-ban can remain in the post until retirement at 60 through repeated reelections; by the same token, he can be removed if he forfeits their respect. The phu-yai-ban preserves the social harmony valued so highly by all Thais by skifully settling minor disputes, talking care to ensure that neither party feels cheated or loses face. In addition, he keeps the village birth and death records and acts as a spokesman for the community in negotiations with the government bureaucracy.

Administratively, neighboring villagers are organized into groups known as tambon which, depending on topography and population density, consist of two to 28 villages. The phu-yai-ban within each tambon elect one of themselves to be kamnan, or commune head-person. Thailand has nearly 5,000 tambon at present. The kamnan is chairman of a committee which often includes a government school headmaster, an agricultural extension worker, and sometimes a Health Department doctor or paramedic in charge of a local clinic. It also contains at least two men selected by the nai amphoe (or district officer, who is the kamnan's immediate superior or appointed by the provincial governor. This committee is responsible for deciding which villages should have new roads, irrigation budgets and health services, while the kamnan's main individual responsibilities are to see that justice prevails within the commune, to maintain records and statistics, to help preserve peace, to assist in collecting taxes, and to act as the intermediary between the district officer and all village headpersons in his tambon.

The wat serves as a social center where villagers have both religious and recreadtional activities. The wat is the focal point of the village, symbolizing the Buddhist religion and also acting as the major unifying element, particularly during festivals and merit-making ceremonies when it also becomes a social center for young and old alike. Abbots and senior monks frequently enjoy more prestige and moral persuasion than the village head, and in times of personal crisis they are often the first whose advice is sought. Within the wat the abbot has absolute administrative, clerical, custodial, disciplinary, and spiritual responsibilities, and they determine the monastery's relationship with the village. If an abbot is scholarly, meditative, and retiring, the monastery is unlikely to concern itself much with mundane village affairs. On the other hand, if one is a dynamic personality he may make the wat a community center with a subtle but powerful influence on social action. Every young man in the village, before he starts his own family, will spend a period of study and reflection in the wat, thus increasing the influence of Buddhism.


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06.03.2004 13:41

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