A Sea Gypsy in Chiang Mai

Meet A Sea Gypsy in Chiang Mai

One of the things I like most about Chiang Mai is its menagerie of expats, but a Sea Gypsy in Chiang Mai blew me away.  I’ve met Slovakians, Slovenians, Ukrainians. I’ve even met President Putin’s TV producer (she says he’s got a great sense of humor and has no plans to invade the USA). Travel is broadening and, since Chiang Mai is such a tourist destination, travelers come to me. On Sunday mornings I have breakfast in Chiang Mai with a Tanka Sea Gypsy. Tanka Sea Gypsies were nomadic hunter-gatherers who, instead of hunting on land, hunted fish and gathered shells and moved with the tides and seasons around the rich Chinese seas. They’d been doing that for a thousand years before the idea of ‘nationality’ was even thought of. My friend Richard (as we call him) started earning his keep in 1950 at age 5, diving for sea shells which his older sister would clean and polish and sell to a dealer for pennies.

The Independence movements of the ’50s made citizenships important, and nations began demanding passports from everyone, even Sea Gypsies. Richard’s little family boat was moored in Kowloon, Hong Kong, when a HK Immigration officer showed up and offered the family Hong Kong citizenship! Passports were issued and the HK Government insisted that Richard and his sister receive an education. A few years later Richard won a scholarship to Edinburgh university, went into the financial sector and, eventually, became chief investment officer for one of the world’s largest banks.

Richard’s literal rags-to-riches odyssey is a classic

The Independence movements of the 1950s made citizenship important and nations began demanding passports from everyone, including Sea Gypsies. Richard’s little family boat was moored in Kowloon, Hong Kong, when a HK Government Immigration officer showed up and offered them citizenship. Passports were issued, the family was offered a tiny plot of land and the government insisted that Richard and his sister receive an education. A few years later Richard won a scholarship to Edinburgh university, graduated and went into the financial sector and, eventually, became chief investment officer for one of the world’s largest banks. He retired at 50, saying that he realized he was doing no good for anyone, and moved to Chiang Mai.

He married a ‘tribal’ girl (the Thai term for people who live independently – usually in the hills – from mainstream Thai culture) and lived, very comfortably, in the village with her while they raised their daughter. He bought a plot of land (“No titles, of course!” he laughs) and built a modest home for his family and became a patron of the village. Then, yearning for urban life again, he moved to Chiang Mai. He sees his daughter, now 14, every week: something he looks forward to eagerly, as she visits on Sundays. He has always given her what, in local terms, is a generous allowance but noticed that she had never even bought  a smart phone. He recently asked her mother what she does with her money. The mother explained that she spends all of it on the local tribal girls at the orphanage at the local wat (temple). It had never occurred to the monks, the mother explained, that teenage girls need tampons, for example. Richard, naturally generous, was delighted and proud that his daughter had been doing this for years without mentioning it.

Richard’s literal rags-to-riches odyssey, his return to his tribal roots, and pride in his daughter’s life choices inspired me. If you move to Chiang Mai you’ll find lots of wonderful people like Richard – and lots of opportunities to make a difference in the lives of children here. Having breakfast with a Sea Gypsy in Chiang Mai sounds exotic, I know, but such encounters are part of everyday life here – which is why I love it.

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