Steve and Jemjahn go to Thailand, 2003
13. The Pink Palace
Jem had told me back in America, but I hadn’t believed her.
A wealthy, childless couple adopted a little boy many years ago. When they died in an airplane crash, their unchanged will left all the insurance money and their businesses to the now-adult son.
It’s rumored that today his wealth is almost drained. Jem says he never graduated from high school, that his wife didn’t go past 4th grade, but I don’t know what education has to do with common sense.
While he was riding high, his profligacy seemed an insult to everyone in an area so poor. Village lore has it he once called an auto dealer in Korat on his cell phone to have five cars delivered to his home for evaluation. When they arrived, he bought them all.
Like Gordon, he also built a dream house. It could not be more ugly if that was indeed his intention.
Remarkably out of place in a rural Thai village, the house is a 3-story monolith made of pink concrete. It towers over nearby Thai-style graceful homes, but its glass-block windows cannot be opened to catch the breeze. It depends on air conditioning for almost year round cooling.
What professional Thai architect could have designed such a mess? None, of course. He did. In fact, it was said that he designed it as it was being built, often tearing down what had already been constructed after having another “idea.”
The afternoon that Gordon and Pu visited us, we went for a walk. First to the village temple (about which, more later), then to the neighboring village, just a quarter mile away. As we’re standing in the lane outside the pink palace, marveling at its excesses, along comes the owner’s wife. Jem asks her if we can be shown inside the house.
Jem later tells me no one else had ever dared ask this. Thais are quite conscious of their place in the social pecking order, and in Thailand wealth is a reliable locator of one's position. Our “tour” was the first of its kind.
So while I’m thinking “Jemjahn, how can you ask that four strangers to be allowed to roam through their house, not even giving a chance to straighten up, have you no sense of protocol, privacy, decorum …” we’re inside the front door. Her combination of charm, self-confidence and childlike enthusiasm is hard to resist. I've rarely been able to, anyway.
So we’re being shown the house (in retrospect, all of it except the two places I wanted to see most, the kitchen and the bathroom). The rooms were smaller than I expected, and dark as well. The furniture looked expensive but very uncomfortable – mother-of-pearl inlaid on wooden sofas and chairs – and I would literally have to be paid to take it.
The entire wall of a sitting room was lined with ceramic figurines, kitsch in any culture, the kind I’d have thought would never see the light of day outside the store. Oh, and the bedroom had what looked like a 50-inch TV (in 2003 a few years salary for the average villager), probably a package deal with the satellite dish up on the roof.
Gordon and I agreed that if we were offered to live either in this mansion or in Sangjahn’s humble house, it would have been an easy decision. Except for pork-barrel government and some military programs (don’t get me started), nothing I know comes as close to this house for being a waste of money.
And the kicker? The house isn’t much used. The family actually lives in their smaller, much more comfortable, Thai-style house next door.