Guest contribution by Genevieve Glatsky
A small road by the Ubonrat Dam an hour outside of Khon Kaen is lined with sugarcane fields that lead to the nondescript house of Martin Wheeler. Once touted as the face of small-scale integrated farming, organic agriculture, and the late King Rama IX’s sufficiency economy model, his farm which once grew rice and vegetables is now filled with sugarcane grown with chemical fertilizer.
Wheeler’s novelty as the “farang man who lives like a rural Thai” and speaks Isaan fluently has earned him a certain degree of celebrity. He has been profiled in countless news articles, given speeches, starred in TV shows and movies, and lauded for his apparent dedication to sustainability.
But much of the acclaim, Wheeler says, was misdirected. Partly by accident and partly by a rejection of his English upbringing, his reasons for settling in Isaan had little to do with the various causes that he became a poster child for.
Against his English roots
Wheeler was born in England in 1961 to an educated, middle-class family in Fleetwood, a small northern fishing town in Lancashire county. His father had a PhD and worked as a manager for a chemical company. He says he never liked school, but felt pressured by his parents to attend university.
He went to Cambridge for a year before transferring to the University of London. During his time there, he skipped classes to make money as a laborer, and found he enjoyed the work and spending time with “ordinary people.”
“I’m somebody who doesn’t like…,” he pauses, cursing as he struggles to find the right words.
“My language is terrible. It’s really impolite but it just comes out, and sometimes it’s the best way of expressing yourself,” he says, apologizing for his profanity-laced English. These days he much prefers Isaan-Lao, which he speaks smoothly and naturally. His passion for English football (“Almost the highlight of my life, man, all I want to see is England get to the World Cup final, almost fucking got there”) is the only love he retains for his homeland.
“I’m quite a straight sort of speaker. And I found there was a lot less bullshit working as a laborer. And if there was bullshit you just smacked him in the face and told him to fuck off. You don’t have to smile and pretend. It was really relaxing.”
He graduated in 1984 with a degree in Latin (“the most useless subject in the world”) and then continued to work as a laborer in England for the next few years.
“I felt very sorry for my parents. They seemed to plan their whole lives from the age of 14 or 15 until they were dead basically. So I decided I’d do something else. But I didn’t know what to do,” Wheeler recalls.
Stranded in Thailand
In 1992 his mother died, leaving him behind some money, which he saw as an opportunity to get out of England. He planned to travel for 18 months around Southeast Asia and then find work as a laborer in Australia. But too many full-moon parties left him stranded in Thailand without any money. He took a train from Surat Thani to the capital, where he “did what every Westerner does who’s got no fucking money to go home — pretend to be an English teacher in Bangkok. Fucking scumbag job.”
He made decent money teaching, which he often blew on partying as he coped with his mother’s death and his father’s disappointment in his life choices. During that time he was living with his girlfriend who after eight months announced she was pregnant.
“I had a couple of nights without sleep deciding whether I was gonna be a usual irresponsible bastard or try and do something about it,” he remembers.
A visit to his girlfriend’s family in the Ubonrat district of Khon Kaen brought him to Isaan for the first time. Back then the area was lacking roads, electricity, and running water. Few people drove a car, aside from a school bus and one tuk-tuk that brought goods back from the market twice a day.
“I thought this place was amazing,” Wheeler says.
Although he didn’t speak a word of Isaan or Thai, he found himself drawn in by the friendliness of the people, the lack of pretense, the apparent simplicity of the lifestyle — what he saw as the complete opposite of the English. Unlike back home, life as a laborer in Isaan, he observed, earned you a house, and land, and food.
A return to Bangkok carried the risk of him falling back into his hard-partying ways and ultimately the collapse of his relationship, so he decided to settle down in Isaan to live with his wife’s family and raise their son. As one of the few Westerners in the area, he attracted a lot of attention. People hired pickup trucks to drive out and see him “like a little seal in a zoo.”
“I came out here thinking it’d be really quiet and for some reason the Thais were really interested in me. To Western eyes I’m just a complete waste of space. ‘Just fucks about in the middle of nowhere’. But the Thais for some reason think it’s really good that I live like this,” he says.
Settling in Isaan
He found work as an English teacher at the local primary school, despite his initial reluctance to do so. But once he received some Christmas money from his sister, he was able to quit his job and work only as a laborer earning 95 baht per day, teaching himself to read and write Thai in his spare time.
“I really like hard work and no money. That’s why I like living out here as well,” he says. “You don’t have any problems if you got no money in life. Well you do, the only problem is you have no money. You don’t have to waste time thinking about what car you want, what phone you want. Cause you haven’t got any money.”
After a few years, his Thai was good enough to get work as a translator for the local hospital, which was operating a community development project to encourage small-scale integrated agriculture. It was the first time he learned of the health issues faced by villagers in Isaan —like the malnutrition and blood poisoning wrought by adult labor migration and the agrochemicals in cash crops.
It was also how he was introduced to the nearby village of Kamplalai, a community that is well-known for its small-scale integrated farming system. Around 2000, he bought five rai of land and moved there with his family, which by that time included a second child, a 4-year-old daughter. They planted some vegetables and trees, and raised chickens and fish.
That was around the time that the idea of the King’s sufficiency economics was picking up steam in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis. The movement, promoted by the late King Bhumibol Adhulyadej, emphasized moderation over capitalistic consumption as a means to alleviate the country’s suffering, and included suggestions for how farmers should divide their land to grow certain crops.
Thailand-based historian Chris Baker told The Isaan Record that the theory emerged as a counter to Thaksin’s capitalistic policies, and many proponents of the theory were intent on finding examples to prove their point of view.
“Articles would pop up in the newspaper every month or so; they would find some village saying ‘we followed the theory and we were very successful,” Baker says, adding that the plan is actually very difficult for the average Thai farmer to live by without a large amount of land. The model was criticized, says Baker, as “a theory that seems to appeal to people who are very well off telling poor people they shouldn’t strive for more.”
And Wheeler, as the anomalous white Western Isaan farmer, was the perfect spokesperson.
The Isaan celebrity
Newspapers and television stations started hounding him for interviews, eager to capture images of the farang embracing organic farming in Isaan. He started to receive regular speaking gigs to promote self-sufficiency economics. The Santi Asoke religious movement embraced him as the face of their anti-consumerist views.
But while Wheeler’s lifestyle choices often aligned with various causes, and he was happy to capitalize on the opportunities, he says he isn’t a political person.
“I got sort of roped into all this because I was doing the farming and I lived a simple life. The reason I lived a simple life is because I like to live a simple life.”
He says the media was intent on portraying him in a certain light — in a farmer’s hat, walking with his cows, growing rice. The problem was he didn’t own a hat. He didn’t have any cows, and wasn’t even growing rice at the time.
“People still think nowadays I’m into all sort of organic farming and vegetables and saving the world and all that kind of shite,” he says. “I just came out here because I want to live with ordinary people.”
Around 2003 as his speaking gigs kept rolling in, his father passed away and left him five million baht. For Wheeler, that meant panic — he worried if he had too much money in the bank, his family wouldn’t be keen on selling vegetables for 20 baht apiece. So he came up with ways to spend it, like paying for his entire British family to fly out to Thailand on holiday. He also bought a 41-rai plot of land and started growing rice, gradually abandoning the vegetables —but still giving regular interviews.
Shift to sugar
Six years ago, right as his father’s inheritance money was running out, his wife moved out. Without her help, he decided to grow sugarcane instead of rice, which requires less time and labor. He lets his friends grow their own sugarcane and cassava on the land he’s not using. He says he’s not much concerned about the effect of monocropping or chemical fertilizers on the environment.
“It’s a bit of a waste of time for me to talk about the dangers of chemicals,” he says, taking a drag from his hand-rolled cigarette. “And I don’t think it’s the job of Isaan farmers to help the world by not using fucking chemicals.”
He worried that he wouldn’t get any more speaking invitations after the switch to cash cropping but he’s still regularly asked to talk at various events. After the coup in May 2014, he was a speaker for the military’s reconciliation trainings. Without the pretense of promoting sustainable agriculture, he says, he tries to counter people’s preconceptions about farming, self-sufficiency economics, and about himself — although he acknowledges he’s largely “become like a standup comedian.” In the past few years, he’s also been offered acting roles in movies and music videos, including the 2014 hit movie “Phoobao Thai Baan Isaan” and last year’s “Hug Man”.
The simple life slipped away
Wheeler’s oldest son is in Mukdahan prison awaiting trial for charges of trafficking a large amount of methamphetamines across the Thai-Lao border. Every two weeks Wheeler travels there via public transport to visit him. He’s hoping his son’s sentencing will be light enough that he’ll be able to move to the prison in Khon Kaen. He has a strained relationship with his wife and two younger children.
Wheeler declines to talk on the record about politics, except to say that he is dismissive of the idea that democracy can bring change. “England has been a democracy for 360 years and fuck all has changed, basically,” he argues.
“I have no ambition for anything now at all,” he says, except to live to see his son released from prison. He regrets the dissolution of his family, but says he’s generally happy with his life in Isaan, and knows he has it better than many of his neighbors who often struggle to pay their bills.
The Northeast resembles less and less the region that attracted Wheeler in the 1990s. Now villagers drive cars and trucks fueled from the gas station he helped build when he worked as a laborer in his early days. When he arrived he had to travel to the post office in Khon Kaen to make international phone calls to England. Now he can talk to his sister on his cell phone from his front yard. The number of farmers, once seen as the “backbone of the nation” are plummeting. He laments that it’s seen as such a low-status profession, as his vision of the simple Isaan lifestyle that once drew him in is slipping away.
“The trouble is these small communities. And it will all change,” he says. “The land everywhere is slowly going out of the villagers’ hands and its middle-class Thais and people from the south and farang and all that buying up all the land. And what you lose is that sense of community.”