Although she is by training and profession a historian and teacher, Ajarn Pranee is also a living part of the Baba culture, which is a quintessential element of Phuket and she is widely recognised as a leading expert on the history and genesis of her people.
Ajarn Pranee was born on Thalang Rd in the heart of Phuket Old Town into a Chinese immigrant family – the original expats of Phuket – who settled here during the great Phuket tin-mining boom about 150 years ago.
Ajarn Pranee now has a lovely house in the leafy Land & Houses Park gated community close to Wat Chalong, and it was here in her living room brimming with Chinese vases and icons that I enjoyed a delightful traditional lunch with her and her husband.
“I am so glad that I was born in an old-fashioned era. It was so beautiful when people were so kind and lived without technology. Old-fashioned people spoke nicely. Nothing like this age, when people are rushing and can be so selfish,” Ajarn Pranee told me.
She had insisted on preparing us a delightful lunch at her home and as she served me she said, “I cook with two very essential ingredients… time and love. These qualities are vital for fine food and for human life, yet we seem to live in an age where they are becoming increasingly threatened, particularly here in Phuket.
“I grew up in Old Phuket Town during an era when many families had lived on the island for generations, so there was a sense of ownership and responsibility towards our lovely home. Now Phuket is flooded with temporary workers and people who are not from here, who treat the island with a complete disregard for its future and sustainability.”
Ajarn Pranee’s first language was the Phuket dialect of Thai, while her second was the traditional Hokkien Chinese of her forebears and she also speaks the central Thai dialect and English. She received her Thai name in 1956, when she was just nine years old, when the then-Prime Minister Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram was the country’s leader.
Ajarn Pranee’s family wasn’t the only one to adopt a new Thai name at this time, as anti-communist sentiments were rising in the ’50s both in Thailand and the US. It’s perhaps ironic then, that the present threat to Phuket’s survival comes from an unbridled capitalist tumult which pays scant regard to the niceties of conservation and sustainability.
Dining with Ajarn Pranee, I felt that I was in the presence of Phuket’s living history and that she represented a kinder, gentler, more civilised version of the Phuket than the one we know today. Certainly, Ajarn Pranee underscored this feeling when she spoke of the way in which vital local traditions are being lost.
“Both my Hokkien cultural roots and those of local Theravada Buddhism make great play of the debt we humans owe to the land that nurtures us. If we derive water, food and sustenance from the land, then these philosophies teach that we should pay the land back by acts of preservation and nurturing of the environment that has blessed us.
“In Phuket, our once-stunning natural environment also provides the touristic attractions that draw visitors from all over the world and thereby underpins our total economy. And yet we pay this bounteous land back with a savage disregard for its survival and its future. It is both a great cultural tragedy and a great environmental one and I increasingly find I want to withdraw back into my own culture.”
Ajarn Pranee is still extremely active within Phuket as the Honorary Consul to Phuket for Nepal; Phuket Community Foundation President and Thai Peranakan Association Vice President. She continues to dedicate herself to caring for her husband and their two children and to preserving and teaching about Phuket’s Baba culture.
As I walked back from the charming lunch I’d shared with Ajarn Pranee and her husband, I felt highly privileged to have gained an insight into the history and traditions of a more civilised time on our island. Equally, I couldn’t help but feel a cloak of sadness descend upon me as I contemplated where Phuket’s callous head-long rush is taking us.