How was life back then?
I did not realise when I was young but we were quite poor monetary wise (no bathroom, outside toilet until I was 22!) but my childhood was filled with love and care and I was never hungry. We were encouraged to read and write and regular trips to the local library were made.
I passed the 11-plus as had my sister before me and also my brother who was born in 1957 when my parents were considered OLD (44 and 46!)
I really felt the distance when our sister Pat died 16 years ago aged 64 but me and my brother, Mark Merrill, have a very strong bond despite the 10 years difference! I am very blessed with my family as well as my in-laws!
How did you end up in Thailand?
The opportunity to come here for three years when we were both 50 seemed wonderful as we expected to earn a fortune and return home rich! LITTLE DID WE KNOW!! The company my husband Michael worked for wanted to open a representative office in the Far East Asia as sales were increasing but no one predicted the devastating financial crash in 1997!
Michael was Regional Manager and I was Assistant Regional Manager (general dogs-body) and worked for six years until the firm was sold to GE and I was ousted – not allowed to work downline of my spouse!! Their loss!
What about your children?
Jane and Andrew came with us to Thailand but the timing was not good for them and they both went back to live in Leicester, our home town. It was very traumatic for us all but we have weathered the storm and we are all fairly ‘normal’.
Jane returned and lived and worked in Thailand for over 12 years where she met and married her German husband, Henning Hegeler, and they have given us two beautiful granddaughters, Isabel and Mia. Andrew has visited often but prefers to live in UK.
British or Thai food?
I love Thai food but never cook it – why would I when it is so readily available and delicious? At home I cook traditional British meals but one of our favourite places to eat out is at The Londoner on Pattanakarn Road where the quality is consistent with good service too!
What don’t you like about Bangkok?
Traffic is one of my pet hates as I seem to spend a great deal of my time in the back of a taxi – thank goodness for my Iphone. I drove around in my own car for the first 13 years so I know when the taxi drivers take me on the scenic routes! There is so much construction everywhere and it breaks my heart to see the older and historical buildings being replaced by a chunk of concrete. So many of our favourite places have either gone or been modernised when the character disappears too. I really wonder if Bangkok has a Planning Department with all the shopping malls and condos built and being built. It is sad and scary to me!
After I finished paid work, I was elected Chairman of the British Women’s Group which lasted three years. When I stepped down, I was recruited to help with Ploenchit Fair (still do) on the BCTFN committee and a few months later became President of the Bangkok St. George’s Society, a position I held for four years!
It is all a great deal of fun even though hard work at times. However I have met many ambassadors and royalty which I would never have done back home.
Highlights of your time in Thailand: I was overwhelmed to receive an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in the 2014 New Year Honours for ‘Supporting the British community and charity work in Thailand’ – WOW!
I still feel honoured and humbled by the award but it is fantastic and has created such a feel good factor amongst my family and friends all over the world. The investiture at Buckingham Palace was wonderful – such a privileged experience granted to a few!
Any advice for newcomers to Thailand?
Get involved with everything then you will meet and make new friends then decide what you prefer – better to do something than nothing in this amazing place! Thailand has enabled me to do things I never imagined I could do, so have a go with a good heart and ENJOY!
When I was coming to Bangkok, I told everyone I was going to be a lady of leisure but I am still waiting for it to happen as there is always so much to do here. But you can make a big difference with a little kindness.
Are the local community groups as popular as in the past?
Sadly, most of those based in Bangkok are not so well supported nowadays as there are so many new ones, plus not so many expats are arriving in town.
The Loyal Societies (St. George’s, St. Andrew’s, St. David’s and St. Patrick’s) who used to have 500-600 attendees at their annual Balls suffer as things become more expensive.
There also seems to be a different attitude these days – not so many interested in upholding traditions which is what the Loyal Societies are all about – savoring but sharing our differences! I am English but proud to be British and support the other Loyal Societies.
How did you get involved in visiting prisoners in Thai jails?
Little did I know that by agreeing to visit some of the chaps in Bang Kwang prison (sentences of over 20 years plus) how my life would become embroiled with them and their families as well as the prison guards! A friend was leaving Bangkok and wanted someone to visit ‘her boys’, so to appease her, Katherine Biggs and I went ‘just the once’ on 25th August 2005! We saw three young British chaps, two of whom were in shackles and on Death Row, and as we were leaving, Katherine said to me” We will have to come again, won’t we?” ABSOLUTELY I replied!
What happened then?
Thus began weekly visits with more friends from the British Women’s Group joining us so we could call out more chaps after which we began to see their friends who never had visitors (Russian, Tanzanian, Kazakhstan, Burmese, Nepalese, Indian – United Nations.) At that time, we could take ‘farang’ food to the inmates - bread, ham, cheese, tomatoes etc. as well as post in parcels filled with toiletries, pillows, spectacles and other goodies. No parcels allowed nowadays and only two books per prisoner if it is noted on an embassy letter.
How did the prisoners react to a woman visitor?
They were always delighted to see a female, even if some of us were not too young. We had a few men join ‘the jail birds’ as someone described us as well as BEVV – British Embassy Volunteer Visitors. We did not judge as they were all inside for drug offences, but my family was shocked I would contemplate having anything to do with such people knowing how I felt about drugs!
I saw them as being 6000 miles from home and their loved ones and found that most of them were not only appreciative and grateful for our visits but also highly respectful, which has continued since the first chaps I visited are all now free.
On my first contact visit, Steve B said the others were so jealous he was going on a date, the first one in four years, which was funny as both me and Sally Smith were pensioners! Everyone loves a hug!
Visiting prisons must be depressing.
That is so not the case as our conversations cover everything under the sun - enlightening to all parties. I asked one chap if he would like anything bringing back when I was going to UK – a helicopter, he quipped! On another contact visit, about nine of us called nine chaps as family representatives (not allowed any more – sadly) and one young chap jumped up and said “Give me a hug, Gale”, then asked “You smell lovely, what is it?” I replied “Opium” and he came straight back with “That’s what I’m in here for!” Their sense of humour is unbelievable.
Yes. He worked in the Foreign Office at Bang Kwang and wrote The Last Executioner, the story of his life. He described me as his friend in his second book, The History of Bangkok Hilton. He was a lovely man and I attended his funeral as a friend and out of respect to his family.
I still visit prison but not so often as it is such a trek (expensive too as completely out of my own pocket) and have remained friends with most of the chaps who are now free as well as their families. It has been a worthwhile thing to do and so many people have benefitted – on the inside and outside of prison!
What’s Michael doing these days?
My husband is 74 and still working in his own business. So as long as we are still able to travel back and forth, then life will carry on as normal. We also have family and friends visiting often so have had many quality times together over the years. We will have been married 50 years in March 2020 and whilst it is not perfect, we are still together so maybe another medal is deserved!