Slaves and Unpaid Servants in Thailand: Kaa-gao Dtao Liang

Slaves and Unpaid Servants in Thailand: Kaa-gao Dtao Liang

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Slavery and Thailand…

Once again, slavery and Thailand are linked in the news. Shocking (to me) US companies have been enslaving Thai workers for years (see Combatting Modern Day Slavery in Hawaii and Mainland U.S.)

Thailand in turn has been accused of similar crimes against non Thais (see ‘Burmese Fishermen Are Trafficked and Abused On Thai Fishing Boats’).

But my post deals with a different kind of slavery: ข้าเก่า เต่าเลี้ยง /kâa-gào dtào líang/
ข้าเก่า เต่าเลี้ยง
[N] old servant
See also: slave since childhood, one born in slavery

The breakdown of ข้าเก่า เต่าเลี้ยง is:

ข้าเก่า /kâa-gào/ born into slavery
เต่า /dtào/ turtle
เลี้ยง /líang/ to feed, nourish, nurture, raise a child or animal, provide for…


I asked Rikker (because he always knows) and apparently the actual word is ข้าเก่า /kâa-gào/, with ข้าเก่า เต่าเลี้ยง /kâa-gào dtào líang/ being your typical Thai rhyming tweak, making it sound sweeter to the ears.

I’m not sure about you, but eye-raising statements such as ‘slave since childhood’ and ‘one born in slavery’ titillate me to learn more.

When I looked up ข้าเก่า เต่าเลี้ยง I assumed that since it stated slavery, it was. But the truth is, legal slavery was abolished in Thailand before I was born. 1912 Siam (Thailand), formally abolishes all slavery. The act of selling a person into slavery was abolished in 1897 but slavery itself was not outlawed at that time.

I asked my good friend Khun Pha about kâa-gào dtào-líang and it just so happens that she has such a person working for her. And not only that, she would love to tell the story. What a great opportunity to learn more about the inner workings of Thai culture! So yeah, I grabbed at it.

I can’t type that fast so Khun Pha said ok to a recording. Wanting to spice it up, we roped in Khun Pi for a session. And that’s what you’ll find below: Khun Pha talking about her experiences with kâa-gào dtào-líang, and Khun Pi playing devils advocate and sometimes winding Khun Pha up (he’s good like that).

Ah. And because it’s important in Thailand… Khun Pha is middle class, college educated in both Thailand and the west, and is coming up to 60 years old. Khun Pi is educated in Thailand, quite savvy (never stops learning), and is a few years behind Khun Pha. My age is… never mind.

The Two K’s on ข้าเก่า เต่าเลี้ยง /kâa-gào dtào-líang/…

Khun Pha:

วันนั้น พี่ อธิบาย ให้ เขา ฟัง
One day I explained to her [Catherine].

พี่ พูดถึง เรื่อง ข้าเก่า เต่าเลี้ยง
I talked about kâa-gào dtào-líang.

คุณ พิ เข้าใจ ใช่มั้ย
Khun Pi, do you understand that?

Khun Pi:

อือ ฮึ
I know.

Khun Pha:

อื้อ หมายความ ว่า เมื่อก่อน เนี้ย คนไทย เรา เนี่ย นิยม มี คนใช้ อยู่ ที่ บ้าน
Right. It means that previously it was common for Thai people to have servants live in our homes.

บางที เนี่ย คนใช้ เนี่ยะ ไม่ใช่ แค่ คนเดียว อะ แต่ แบบ มี ทั้ง ครอบครัว
Sometimes not only one servant but a whole family.

คือ พ่อแม่ อยู่ กับ เรา ก่อน แล้วพอ มีลูก
It means the parents live with us and then have children.

พอ มีลูก มีหลาน อะไร ขึ้นมา
When they have children or grandchildren…

เรา ก็ ยังคง ให้ เขา อยู่ ต่อ ใน บ้าน ของ เรา
… we still have them live in our homes.

เขา ก็ ยัง ทำงาน ให้ เรา และ เขา ก็ คิด เป็น ครอบครัว เดียวกัน น่ะ
They still work for us and they feel that we are the same family.

เอ่อพี่ ก็ อธิบาย ให้ คุณ แคท ฟัง อ่ะว่า ที่ บ้าน พี่ อะ มี ไอ้ เด็ก อยู่ คน หนึ่ง แม่เขาอ่ะเคยทำงาน กับ แม่ พี่ และ พ่อแม่ เขา เนี่ย ตาย ไป แล้ว
I explained to Khun Cat that at my house I have one child live with me and her mother used to work for my mother and after that her parents died.

และ ไอ้ นี่ มัน ก็ ไม่ มี ญาติ ที่ไหน มัน ก็ เป็น หน้าที่ ของ พี่ ที่ ต้อง อยู่ กับ พี่ ต่อไป
And this person had no relatives anywhere so it was my duty to have her stay with me.

Khun Pi:


Khun Pha:

ตอนแรก เขา อยู่ กับ น้อง พี่
At first she stayed with my younger sibling.

ที นี้ น้อง พี่ เนี่ย เขาแยก แยกบ้าน แยก เรือน ออกไป มีครอบครัว ของ เขา เอง
Then my younger sister moved out to have her own house and family.

แล้ว แม่ พี่ เนี่ยะ เห็นว่า พี่ เนี่ยะ ไม่ มี ใคร อยู่ ด้วย
Then my mother saw that I didn’t have anyone to live with.

แม่ ก็ เลย ให้ เรา เนี่ยดูแล ไอ้ นี่ และ ไอ้ นี่ มันก็ เต็มใจ ที่ จะ อยู่ กับ เรา
My mother then got me to take care of this child and the child was willing to live with me.

บางที เนี่ย เรา ไม่ได้ จ้าง เขา เป็น เดือน หรอก อยู่ ด้วยกัน เหมือน เป็น ครอบครัว
Sometimes we don’t pay this kind of servant a monthly salary. We live as family.

Khun Pi:

มี สมบัติ ต้อง ทำ พินัยกรรม ให้ เขา ด้วย, ต้อง ให้ เขา นะ เพราะ ว่า อะไร รู้ มั้ย ! เพราะว่า
If you have assets you have to make a will to give to her as well. You must give it to her! Do you know why? Because…

Khun Pha:

เขา ดูแล เรา
… she takes care of me.

Khun Pi:

เขา ดูแล เขา ดูแล แน่ๆ หละ ไม่ ต้อง กลัว หรอก
She takes care. She certainly takes care of you, sure. Don’t need to be scared.

Explanation: There is not a need be scared because she will always take care, even when one becomes old (some neglect old people).

Khun Pha:


Khun Pi:

เอา เหอะ
Do it!

Khun Pha:

ก็ พี่ ก็ ให้ อย่างเช่น
And I give her, for example…

Khun Pissout (interrupting):

เงินสด สิบ ล้าน
Cash, ten million baht.

Khun Pha:

โอ้โฮ ไม่ ถึง หงะ
Well, not that much!

เมื่อ ปี ที่แล้ว เรา ก็ ให้ แหวน มัน วง หนึ่ง
Last year I did give her one ring.

แหวน ก็ แหวน เล็กๆ มีเป็น แหวน ที่ แม่ เพิ่ง ให้ เรา
The ring is a small one. The ring my mother just gave to me.

อันนี้ คนไทย เขา เรียกว่า ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง
This is what we Thai [Thai society] call kâa-gào dtào-líang.

หมายถึง ว่า ข้า เนี่ย ก็ คือ พวก คนใช้ คือ เรา เลี้ยง เขา แล้ว เนี่ย เรา จะ ต้อง เลี้ยงดู ต่อไป อะ
Kâa means servants. It means when we take care and pay for everything for them… we would… continue to take care of them. I think.

เอ่อ คุณ พิ มี ความคิด อย่างไร คุณ Catherine (แค ท เธอ รีน) เขา อยากจะ ฟัง ความคิด ของ คุณ พิ ว่า the Thai ways น่ะ วิถีชีวิต ไทย อะ
Well, Khun Pi, what is your idea? Khun Catherine would like to hear your opinion about the Thai way of living.

Khun Pi:

อืม … ก็ แบบ ที่ พี่ พูด น่ะ แหละ มัน ก็ ต้อง เป็น แบบนี้ ทั้งนั้นแหละ same, same same.
Well, it is exactly what you said. It must be like this. All of it. Same. Same, same.

Khun Pha:

เพราะว่า ใน ความเป็นคนไทย เนี่ย คือ ชีวิต ดั้งเดิม เนี่ย มัน ก็ เป็น ระบบ ครอบครัว อยู่ แล้ว
Because… in being Thai, it means our traditional life… it has been the family system for ages.

เรา เรียกว่า ครอบครัว อุปถัมภ์ ครอบครัว ก็ หมายถึง เป็น อะไร Family ใช่มั้ย !
We call the ‘patronage family’ krôp-krua. The word krôp-krua means family, yes?

Khun Pi:

อือ ฮึ
I’m listening (agree).

Khun Pha:

อุปถัมภ์ ก็ คือ to look after to take care หรือว่า to support อ่ะ นะ เพราะฉะนั้น
The ù-bpà-tăm means to take care, to look after, or to support, like this, therefore…

Khun Pi:

It is donation

Khun Pha:

ไม่ ไม่ donation.
No, not donation.

Khun Pi:

ไม่ได้ เหรอ ?
Can’t it be?

Khun Pha:

คนละแบบ คนละแบบ ไม่ใช่ ไม่ใช่
Different type, different type, no, no!

We have to look after them เพราะว่า we use them. เรา ใช้ แม่ เขา ใช้ พ่อ เขา ใช่มั้ย
We have to look after them, because we use them. We use the services of their mother, their father. Right?

NOTE: ‘use’ in Thai is similar to “I use Mike’s car cleaning service” in English.

Khun Pha:

แต่ พอ พ่อแม่ เขา ตาย เนี่ย แล้ว เขา มีลูก ต่อ แล้ว ลูก เขา ไม่ ไป เนี่ย เขา ต้อง อยู่กับ เรา – เรา ก็ ต้อง take care เรา ต้อง รับผิดชอบ
And when the parents die and the child doesn’t want to go the child has to stay with us – we have to take responsibility.

Khun Pi:

วงเล็บ เขา เป็น คนดี ด้วย
And also, she must be a good person.

Khun Pha:

อ๋อ ใช่ ก็ คือ ส่วนมาก ก็ ต้อง
Yes, that’s right. Mostly must be.

Khun Pi:

ต้อง เป็น คนดี ด้วย
Must be a good person.

Khun Pha:

ก็ ต้อง ซื่อสัตย์ กัน น่ะ ใช่ มั้ย !
Must be honest to each other right?

Khun Pi:


Khun Pha:

เป็น คนดี ซื่อสัตย์ คือ honest และก็ ไว้ใจ ได้ trustful.
She has to be honest, honest, and be good person who is honest and trustworthy.

Khun Pha:

บางที นะ บาง บ้าน น่ะ we give, เรา ให้ เงินเขา น่ะ เขา but not for hiring
Sometimes, in some houses, we give, we give them money but not for hiring.

Khun Pi:

อือ … ฮึ
Yep, I am listening.

Khun Pha:

แต่ หมายถึง ว่า ให้ เป็น ค่า ขนม
But it means we give them to buy dessert [pocket money].

Khun Pi:

อืม … ไม่ ให้ เป็น Salary ล่ะ
Understand. Why don’t you give her a salary?

Khun Pha:

ไม่ใช่ ๆ we don’t consider that the salary we… เอ่อ คือ เรา ไม่ได้ ให้ เป็น แบบ เงินเดือน แต่ เรา ให้ เขา เป็น แบบ ค่า ขนม
No, we don’t consider the salary, we… we don’t give her a salary we give pocket money.

เพราะว่า ไอ้ ค่า ใช้จ่าย ภายใน บ้าน พวก ค่า ข้าว ค่า อาหาร อะไร พวกนี้ เรา เรา รับผิดชอบ อยู่แล้ว
Because all the expenses in the house for food, for household things, we already take the responsibility for those things.

แต่ ที่ เรา ให้ เนี่ย เรา เรียกว่า สินน้ำใจ คือ ให้ เป็น ค่าขนม ค่าใช้จ่าย เผื่อ เค้า อยากจะ ซื้อ อะไร เล็กๆน้อยๆ ของ เขา
But the money we give we call it a tip for snacks or expenses. In case she wants to buy inexpensive or miscellaneous things.

Khun Pi:

แล้ว ถ้าเกิด เขา จะ ซื้อ ใหญ่ๆ เขา จะ อยู่ ได้ ยังไง เขาจะ เอา ที่ไหน ซื้อ !
What If she wants to buy something big or expensive, how can she live with it, where will she will find money?

Khun Pha:

เขา ก็ ต้อง เก็บ ตังค์ ของ เขา สิ
She must save her own money!

Khun Pi:

เอา ที่ไหน เก็บ ล่ะ !!
From where can she save?

Khun Pha:

อ๊าว ก็ ที่ เรา ให้ เขา นี่ไง
Well, from what we give her!

Khun Pi:

และ เกิด เรา เรา ให้ เขา น้อย ล่ะ
What if you give her only a little?

Khun Pha:

โอ๊ย เรา ก็ ให้ ตาม ความเหมาะสม แล้ว เขา ก็ ต้อง ยอมรับ ด้วย ว่า สถานะ เรา เป็น ยังไง เรา จน หรือ เรา รวย
Well, I have to give her what fits my income and she has to accept my status as well. If I am rich or poor.

Khun Pi:

ฝรั่ง เขา บอก ว่า ไม่ แฟร์
Westerners say that it is not fair.

Khun Pha:

อื๊ม ไอ้ นั่นฝรั่ง
Those are westerners!

Khun Pi:

เอ่อ ถ้า เป็น ชาวยุโรป ชาวตะวันตก เค้า จะ บอก ว่า ไม่ you ทำงาน ให้ ชั้น เท่านี้ ชั้น ให้ เงิน you เท่านี้ เป็น ค่าแรง
If Europeans or westerners, they will say, “No. You work for me this amount, I give you money for this amount, for labour”.

เป็น คล้ายๆ กับ แบบ Labor เป็นค่าแรง ไป ใช่มั้ยฮะ
It is almost the same as Labour. It is a wage, correct?

Khun Pha:

แต่ คุณ พิ
But Khun Pi…

Khun Pi:

อาจจะ เป็น สำหรับ ฝรั่ง อาจจะ เป็น สำหรับ job job ไป
Maybe for westerners… Perhaps pay per work.

Ok. วันนี้ คุณ ทำงาน สี่ ชั่วโมง 4 hours ok I tell you 500 baht.
Ok today you worked 4 hr, 4 hours ok I tell you 500 baht.

Wow ok I tell you 500 baht ห้าร้อย บาท หรือ อะไร อย่างนี้
Wow ok I tell you 500 baht I give you 500 baht something like this.

เขา ไม่ เหมือน คนไทย เรา
They are not like us Thai people.

คนไทย เรา อาจจะ … คุณ มา ทำงาน ให้ ฉัน ทั้งวัน เลย
For Thai people maybe…, “you came to work for me the whole day…

อ้ะ ฉัน ให้ เธอ สามร้อย ฉัน ให้ เธอ ร้อยนึง ฉัน ให้ เธอ พันนึง
…Ok I give you 300 baht. I give you 100 baht. I give you 1000 baht”.

แล้วแต่ ฐานะ ใช่มั้ย !
It depends on status, right?

แต่ ฝรั่ง เขา จะ แฟร์
But westerners, they will be fair.

Khun Pha:

ไม่ ๆ
No, no!

Khun Pi:

เขา จะ ให้ เป็น แบบ ตาม แรงงาน ที่ เรา ทำ
They will give like… according to the labour we do.

Khun Pha:

คุณ พิ คิดว่า
Khun Pi, you think that…

เรา ไป เอา คน ข้างนอก แต่ นี่ ถ้า คน อยู่ ด้วยกัน มัน เป็น ครอบครัว ใช่ไหม ฮะ
We employ outsiders but this, for people who live together, it is family isn’t it?

และ เรา ไม่ได้ มา บังคับ ให้ เขา มา อยู่กับ เรา
And we don’t force them to stay with us.

เขา อยู่กับ เรา เพราะ เขา เต็มใจ ที่ จะ มา อยู่กับ เรา
They stay with us because they are willing to stay with us.

เขา ไม่ อยากจะ ไป ไหน เพราะ เขา ถือว่า เรา น่ะ เป็น ครอบครัว แล้ว
They don’t want to go to stay anywhere else because they already consider us as family.

Khun Pi:

ถ้า วันใด เรา ไม่ ให้ ตังค์ เขา เขา ไม่ มี รายได้ มาก พอที่ เขา จะ ซื้อ ไอ้นู่น ได้ ไอ้นั่นไอ้นี่ ได้
If one day you don’t give her money and she has no enough income to buy the things that she wants…

เขา ก็ จะ ไม่ เป็น ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง กับ เรา เพราะว่า เขา ก็ จะ ต้อง ไป อ่ะ คือ อาจจะ แต่งงาน ไป… อะไร ไป อย่างงี้
She would not be your unpaid servant, because she needs to leave, may be leaving for marriage… something like this.

Khun Pha:

อ่า โอเค คือ หมายถึง ว่า ถ้า สมมติ เขา อยากจะ มีครอบครัว เขา แยก ครอบครัว ออกไป และ เขาเห็นว่า แล้ว เรา ก็ ต้อง เต็มใจ นะ เรา ต้อง ยินดี กับ เขา
Oh yes, if she wants to have her own family, if she has a new family and lives away from us and she sees that… then we have to agree and be glad for her.

Khun Pi:

ใช่ ต้อง ยินดี
Yes, be glad.

Khun Pha:

เรา ยินดี กับ เขา ว่า โอเค เขา จะ ไป มี อนาคต ของ เขา เอง ไป สร้าง อนาคต ของ เขา เอง
We are happy for her that… right, she is going to have her own future, to create her own future.

Khun Pi:


Khun Pha:

แต่ ถ้า ตราบใด ที่ เขา เนี่ย ยัง เห็นว่า อยู่กับ เราแล้ว เขา สบาย
But as long as she still sees that she is fine to stay with us…

และ ก็ เขา 0ก็ ไม่ ต้องการ ที่จะ แยก ครอบครัว ออกไป
…and she doesn’t want to separate to make her own family.

Khun Pi:


Khun Pha:

เขา ก็ อยู่กับ เรา อยู่ กัน เหมือน พี่ เหมือน น้อง เหมือน ลูก เหมือน หลาน
Then she would stay with us. Stay together like older or younger siblings, like children or grandchildren.

และ เขา ก็ ต้อง รู้ ด้วย ว่า เรา เนี่ยะ ฐานะ เรา เป็น ยังไง
And she has to understand my economic status.

เรา รวย หรือ ไม่ รวย แล้ว ก็ อยู่กัน อย่าง มี ความสุข
We are rich or not rich then we stay together happily.

เหมือน ไอ้ เด็ก ที่อ ยู่กับ พี่
Same as the child who stays with me.

Khun Pi:

อัน นั้น คือ เป็น คน ยุคเก่า เป็น คน เก่า เป็น คนยุคก่อน
That is the people of the older generation. She is a person of the older generation. She is a person from the former generation.

แต่ ถ้า เป็น เด็ก สมัยนี้ เป็น คนรุ่นใหม่ new generation นะ ไม่มีทาง เลย
But if she is a young person from this generation, of the new generation, new generation, then no way.

Khun Pha:

อืม ! ก็ เนี่ย ไง
Yep, like this (as I said).

Khun Pi:

แต่ หาก เขา ไม่มี สตางค์ เนี่ย นะ เขา ไม่ พอ จะ ใช้จ่าย เนี่ย
But if she doesn’t have money. She doesn’t have enough to spend.

เขา ไม่ สา มารถ จะ ซื้อ ไอ้ G-Net ได้ อะไร ได้ iPhone ได้
She cannot buy the G-net or iPhone.

มัน มี ความรู้สึก ว่า เขา ควรจะ หา เส้นทาง ใหม่ ที่ เขา จะ เดิน
She will have the feeling that she should find a new route to walk.

Khun Pha:

คุณ พิ พูด เหมือนว่า
K.Pi said as if….

Khun Pi:

เขา อาจ จะเป็น แบบ ข้า เก่า เต่า เลี้ยง ก็ จริง อะ แต่ ยุคใหม่ เนี่ย เขา จะ ไป และ= แล้ว
She might be like the unpaid servant, it’s true, but the new generation servants, they will leave…

Khun Pha:

ก็ นี่ไง ที่ คุณ พิ พูด น่ะ พูดถึง คนสมัยใหม่ ไอ้ คน รุ่น ใหม่
Just right like this, what you said, you meant new generation, those new generation people.

แต่ ที่ พี่ พูดถึง เนี่ย
But what I said….I meant…

Khun Pi:

คน รุ่นเก่า
Older generation.

Khun Pha:

คน รุ่นเก่า ยัง มี
People of the older generation still exist.

Khun Pi:

คน รุ่นเก่า เพราะ คน พูด เป็น คนแก่ ฮะ ฮ่า ฮ่า
Older generation. Because the speaker is a person from the older generation.

(sound of laughter)

Khun Pha:

มัน ยัง มีอยู่
It still exists.

Khun Pi:

ยัง มีอยู่ ยัง มีอยู่
Still exists. Still exists.

Khun Pha:

อย่างเช่น พี่ น่ะ โชคดี แล้วก็ … เพราะ เขา มองเห็น แล้ว ว่า เขา ไป อยู่ ข้างนอก เนี่ย ถึงแม้ เขา จะ ไป ทำงาน ที่ โรงงาน ได้ เงินเดือน
Like me, I’m lucky and… because she already realised that, for example, if she lives out even though she would go to work at a factory, get a salary.

แต่ มัน ไม่ใช่ ความสุข ของ เขา ความสุข ของ เขา ก็ อยู่กับ เรา เนี่ย
But it is not her happiness. Her happiness is to stay with me like this.

Khun Pi:

ได้ ดูแล เรา
Have chance to take care of you.

Khun Pha:

เรา ดูแล เขา ด้วย
She takes care of me too.

Khun Pi:


Khun Pha:

เรา เหมือน ครอบครัว น่ะ แต่ เด็ก สมัยนี้ น่ะ ยอมรับ ล่ะ ว่า โอเค เงิน … สำคัญ ที่สุด
We are like family… but this generation of young people, I accept that… Ok… money is the most important thing.

Khun Pi:


Khun Pha:

พวกนี้ เนี่ย เรา ก็ ไม่ สนใจ ก็ ไป
This kind of people, we don’t need to pay attention to. They leave.

แต่ ที่ พี่ พูดถึง ว่า ยัง มี อ้าย ข้าเก่า เต่าเลี้ยง
But what I said that there are still some kâa-gào dtào-líang.

แต่ แน่นอน ว่า มัน จะ ต้อง หมดไป … หมดไป มัน จะ ต้อง หมดไป
But certainly they will disappear, disappear, they will disappear.

Khun Pi:


The rest of the kâa-gào dtào-líang story…

If you’ve ever recorded a themed conversation then you’ll know that it’s easy to forget needed details. I was already up on basics of the story so when I listened to the recordings I noted what was missing.

At my request Khun Pha stopped by for a second session and after compiling the facts I checked with her to make sure I had them correct. And that’s what you have below… the missing pieces.

All through the audio you’ll hear ‘the girl’ but her nickname (ชื่อเล่น /chêu lên/) is น้อย /nói/ meaning ‘little’.

Before Noi came to live with Khun Pha she’d spent almost her entire life in the home of her parents’ employers. Noi’s parents were the ข้าเก่า เต่าเลี้ยง /kâa-gào dtào-líang/ (unpaid servants) of a neighbour of Khun Pha‘s mother.

In the employer’s house there was an old lady, her five young sons (all in school at that time), and a daughter with a husband and their three children. Then of course, the two servants and their young daughter, Noi.

Several years passed and the breadwinner of the house died. His wife and children moved away to the countryside, with everyone else staying behind. Then Noi’s parents died, leaving her alone with the old women of the house and the remaining siblings, the five sons. None of the sons were interested in working so eventually the family became poor.

Khun Pha’s mother (let’s call her แม่ /mâe/ mother from now on) lived in the house next door. And to help out financially, Mae often sent Noi to the store, paying her small tips in exchange. And when Mae needed help around the house, she’d hire Noi for short jobs. But Mae couldn’t do more than that because she already had live in help of her own. She only needed extra help when they were not available.

When the situation started getting worse for Noi, Mae felt obligated to ask the neighbour’s permission to find the young girl a better place. The old women agreed so Mae explained to Noi that she didn’t have room in her own house, but her children did, and would she like to go live with them instead?

And that’s how ten year old Noi came to live with Khun Pha nicknamed Eet (อี๊ด /éet/), her older brother Aet (พี่แอ๊ด /pêe-áet/), and her younger sister Oi (อ้อย /ôi/).

A note on Thai names: Some Thai families give singsong nicknames to their children. In Khun Pha’s family (starting with the older brother and working down) there is Aet, Eet, and Oi. And when Oi gave birth to a daughter, Mae combined Oi with Ing to get Oi-ing (อ้อยอิ่ง /ôi-ìng/) which means ‘slow motion’ in Thai. And what baby doesn’t move slow?

Anyway… after the young girl’s arrival, Khun Pha renamed Noi with a more positive nickname, Porn (พร), which means ‘blessing’ in Thai.

As Khun Pha and her brother worked long hours it was younger sister Oi’s responsibility to keep the house running. So basically, Porn was Oi’s personal (unpaid) servant. In the early years, being out all the time, Khun Pha rarely saw Porn. Then when Oi moved away with her growing family, and after, older brother Aet died, Khun Pha and Porn were alone in the house. But it was only when Khun Pha was housebound for months with an illness that Porn told her life story. By then Porn was around 20 years old.

For whatever reason, Porn’s parents did not get her birth registered in Thailand. And without a birth certificate she could not go to school. We’ll never know for sure, but it could be that Porn’s parents were from a neighbouring country and never became citizens of Thailand (it’s only possible if you have a legal work permit).

Being born under the radar Porn was not eligible for opportunities available to some (not all) Thais: Thai ID card, basic education, public healthcare, passport, the possibility of a higher paying job, ability to buy property, open a bank account, start a legal business, etc.

Porn did not go to school but on her own initiative she studied English. Before she moved in with Khun Pha’s family at ten, Porn was tutored in English by a kind neighbour. This neighbour worked nights and just like Mae, she took pity on Porn, tipping her for doing odd jobs. And when she had the time, this neighbour taught Porn English learned from western clients. I guess in some circles you would call the neighbour a ‘lady of the night’.

Khun Pha’s ability to communicate in English had impressed Porn from the very first. And these days, when Khun Pha is working at home in the evenings, Porn sits along side of her studying English and history (the history was added by Khun Pha). And when Khun Pha helps locate books I need for my Thai studies she often picks up books for Porn too.

I asked Khun Phai why Porn didn’t make the effort to get a paying job but apparently there are several hurdles. One, paperwork. And two, being born into kâa-gào dtào líang, Porn doesn’t want to leave a situation she’s known all her life. And three, she doesn’t enjoy being outside on her own.

Porn knows how to take busses but she doesn’t like to or need to. Khun Pha doesn’t mind so drives her to the grocery store and then picks her up after. Always one to find fun in a situation, Khun Pha calls Porn ‘my lady’ because Porn sits in the backseat of the car while Khun Pha chauffeurs her around town. Sweet!

Ok, so the next question is: what happens to Porn when Khun Pha gets too old to work, or dies? And this is where the Thai tradition of kâa-gào dtào líang continues on. When Oi was having her babies Porn was there to help. Oi’s daughter, Oi-ing, now grown, might be from the modern generation but she feels a family obligation to Porn and will step in when the time comes.

To finish…. Thailand has no social security in place for its citizens. Can you imagine it? To makeup for this lack, in Thailand family unit serves as security blankets. Porn’s parents did not have family in the area so became the (unpaid) servants of a Thai family. With not many other options, I’m guessing that it was in the hope of being taken care of for life. As they were.

When Porn’s parents died she was left an orphan without a secure safety net. A possible tragedy, but instead of landing on the streets a caring family took responsibility for her welfare.

She’s now in charge of the household and I’m told gets quite bossy! If Khun Pha doesn’t take her medicine, Porn reminds her. And if Khun Pha eats too much meat, there’s Porn again, nagging at her.

Kâa-gào dtào-líang is not the way of the west and like both Khun Pi and Khun Pha noted it’s fading in Thailand. But kâa-gào dtào-líang certainly exists today.

And to end: I believe that a better definition of ข้าเก่า เต่าเลี้ยง /kâa-gào dtào-líang/ would be unpaid, loyal servant. What say you?

31 thoughts on “Slaves and Unpaid Servants in Thailand: Kaa-gao Dtao Liang”

  1. A marvelous post and a wonderful read both the interview and the comments. Only sorry I didn’t catch this before. Great work Catherine–much appreciated.

  2. It’s now 2015 and I have an update and clarification to a few points there were (mis)understood before.

    All these years, Khun Pha was under the assumption that Khun Porn had been born in Thailand of (possibly) Cambodian parents or born in Cambodia and brought over at a young age. And that the people with her were her mother and father.

    When Khun Porn finally decided to go through the process of becoming legal she had to ask a former neighbour to be a witness as to where she came from. The neighbour says Khun Porn was born in Cambodia and come across with her father, who died during their flight from the Khmer Rouge (this puts her closer to 40 than the previously assumed 30, but she looks like she’s in her 30’s, hence the added confusion). Khun Porn does not know where her real mother is. After her father died another person stepped in as Khun Porn’s mother and introduced herself as such when looking for work. She told the neighbour (at least) but not Khun Pha’s family.

    Anyway, Khun Porn is now in Thailand legally, complete with Cambodian passport. She has no desire to go to Cambodia and she wouldn’t know where to look for existing family members anyway. She’s happy in Thailand and I imagine feels Thai.

  3. Thanks, Khun Catherine. There are many western languages which, when compared to Thai, is not as society driven and places a lot (perhaps too much) value on factual accuracy. For example, kinship terms are used more in Thai than in say, English. There are so many “relatives” and “siblings” in Thailand, that you would not be the wiser as to what the actual relationships are unless and until you specifically dig deeper (which, in the absence of special circumstances, may not always be considered proper and/or polite). So if there had been no specific and detailed discussion of ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง, to all intents and purposes Khun Porn would be referred to as a relative (which to her mind, she is and which to everyone else, she is). The old meaning/use of “retainer” is “servant” which still implies compensation for services rendered. So I beg to differ in that I think that we can get around “old faithful retainer”, and we should. In Batman, Alfred is Bruce Wayne’s butler, not his old faithful retainer. If they are Thai, Alfred would be Bruce’s relative.

  4. Hi David, I asked Kaewmala about your suggestion. This is her reply:

    The term is legalese. Thais would not use that precise term บุคคลที่เป็นเสมือนญาติ in normal conversation but you might see it in legal documents.

    Basically ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง means “old retainer” in English, 18th century sentiment and you can’t get around that.

  5. Khun Catherine, for want of a better definition of a ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง as you have so beautifully described herein, one which would capture most of the characteristics of the same and at the same time not be politically incorrect, would probably be: “an informal relationship wherein a person who is to all intents and purposes a quasi relative of another person (relatively the one with the wherewithal), permanently stays in the house of the latter (the one with the wherewithal), and the former provides such house services as the former is fit to carry out in exchange for accommodation and support for life, all done gratuitously and without there being any form of formal contract”. In short, you could refer to Khun Porn as a “quasi relative” (in Thai: บุคคลที่เป็นเสมือนญาติ which in my book, sounds far better than ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง all day long).

  6. Thanks Catherine. This is a wonderful post on your blog – one of the best things about Thai language and culture I’ve read in the last year.

  7. Kaewmala, thanks for “เด็กคนใช้ในบ้าน”. My HouseTalk series is finally kicking off this Friday and I don’t believe I have that one (might not have ผู้ทำงานรับใช้ในบ้าน either).

    ผู้ทำงานรับใช้ในบ้าน – good grief the terms are getting longer. I do prefer the shorter versions, with แม่บ้าน sounding sweet to my ears.

    The relationship between Khun Pha and Khun Porn seems a lot closer than what would normally be for a แม่บ้าน. The concern shown between the two is almost like what you’d find between an older and younger sister. But then, with the extended family units, I don’t know what’s normal here.

    Alice (Amah in Borneo) refused to eat at our table. She’s the one who kept a strict line between our two families, not letting me cross. Even through those years together I was only allowed to babysit John once (I offered often) and that was due to an emergency. She wouldn’t leave him with me so she could get a deserved break.

    I once asked Alice if being called “Amah” bothered her. She looked at me like I’d lost my marbles. All she cared about was doing a good job in order to send money home to her sons. She’d leave the Orang Putih to spend their days worrying about being politically correct because her day was plenty busy already.

  8. Cat, the standard Thai word for “servant” is คนใช้ /khon chái/. It is an exact equivalent in meaning, referring to a person, persons or employee(s) working in domestic service. It’s a generic term for all domestic workers – from แม่บ้าน (housekeeper), แม่ครัว or พ่อครัว (cook) and คนขับรถ (driver) to คนสวน (gardener), พี่เลี้ยงเด็ก (nanny) and assistants ผู้ช่วย to these. (Not so different from the English butler, valet, footman, cook, scullery maid, etc.)

    Many Thais are still using the term คนใช้ (if you want to see this in action, turn on any prime time TV soap), although the term has become somewhat pejorative the way it has in English (at least among certain segment of progressive Thais). I myself don’t use the term คนใช้ with my household help (or others’), and my housekeeper doesn’t like that word either. Once, a Thai workman came to our house and found our housekeeper eating at the same table with us and he made a comment to my mother that it was unbecoming that we treated her “as equal,” and he said something else I don’t remember but my housekeeper did have an issue with him calling her a คนใช้. My housekeeper (who is Burmese who speaks fluent Thai) said she was a ลูกจ้าง (employee) just like the workman was a hired help.

    Also often you’ll hear the term “เด็กคนใช้ในบ้าน” (lit. “kid domestic servant”), these tend to be younger as indicated by the word เด็ก, who is usually a housemaid, houseboy, to errand girl/boy (or sometimes even man/woman,if the employer is older). In NGO circle, a politically correct term of domestic workers is ผู้ทำงานรับใช้ในบ้าน, lit. person who works in domestic service – not คนใช้.

  9. Kaewmala, once again, thank you for helping me get my head around this.

    “the relationship of which is much closer, tied in, and there’s a high level of loyalty and emotional connection involved”

    That makes sense. Khun Pha mentioned that there is no new Thai word so Thais will use ข้าเก่า เต่าเลี้ยง to give a ballpark explanation. So what we need now is a NEW Thai word to replace the outdated ข้าเก่า เต่าเลี้ยง. Are you game? 🙂

    Btw -I mentioned in my post that there is no social security in Thailand. I’ve since been notified that there is but at 500 baht a month it’s almost not worth a mention.

    I did read that new laws are now in place for children going to school but that it will take time to become a given. But I don’t know how easy it would be to get papers for someone with no traceable ancestry. Too much is an unknown…

    When I was in Borneo I had a live-in housekeeper, Alice, who came up pregnant shortly after she was hired. The typical reaction when this happened was to send them back home, so doubts were raised when I first had a pregnant housekeeper, her husband, and then a baby. He was over four years old when I left for another country.

    What I did helped her family get through a financially strapped time (they had two more kids at home so needed to send money back for schooling – so her not working…). But it was nowhere near the commitment you and others take on.

    Alice still comes to me for advice and friendship, but I do not have the financial responsibility of her and her family for life. But… same as I’d do for my son, if she asks for money, sure, I will send it. Would I send money to other housekeepers I’ve employed? No. So my generosity is limited to those I respect and trust.

    While the western way is sometimes temporary, the Thai way is more permanent so it’s a huge responsibility (and one I’m leery of). Unless we are married to a Thai, I don’t feel that westerners have the needed insight to be able to pull it off without going astray in some way. I’m not taking about legal adoption, I’m talking about a loose arrangement of extended family members who are generously supported for the rest of their lives… but… I’m not done thinking on the subject so I realise that I could very well be wrong.

  10. Cat, about 20 years ago the paperwork was probably a bit easier I think (before the recent wave of new ‘aliens’/migrant workers flooding in Thailand). Even now many have paid the right officials to get identity documents (lots of new Chinese Thais up in Chiang Rai, for example). These days, precisely since 2003, children born in Thailand regardless of nationality or lack of identity papers is entitled to education *by law*. Now, it is true that a lot of them (mostly migrant children or ethnic minorities without proper identity papers) are still missing out, but that’s more due to the prejudices of the school administrators than anything else. There are ministerial orders etc. to tell the schools to admit the kids, but at the local levels the headmasters can do pretty much anything in their fiefdom. One aspect of the old Thai attitude that underlies classes, ethnic/racial prejudices and discrimination that’s continued widespread in this country.

    Anyhow, I believe that Khun Pha is a good, kind lady who took responsibility for Khun Porn. While there is this good old tradition and it’s still practiced by some (in some cases working very well), I guess what I was trying to say is that it’s not always wonderful, esp. for the servants, if the attitude of the master/patron or mode of relationship doesn’t change with time.

    If I can help reiterate, ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง is a specific category of old, as in long-serving, servants, of more than one generation, within a clear *master-servant* relationship (no matter how benevolent the master). To take someone in or support some less fortunate family does not really make members of that family ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง. I think the latter is a different mode, different relationship; broader, more patron-client, more fluid, and less fixed than ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง, the relationship of which is much closer, tied in, and there’s a high level of loyalty and emotional connection involved.

    My own family history (on my father’s side) has had several modes of “servants”. My great grandparents had slaves; my grandfather’s and father’s generation of the family had/have ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง and adopted new ones (non-slaves, some not necessarily servants); and my generation now has household help in the new context. So I can see how this had changed over time. I don’t know much about the slaves in my ancestors’ time other than that they had them and I actually have met some of the former slaves’ descendants who became neighbors — at the time of abolition of slavery, my ancestors gave them land to establish their households and they set up nearby (my father told me when I was a very young child). In my father’s generation (which became a lot less wealthy, no more elephants, etc.–his was a northern noble family) became professionals, local bureaucrats, etc., they helped other less fortunate families or individuals within their capacity. I don’t know if it’s because of his family history, my father was always helping out or supporting somebody, some family or other.

    Just now I recall an old man whom I later learned to have been “adopted” by my father (he was older than my father) because the man was very poor, wasn’t that well mentally and had no one to take of him. My father took him in for some years and later sent him to live with his young brother’s family, which took care of him until he passed on in old age not long ago. (That person wasn’t a servant because he couldn’t really work but just helped a bit here and there around the house.)

    My relatives have also adopted children or families (lived-in or out). Those who live in have become part of the family; most have gone to school and now have real jobs and their own independent lives. In my case, my housekeeper who’s been with us for 7 years got married last year so we have taken in her husband who became our gardener and we have told them when they have children–if they still choose to stay with us–we will have a place for their children too (but not as servants, they will go to school and we will help as necessary, etc). I and my (foreign) husband consider our housekeeper and her husband “employees” not “servants” (though my mother sometimes still sees them as servants); they earn full salary besides room and board, holidays and medical benefits.

    Some old traditions are “wonderful” but may or may not adapt well to changing time. I guess, the former slaves of my ancestors still set up houses and continued to live nearby, they couldn’t have been treated so badly. They might have been happy to continue to be “servants” but I think these days and age, very, very few people are happy being at others’ beck and call with little or no individual freedom in the old fashion.

  11. Another point he made (that anyone living here will be familiar with) is that Thais do not like living alone. In the west many of us have one person abodes but it’s not common with Thais. Due to this alone, he reckons that Khun Pha and Khun Porn are comfortable in their relationship together, even if it’s not as common as it once was.

  12. This week I was talking to my hairdresser about ข้าเก่า เต่าเลี้ยง. He’s turned 60 this year, so was growing up in Bangkok at the same time as Khun Pha. He mentioned that ข้าเก่า เต่าเลี้ยง was common in his community. That a family would offer another family or person support if they moved in and worked for free in exchange for their skills (gardening, housecleaning, working in a store, etc). And it didn’t have to be a wealthy family. Food was not expensive so a relatively poor family could afford to support an extended family without going broke. He also made the point that unlike supporting a family in a western country, living in Thailand doesn’t have to be expensive.

  13. Lani, I found the subject thought provoking too. I still go around and around, wondering what I’d do in the same situation. And I come back to the fact that I would not be as generous.

    Thais, especially those from the older generation, are said to do what their mothers expect of them. Khun Pha experienced a western culture for a chunk of years, then came back to Thailand and slid right back into the role of the dutiful daughter and younger sibling. When Khun Porn was sent her way, did Khun Pha have a choice in the matter? I’ll have to ask.

    I’m not mean-minded but if I found myself responsible for a young adult (for whatever reason) I’d insist on them helping out financially in some way (remember, Khun Porn studied English since childhood so marketable skills are there + a small house does not take all the hours in a day). Khun Pha works 7 days a week to pay their expenses. In her 60’s, she’s tired. Freedom? Not sure. Responsibility, sure. Equality? Hmmm…

  14. Fascinating story. Reminds me of indentured servants. Although with indentured servitude there was usually a contract that was up after 7 years in the New World.

    Thought provoking. Makes me think about how we have to chose, in our societies, do you want freedom or equality? Because I’m not sure how you can have both. . .

  15. Thanks Talen. I figured it was going to cause some pain – compiling the materials I muttered a few WLHeck’s myself – but I specifically asked for the warts to be included (and as close to real Thai conversation as possible). None of that “let’s hide the truth from farangs” wool. Did we succeed?

    In the following post I’ll take it further back, to her mother’s time. And maybe when more of the story gets told this post will become clearer.

  16. Cat, what an excellent article and as Martyn said excellent responses as well. This is they type of top notch writing that brings real information about Thailand to people and it’s hard to come by these days!

  17. Rick, I’m interested in knowing more about comparisons between Thailand and the west.

    After the slaves were freed in the US some continued to work for their former masters due to a collection of reasons – fear, uncertainty, the devil they knew.

    And in the modern societies of today people allow themselves to be shackled to unhealthy relationships (that don’t allow for growth) for the exact same reasons.

    I don’t know how it is in Thailand but in the west there is a mindset that no matter how abused or neglected, once they hit adulthood people are then responsible for their own lives.

  18. Riveting post.

    The hi-so British English term would be ‘old family retainer’, and it is a concept recent enough in British society to have been the core of a TV series called Upstairs, Downstairs which was originally shown in the 1970s but had enough traction to be revived with a new cast in 2010.

  19. Thanks Martyn. That’s pretty much how I saw it. I had to lay aside my many western prejudices to make an attempt at understanding both the history and what’s still going on today.

    The comments are the absolute jewels – coming from different angles, both Hugh and Kaewmala made excellent points.

    Note: I’m not going to edit out the snafu in my post because it’d make some of the comments obsolete: ข้าเก่า เต่าเลี้ยง /kâa-gào dtào-líang/ would be unpaid, loyal servant.

    Also, the mistake is a good example of what happens when a post is edited countless times. Over the course of four or more weeks the sound files were revisited (redundancies were left out, then added back, and then some taken out again, while discussing all at length each time). The translation was discussed, tweaked for clarity, and then discussed many times more. So when it was coded in (for a second time) on the final day I just wanted it over with. I didn’t revisit my notes (big mistake) and as ‘unpaid, loyal servant’ received a strong mention when discussing Khun Porn, that was that. I was too ready for it to be over with to question it yet again – even with ‘lifetime live-in loyal servant’ clearly in the running for ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง. So this will have to be a lesson for next time.

  20. Catherine – An excellent post which gets even better with the great comments attached. I think anyone reading the post might start off thinking, ‘slavery…how barbaric’ but as they read on they’ll change their view to a much fairer one.

    Thanks for the insight into an old Thai way of life that is still around to a smaller extent today.

    A top banana post.

  21. Ok, I found a fairly recent article – 2009

    Give minorities a chance in life

    It is no secret that government authorities have been responsible for much of the persecution of ethnic minorities. Ranking Interior Ministry officials quietly admit that many of their bureaucrats hinder rather than help those who apply for citizenship. This is not entirely due to prejudice and attitude problems on their part. Some civil servants routinely block applications from stateless minorities seeking naturalisation simply because they do not understand the complexities and legalities of the whole time-consuming process. They need to return to the classroom for mature training and then undergo on-the-job supervision.

    Without Thai citizenship, minorities have no formal access to higher education, health care or other state benefits…

  22. Thanks Kaewmala. Excellent points. And you brought up an issue I had too – the lack of an education.

    Not mentioned above (the story was getting way too long so I stripped parts) is that Khun Pha was not living in Thailand for the first 6-7 years or so of Khun Porn’s time with the family. And that’s why she didn’t hear Khun Porn’s story until much later.

    And as Khun Pha wasn’t around during the early days I’m not sure if she was aware of the efforts made on Khun Porn’s behalf (I’ll ask).

    Paperwork in Thailand is a nightmare now, so how easy was it over twenty years ago when Khun Porn was ten? With both parents deceased and possibly from another country? Btw – she is now in her 30’s.

    And this problem continues to happen in Thailand even today. I’ve read stories about children born in similar situations not having much of a chance to become legal, to get passports, etc. Even with help and publicity. If I can find the article I’ll post it here.

  23. Excellent post, Cat. Very revealing and thought-provoking.

    IMO this cultural aspect is very complicated and has both bright and dark sides to it. While the expression ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง (lit. “old [long-serving] servant, raised [pet] turtle” is Thai, the concept and practice is certainly not uniquely Thai. Other traditional societies have similar traditions.

    First off, let me say that Khun Pha comes across as a kind lady, and Khun Pi was great! He managed to be both gentle and provocative. This concept & practice (in its diluted form) is still quite widespread in Thailand – helpful to many people, but also taking advantage of many. I personally have had experience with such practice (to a different degree) in my own family, and seen it in my relatives’ and friends’ families. So, it’s not uncommon. However, in most cases (not all) the “servants” are paid monthly salaries, in addition to free room and board and occasional other help such as children’s school fees, medical care, etc.

    I *personally* have a problem with employers not paying someone who works for them these days in the cash economy (I don’t care how you frame your relationship, but for a person who works and provides services not to be paid at least something on a regular basis is to me plain exploitation). But an even larger problem I have with Khun Porn’s story is that she never went to school – that to me is a cruelty done to her. The idea that “servants are treated like family” rarely lives up to the words. It’s little more than a nice sentiment. When push comes to shove, the servants are still servants–not like a real child, brother or sister, aunt or uncle to the employer. Say, if Khun Porn was really treated as “family”, then why wasn’t she sent to school? Sure, there was no paper, but such things could have been arranged. This is Thailand, if you put your mind and resources to it.

    I once lived near a compound in Sukhumvit, a rich lady next door had a mother and child as her “old servants, pet turtles”, the boy never went to school. He lived in a condition much worse than my dogs. Neighbors reported to social services after his mother died (in poor health, when he was in his late teen or early twenties), he refused to go because he felt obliged to take care of the old lady who gave him a place to live, but never sent him to school or afforded him a proper living condition fit for humans. So, not all employers, “masters” and “mistresses” feel the moral obligation to do the right thing and take on the responsibility. In that boy’s mind, what truly were this choices?

    Talking of choice, without schooling or viable skills other than housework, without savings, how do you expect the children of the “old faithful servants” not continue to be “faithful”? Are there real choices and options for them to choose to stay or leave when they come of age? The employer may say “she doesn’t want to leave”, perhaps true, perhaps not. People are often scared to leave what they have always known all their lives. Is the employer not taking advantage of the person in that life situation?

    It is wonderful to take care of the old servants, but time has changed. In today’s reality, no one can survive without some education, skills and some money. The minimum test IMO for whether the employer treats the “servant” as true family is whether the employer affords the opportunity for that servant to acquire such passport to survive in the real world. If not, the “family” speech is just self-serving.

    Many employers who employ children in household work (in countries like India, Indonesia, the Philippines) often use this “we treat them as family” line when they keep the kids working around the clock, offer them no chance of schooling, or sometimes inadequate food, some sleep in the kitchen. And no, they don’t do that to their own kids. So, how is that “family”? The compensation the kids get is usually just room and board, perhaps a little money. Because they are kids, they don’t get salary–they don’t have expenses, so why pay?

    In Thailand, the problem of child exploitation in that way is less severe now, but the attitude is there (and the helpers are now no longer Thai, but that’s another story). Many household helpers in Thai or Thai-Chinese families often don’t get days off. Certainly, there are good families who support and take care of families less fortunate that provide them with services (usually household help), support the kids’ schooling, etc., and some who would otherwise have become the new generation of “pet turtles” have come into their own and now live independent lives.

    However, this system and attitude of old no longer works to the benefit of the “pet turtles” in this new reality. What’s most important is that each human being has the right to choose his or her own path in life and is afforded at least the minimum set of the tools to follow it.

  24. Ok, I’m back from a HOT HOT HOT outing in BKK…

    Looking at my original notes for the above post (before the final edit to ‘unpaid servant’), ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง is tagged as ‘lifetime live-in loyal servant’. Khun Porn has an added twist because, as mentioned above, she is an ‘unpaid, lifetime live-in loyal servant’.

    But when I listen to Khun Pha talk about her life, Khun Porn is more like family than servant.

    Khun Porn is considered family and it’s her responsibility to take care of the house. Khun Pha’s responsibility is to make money to support both of them. It’s not a big house and there is only Khun Pha so Khun Porn could easily go to work outside but she doesn’t want to.

    This morning I asked Khun Pha to clarify ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง further. She believes that what the saying stood for in the old days before slavery was abolished no longer exists as originally intended – ‘slave since childhood, one born in slavery, unpaid, lifetime live-in loyal servant’ – but when Thais need to to explain the special relationship of extended family and responsibility, the old saying continues to be used (but it’s understood that there is no more slavery).

    So it’s anyone who has served you or your family for a long time (can go back generations).

    And she wanted to put an emphasis on responsibility. That when someone serves you for a long time, they are your responsibility for life. And that you need to do what you can for them, to your best ability anyway.

    For years, Khun Porn’s parents were neighbours of Khun Pha’s mother and worked odd jobs for her, as did Khun Porn. So Khun Pha’s mother felt a responsibility to their daughter when they died. Khun Pha’s sister was asked to take on the responsibility and then passed it to Khun Pha. And when the time comes, Khun Pha’s niece will take on the family responsibility of Khun Porn.

    There’s another, similar story to go with this one but it’ll be for later… just let me untangle it first.

  25. Hmmmm… when we wrapped up the smaller details we were focused on Porn. So I’m guessing that when I asked for the final clarification, their agreed translation of ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง only referred to Porn = unpaid servant.

    (‘slave’ never came into it – Porn has always had free will)

    But rereading it again, further up is บางที = sometimes, occasionally

    บางที เนี่ย เรา ไม่ได้ จ้าง เขา เป็น เดือน หรอก อยู่ ด้วยกัน เหมือน เป็น ครอบครัว
    Sometimes we don’t pay this kind of servant a monthly salary. We live as family.

    I forgot ‘sometimes’ or I would have asked for clarification coming from another, slightly different direction. I’ll ask tomorrow but I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. When tying up loose ends, that one slipped through.

  26. Hugh, thank you for your wonderful contribution.

    When we first started discussing ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง, Khun Pha used the English word ‘slave’ and that threw me.

    And when I looked it up in several Thai dictionaries they all had ‘slave since childhood, one born in slavery’ … T2E has ‘one born in slavery’. So Google is just going with the flow really.

    But after sitting with Khun Pha to get to the reality of her story, it’s not about slavery at all. It’s about her generous family saving a young ten year old from the very real potential of a hard life.

    Khun Pha did point out that for ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง there is no salary involved. Khun Pi and another confirmed it. And all three went with ‘unpaid servant’ as the translation. But maybe if I asked the question from a different angle I’d get a different answer. We’ll see. I will say that this post took a fair amount of time to compile so I did ask a lot of questions.

    As I mentioned in the post above, Thailand does not have social security. Family and extended family fills that role so I don’t see that part of Thai generosity disappearing. It’s too deeply woven into the fabric of Thai society.

    On the subject of ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง disappearing from Thailand, there was more to the conversation but I cut it. Khun Pi is of the mind that the modern youth won’t work for free. And that if he did not give his kids money they wouldn’t stay with him either.

  27. My wife and I have been here long enough that we have a number of people that would be considered ข้าเก่า เต่าเลี้ยง /kâa-gào dtào líang/. I want to emphasize, in case the “let’s say as many bad things about Thais as we can” crowd starts talking about how Thai servants are treated like slaves, that there is a lot to this simple idiom.

    The ข้าเก่า /kâa-gào/ part of the idiom could be translated as “old slave” but in fact it more correctly means “old faithful servant”. The เต่าเลี้ยง /dtào líang/ part expresses the fact that we, who have “used” this person’s labor for so long, have a responsibility to them (เลี้ยง /líang/ to care for) .

    Here is an example. Our long-time (part-time) gardener/handyman came down with a lung infection and ended up in the ICU for 21 days. In fact, he had to be resuscitated twice when his heart stopped beating – so he was in bad shape. We were at the hospital to make sure they knew he had some people with means who cared about him (makes a big difference here) and helped to get him transferred to a different hospital with better equipment. We paid for all the extras that his government insurance wouldn’t pay for and gave his wife enough to support the family while he was out of work. He is fine now but not very strong. We pay him for any hours that he wants to work now and he shows up when he wants.

    Also, it is not only him that we are responsible for but also for his extended family. We have helped with hospital bills when a nephew was shot, paid for a cousin’s funeral and donated to the local temple when his sons entered the monkhood.

    People with means in the West give to charities. There is not a lot of official charity giving in Thailand. Here, people who can, give to those around them who need help. They don’t talk much about it though so you may not hear much about it. That is not the Thai way. I have never told anyone the story above but I share it with you because I thought it would illustrate that Google Translate got it all wrong when they translated the term ข้าเก่าเต่าเลี้ยง /kâa-gào dtào líang/ as “Slave since childhood”. There is a lot more to this simple idiom than that. I hope it doesn’t disappear like Khun Pha thinks.

  28. Thanks Michel 🙂 And I hope no one minds that I didn’t add the transliteration all the way through. With a post such as this, the value is in the conversation. That’s what I’m thinking anyway.


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