Living a rich life
Martin Wheeler's wealth comes in bundles of happiness
Most of us like to read stories about rich and successful people, to see how they made it to the top.
This will also be a story of a rich man. However, "rich" in this case does not refer to money, but happiness.
This man doesn't own a giant company, nor does he own any buildings, but he believes he has it all.
He says the implementation of the King's sufficiency economy theory can make his life complete.
It's the strangest thing to hear all these thoughts coming from the mouth of a non-Thai citizen. Interestingly enough, this farang seems to far better comprehend the King's idea than most Thais.
This 47-year-old Briton is named Martin Wheeler. He eats rice and the organic vegetables he grows. Even some rich people, when they hear about his life, can't help feeling a twinge of jealousy, and puzzlement at how he managed to detach himself from the mainstream life that is dominated by greed, money, ambition, competition, and the like.
Mr Wheeler currently lives at Baan Kham Pla Lai in Khon Kaen, with a Thai wife, Rojana Wheeler, and his three children. He has spent a total of 17 years in Thailand and eight years have been spent in this remote community.
He says he eventually found real happiness after a long quest from England.
Mr Wheeler, who graduated with first-class honours in Latin from London University, turned his back on his career and decided to take up the simple life in rural Thailand.
"Personally, there is something more valuable in life than money," he said in fluent Thai, with a northeastern accent.
"Is money not significant?" I asked. No, he answered.
Mr Wheeler doesn't refuse the importance of money: He needs it too, to buy things for himself and his family and keep everything running smoothly.
But he never allows money to have an influence over his life.
"Having more money makes our life more complicated and unhappy sometimes ... I look at money as a drug that puts our life in danger," he said.
Though well educated, he has worked as a labourer earning less than 100 baht a day. He once decided to spend all his remaining cash to purchase clothes, shoes and other accessories to make himself look good enough to get a job as an English teacher in Bangkok.
However, as time went by, he eventually quit as he felt he had betrayed himself by doing something he disliked for money.
Currently, the couple owns 47 rai. Ten rai are used to grow jasmine and sticky rice, seven rai for pterocarpus macrocarpus (Mai pradoo), diptercarpaceae and dipterocarpus alatus trees, and a rai for vegetables. She helps by doing the household chores and field work.
They live simple lives. She cooks rice that comes from their own farm; the vegetables they eat are harvested from their own land.
I joined the couple for a lunch that included purple-coloured rice and three Isan side dishes.
She said the rice was old, and had lost its gentle aroma. To boost it, a few drops of the liquid extracted from butterfly pea, a type of local flower, were added.
The pair spends less than 200 baht on daily living. This money includes paying for electricity, water and gas.
- Theory of sufficiency economy
His quest for freedom and happiness led him to become a strict follower of the King's philosophy.
However, he believes many Thais have a tendency to misunderstand the theory.
The major problem at the moment is the term "enough": People have widely varying definitions of it.
That is why the theory hasn't really blossomed, he says.
"Similar to a way of Buddhism, people are told to rely on themselves, not on others, and walk in the middle path. It is very logical for human life at present," he explained, adding that even though he does not follow any religion, he does like the teaching of Buddhism.
Mr Wheeler says three prime guidelines can help create a sustainable community, particularly in rural areas.
First, people will have to rely mostly on themselves with the resources they already have.
Second, agricultural output can be distributed commercially under the one-tambon one-product (OTOP) scheme.
Third, an enterprising community will set up ways to work with the government to spur development.
While implementing the concept, problems may arise when people are immature, he added. Some may bypass subsistence agricultural production to focus only on producing OTOP products for commercial purposes. But this won't help create a solid foundation for the community, he said.
Today, Mr Wheeler speaks about the sufficiency economy in his local community and others.
The man has been a role model in his community by showing them how to live happily and sufficiently, given the scarcity of natural resources in the area.
First, he said the attitude towards being rich among rural northeastern people must change. They must accept the troubles they face.
For example, the soil is not as fertile as other regions. Plus, when the dry season comes, they face a severe water shortage. The chance of obtaining a proper education is rare. It is tough for the local people to make a living.
So, what to do? He said they should look for ways to maximise the resources in the community. All hands are needed to work cohesively.
For example, the community he lives in now has been developed with the efforts of Ubonrat Dam Hospital. The pilot project, based on the framework of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, gave a platform for community members to discuss and analyse the problems they have and seek solutions.
- Being happy in the rice field
Mr Wheeler wakes up 5.45am and arrives at the rice field at 6am. He normally spends 6 to 8 hours working there if the sun is not too strong. He walks in the field with bare feet and his feet get wounded by sharp objects.
His routine is to pull out the weeds in the rice field and look after other crops. When the rice-growing season comes, he ploughs it himself, unless he feels too exhausted. Then he will consider hiring local workers to help.
When asked if he used to feel discouraged and want to do something else, he answers: "No. All that I've done I've already chosen and so I'm happy with my choice now."
He produces about 100-150 sacks of rice annually. All are kept in the barn for family consumption and also for visitors coming to learn about the concept of sufficiency economy he practices.
Whenever a group of visitors arrive, his wife and neighbours will cook and serve Isan dishes and bananas grown in their fields, for about 70 baht per person.
Mr Wheeler's speaking fees generate an extra 15,000-30,000 baht each month.
Economically, he said, Thais are very lucky. Many lost their jobs during the recent economic downturn. However, they still have houses to live in and food to eat. They also have their own land to grow plants and food.
Compare that to British people who own no land and house, he said. They rely heavily on staying employed because they live in rented houses.
So where is the happiness in that sort of hard life?
- A happy family
Today, Mr Wheeler's family lives in a small wooden house he built himself. In the past, he said, he lived in a cottage.
He provides education for his children, but just enough for them to become strong enough to fly out of the nest. He has never forced them to take up any money-making subjects.
He teaches them to know their abilities, and not to follow social trends. He does not want them to enroll in a mainstream academic programme, filled with fierce competition and pressure.
"Even though the English language is an advantage in today's society, I have never forced them to talk or learn it from me. At home, we speak two languages - Thai and Lao," he said.
Currently, the oldest boy, 14, is studying in Khon Kaen and the second one, 12, is studying at the College of Dramatic Arts in Kalasin.
When they grow up and have nowhere else to go, "home will be their shelter. Happiness is guaranteed here, even without much money.