The Life of Plaa: One Woman’s Journey from Childhood Slavery to Self-Made Salvation
Gonwarra Kasee, nicknamed Plaa, was born in Bangkok 42 years ago. Her father was a Thai man of Chinese descent from the south and her mother originated in Koh Mak, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. The two young lovers had met and fallen in love in the capital: she an orphan, working as a live-in maid to a distant relative; he a student at Ramkhamhaeng University. Just as Plaa’s mother suspected that she may be pregnant, her father received a telex from his family demanding that he return home since his mother was ill. Plaa’s southern grandmother took three years to recover, and although she soon began to pressure her son to marry a local girl, he refused and eventually headed back to Bangkok to find his love.
But the star-crossed lovers just weren’t meant to be. Not finding his sweetheart, and not knowing that they had produced a child, Plaa’s father returned home to do his duty. When Plaa’s mother heard of a job opportunity in Chiang Mai, she headed north where she eventually married an Englishman, leaving three-year-old Plaa behind to be cared for by elderly relatives. When Plaa’s caretaker passed away, she was sent to live in another relatively wealthy household of an even more distant relative a couple of houses away.
Now, if any of you have seen Thai soap operas, you will know that leaving one’s children with wealthier “patrons” was the norm in the old days. The children were supposed to be cared for, educated, and given a safe environment in which to grow, in exchange for their domestic labour. For Plaa, the soap opera element proved true, but unfortunately the “safe environment” did not.
“While I called the woman who raised me ‘mother’, it never felt right and it was a horrible life,” Plaa recalled. “‘Father’ was fair. He would beat me, but only when I deserved it. ‘Mother’ beat me all the time. For as long as I remember, I had to wake up at 4 a.m. and go to the market every morning. I would go to the municipality school where my ‘mother’ taught but I was always so tired I fell asleep in class and because of the exhaustion from my late night and early morning chores, I became a bad student, constantly getting beaten both at home and at school. By the age of 10 I was told that I was so bad I wasn’t allowed to go to school anymore. I was just the servant. It used to confuse me because my ‘mother’ called me Moo, not Plaa, yet the neighbours in the soi would call me Plaa. I only found out later that when my real mother left me, the family changed my name to Moo, but the people in the soi we lived in still remembered me as Plaa.”
In fact, Plaa didn’t find out until she was seven that she was in fact not the real daughter of the household. “The kids at school teased me and that is how I knew. When I cried and asked my ‘mother’ for the truth, she told me that my real mother was a bad person, didn’t love me and had abandoned me. At this point, all pretense of family was over and I became their servant in every way.”
One day, Plaa recalls a woman coming to her house and shouting her name. Only later did she find out that it was her real mother coming to claim her, “but my ‘mother’ told her that she had to repay her for my care up to that day or she wouldn’t be allowed to have me. In fact, for many years, the neighbours would try to pass letters from my mum to me. But I believed that she was a bad woman, a prostitute. I believed it when I was told that she didn’t love me and had thrown me away, so I never read nor responded to them. I was very angry all the time.”
Plaa was a troubled young teen who constantly tried to run away from home, getting beaten up every time she was returned. When she reached 15, she tried to get an ID card, but the family wouldn’t allow her one, so she continued to work full time for them, earning 600 baht per month.
It all came to a head when she had saved up enough to buy a BMX bicycle, not long after her 15th birthday. “I was so excited, but the family kept the bike locked and told me that I could only ride it after finishing my chores…which were never-ending,” she continued. “I only rode it when they wanted me to go run an errand for them. I finally had had enough; I took the BMX, sold it, and ran. A neighbour from our soi took me to the labour department and because I had no ID, one of the staff gave me a fake ID – of a man – and that is how I got my first real job, living and working in a family shoe shop. My hair was short; I was a bit of a tomboy anyway, so I told people that my name was Chang and that I was male.”
Plaa earned only 500 baht per month in the shoe factory, but work was easy; she was sheltered and fed and spent most of her time hanging out with the local boys in the neighbourhood. But she began to fall into a bad crowd and, by the time she was 17, had become involved with drugs, alcohol and petty crime. “I didn’t care,” said Plaa of her wilder days. “I had no past; I had no future. In fact I didn’t even have a real present. I had no identity. I had absolutely no one in the world that I cared for. I just lived day by day. Then a friend invited me to go and work on a duck farm in Kanchanaburi, so at 17 I moved out of Bangkok.”
As she talks about her life story, Plaa’s soft, gentle voice seems like a stark contrast to the hard life experiences etched as grim evidence in her features. She is matter-of-fact, with no trace of self pity and only rare glimpses of bitterness; mostly she is just determined.
Plaa’s gangland lifestyle continued in Kanchanaburi and she often acted as a drugcourier, taking yaba on her motorbike from dealer to client. There were fist and knife fights; she even carried a gun. But in spite of a few close calls, Plaa managed to avoid arrest. “The police knew that there was a boy called Chang involved in the gangs, but no one really knew who I was. Some friends suspected that I was a girl, but no one said anything. Working on a duck farm carrying crates of eggs all day bulked me up so much that I really did look like a boy.”
At the age of 18, out of sheer curiosity, Plaa one day returned to the family home in Bangkok. “They were so welcoming to me and told me that they wanted me back,” she said with a sad smile. “But I remembered the times they said the same thing after all the times I ran away…then the beating would start. I was too afraid for that to happen, so I left and returned to my duck farm.”
One day, when Plaa was 20 and had been living as a man for the past five years, she was told that a woman and a half-foreign-looking child were asking for her. She was afraid at first and avoided them for a day or two. But then finally she went to meet this woman and her child at a restaurant by the River Kwai Bridge. It was there that Plaa met her mother for the first time in 17 years. She was also introduced to her stepbrother, Jason.
It was not a happy reunion. There was too much distrust, resentment and anger; the gulf of time was too wide. “My mother told me that she came back to claim me many times,” said Plaa. “At first my ‘mother’ would tell her that since she was uneducated and poor and a single mum, she would never find a man and would end up as a prostitute and that any man she married would then abuse me. Being uneducated, my mum was scared and believed her. Then she would come back a few times to talk to the family. This triggered a few distant memories for me of a woman and a farang man coming into our home. What I remembered is that on those rare occasions, I was treated like a family member. I had no chores, I wasn’t beaten, I wore a pretty dress and got to sit and eat with the family. My mum told me that she was led to believe that I was well-treated and that I was in the best place for me, so that is why she decided to leave me be.” Plaa’s mother had managed to track her down thanks to kindly neighbours in the soi back in Bangkok, who, after all these years, still kept a worried eye on her.
Although Plaa still had a deep mistrust of her mother (“there was no love, no affection, I felt no warmth from her or towards her”), she decided to move to Chiang Mai to get to know her family.
As it turns out, it was the best decision she ever made.
“Chiang Mai helped me to quit drugs,” said Plaa, who by the time she was 20 had become a full-blown meth-head. “Without my enabling friends, I simply stopped.”
“It was still weird though,” said Plaa, who began to live as a woman for the first time, slowly getting used to her birth name and eventually getting all her legal documents in order. “Kevin [a pseudonym for my step- father], mum and Jason wouldn’t let me live with them. I only got to visit every Sunday. They did help me finish my education though. And eventually I earned a tour guide’s license.”
But the happy ending was still elusive. Plaa and her mother fought constantly and she felt as though her mother still didn’t love her. When her mother left Kevin and moved to Ireland to be with a new man, Plaa remained to care for Kevin and Jason.
She slowly gathered the threads of her life together, studying English at AUA, graduating from high school, applying for a guide’s license and eventually getting a job. Through all of this, she felt that her mother had betrayed Kevin, and as she had done to her, abandoned Jason. Feeling guilty on her mother’s behalf, she decided to move in and take care of them.
Soon she was taking over her mother’s role in every way, becoming the lover of a man more than twice her age and a substitute mother for her stepbrother. The more Kevin talked of her mother’s selfishness and lack of affection – validating Plaa’s own confused feelings towards her mother – the more she felt reliant on him and turned her back on her mother.
Eventually, as she gained self confidence and independence, and as Kevin tried to become more and more controlling of her (refusing her friendships, job opportunities and a future), Plaa broke up with him after nearly a decade. He has since moved out of Thailand.
Plaa eventually bought a tuk tuk and started to become an independent woman with a strengthened sense of identity. “It was hard, suddenly becoming a woman after never having been one. I went from a girl servant to a bad boy to my mother’s replacement for my stepfather. So it was very hard to learn how to be a woman. I also had to suddenly deal with people who were real family: a stepbrother, a new mother, some aunts, a stepfather turned lover. Then there was my education and figuring out what I wanted to do in life.”
It took years, but an aunt eventually helped to bring Plaa and her mother back together, and in the past few years mother and daughter have begun to form a bond. “Mum still lives in Ireland, but she calls me every month and we talk for a long time,” said Plaa. “She also comes to visit once a year and we enjoy our time together. I now know that she loves me. It is not always easy, but I accept her love and I accept that I love her too. It’s hard, this love thing. I even went to find my father once. He was very kind to me but has asked me to keep quiet as his family doesn’t know about me, only his oldest son, so we keep our relationship to ourselves.”
Plaa’s reunification with her family has also taught her some things about the past. “It turns out that my mother had a similar life to me. She was also virtually an indentured servant, first at the rich estate on Koh Kood where she picked coconuts and worked in the family business, then when she was moved to Bangkok. She did not have an education. She spent her childhood working for a family which were basically her masters. So I still don’t understand why she felt that leaving me in the same situation was a good idea. But I suppose, like me, she didn’t know any better.”
During the turbulent political years, Plaa went to Bangkok often to protest against the Thaksin Shinawatra government, being one of the few tuk tuk drivers in Chiang Mai who called herself a yellow shirt. It was during one of these rallies, four years ago, that she met her husband, a fellow tuk tuk driver. They now have an adorable three-year-old son and live in their own house in Chiang Mai, and even own a sedan. “He has also had a horrible life story, so we have both agreed not to talk about it,” said Plaa. “He doesn’t know any of this about me. We prefer it this way.”
“Every family is imperfect,” she added. “We all have conflicts and challenges. But I have learned not to hold grudges. To look forward, not backwards. I want my son to have an entirely different life experience from my own. I want him to know who he is, where he is from, to know that he is loved and that he has a future. All of the bad karma in my family must end with me.”
Plaa smiles bravely. “I now thank my ‘mother’ for hitting me. She taught me life lessons. Even Kevin taught me a lot about the world and education. Then there are my lovely expat clients who have since become my friends; one retired couple even took me on holiday to Bali and Vietnam! I have come a long way, from a girl in virtual slavery to a woman with a life, a family and even a future.”
If you want a great tuk tuk (or sedan) driver who is also a certified guide speaking excellent English, please contact Plaa at 080 845 6178.