Today’s guest moved from Rayong Thailand to live in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, it was not quite as straight forward as that as she lived in many countries over the 30 year period, before arriving in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Introducing Lek Mayne
Where did you grow up to in Thailand and what first took you to Bosnia. Did you go to Bosnia straight from the town you grew up in Thailand or did you work or study somewhere else in Thailand before going to Bosnia?
(Lek) To answer this I have to go back a long way. I was born in Thailand in to a farming family. This was not rice farming by the way, but fruit plantations in Rayong.
I was educated at a private school called St. Joseph and then a private college in Bangkok. I finished my degree in Bangkok and then in 1979 after college I went to help with a big group of refugees from Cambodia in a place called Aranyaprathet near to a Thai -Cambodian border.
We moved the Khmer refugees to a big camp. I was working with a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) call CARE International doing Supplementary feeding under a United Nations High Commissioner project (UNHCR.)
My job was to provide food for pregnant women, children under 5 and supply baby food for one year, lactating mothers and some of the more elderly people. I also helped to provide food for patients in 7 wards in a camp hospital. By the way the camp where I was working was featured in the movie called “The Killing Fields.” Do you know that one? I was there when they were actually making the movie. I also helped build a big kitchen complete with a stove with 250 refugee workers. We didn’t pay money to the refugees, but in goods that themselves and their families could use. It was very interesting work for me. In 1995-96 we had a repatriation program that sent them all back home to Cambodia.
I met my husband in 1979 whilst working together. My husband is from England, but we have moved to many countries over the past 30 years with UNHCR. Our diplomatic courier took us to Pakistan , Somalia, Ivory Coast , Liberia, Sierra Leone then back to headquarters in Geneva and Vienna for Eastern Europe. Finally, we ended up here in Sarajevo Bosnia and Herzegovina!
Where do you now live in Bosnia and how long have you lived there?
(Lek) Dobar dan means hello. I say hello from Sarajevo, Bosnia as this is where we live now.
We have been here 4 years now and are a regional representative for the Balkans. We are currently very busy with all the refugees from Syria that came in from Greece and Macedonia. We were supposed to retire last year but still carry on for the moment.
Out of all the countries that you stayed in, worked in and helped in, do you have two or three favourite places and briefly why?
(Lek) The country that I love most would be Somalia. If you go down to the south of the country it is totally unspoilt. I once had the opportunity in 1988-89 to visit Kismayo which is an absolutely beautiful small town. At that time it was quite difficult to go down there without an official pass from the government. Mogadishu is also nice, you would not believe how many green papayas you can get for making Som Tum – papaya salad. (Som Tum is a Thai dish and a Thai speciality.)
Whilst in Pakistan, we lived in Quetta in northern Balochistan near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Quetta is also very beautiful! We used to love to go to the hot spring in the mountains, but when you made the trip you made it with armed bodyguards, because of kidnapping. Quetta had wonderfully good fruit, especially the apple’s from the Hanna valley.
I can see that you speak, read and write English brilliantly, but did you have to learn other languages as well and which are really difficult.
(Lek) I don’t really speak that many languages! I of course I speak Thai, but I also speak Khmer and English along with a bit of French. My husband speaks most of the languages including Thai , Khmer , Somalian ,Pashto and Bosnian.
Please tell us a bit about Sarajevo. Is it beautiful and how do you get on with the weather?
(Lek) After the war Bosnia and Herzegovina has been working so hard as not to let that happen again , it has now been 20 years since it happened. I expect you remember during the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo which earned the British couple Torvill and Dean their first gold medal in the ice dancing. People here still remember and talk of those great times.
The country itself is very beautiful, but there are still lots of land mines around the mountain side. We love walking but you just need to make sure you walk along the track. People here in Sarajevo love coffee they like to spend time sitting in cafe’s drinking coffee.
Summer is the best time in Sarajevo when the weather can get very hot, reaching 41 degrees. Mostar is nice town. It has a famous bridge called Stari Most and they have a special jump from the bridge that they show every summer.
My work here in Sarajevo involves working with woman who were victims of sexual violence during the war. I don’t have much money but I help with what ever I can. I provide them with equipment and materials so that they can work, i.e. crochet , knitting and small carpets etc.
Afterwards, they will sell their stuff at our events like refugee day or our big diplomatic winter bazaar. Those women have a good heart! They try to forget about the terrible things that happened to them! I certainly can’t complain about my life !
Are there many other Thai nationals that you know living in your area and have they all settled in to life in Bosnia or more specific Sarajevo?
(Lek) There are just two Thai woman living in Sarajevo. There is me and a lady from Nakhon Sri-Thamarat (the south of Thailand), who is married to a Bosnian man and Muslim. I recently met her for the very first time at the Asian community dinner. I didn’t know her before that. I always thought that I was the only Thai living in Sarajevo.
The other Thai lady seems to be very happy here in Sarajevo. She has one son and I met her husband too, he’s quite a nice man. They went to Islamic university in Malaysia together and she has been living in Sarajevo for 3 years now . We don’t have a Thai Embassy here , so if we do need to renew our passports then we have to go to Budapest. That’s really the only inconvenience we have.
How difficult was it adjusting to Bosnian life and culture from a Thai national’s point of view and what were the most difficult things to adjust to.
(Lek) Bosnians are multi-religious as a society and multi-ethnic. We have Roman Catholic, Muslims and Orthodox, but the majority of people here are Muslims.
The government process is a complicated one. After the war the Dayton peace agreement was signed by all parties making way for a 3 way president formation. There is now a Bosnian president, a Serbian president and a Croatian president. The people here seem to be happy and they get on with their lives. For me I think Thai people adjust to anything, so I love their food and I like the people here also. The worst thing I find hard to get used to is some of them behave badly when it comes to driving!
What are Bosnian people like? Could you give me an opinion on family life through the eye’s of a Thai national?
(Lek) The Bosnian people are nice and I’m finding that mixed-marriages are becoming more and more popular. I have interviewed a few men and they all said they preferred mixed marriages as Bosnian women are very bossy. My house helper is also of the same opinion.
In my opinion as Thais we have a very different culture and mentality, but I totally understand what the people went through!
What is the cost of living like in Bosnia and especially Sarajevo? What are the expensive things and what are the things of good value.
(Lek) Sarajevo is not that expensive to live in. There are lots of nice out-door local markets and these are in every small town. Import goods are expensive as are plane tickets because we don’t have so many choices like London. We only have a few airlines operating here but they are good one’s like Lufthansa, Austrian, Swiss and Turkish. The best thing of value for me is
Tuzla salt – they have the best Trouts from the Neretva river.
Could you give me three things that in your opinion are great about living in Bosnia? Could you then give me three things that are not so good about living in Bosnia?
(Lek) The great things about living in Bosnia
1) It’s not an expensive place to live. The food is good not expensive and you can go to any restaurant here (for a meal for two), for 10 euros. That’s about £7-34 GB pounds or $11.30 US dollars.
2) You feel safe
3) There are great cafe’s for coffee.
Oh, one more thing I love in Bosnia is the wild spring flowers they are so nice. I love to walk in the national parks outside Sarajevo.
The not so great about living in Bosnia
1) People here smoked too much and they are allowed to smoke in the cafe’s as well
2) Land mines
3) People here don’t know how to park their cars.
Where are your favourite places – towns or city’s to visit in Bosnia?
(Lek) My favourite towns are Mostar and Sarajevo.
Stari Most means old bridge in English and it crosses the river Neretva connecting the two parts of the city. There is a diving competition off this bridge every year at the end of July and this has been traditional ever since the bridge was built.
What would you say in your opinion were the main problems in a Thai / Bosnian relationship. In both a relationship of the business kind and the romantic kind for instance. The most often cultural clashes?
(Lek) In my opinion the main problems are Thais and Bosnian have absolutely nothing in common. We have a very different culture and a different way of thinking. The majority of cultures clashes are about religion! They have no idea about Buddhism and have never heard of it.
Do you have family still living in Thailand? If so do you miss family a lot and do you miss Thailand? How often do you manage to get back to Thailand for a visit.
(Lek) I have my 2 brothers that live in Thailand, but my parents passed away a few years ago. When my parents were still alive I went back every year but now I feel like I have nothing to look forward to, but I do miss Thailand sometimes. So, I think when I retire I will go back for a few months. I have been away from Thailand for more than 30 years now and I want to go back and stay a bit longer to see everything I want to see.
My kids absolutely love it there. My son lives and works with the SGS Swiss company in Houston Texas , my daughter lives in London working with the Save The Children International and we meet in Bangkok or Lancaster. They also love Bosnia a lot. They grew up in a moving environment , so like us they also love traveling.
What do Bosnian people think about Thais and Thailand in general?
(Lek) The Bosnian people who I meet they love Thailand as a holiday destination, they love Thai food too and they think Thais are very nice , happy and very polite.
I’d like to thank Lek very much for giving me her valuable time throughout the interview. She is currently very busy with the Syrian refugee situation and still managed to grant me the interview. They always say that if you want something done then give it to a busy person. Lek is out doing what she has always done – helping people in need. The interview brought up some interesting cultural differences, but the life story as such was even more intriguing. Lek has had to culturally adjust more times than I’ve had hot dinners and in places I have never even been to. An amazingly interesting life and a life of giving help, friendship and kindness to people. You tend to wish there were more people like her in the world. Thank you Lek.