The Remarkable Mrs. Rhodes (reprinted here from the Bangkok Post)
Meet the Kingdom's longest serving expatriate _ a woman who dedicated most of her long life to the development of horse riding in Thailand. Now aged 94, her passion for those four-legged friends remains as strong as ever
Published: 29/08/2010 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Brunch
When Lee Rhodes first landed on these shores, Europe was recovering from the horrors of World War I, a young agitator named Adolf Hitler had just been imprisoned, prohibition was in full swing in the US, the Wall Street crash was still five years away, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) was this nation's reigning monarch and Thailand was known officially around the world as Siam.
The year of Ms Rhodes' arrival was 1924, an astonishing 86 years ago, almost certainly making her Thailand's longest serving expatriate, probably by a long margin. Considering the average farang stays here for only four years, hers is an incredible record.
Today this remarkable German-born woman lives in a small village near Kanchanaburi in western Thailand, where for the past 30 years she has continued her lifelong passion for horses by operating a riding camp aimed mostly at young enthusiasts of all nationalities.
Her love of horses goes back much further, of course, to the day when, aged 11, her father honoured the promise he had made three years earlier and gave her a pony of her own. Little did she realise it back then in 1927, but the bond she shared with her much adored "Schlingel", meaning mischievous in English, and the adventures they enjoyed roaming Bangkok, would set Mrs Rhodes on a path to becoming one of this country's foremost horse riding instructors, with many hundreds of pupils learning their skills from this extraordinary woman.
Although no longer physically able to ride any of the 50 or so horses kept at the River Kwae Family Camp, Ms Rhodes maintains a keen interest in its day-to-day management. And thanks to a specially converted motorised buggy she handles with improbable speed and dexterity, she zips around the main compound to help her daughter Puki run this glorious retreat.
SITTING TALL: A young Lee Rhodes on her favourite pony Schlingel in Bangkok.
Age, however, is no barrier to a prodigious memory. Even at 94, Ms Rhodes speaks eloquently and with great clarity of her long association with Thailand, including such momentous events as World War II and the country's occupation by the Japanese army, though those recollections tend to be dominated _ naturally enough _ by a lifetime dedicated to horses.
One can only imagine what it must have been like for an impressionable girl of eight arriving in a hot tropical country so different from her own. Her German father, an importer of electrical equipment, had lived here prior to World War I and knew Siam well. But for this young woman it was all new and exciting. Settling in quickly, despite being one of the few foreign children not to be sent overseas for education, she found Bangkok a happy home full of exotic wonders and magical encounters.
For the first weeks after their arrival, the family stayed at the Oriental Hotel before relocating to a teak house behind Wat Ratchanatdaram Mahavihara on Ratchadamnoen Road in the heart of Bangkok. Although the garden was full of animals, including gibbons, bears and dogs, their daughter only experienced true companionship when Schlingel was delivered on her 11th birthday.
The little pony had been brought to Bangkok by its owner all the way from Nakhon Pathom, a six-day, 60-kilometre trek through paddy fields and villages. As neither mount nor animal had any past experience of riding or being ridden, the pair spent the next few weeks getting to know each other. Eventually, ''with a little help from my favourite movie character, the cowboy Tom Mix'', Ms Rhodes had learned enough riding skills to control her new friend, who responded in kind.
TAKING THE REINS: Ms Rhodes at her stables in Kanchanaburi.
In no time, the young girl from Germany and her pony became a familiar sight around this part of the city. A favourite ride was along Ratchadamnoen Avenue, ''a most beautiful road, wide with large trees and green banks on both sides''.
In one of the many fascinating books Mrs Rhodes has written about her life, she describes how they would ride to Dusit Park, now the Dusit Zoo, and watch the enthralling spectacle of the Royal elephants stationed at the nearby Throne Hall grounds coming for their daily bath in the lakes.
On occasions, she'd spot the motorcade driving King Prajadhipok along Ratchadamnoen Avenue. To show her respect, the young blonde German girl would stop Schlingel in order to salute the King military-style.
Later, during an audience with the King, when he presented His Majesty with a record player from Germany, her father was amazed and honoured to be asked by the monarch whether he was the father of the little girl with the long braids riding her pony who saluted him so properly.
Ms Rhodes remembers another incident that to this day sends shivers up her spine. It occurred while crossing some railway tracks. Schlingel's left front hoof became trapped between the rail, only minutes before the northern express was due to pass. At the last moment, the pony managed to pull free, but at the cost of his shoe and part of his hoof. It took six months for the hoof to grow back and for their adventures to resume.
After four happy years together, there was heartbreak when Schlingel contracted a then-fatal disease. ''My whole world broke down,'' she recalls. ''I had experienced the death of our pets for years, but this was different.
Somehow I could not cope with it; I could not face a place without Schlingel.''
Thus at the age of 15, the young rider resolved to return to Germany, swearing to find a cure for the disease that had killed her beloved pony. She also vowed never to have a horse of her own, unless it was of a professional nature.
Later, a cure for the disease was indeed found, but without her involvement. And when she did eventually return to Thailand in 1939, having studied medicine and also gaining a riding certificate in Germany, she discovered that a riding school had been established, the Bangkok Riding and Polo Club, at the site of the present RBSC Polo Club opposite Lumpini Park. A life dedicated to horses began at this moment.
It was at the club, a short time later, that Mrs Rhodes first heard over drinks with friends of various nationalities about the apocalypse about to unfold across the globe. ''Suddenly a fellow club member drove up in a great hurry, jumped out, rushed up to us, and without taking time for a greeting, blurted: 'It's gone off. Germany marched into Poland and England declared war on Germany!'
''This meant that that suddenly some of us were officially enemies. But we decided that since we all had been good friends, we would not let this come between us, and instead stick together in true horsemanship tradition, disregarding national differences. And we kept to our decision,'' she recalls.
As German nationals, and thus allies of the occupying Japanese forces, the Rhodes family was allowed complete freedom in Bangkok. Happy memories of that period include marriage and the birth of her daughter Puki. Less happy was the razing of ''beautiful'' Ratchadamnoen Avenue with its residential houses being demolished, the trees cut down and broad grass walkways cemented over, all to make way for the thoroughfare of grey lookalike buildings that exists there today. She also remembers the noise from the construction of Ratchadamnoen boxing stadium as it upset the horses she trained on adjoining land.
Other titbits from this era include the official encouragement of ram wong dances in public places to counteract the tension of the occupation and Allied bombing, and the much less welcome government decree that both sexes should wear hats!
The family eventually moved to a new house and land big enough for a riding school on Witthayu Road. This later became the location of the US embassy. In time, though, increasingly ferocious British and US air raids made it vital for them and their horses to evacuate to the safety of Hua Hin.
After the surrender of Japan, a kind of normality returned to Bangkok, along with the extended Rhodes family. After some negotiation, Ms Rhodes took over the now rundown stables at the Polo Club ''but only on the condition that I was absolutely in charge''. The committee agreed, and so began a 35-year association that ended only in 1981 when the club was taken over by the Royal Bangkok Sports Club. Unhappy with the month-by-month contract offered to her by the new owners, ''Granny Rhodes'' as she was affectionately known by countless pupils, packed her bags and headed off to Kanchanaburi with some 80 horses to work and live full time in the riding school she had established some years before.
Nowadays, this lovely old lady is the first to acknowledge that upcountry adventure centres like her River Kwae Family Camp may no longer have the same attraction they did in the past. ''In the old days, schoolchildren spent their holidays either swimming or riding. Today, they have so many other activities to choose from, and we have experienced a big decrease in the numbers coming here,'' she says.
''But we remain hopeful. More and more schools realise that their pupils may benefit by getting back to nature, instead of all those high-tech gadgets. And this camp is an ideal place for them.''
It may be 83 years since that 11-year-old girl was given her first pony, but her enthusiasm for riding clearly remains undimmed by time.
This article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of The BigChilli.
RIDING IN THE FOREST
Set among 76 rai (12 hectares) of forest in Kanchanaburi, the River Kwae Family Camp is ideal for upcountry vacations for families, youth groups and school outings. Open year-round, it has a wonderfully peaceful country atmosphere for those who want to get away from the din and turbulence of Bangkok.
Its programme consists mainly of riding lessons, beginner through advanced, with students also learning care of the horses, correct saddling and other horse-related activities.
Its rural-style accommodation includes separate dormitories for boys and girls, as well as cottages and bungalows, all inexpensively priced.