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Wat Gate Museum

William Bain's Scottish roots served him well during his 75 year stay on this planet. Born into a wealthy family of provision merchants in the city of Edinburgh, young Willie appeared destined to join the family business. Even after the family moved to London, and Willie was sent to Harrow for his education, everyone expected the young man to follow in the footsteps of his father, a paragon of Scottish virtue, purveyor of fine goods and jewelry to the great and the good of the British capital. William, however, had other ideas. In 1903, at the tender age of twenty one, he set foot in Chiang Mai, where he worked for the Borneo Company, first as a forestry assistant, then as a fully fledged Teak Wallah", or station manager, in the huge forests surrounding the city.

William met and married a local Thai girl, and together they raised a family of two daughters and two sons. During this time Willie inherited a tidy sum from his family's estate back in Britain. Having also inherited his father's talent for spotting a good business opportunity, Willie bought the entire compound of the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation in Chiang Mai in 1935; he sold it back to them four years later, making a handsome profit in the process. Willie then bought from his employers, The Borneo Company Ltd., their giant 120,000 rai compound on the banks of the Ping river, and the family made their home in the company manager's house there.

The Bains lived the good life in Chiang Mai with Mrs. Bain and her daughters running the family home, the boys attending an American missionary school in the city, and father managing a successful logging operation.

Willie's eldest son, Jack, now a spry 84 year old, and the unpaid curator of the Wat Gate Museum on the east bank of the Ping river, takes up the story.

I had graduated from the missionary school and was studying agriculture at a college in Mae Jo when the Japanese invaded Thailand. When they marched into Chiang Mai they announced that women and children could carry on with their lives, but that all men would be taken to prison camps in the capital, Bangkok. My father gave me what cash he had at hand and ordered me to flee to Chiang Rai, from where many people walked to Kunming in southern China, to catch flights to west and freedom.

With no desire to leave my beloved Thailand, I took a job on a tobacco plantation in Chiang Rai, working there for 17 Baht a week until the war ended and I could return to Chiang Mai. I returned home to our compound by the river to find that my mother had died, they say from a broken heart, following the imprisonment of my father. My elder sister had been caring for my younger sister and brother during this time, and they were overcome with joy when I returned home, to be followed shortly thereafter by my father, who had been freed by British troops from his prison camp in Bangkok.

Father resumed his position with the Borneo Company, who also took me onto their books as a trainee forestry manager. My father and I continued to work for the Borneo Company until his death, from cancer, in 1958. Prior to his death, my father was asked to sell our giant compound back to BCL, as the company wanted to move its postwar headquarters back to Chiang Mai. He refused, but agreed to lease the property back to BCL at a very handsome rate. Following my father's death, and the subsequent nationalization of the teak forests, the compound was left to my brother, my sisters and myself, and it remains in our possession to this day", said Jack, as he smiled and greeted some passing schoolchildren. Jack spent a total of twenty two years with the Borneo Company Ltd., then worked for the Siam City Bank for nine years prior to his retirement.

Jack then found himself to be sitting on a veritable gold mine, as burgeoning land and property prices skyrocketed to today's silly levels".

I've been offered hundreds of millions for the Bain compound, but I prefer to leave it to my children, and their children, and so on", he told me.

Jack opened and organized the Wat Gate museum about four years ago. With his own money, he refurbished the old wooden structure and arranged the display of artifacts from a time gone bye. There's an old gramophone, with a Dinah Shore 78 rpm on the turntable, coins and crockery from a hundred years ago, ancient household appliances and farm tools, wood carvings and Buddha images, and a gallery of photographs of old Chiang Mai that is unrivalled anywhere.

The creation and upkeep of the museum is all down to Jack; he gets no money from the government, and more importantly, asks for none.

I used to give my children pocket money", he laughs. Now, they give me pocket money, and from that I pay for the upkeep of the museum".

For all Jack's wealth, he has never driven nor owned a car - My family has thirteen cars" he shakes his head in wonder. He has never left, and at 84 is unlikely to leave, his beloved Thailand.

He is the picture of contentment until I ask whether Thai people ever visit the museum. His brows meet, for the first time since we did, and he says - " Thai people have no interest in the past; in old ways of life. They think like foreigners now: must buy a bigger house, a bigger car, go abroad every year", again his head shakes as he fails to come to terms with the ways of a new generation. Thai schoolteachers", he says, should be bringing children to this museum to let them see how their forefathers lived".

Sorry Jack, they'll be learning to trade on margins, as they scream into mobile phones while racing around the city in flash cars, destined, eventually, to disappear up their own tail pipes.

We sit together, lost in our own thoughts, in the afternoon sunlight. Jack recalls the laughter of teak wallahs from the big house, as they sipped gin and swapped stories from up-country exploits. I can hear jackhammers at work on the foundations of a new condo across the river.

We both frown a little, and it's not the sunlight.

Apart from funding from its benefactor, the Wat Gate Museum depends on voluntary contributions from visitors.

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