Over three decades ago, Naa sat down with her boyfriend and told him in no uncertain terms what their lives together would be like.
“One day when we are married, you cannot keep me at home to look after the kids. Let me free,” she said.
She didn’t like seeing Thai women wait for money from their husband to feed the kids. Her mum had sent her to university to study, and she saw no reason why she should stay home all day and care for children.
“I said to him that right now, the world is changing,” Naa explains to me over Skype. “In the past, women were behind men. But I told my husband ‘we can step together’”.
He replied with a simple “okay” and called her “brave”. He let her free.
A while later, they got married. They moved from southern Thailand to the northern town of Sukhothai. They had two daughters. And true to her word, Naa worked. She worked as an English teacher, he worked as a border policeman.
She also worked as a volunteer teacher. “In those days there were tourists visiting Sukhothai but locals couldn’t speak English. I wanted to help, so I taught the local people English.” Somehow, she also managed to run a restaurant and cooking school.
Did not being a stay-at-home mom affect her marriage? “In my marriage, we never fight,” she shares. “Before work every day, my husband and I share a hug and a kiss. I explain to the people on my tours that this doesn’t happen in many Thai families. But it is the best thing for love.”
The couple have been together for 35 years, so they’re clearly doing something right. In fact, she’s regularly invited to local wedding parties precisely because of this long, happy marriage.
Naa worked as an English teacher for 16 years before entering the tourism industry. She became a day guide for Intrepid, giving three or four-hour tours of Sukhothai’s historic parts.
The money she earned from working meant she could pay for both daughters to attend university. If the family had been reliant on her husband’s income, this would not have been possible.
When my daughters finished university, I took them to the Intrepid office in Bangkok to say thank you to all of them for giving me a job. And my boss apologised! He said, “We cannot have your daughter working for us, because she’s a pharmacist.” I said “I know! I just brought them here to say thank you!!”
Naa’s daughters had graduated, so now she could relax. Right? Wrong. She was ready to take her career to new heights. “I wanted to be a tour leader for a long, long time. But I had to wait until my daughters were old enough,” she remembers. But she got there in the end, and begun leading Intrepid tours throughout the country, everywhere from Chiang Mai to Ko Tao.
I ask Naa whether this transition was a struggle. Her reply, in one sentence, sums up her warmth and devotion: “With every kind of job, if you put your heart in it, it’s not difficult.”
She gets rave reviews from the travellers she leads, which – at this point – should be no surprise. “You have to think about other people: what they want to do, where they want to go, what they want to eat, why they come to Thailand,” she says. “It’s not difficult for me to work as a tour leader. I have friends. By friends I mean passengers. We journey together, we talk, we make the trip fun.”
Naa brims with passion for her county – she assures me of its beauty and kind people before urging me to visit (“next time you have a holiday you come to my home and I will show you around”). Equally, her dedication to her job is clear. She once made a traveller’s birthday extra special by popping into a hotel kitchen to whip up a curry a nearby restaurant didn’t know how to make.
I ask what her friends and family think of her job. “Most of my friends who work for the government are jealous! I can go to lots of different places. I’m happy!” But what makes her even happier is her financial freedom. “In the past, I worked to get money to support my family. Now I have money for myself – I am very happy!”
So, what will this precious money go towards? Naa tells me that if she saves up enough, she wants to visit Australia. She plans to see Intrepid’s headquarters but, more importantly, to visit the countless friends she’s made leading tours.
And she wants to visit with her husband, of course. “He still looks okay because he does lots of exercise, but he’s 65 so I want to go before he gets old!”
Naa herself is 56, though she says she feels like 18. In addition to still leading tours, she’s raised her daughters – now 27 and 30 – to be fiercely independent. (“I told them they need to look after themselves; we’re different from other Thai families where everyone lives together and the mum always cooks.”)
And her husband has now retired. He’s the one who stays at home. Who looks after the house. And who helps her look after Intrepid groups. “When tours come to Sukhothai, he helps a lot,” she tells me, hearteningly. She’s made a habit of inviting groups to her house for lunch. One of her daughters (the one who isn’t a pharmacist) has followed in her mother’s footsteps. She’s now the one who cooks for the visitors, and she’s also the one who now teaches English to the locals.
Unsurprisingly, Naa’s in demand. “I have other companies asking me many times to work for them,” she tells me. “I say no. I’m happy with my company.”
And it’s fair to say that Intrepid is incredibly happy with Naa. And so proud of her, too.
Inspired by Naa’s story? Tour Thailand with her on one of Intrepid’s small group adventures.