The Thailand Years
Brian Duncan / Benen Hayden
Thailand and its people has always been a part of Cyril’s life.
Cyril was born in Dublin on the 3rd of May 1977. Cyril’s beloved mother, Lek, is from Nakhon Si Thammarat in Southern Thailand and has been living in Ireland since 1970. Lek grew up in a traditional Thai family. Her father, Shuman, was a noted Buddhist scholar and her mother, Lammair, was well known in her community for her culinary skills.
Cyril grew up with his parents and brother and sisters in Portmarnock in North County Dublin. Thai people, resident or visiting in Ireland, were constantly calling to the family home in Portmarnock. Lek was a great cook and served wonderful Thai dishes not only to Thai visitors but to many appreciative Irish friends and neighbours, as well as to Cyril, Genevieve, Garmon and Pamela and their many friends.
As Cyril grew up, Thai Festivals like Songkhran were celebrated by the Thai community in Dublin. There were also many Thai parties, including an annual Christmas Party which Cyril and his brother and sisters attended. Cyril was very proud of his mother who did an exhibition of Thai dancing at some of the Christmas Parties.
The Thai language was heard regularly in the home. The home was decorated with Thai teak furniture and Thai artwork, as well as Thai Buddhist statues and Buddhist religious artworks. Cyril grew up in a Thai/Irish setting and was aware of his Thai family through telephone calls and general conversation with his Thai grandparents, Shuman and Lammai Boonchoo, as well as his uncle Wichan and his wife Chawee, and their son Meg. One person who called to visit the family home in Portmarnock in1984 was Lek's sister, Punnipa. She was convalescing after a serious illness at the time. She stayed in the house for over three months and struck up a close relationship with all the children, especially Cyril. Cyril and Punnipa got on very well and he promised he would visit her and stay with her in Bangkok when he grew up. Unfortunately that was not to be as she died some years later. However, to compensate for this, Cyril developed a close relationship with her son Dang, who visited Ireland. When Cyril visited Thailand he was to become good friends with Dang’s wife, Toom, and their two children Put and Peet. Cyril got to know his uncle Wichan and his wife Chawee and their son Meg, as well as Lek's cousin Toi and her partner, Champoon and their daughter, Balm. Once established, Cyril’s relationship with his Thai family flourished and developed over the years – especially after Cyril moved to work and live in Thailand in March 2007.
After many years of talking about Thailand and following events there, an opportunity came for the whole family to visit Thailand in April 1999. This arose because the Blazing Saddles cycling group, which is a fundraising arm of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI), were organising their annual trip that year to Thailand. The Blazing Saddles group was set up by Brian and Lek's great friend Eamon Duffy of the NCBI. Brian and Lek were long-standing members of the Blazing Saddles Group and on this occasion the whole Duncan family Genevieve, Garmon, Cyril and Pamela accompanied Brian and Lek on the trip to Thailand. The children's job was to assist visually impaired members of the Blazing Saddles group on the trip. The Blazing Saddles group was led, as usual, by Eamon Duffy and his assistant and Brian and Lek's friend, Eleanor Kirwan, who were delighted to have all the Duncan children on board, including Cyril.
This was a major event in the Duncan family - especially for Cyril. He told Brian during this trip that he really felt he was coming home and that Thailand was the place for him. He also said Bangkok was his favourite city.
On the morning after his arrival in Bangkok, Cyril and his brother and sisters had an emotional meeting with their grandparents, Shuman and Lammai, as well as all their uncles, cousins and extended family in Thailand. Cyril immediately fitted in and felt at home in these surroundings. He travelled around Bangkok and discovered the excitement of the Bangkok Tuk Tuk Taxi. He was delighted with the water taxi trip on the Chau Phraya River and was amazed at the vibrancy of the city. He fell in love with the city and its people, the night clubs and its food-stalls and markets.
After spending a few days in Bangkok Cyril, together with his family and fellow Blazing Saddles group, flew to Northern Thailand for the start of the cycling event in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second city. On the first morning in Chiang Mai, Cyril asked Brian to accompany him to a Buddhist temple. Cyril was very impressed with the temple and stayed there for many hours. He met all the monks, including the Abbot who could speak English. Cyril had a serious and pleasant talk with the English speaking monk. This was his first visit to a Thai Buddhist temple and it left a lasting impression on him. In life, Cyril had very little material possessions other than his motor bike and his Buddhist chain which he always wore around his neck.
Cyril enjoyed Chiang Mai. Both himself and Garmon enjoyed their Thai food – not to mention the local Singha and Chun beer and Thai whiskey. It could be argued they enjoyed it too much as, what was very unusual for them, after a night on the town a row broke out between them. They had to be separated by a Dublin fireman Dave McEvoy and Tom Kelly and his fellow firemen, who were all members of the Blazing Saddles group. On waking the following morning - much bruised and hung over - Garmon and Cyril made up and re-established their loving bond as brothers. In order to account for their bruising they came up with a plausible story. Their story was their injuries arose from an accident the night before when they took over Tuk Tuks from the taxi owners and they crashed them. Their story was so convincing that both Brian and Lek believed them. The true cause of their bruises was not revealed until Garmon's wedding in Ko Samui in May 2007 (See the Tuk Tuk Story).
The cycle proceeded from Chiang Mai with trips into the Thai countryside travelling through many town and villages. Cyril particularly liked the villages and he spoke to many of the Thai villagers, partially by sign language, as he accompanied the cycle by car. There was a tough cycle to the famous and beautiful Temple of Wat Chiang Man. This temple is situated on a hill outside Chiang Mai. Cyril visited the temple and was fascinated with its spiritual air and beauty. See some images here.
Cyril, along with his brother and sisters, accompanied the cyclists each day. He fell in love with the Thai countryside and the many Thai people he met on the way. There were special parties for the Blazing Saddles group and Cyril as well as Garmon, Genevieve and Pamela attended these parties. Some of the parties were organised by local Thai groups who launched special glowing lanterns into the night sky in honour of the Irish group.
The cyclists changed their base to an adjoining northern city called Chiang Rai and they continued to travel each day through the Thai countryside and villages. Cyril accompanied the tour by car and really enjoyed the event. The cycling group also went across the border and spent a few hours in neighbouring Burma.
By the time the actual cycle was completed in Northern Thailand, Cyril, along with Genevieve, Garmon and Pamela, felt totally at home in Thailand and they were at ease with the many Thai people they had the pleasure of meeting. They had bought clothes and presents at the famous Chiang Mai night market. They had eaten many Thai dishes at the abundance of restaurants and food stalls and they really enjoyed their Thai beer. Of all the family, Cyril especially enjoyed the very hot chilli based Thai food. A love of such food remained with him all his life. His trip to Thailand was becoming what Cyril called living the dream. This was an expression Cyril used many times when describing his travels around the world especially by motorbike and also his life in Thailand.
The Blazing Saddles group then moved to the seaside resort of Pattaya outside Bangkok. Cyril and his family were joined in Pattaya by Lek's brother Wichan and his wife Chawee and their son Meg, as well as Dang and his wife Toom with their two children Put and Peet. Cyril, along with his family, spent his time in Pattaya with his Thai relations and got to know them all better.
The family enjoyed themselves in Pattaya and Cyril established a close relationship with his Thai family. This relationship remained with him for the rest of his life. When the main Blazing Saddles group returned to Ireland, Cyril and his family stayed on in Thailand and returned to Bangkok for a few days to stay with Cyril's Thai family before returning to Ireland.
That was Cyril’s first trip to Thailand and it made a deep and fundamental impression on him. He told everyone that he felt he was coming home and in future he would have two homes one in Ireland and the other in Thailand. From then on, when asked his Nationality Cyril, who loved to play with words (see Cyril's Language), described himself as a “Thailander or a Thairish man” and he was very happy to be a Thairish man for the rest of his life. Cyril resolved to return to live in Thailand on a long term basis. It was his ambition to travel the world and then settle in Thailand, his beloved mother's homeland. Cyril's special ambition was to learn the Thai language and ultimately have dual citizenship with both an Irish and a Thai passport.
Cyril travelled to Thailand again in late December 2001. He was with Caitríona and they were doing a ‘round the world’ trip. Cyril was delighted to meet all his relations again and to introduce them to Caitríona. The couple stayed with his cousin Dang and his wife Toom and their two children Put and Peet. He also met his uncle Wichan and his wife Chawee and their son Meg. They had many wonderful meals and parties together. They celebrated New Year with a big party in Dang’s house. Caitríona insisted that Cyril sing Karaoke with her.
After the New Year festivities Caitríona and Cyril went on what was a nostalgic trip to Chiang Mai - where Cyril had been some years earlier with the Blazing Saddles group. However, they travelled more extensively this time and went further North to Mae Hong Son in the very North of Thailand. Cyril and Caitríona did a bungi jump near Chiang Mai. Cyril was thrilled with this feat, as was Caitríona. Cyril was into exercising at that time and they rented mountain bikes. They both went cycling through the mountainous jungle. They also did yoga exercises and a meditation course in a Buddhist monastery. At this stage Cyril resolved to learn more about the Buddhist religion and to do meditation courses, including possibly one to become a Buddhist Monk at some future date. Cyril was very happy to be back in Thailand and was delighted to be re-acquainted with his Thai relatives. He was also delighted to show Thailand to Caitríona and to introduce her to his Thai family. The pair stayed in Thailand until mid-January 2002 and they then continued their travels into neighbouring Cambodia.
Cyril travelled around the world again in 2006. He travelled in India with his great friend Benen (see travel section of this website) and Benen's story “The Tea Seller”. In March 2007 Cyril returned to Thailand to be the best-man at Garmon and Lisa’s wedding in the beautiful island of Ko Samui. The wedding took place there on the 7th of May 2007.
On returning to Bangkok, before the wedding, Cyril re-acquainted himself with his Thai relations. They went out for meals together. He was happy to report that the Singha and Chuun Beer was as nice as ever, and that the Thai food was (in his experienced opinion), the best cuisine in the world.
Cyril was joined in Bangkok by his friend Lorraine Close who travelled from India to Thailand for the wedding. Lorraine was from Glasgow and she had met Cyril in India (See Travels with Lorraine). They spent some time together in Bangkok and Cyril was able to show her city. Lorraine suffered a bad mosquito bite while in Bangkok and Cyril visited her in hospital every day. Eventually they made their way to Ko Samui to attend Garmon and Lisa's wedding. Many of Cyril's and Garmon's friends were there for the wedding and Cyril regaled them with his many stories about his travels and adventures. (See Kevin Tighe's story The Rambling Man).
On the 3rd of May 2007, accompanied by Lorraine, Garmon and Lisa, and many friends, Cyril celebrated his 30th birthday with a great party in Ko Samui. Despite the warm climate, a birthday cake was made in his honour and much Singha beer was drunk and Thai food eaten. A wonderful night was had by all. A few days to prior to the wedding, Cyril was joined by his parents Brian and Lek, his sisters Pamela and Genevieve, and Genevieve’s fiancé, Simon.
Cyril took his duties as best-man very seriously (see Travels with Lorraine). He was particularly anxious about his best-man’s speech. Months previously in India, every time Cyril mentioned the wedding to people he followed up by saying how nervous he was about the speech. On the very wonderful and happy day of the wedding on the 7th of May 2007 Cyril proved himself - as everyone knew he would - to be an excellent best-man. He made a very emotional and witty speech where he welcomed Lisa to the Duncan family and revealed for the first time the truth about the Tuk Tuk story with Garmon in Chiang Mai in 1998. He was then able to say to his beloved brother Garmon on that wonderful day that he, Cyril, was on that very special day the ‘Best-Man’.
After the wedding, Cyril and Lorraine stayed in Ko Samui and relaxed and travelled with all the Irish group to the neighbouring islands, including the island of Ko Pha Ngan. When the main Irish group returned to Ireland, Lorraine went back to India to continue her travels and Cyril returned with Brian Kenny to Bangkok. Brian Kenny was one of Garmon and Cyril’s great friends from Portmarnock and he had attended the wedding in Ko Samui. Brian had also been travelling the world and travelled to Thailand to attend the wedding.
Cyril always wanted to return to live and work in Thailand. Before leaving Ireland on his world trip, which was to end in Thailand, Cyril had completed an intensive TEFL English teaching course in Dublin. He undertook this course in order to ensure he could gain employment when he returned to Thailand. It was Cyril’s intention to remain on in Thailand teaching English after the wedding. He persuaded his friend Brian Kenny to return with him in Bangkok to see if they could get jobs there. They were very lucky and both got jobs teaching English in Bangkok.
What followed was one of the happiest periods in Cyril's life. He got a job teaching English to young Thai children at the Trimitvitthoya School at Parsijaraun in Bangkok. Brian also got a job teaching English in a different school. Cyril proved to be a natural teacher and he was very fond of the children. He said “I'm now an English teacher working in a private school and I have to say I absolutely love it. I wake up in the morning, drive to work while passing temples and monks, only to arrive at my school and see a lot of bright-eyed kids smiling and excited to start a new day of fun. I love children – they cushion my delicate broken brain….. they certainly breathe new life into me. I have many stories to tell.”
He was voted best language teacher for the year 2007 in the school. He was back living in his mother’s homeland and was very proud when his young pupils began learning English from him. He also decided that for a few minutes each day he would teach them a very special’ English the English described by James Joyce and which was heard by Cyril growing up in Dublin. He taught all his class special ‘Dublin Expressions’. In time, the children began to say in a Dublin accent “What's the Story?, “Howya, “How's it Going?, “Hey Mister, It's Grand, “Are You Going for a Few Scoops?” and many other Dublin expressions.
The children had difficulty in pronouncing Cyril’s name. Cyril, who called himself many names over the years (See Cyril's Language), agreed that the children could call him “Teacher Cereal” and this they did. Cyril was a man of many names but, of all the names he was known by, it was the name “Teacher Cereal” which he took most pride in as this signified the bond between himself and the children he was so happy teaching.
Cyril, as a ‘Thairish’ man, was delighted to be the only foreign teacher who joined his fellow Thai teachers and pupils for morning assembly to stand and sing the Thai National Anthem at 8 a.m. each morning prior to classes commencing. He had achieved his ambition to live in his mother’s country. He thought of himself as a Thairish man and made many friends in Thailand. He was particularly friendly with Aaron, a fellow teacher in the school, who came from Belfast (See Aaron's Story Teacher and Friend). Cyril and Brian made friends among the expatriate community in Thailand. They got to know Barry from Cavan and Adam from England, who also taught in Cyril's school and who was known to all as Hobbit.
Cyril started to go out with his fellow teacher Jeab and they formed a close relationship together. Cyril was living in the same apartment block as Brian in Pinkcloi in Bangkok. As was his custom, Cyril became friendly with many people and he became particularly friendly with the security men in the apartment block. Brian Kenny always said that the only people who knew the security men were himself and Cyril. Brian also said the difference was that the security men knew Cyril’s name but they never got to know his name. This was because Cyril had a wonderful ability to reach out and make contact with all sorts of people – especially those on the margins of society.
He became friendly with Bia who had a herbal whiskey stall near his apartment (See Bia's story The Birthday Present). Through all these contacts Cyril was able to teach himself Thai. He used to speak Thai on every possible occasion.
Cyril had fulfilled a longstanding ambition by buying a Royal Enfield motorcycle when he was travelling in India. He tried to import this motorbike into Thailand, but was unsuccessful. He then arranged for the bike to be shipped back to Ireland. This was a great relief to Brian and Lek who worried about him driving a motorbike around Bangkok. However, unknown to them he had bought a new Thai motorcycle after getting his job as a teacher. Cyril called his new motorbike ‘The Chopper’ (See Brian Kenny's story The Lonesome Blues).
Christmas 2007 was special for Cyril. He was joined from Australia by his beloved sister Pamela and they celebrated Christmas together in Bangkok along with Cyril’s many friends. They had a traditional Christmas meal in an Irish pub. They also celebrated the New Year together and agreed to meet up soon again in Bangkok. Pamela returned to Australia where she was travelling and working. From time to time Brian and Cyril would get lonely in Bangkok. On many occasions Brian determined to go home to Dublin but Cyril always persuaded him to stay.
Cyril’s method was to get Brian to image he was driving a van stuck in traffic on Dublin’s M50. He would refer to the tunes Brian would probably hear on the car radio. Cyril would then start singing the various tunes to Brian - such as advertisements like ‘Northside, Northside, Northside Shopping Centre’. After Cyril had stopped singing his little Irish recital, Brian always confirmed that he was happy to stay in Bangkok.
One of the consequences of Cyril’s lifestyle in Bangkok - particularly his love of Thai food - was that he started to put on a lot of weight. However, despite putting on the weight he was extremely happy living in Bangkok. He was doing a job he loved - teaching young Thai children - and he was living in a city and culture which he loved. He had achieved his ambition and could speak Thai. He was going out with Jeab and had many friends in the City of the Angels. He wanted to continue living in Bangkok and had many plans for the future.
Cyril had another ambition. He decided that he wished to become a Buddhist Monk. He wanted to do this for his own sake, but he was also very aware how important it is for parents who are Buddhists that their sons become Buddhist Monks – even for a short period. He wanted to do this for his beloved mother Lek as, in Buddhism, if a son becomes a Monk it gives enormous merit to the parents and can even stop the chain of re-birth for the parent. This is an important doctrine in the Buddhist Religion. Cyril had visited many temples and had decided and informed his friend Brian Kenny that he was going to the Monastery at Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhamakayaram which is situated in the Rajburi Province approximately 80 miles from Bankok. Cyril had visited this Monastery and was very impressed with the Monks there. He then decided that he was going to become Monk at that Monastery. He realised that he would have to do a lot of study and meditation before he would actually do this and had already started this process just before his death. He particularly wanted to do this to give it as a special gift to his mother, Lek. He also told his friend Brian he was not going to tell Lek until such time as he was about to enter the Monastery.
Cyril was the holder of an Irish passport and as an Irish citizen he could only obtain a two month visa in Thailand. This meant that, in common with many other expatriates like Brian Kenny, Cyril had to leave Thailand and take the visa run into an adjoining country – such as Malaysia or Laos. He could immediately re-enter Thailand with a new two month visa. As a result, Cyril could not own a business in Thailand. Together with Brian Kenny they had great plans for setting up a business in Thailand. Their plan included setting up and running an English language school for business people. Cyril was aware that the only way he could realise this ambition was to obtain dual Irish/Thai Citizenship and obtain dual passports. He spent a considerable amount of time checking how he could achieve this.
In April 2008 Cyril travelled to Dublin for Genevieve and Simon’s wedding. After the wedding he travelled to the Thai Embassy in London. He was accompanied by Brian and Lek. He was informed by the Embassy staff that he could obtain a Thai passport. In order to do this he was advised that Lek would have to renew her Thai passport as she had let it lapse when she obtained an Irish passport. Lek would have to travel to Nakhon Si Thammarat in Southern Thailand and renew her Thai I.D. form. Once this had been done, she could then renew her Thai Passport and thus have dual Irish and Thai Citizenship on the passport. Cyril was advised that once his mother had been issued with a Thai passport, it would be possible for him to get a Thai passport issued through the Thai Embassy in London. This was very good news and Lek planned to return to her native town of Nakhon Si Thammarat during her annual holiday to Thailand in July 2008 in order to renew her I.D. and obtain her Thai passport. Cyril then returned to Thailand in April 2008. He was happy that his future in Thailand was secure and that he would be getting his own Thai passport. Prior to returning to Thailand Cyril reached an agreement with his father, Brian, that he would immediately undertake a fitness regime and reduce his weight. As was usual with Cyril, he then put in place a new fitness diet with great enthusiasm. He joined a nearby gym and commenced a strict diet. He spent many hours in the gym training and reported his progress during his many telephone calls to his Dad, Brian. Cyril believed he was making progress. He kept up his social life and was in contact with his many friends – both Thai and expatriate in Bangkok.
On Friday the 6th of June 2008 he met up with some of his friends for some drinks and a meal after finishing his week’s work. As was the norm, they all retired to a nearby nightclub to continue their party. Tragically, in the presence of his friends in the early hours of the morning of 7th of June 2008 Cyril suffered a massive and unexpected coronary attack and he died instantly.
So, Cyril the Thairish man died in Bangkok – the City of the Angels. He died in his mother’s country not far from the school where he taught the wonderful Thai children.
Tragically on the 7th of June Cyril – the wonderful, kind, magical and adventurous Thailander – left the City of the Angels to join the Angels themselves.
Ní Bheidh a Leithéad Arís.
We Shall Not See His Like Again.
© Cyril Duncan
Siam Children's Foundation