An Isaan Experience
I have been to most every part of Thailand in my one year here, the anniversary of which is this month. I have been to the Islands, I have been way up north in the Golden Triangle, I have probably spent several months altogether in Bangkok. Been South, and of course explored my home region here in Prachuab Kiri Khan where I work, extensively.
I have been to a few areas outside of Bangkok, but never to "Isaan". Isaan, pronounced E-sarn, is the extreme eastern part of Thailand, along the Laos and Cambodian border. This is where the poorest people in Thailand live. All of the labourers, maids, taxi drivers, come from Isaan. They are like the hillbillies of Thailand. This is also where each of my last 3 girlfriends hailed from. That's right – farmers daughters! If you ever see Thailand on one of those Sally Struthers Save the Children programs they were probably in Isaan. The mainstay of the Isaan economy, if you can call it that, is wet rice farming. Well I have read and heard many many things about what it was like. No Falangs "white guys" or tourists ever go there mainly because there is nothing there.
It is a long long way from the "Drop Zone" here in Prachuab. My journey began Monday morning at the bus station here in Hua Hin. The first bus was sold out, but I was able to get on the 10:40 AM one. After two cups of coffee and 128 Baht – about>$3 USD I was on my way to Bangkok, the first leg of my journey. A stop in Petchaburi for 20 min and a quick bowl of Gwitiau "Noodle Soup".
3 1/2 Hours later I was in The Big Mango : Bangkok. God, I love Bangkok. I hadn't been there in over 2 months, and it was good to be back. The traffic, the bustle, the resemblance of western civilization, and of course the throngs of beautiful young women. A city of 10 million people with over 60% of the population under 30 years old.
I always get off the bus before the bus station with the rest of the Thai People because it is actually closer to take a taxi across the river downtown from there. I usually look for some unsuspecting falang tourist to share a taxi into town, because everyone is usually going to the same area where all the tourist hotels are" Cheap Charlie". But all I seen where some Backpacker types heading to Khao Sarn Rd. Anyway 2 smokes and off I go – less than 100 Bt to Sukumvit.
It was nice to be back on Sukumvit went to see all of my old friends. The English travel agent, who can always get me a room, and paid for my flight out of the Golden Triangle from Chiang Rai. Of course I paid him back later. My friends at the Hotel Manhattan where I am bit of a celebrity VIP. Being seen eating in the restaurant with the owner and members of the Royal Family probably helps. I usually stay there unless I'm hiding out down on Soi Nana, but that is another story.
Knowing that I would be getting up early to head to the bus station again I didn't go out much. Hit some of my old haunts – The Beer Garden for a bite to eat, one of my favourite GO-Go joints but only for one Beer. Even went looking for my old girlfriend on Soi 33. I eventually wound up spending the rest of the evening at the legendary Thermae Coffee House, made famous during the Vietnam War. If you want to know more about the Thermae just do an internet search and you will find reams of info.
I got back to my room about 3 AM alone! I set the alarm on my Mobile Phone for 7 AM. I bought Kwang a mobile phone this month, which made all of this possible because she was already waiting for me In Buriram. That is her home province in Isaan.
6 AM Kwang calls me you have to go to bus station NOW. I got up, took a quick shower, headed to the free breakfast, back to the room and checked out. I took the Sky Train Like an elevated commuter train to the end of the line. Then a taxi to The Northern Bus Terminal. I told the taxi driver I was going to Buriram and he was really surprised. He said mee Mia Laa. Have wife. I replied Kapoom, Yes.
Rushed in the place is huge looks like an airport. Spoke to the lady in Thai Pai Buriram. Ber Ye sip See. Window Number 24. Bought my ticket 224 baht. Ran down to the bus and got on 5 minutes later we pulled out of the station and I was on my way to Isaan/ 8:30 AM. I was able to sleep a little bit till Kwang called me and wanted to know where I stay now? I replied on But, Thai for bus. One stop in Korat. A quick snack, smoke and pee. I was the only Falang in sight. A policemen came up and tapped me on the shoulder, Pai Nai (Where you going) I said Buriram. He said something else in Thai unintelligible to me I said OK, and walked off.
6 hours later after driving through what looked like wasteland I arrived in Buriram. When I got off the bus I was descended on by a horde of motorcycle taxi drivers yelling Pai Nai. At the back of the crowd was Kwang. It looked pretty much like any other ratty little Thai town, I've been to lots of them. Although this one seemed a little rattier. Kwang fetched me and took me across the way to a little row of noodle stands and hole in the wall places. Mama, Papa, the sister, and Huey, Dewey and Lewy the kids were there to greet me. There names were actually quite similar. The kids looked completely awe-struck as I was the first falang they had ever seen.
I sit down at the table and order a bowl of Gwitiau. Mama, and Papa looked to be about 100 years old although they are probably in their late 40's. After a snack Kwang asked me for 500 baht to pay for everyone's food. I stuck around the bill was a little over 100 including beer. We walk over the one of the most dilapidated pick up trucks I have ever seen in my life, and I get in the back with the women and children. Papa and the neighbour whose truck I was in sit in the front. A quick ride around the corner and we are at the market. A typical Thai market. Ah the smell… Kwang and Mama start buying Food and Veggies. I spot a 7/11 On the corner they are everywhere in Thailand. I go in and buy some instant coffee, batteries for my camera, and 6 huge bottles of water.
Back to the truck, I was a complete spectacle walking through downtown Buriram. In the truck and we head out of town. It was a really long way past miles and miles of rice fields and water buffaloes, which are quite strange looking beasts. It was actually quite beautiful, one of the things I always look for is If I still have a signal on my phone. After about an half an hour we turn off the highway on to a dirt road. Damn, was it bumpy another 15 minutes we come to the village. Down another little dirt path and then to the house. It was a shack with some wood planks some tin and a tin roof.
Next to it was Kwang's house that she is building next to it since she started working in Bangkok 4 years ago. It was essentially a two story post building no walls part of a second floor, and a really nice tile roof. Underneath was the little low table that all This have they sit, sleep eat on these, they are quite functional like a portable deck. I Immediately sit on it with my bag. The whole village turns out to see me. I was as amazed at them as they were at me. Mama is constantly chewing Betel Nut. It is some sort of mild narcotic. Some of the guys come over and offer me some Thai whisky and I say well lets get some beer. I give one teenage kid 300 Bt and he takes the family motorcycle and goes to some store I never seen and comes back with a case of Beer Chang Thai beer 7% alcohol. 12 big bottles! The guys and I start drinking and the women start cooking. I start clowning with them in Thai. All of the women come over to gawk at me and say how handsome I am. Babies running around naked. Try to get the mental picture here. Well everybody gets really drunk. Just about dark a pickup truck pulls up on the road and everyone is talking and crowding around.
I look over there and see a nice pickup truck within a Thai man and two women who definitely do not live in this village. I walk over and say Pen Alai (what's the problem) now remember I am pretty drunk now. The lady says the man is a policeman and the lady is here to collect a debt from a clinic in Khon Kaen. I look at the bills she is showing me and she is explaining it to me in Thai. One for 500 baht and another for Yaa (medicine) for 300 Baht. Now I get a little aggravated because someone has obviously tipped them off that The Big Gringo is in town and to come shake them down for money. I start arguing with them in thai. My Thai is actually better when I am drunk. I tell them I will only pay 500 baht and that they used 500 baht of gas to drive here and back from Khon Kaen. I know my geography. I tell them that a bird must have flown to Khon Kaen and told them a falang was here and that is why they are here. After some more banter I agree to pay the entire 800 baht, and demand a receipt that we have Jy Laew. (Paid already)
They grab the money and hurriedly leave. I yell Sawadee Kap, (Goodbye) Mai Pen Lai, an all purpose phrase that roughly means means never mind and Choke dee (Good luck ). When they pull off I yell Pai Luey which means like get the hell out of here. The villagers loved it. (What did they love – that you yelled or just got suckered out of 800 baht? – Stick)
It was an incredible evening and one hell of a party the whole village was there some lady came by with two baskets on a shoulder sling, and I bought oodles of Kanoms for the kids. We drank and ate.
At one point after I got there everyone from the village – old ladies, girls and a few of the men came and tied a string around my wrist and rubbed it and said Choke dee. They did the same to Kwang. It was a very gracious ceremony. I was Kap Koon Kap ing everyone thank you. Later I asked Kwang I had remembered reading something on the Internet about this. I said what are we married now. She smiled and said Chai Ka. That's right. I guess so we could sleep in the same bed that night. Later I was told by people it means you are married, you are being adopted into the family and for good luck. I guess I will never know for sure.
Anyway everyone wound up in the house watching a small TV -yes they have electricity and a refrigerator. Oh, and lights too! The floor was rough poured concrete, the mattresses were on a sort of wooden platform that was like an all purpose table on the edges and a sofa too.
Ma and Pa kettle had their own bed room which I never saw, and next to us was Kwang's sister's bed. But she had a mosquito net around hers. I kind of felt sorry for her, not a bad looking girl, older than Kwang and her husband works in Bangkok. Comes home maybe a few times a year. She works in the family's rice fields.
They cook on a kind of clay ot that you burn charcoal in. She said they had a gas propane like I have here at my home, but the gas is too expensive. A big giant tank of gas like for a barbecue, bigger is like 200 baht.
I offered to buy them a tank of gas, but they seemed content to cook on the charcoal. The next morning I am awakened by Kwang's sister – can't remember her name – crawling over us. I hear them cooking and the house filling up with smoke. The sides of the roof is open to let the smoke out. I hear people rustling outside. I wake up and drag outside to take a piss. There is everyone sitting around a small campfire. I go outside sit on the deck thing and have my morning smoke. One hell of a hangover. Kwang gets up and I asked her to make me some coffee. She has to go to the neighbour's to get the electric hot water pot. Eventually everyone is getting ready for another day in the rice field. It is the time to harvest now that the rainy season has ended. These contraptions that are like an engine with a PTO. For those of you that know what that is connected to a cart that is steered with what looks like plough handles.
Eventually the sun comes up and we decide to go into Buriram Kwang and I because just about all of the 2,500 baht I came with is gone. We walk up the road to the Songtaew stand. All of the kids are going to school. It doubles as the school bus. It is a big songtaew on a big truck instead of a pickup. I wind up having to kind of hang on the back platform with Kwang inside are huge gunny sacks of rice that some old lady is taking to the market in Buriram. All of the cute little schoolgirls in their little blue ankle length blue skirts and white shirts are giggling at me. About halfway into town a lady gets on with about 20 chickens all tied by their feet together flopping around. Try to get the mental picture. About a half hour we finally reach the school and all of the kids get off. So it is me, Kwang, a few old village ladies, some really attractive young woman with an infant and the chickens. We finally make it to Buriram the only mode of transportation is samlors. They are three wheel bicycle rickshaws. The seat is a bit small for my big butt and Kwang who has gained weight since she is with me. She eats regularly now. They are surprisingly fast. I go to the bank ATM and take out 2,700 Bt in three increments of 900 Baht to have some small money. Then back in the rickshaw to check my email. And another trip to the market. Back on the Songtaew, Kwang ask me for 100 Baht to hire ten people to cut rice at 100 baht for the day. I agree, after all I have paid to plant it so it must be harvested. On the songtaew there is the lady that had the 10 sacks of rice now with a big bundle of supplies. The rice is like money to them. She traded the rice for all of the stuff. An hour later back to the village.
Kwang promised to take me to see her rice paddies and catfish ponds. Her family has 15 Rai about – 7 1/2 acres although it looks bigger. The people all live in the village and the rice field are some short distance away. Everyone has their plots there because the building of the paddies and the irrigation is a group project. We get on her family motorcycle which has certainly seen better days a 100 cc Suzuki and head off to the rice paddies. Of course it is on empty so we stop to buy 50 baht worth of gas.
We turn down a rutted dirt path and head into the rice fields. She is not as good a motorcycle driver as my first wife. We come to the first catfish pond not very big but really teeming with fish. She tells me she can get about 40 baht = $1 USD a kilo for them. We walk the rest of the way to the paddys along about a 1 foot wide little ridge between each paddy. I start to get paranoid, because I remember reading about these things being infested with cobras, and I have seen my share of them since I have been here, but no cobras today.
Off in the distance I see the ladies bent over in the rice paddy. I start hearing 1960's songs in my head, and helicopters and have some type of Vietnam flashback. This must have been exactly what is was like in the war. We walk past Kwang's water buffaloes chewing the Cud. and her three Wuas – cows. Some of the sorriest looking cows I have ever seen.
There we reach the Paddy and there is Kwang's sister one of the old ladies from the party the night before and some other women cutting the rice with a small sickle and bundling it with a twisted rice stalk. You can see all of the bundles laying in the paddies they have already cut. For as far as you can see you see rice paddies a few trees scattered in some little work sheds like Kwang's at the catfish pond off in the Distance. If you look hard you can see other groups of people in the distant paddies.
I fuss at Kwang and tell her to get down there and cut rice, she reluctantly agrees, but only for a short time. She would rather dig the little crabs out of the holes that live in the Paddies. So that is where those little crabs that go in the Som Tom (Papaya Salad) come from. I got some great pics.
They ask me what time it is and I say Teung, noon. So everyone comes out of the paddy and we across the fields to a tree where they have lunch. Rice of course, sardines in a can. "Fish Can". Some vegetable stir fry stuff. I think each person brings a little something. Kwang asked me for 100 baht and sends her sister back to take the motorcycle, which is quite far away now; and goes to buy us some watermelon and soda. She comes back about a half hour later with 2 small watermelons a bottle of red soda, and a bottle of Thai whisky. We eat lunch and everyone takes a little short nap, and back to work. While I am having lunch I get a phone call. I have a surprisingly good signal in the rice paddies. From Bangkok. I wind up making calls to Bangkok, Prachuab and America, conducting business in the middle of a rice field in Isaan. The wonders of modern technology.
We walk back to the motorcycle, which won't start and Kwang yells to her uncle across in his rice field to come and help us. He walks over and fiddles with it and it starts. A short ride back to the house, and there is Mama watching the babies and kids.
A bit later Papa comes back with a bucket, mmm good eating, cow guts. About an hour before dark everyone comes dragging in from the rice fields. I hear some racket out back past the banana trees and go to investigate. It is a machine that the rice bundles go in the top. Out the side shoots the rice grains into the sacks. On the back a big blower thing blows what looks like hay into a big haystack. This was the harvest for everyone for the day. The guys are passing around the whiskey and it is has been a good day.
Darkness falls, another bowl of boiled catfish soup and rice this time with ants, mmm. The ladies and kids and everybody comes over because our place is happening. Everyone eats. I watch three different women nurse the same baby.
There is a real sense of community. I have all but recovered from my hangover and decide I should buy some more beer. We have a party, smaller than the night before, and I go to sleep exhausted.
The next morning I wake up go take a shit in the squat toilet, eat a breakfast of fried pork nuggets rice, and some vegetables stir fried. Take a cold shower with a bucket, pack up, say goodbye and walk up to the songtaew stand. We have missed the Songtaew so the postman agrees to drive us into Buriram for 300 baht. Get there, jump on the bus with minutes to spare, and off to Bangkok. I plan to save some money and go back and work on Kwang's house.
Isaan was Fantastic!
Isaan is a lot of fun, especially if one can get well of f the beaten path, not that there really si a beaten path in Isaan. But village life is where it is really at. The sense of community up that way is very strong – and you'll be well looked after. Though always be aware of the requests for money, some of which are genuine, many of which are not. Buying a lot of alcohol and food – and it really won't cost much – is the way to win many friends for life in the Isaan villages.