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Delightful Thailand – Back Into Isaan



1) Into Isaan

TG takes me back to Isaan. Pathet Chai Dii, I have ten days in Isaan this April. There are so many Thai-Farang couples on the aeroplane. It's fun to guess where they met first – bar or business? None of the ladies looks like a current or previous bar girl. I envy all those balding, middle-aged western men with their 30ish, pretty, caring, bronze ladies. Just a few couples look bored with each other or seem in distress. There are no children though – a sign that the relations (but not the people) are quite young? On the intercontinental flight into Thailand there had been quite a few east-west couples with mixed kids. Actually, I feel I am the only single white male on this plane to Isaan. Heck, should I grab a sexy THAI hostess?

At my destination, I will have some solo days, but I will also meet a group of Thai friends. I have planned to spend my first Isaan evening alone, happy to go to some delightful live music pubs and restaurants that I had visited alone on previous trips. The friends know I arrive today, however I told them let's meet tomorrow. But no chance: Once you have your own mobile phone, there's no escape. Not answering or turning your mobile off looks weird. Rrrring-rrrrring, how are you, we pick you up at 8 pm, please wait in the lobby. My solo night has died.

2) Meeting again

We go to a restaurant that looks chic, but like all the places they choose it has good Thai food and noisy live music. No chance for interesting talks.

Haven't seen all of them for more than a year. Of course I do remember Miss Noi, we had exchanged e-mails and even paper pictures after meeting first in Nakhon Phanom many months ago. Now this time Miss Som looks quite different (less beautiful). I don't dare to mention it. Mr. Pep's previously omnipresent long time girl friend Miss Lek has disappeared. I don't dare to ask for her. After some hours I find out: Miss Som is not Miss Som, but Miss Lek – Mr. Pep's longtime girl friend. My old problem, I don't remember Asian faces properly. Glad I didn't ask about the changes!

As usual, you can't make out who is boyfriend/girlfriend in this group; they all treat each other just friendly, no touching or siding with just only one. I do know, Pep and Lek share an apartment and want to marry once they have the money for the wedding party – but you can't see that from their neutral-friendly behaviour in the group. (But now I can safely ask for Miss Som, who is the one missing, she had to move to Chiang Mai.)

3) A Sunday Outing

A day trip to the lake. In the car, we talk about ghosts. I maintain there is one ghost in my house back in Old Europe, I even took its picture back in 1998. Now these are all people with university degrees, around 30 years old. Looking back at me from her front seat, Mrs. Lek is all big brown eyes now: "You sure?!?!?!? You take picture ghost in your house???? How you can take picture – ghosts have no shadow and you cannot see them in the mirror!" This I admit, "but I can take a picture of the ghost itself, why not." I ask Lek if she has ghosts in her house. "I think so, but I never see." Does she have a small ghost house shrine, like so many buddhist people? No, only a place for her father's bones. Do ghosts live there? "I think so, but I never see." She looks very concerned. I promise to e-mail the ghost picture later. Mr. Pep makes a few doubtful remarks, as if the ghosts in my place didn't really exist. I put on a childish voice and moan: "You don't believe me, you don't believe me." At 100 km/h, I open the left back door and say "You don't believe me, I go out, no need to stay". "NO GO OUT", screams Miss Noi besides me in high pitch and jumps onto my arms like a tiger, stopping me from leaving the car at full motion. "Yes, we believe there are ghosts in your house", the girls say now. Mr. Pep still looks sceptical, but ok, I can stay.

For the lake trip I had applied lots of sunscreen and even brought my funny cowboy hat. But I should have known better – of course no walking in the heat: We just lounge in an open shack over the water, kids and boats in the brown soup around us, lots and lots of good Thai food is served to our place.

Just as in many Thai-oriented restaurants, the service does not remove the numerous plates in our shack, not even after paying. So we move to the next, free shack, to while away the crazily hot day – talking, playing guitar, playing cards, snoozing, staring at other Sunday trippers, stretching out for the occasional breeze. At 4.30 pm, finally time for a walk in the park. Soon enough, we sit down again on the grass, the girls with sweet "Khanom" jelly fruit that looks inedible. They sip from one big bottle of drinking water; only I get a different small one exclusively for me. Now is that positive or negative racism? Or is it "khrengjai"? I heard that word several times without really understanding it. <having consideration for, or deferring to, someone of perceived higher status would be the best I can come up with for this wordStick>

The sun travels on, so we shift our things ten meters into the shadow proper. I carry a few bags to the other place and also grab Miss Lek's sandals, as they happen to be next to the bags I took. "No need, no need, no need", Lek screams. Now I know feet and shoes are considered as "low", but I thought just moving her shoes into the shadow was no offence and no "low work by a high animal" either? Carrying all the stuff except the shoes would have been better?

4) Sanuk

After the day out in the heat, everybody is tired – and I get a free evening! I rush to my favorite live music place. And sure enough, the only farang among 100 Thais gets a special greeting from the stage. I fire back a few answers in baby-level Isaan-Lao/Thai, everybody is sanuked. They play up spicy luuk-thung country pop that has everybody dancing in no time – dancing around the tables, as there is no special dance space. What I admire is they don't turn their amps to the highest possible volume. Different from places like Tawan Daeng Klong Tan in Bangkok, the sound here is very clear, even voices, khaen flute, classical violin and a croaking one-string-violin get across well; several saxophones, flutes, electric bass, acoustic and electric guitars are used, too – besides all that percussion, of course. Lots of songs are played by requests that arrive on small papers, delivered by the waiters. All the band members have small earphones and get directions from the keyboard player. They switch between songs without any pause, keeping up the heat. Everybody on stage plays several instruments and can do the lead vocals, too. They do a tremendous job, the place is heaving, and when I join the dancing crowd I get another wai and a smile from the current singer.

When the Thais clap their hands or shout "Cha, cha, cha" to the rhythm, they don't do it on beats 1 and 3, as in the west. They clap off-beat on 2 and 4, spicing up the whole thing even more. So it's not "Cha__Cha__", but "__Cha__Cha". It's a music that simply makes me happy.

Sitting down alone in a Thai-frequented venue in Isaan, I sometimes feel like exploiting the Thais' hearts. Because they pity me so much for coming khon diao and before long they pour whiskey into my glass or invite me to their table. "Why you come alone" is a typical opening question. This evening I am asked to join a table with two couples, mostly around 40, teachers and government officials. Heck, they look quite settled and well-off – but they get crazy over the music, with lots of hand moves, dancing around the table and welcoming screams for every new song.

One man invites me to dance with his quite pretty wife. She may be just 30. She and me are already dancing face to face. Several times I signal the man to join us, I don't want to look like wooing a Thai man's wife. But the others shout "no problem, no problem", and the husband himself gestures like "No, I keep sitting down, but you please enjoy dancing with my beautiful wife." And so I do. She smiles and dances towards me with very pleasant, even inviting movements. This behaviour from a solo lady, and I would ask her "your place or mine?" Maybe she can only act such openly and even sexy towards a stranger because her husband can clearly monitor the ongoings. All her smiles, hand and body movements towards the foreigner have his affirmation, after all.

The gig is over. I say "Sabaidee khrap", and with a lot of "Chok-dee khrap"s from my table, I make it to the exit. There are a few musicians talking by the door. While Thai customers walk out unnoticed, I receive a wai from the percussionist. I applause them and say "Keng! Keng maak-maak khrap!" (Excellent.) I get one more deep wai and a lot of smiles. Anybody bemoaning xenophobia in the Land of Smiles should take a shower and their self-pitying ass out of Sukhumvit Zoo.

5) Talk Talk

Poor hotel receptionists. I practice my Thai and Isaan lingo with them, even in this three star place that's so incredibly cheap, up here in Isaan. So when I return home from a music night out, with too much whiskey forced into me by elated Thais, I go and stammer my room number in Thai: "Ning haa ning phaet, khrap", I explain to the sweet night shift receptionist; I can only hope that I do remember the right room number *and* the right words for these numbers. The lady in her elegant silk dress flashes a nice smile: "Ui, phood phasaa Thai dai keng khaa", she raves (you can speak Thai excellent). But I remain modest: "Ah, nitnoi only khrap." "No, keng khaa", she insists. She hands me the key for room 1518, and now I play my big card, I speak her local Isaan/Lao lingo: "Khop chai lai der", I smile to her (thank you). A huge smile floods her pretty face, she is clearly touched. "Baw pen yang der", she whispers in phasaa Isaan/Lao (no problem), looking at me with sheer admiration. Backed up with her warm smile, I make it to the lift and up into my posh room. I am a naïve tourist stumbling through Thai wonderland.

To get the message across, I have to forget my school English and resort to corrupt Asian English. Without hesitation, I produce horrible sentences that would make my English teachers scream out loud – "you no angry me, you sure?" Many times I use a mix of Thai, Isaan/Lao and English that is actually well appreciated up here. In this hotel you don't give your laundry to reception or to cleaning ladies, but you have to call laundry department. So I dial "3" and say: "Mi laundry leaow khrap" (have laundry already). "Ok khrap", I hear as an answer. But did they really get my point? Oh, there is a ring on the door bell. A lady with a hair net and housekeeping uniform is waiting to receive my dirty shirts. Yes, we do understand each other. Ok khrap leaow.

6) Not Bangkok

Every morning, about five tuktuks are waiting in front of my hotel. Coming from Bangkok, I expect them to descend all over me as I walk to the internet access center next door. But the tuktuk drivers see me – and snore on!

I surf away in the internet shop. After two hours, I expect to pay 120 Baht or more for a reasonably fast connection. But this is not the Big Mango – 40 Baht is enough in Isaan.

Almost boring how much people obey traffic lights and wear helmets. Police on every junction. Is that still my beloved easygoing Isaan? At one point, Miss Noi and I do have an unplanned motosai trip together. Her bike is there – "but we have no helmet", I tell her, expecting we need to take a tuktuk. "No helmet, hmmm", she goes; then she smiles her charming smile: "OK, let's go on motosai, I can talk to police." Yes, let's go.

Motorbike parking is fun here, too. Like all the other Thais, I always leave helmet and shopping items in the motosai basket. When I come back, never ever is anything lost – whether I park at pubs, markets or parks. And never ever are the mirrors in the position they used to be.

7) Fire and Ice

The April heat is simply ridiculous. When I leave the well-tempered hotel complex, a fierce fiery heat jumps aggressively right into my face. Wind is not welcome, it makes the heat impact even worse. There is one vague association I have… what is this heat wave like? Then I remember: At home, when I do a pizza, I have the stove on 200 degrees Celsius for 25 minutes. Then when I open the stove's door – it is the same kind of angry heat devil that jumps out of the stove and out of Isaan skies right into my face.

But one afternoon, big pieces of ice come down. No kidding! 50 guests stand under the hotel's front roof and watch heaps of frozen rain thundering down. "Thailand – pathet nam kheng", comments one Thai man too me (Thailand, land of ice). Funny, these are just the words I use for my own country when describing the climate to Thais. We discuss a business plan to sell cold drinks by holding glasses of warm coke out into the ice downpour. The pieces are coming down in the required size for beer or soft drinks.

But who needs cold drinks when it is already cold? After the rains died down, for my usual sunset walk in the park I need a jacket. A jacket! In Isaan in April! A jacket is not handy, compared to shirt only, but it gives me a very homy feel.

Friends and I have several more Thai style nights out, this means sitting in live music pubs, sharing lots of delicious Thai food and screaming remarks at each other over the music noise. Actually, Mr. Pep is a music gourmet and he makes sure we only come to hear trustworthy bands. No dull karaoke, no soapy love ballads. I get full blown information about the current independent music scene. Sad though, he likes straightforward rock, while I have a knack for luuk-thung and other oriental flavors. When Thais sing English, I never feel so happy.

Several sexy beer girls in beer company uniforms from Chang to Heineken line up on plateau shoes in front of me. Their short skirts dangle over the table, displaying delicate leg flesh at food level. But I don't like beer, so I have to find another waiter to order nam manao, soda with lemon. It takes about ten minutes and the help of my Thai friends to get this message through to the waiter. They don't know how to do a soda lemon in this music pub. When a soda with lots of separate lemon pieces finally arrives, Mr. Pep is quietly asked if everything is ok with me.

Funny, from the discussions I conclude my friends don't know much about the average income in the west. They assume I live – like them – on about 8.000 or 12.000 Baht a month. When we go out, one of us pays the bill, then the others give their estimated share to him/her. A typical evening for four is 400 to 1000 Baht. A few times I insist I pay alone, but they are clearly not happy with this. I know Mr. Pep enjoys a beer or two, but usually refrains to save the money. I have to beat him to accept a beer from me (I don't drink beer anyway). And my sources have told me he likes especially Heineken, which is more expensive than Beer Chang. I have to beat him one more time before he does not only accept a beer, but a Beer Heineken from me.

It is a three star hotel with lots of distinguished Thai guests, but the farang visitor still raises interest. In the lift or at the breakfast table, I exchange whereabouts and greetings with curious business men from Maha Kalasin and car dealers from Chiang Mai. One day two friends join me for breakfast buffet. For me, I have the breakfast ticket that's included with the room charge. For them I will pay 180 Baht each to the hotel – sad, as they are too shy to take more than two slices of pineapple or so (there is lots of good Asian food). Suddenly, a rich Thai guest directs Mr. Pep to his table, and with a very bossy voice. Good boy Mr. Pep walks over to the other customer, not knowing what to expect from this local tycoon – and receives two breakfast tickets for free from the bossy Thai. Pep is all Khop khun khrap, and I send another Thank You nod across the tables.

8) A Shopping Trip

I need a VCD with Thongchai's and Chintala's Bangkok concert, and I need an audio CD with some contemporary luuk thung music. Some time after sunset, I park my rented motorcycle in front of a shop with a huge orange neon board: "CD – VCD – DVD". Seems the perfect place for me. I walk in, ask for a Thongchai-VCD and am told: "Solly, mistel, we only have vi-de-ooh." Khaochai laeow. But for audio CDs and VCDs, he recommends another big shop; he fires off directions in Thai, and I don't understand one word. Back outside I stand near my motosai and wonder how to find the other shop; it's 8.20 pm already, I guess they will close soon. Out of the shop comes the video seller and points to his Honda – he will take me to the other outlet! I hop on the back seat, and after a three minute ride around a few corners I am guided into another shop full CDs and DVDs; two nice shop girls take good care of all my (audio-visual) needs.

Then I stand in front of the second CD shop and have to find back to CD shop 1, where hopefully my motorcycle is still waiting. I walk back around a few corners, but I can't find the other shop. Walk around a few more corners, and shop 1 still doesn't materialize. Heck, all roads look same-same in these drab Isaan towns, don't they? Now it is 9.30 pm, Isaan is being closed now, the streets are dark. I can't find shop 1, and there is even less chance to discover my motorcycle. I charter a tuktuk and ask him to drive around a few more corners in slow motion. I tell him I am searching my motosai, and he starts looking left and right like crazy – but the streets are parked full of motosais, and they all appear similar in the black night. Only as we pass one certain road for a second time in slow gear, I discover CD shop 1 – it looks so different without all the neon. And there is my Honda! "Samsip Baht, dai mai khrap?", I ask the driver with relief (30 Baht, ok?). He agrees. Stupid, in the CD shop I paid with my last small money, so now I only have a 500 baht note – Mr. Tuktuk of course has no change for that. I enter a video game center and ask for change. After ten minutes of rummaging through different drawers, boxes and pockets, they proudly present a whole bush of small bills in exchange for my 500-Baht-Note. I am a bit shy to do so, but I count the change on the spot. Then I walk back to Mr. Tuktuk and give him 40 Baht, adding a happiness extra tip to the agreed price. As I board my rediscovered motosai, Mr. Tuktuk waves at me and points to the ground – most of the small bills I got from the game center fell down onto the street!

9) I Like Isaan

My last day in Isaan is solo. Motosai takes me to a small town on Mekong river. I park and walk along the peaceful riverside promenade. Dogs snooze in the middle of the street. I discover a small restaurant; actually, it is more of a leafy private garden with 1,5 tables for the odd visitor. Right now I am the only customer. As the man starts cooking, the lady sits down with me and enquires my whereabouts. Then I learn all about her, her husband and her kids.

We talk most peacefully for more than two hours. The minutes, the hours trickle away as leisurely as lazy Mekong river beyond the bushes. We discuss the many Viet businesses on this part of the Mekong coast. Actually, my hotel manager, my motosai renter and some restaurants in town had proudly informed me of their Viet descent. I tell her I had a good time in southern Vietnam's Mekong delta. She asks me about the differences between khun Vietnam and khun Thai. I think for a moment. "Khun Thai chai dii", I go; she nods. "But khun Vietnam chai dii, too." I met many good-hearted people in rural Thailand as well as in rural Vietnam. And of course I had a wonderful time back then with my Vietnamese ex.

As she talks to a neighbour, I think more about this answer. Yes, good people in Mekong delta Vietnam as well as in Isaan. But not really same-same, I feel. Chai dii – good heart – here and there, yes, but that's not all. Those who make me really happy are khun Thai, or khun Isaan more specifically. I am tempted to say, only khun Thai have "chai svay" (beautiful heart), but I don't know if that is a comprehensible expression or maybe it is already used with a certain connotation. The Thais' charm, their easygoing playfulness, their care for happy-happy and sanuk, their extroverted yet relaxed kindness draws me back and back again. And oh, yes, I could live somewhere on the Thai Mekong coast to enjoy more lazy afternoons like this one.

While her husband is cleaning dishes and dressing the younger kid, she tells me she is looking forward to the Songkran season, as she loves going out, dancing to luuk thung country pop. With a delighted smile, she does a few delicate dance-like hand moves; then she hugs her two-year-old-one who comes stumbling along.

For coke, chicken fried rice with fried egg, lots of iced drinking water and an attempted coffee I am charged 45 Baht. I give the money to the nine year old daughter who reacts with a very polite wai. The lady makes me promise to come back next year, and she wants to see me married by then.

I am too shy to ask if she has a single twin sister.

Stickman says:

While the towns might be drab and it is often as hot as hell, touring around Isaan is the best.