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Reflections From Suburban Isaan



Reflections From Suburban Isaan: Why You Should Never Live In Her village

By Sudah Makan


Loads of farangs must have been inconvenienced by the closure recently of the bridge at Nongkhai that goes across to Laos. I was quite enjoying taking the 35 baht train ride for the monthly visa runs at different times of the year, getting to know the immigration officers and topping up on French wines at the duty free shops on the Lao side. Unfortunately this time the stamp on the passport ran out while the bridge was closed.

As it turned out, the Thai immigration came up with a simple solution: we just had to go to the Nongkhai immigration office where for 1900 baht they gave out 2 week extensions: a bit pricey, but cheaper than heading for Cambodia or Malaysia or wherever. Inevitably there were a few other farangs there, with their tilac in tow and it didn’t take long before mine was approached by another one, to exchange comments on the idiosyncracies of their respective farang blokes. This was followed by the inevitable sparring about who’s got a bigger house, more money etc! Well the other bloke had provided a five bedroom place, while I could only stretch to three, so that made it one nil to the other lady. She then asked my tilac when I intended to return to my country (a well-known, politically-correct, overcrowded island in the top left-hand corner of Europe), to which the reply was ‘Never because he likes it so much here’. She then admitted that her bloke just couldn’t wait to go back to Germany as he couldn’t stand the flies and the ants in her village: so that probably made it one all in the tilac asset sparring match.

I was quite surprised by this revelation, as she told us that their house had mosquito netting, was air-conditioned and presumably they could afford Baygon spray. However as the conversation wore on, Gunther, Wolfgang – or whatever his name was (he was in the other room with the immigration officer, at the time), it turned out that his desire to return to the Fatherland had sod all to do with insects. Instead he had made the fundamental mistake of buying a house in her village, instead of as far away from it as possible. By living in her village, he had compromised his ability to live as he may have wished: as Stickman pointed out in an article a couple of weeks ago, there really aren’t that many farangs who are prepared to adapt totally to the Thai or Isaan way of living. Just like all relationships, you and your tilac have to meet each other half-way about how you intend to live and the fact that she is with you suggests that she is prepared to do so. However if the two of you live in her village, it is the extended family that becomes the major influence in her life, not you.

Your tilac will probably tell you privately that most of her family is just a pain in the arse but when she’s surrounded by them, it’s all smiles and laughter, however much they dislike one another. Believe me, the verbal back-stabbing that goes on in these Isaan villages makes an episode of your average western soap opera seem like Alice in Wonderland and you’ll be drawn into it, as sure as anything. If you buy a house there, however, they’ll be round to your place 24/7, delighted to be given food, beer and whiskey, all smiles and laughter to your face and then the malicious gossiping starts. Try telling your tilac that you don’t want them round all the time, that you want some time to yourself or to be alone with her and she’ll tell you she’d lose face if she told them to piss off. Have you ever wondered how much you have in common with the people in these villages, even if you do speak fluent village Lao (that’s the same lingo the ladies in the go-go bars in Nana use, by the way when they yell at each other across the stage)? Let me tell you a couple of stories that might convince you.

About a month after our son was born, we drove to the village so all the family could see him. We stayed a couple of hours but as we were driving away, tilac sees an old aunt of hers (maybe 60 years old but who knows). She calls the old lady over to come and meet her son and the old dear waddles over and spends the next 5 minutes excitedly jabbing at the window next to where he was sitting and shrieking at him, with a mixture of hysteria and delight. I then suggested to tilac that the old lady might prefer to open the car door and talk to him normally, tickle him under the chin and come out with the inevitable mankeeows. She then replied that the old dear did not know how to open a car door. That’s right, there are people in these villages that don’t know how to open car doors, in spite of the fact that there are loads of cars there; had she never seen a car stationary, seen someone pull on the piece of black plastic and the door open? Please, before I get any emails from Antipodean liberals accusing me of being patronising towards this lady, I admit unreservedly that if she had had the same educational opportunities that most of us have experienced, she would probably have left me at the starting gate. Nevertheless, I still need to ask ‘Just how do you communicate with someone who doesn’t know how to open a car door?’ I’m not expecting to get involved in a discussion on Wittgensteins theories on secondary socialisation nor an evaluation of the use of alexandrines in 17th century classical French poetry but, shit, she doesn’t know how to open a car door!

Here’s my other story: before you move into a new house in Isaan your tilac may insist on having a housewarming ceremony; apparently it chases off the ghosts. Most of the village will appear, a dozen of them to every beaten-up pick up truck, one of which will be full of monks. It’s great fun, lots of chanting, bits of string being passed round the house and, of course, tons of Isaan food. Now I’m not a great fan of Isaan food which I regard a little more than fresh roadkill, barbecued with a kilo of chilli on top, so I decided to have a couple of slices of toast instead. As I stuck the bread in the toaster, I turned round to find half a dozen faces gawping at me in sheer amazement: this was clearly the most bizarre event they’d ever witnessed. By the time the toast had popped up, the audience had doubled and when I spread the marmalade on it, there must have been 20 people standing there speechless. One can only imagine how this episode was described to the people back in the village. ‘Guess what, Ham Noi, (this means ‘Small goolies’ by the way and there’s a bloke in the village who actually has this nickname) this fucking farang took this brown thing that popped out from a machine, spread some stuff on it and finally stuck it in his mouth. No shit!’

This brings me on to the question of food: I believe that whatever you were given a small child is what you still regard as the culinary dogs’ bollocks 40 or 50 years on. Whether you were brought up on boiled beef, lumpy mashed potato and mushy peas or chattes de canard brulées aux amandes de Provence, that’s probably your favourite dish all those years down the line. Similarly if you were fed on barbecued roadkill, just the smell of it will forever make your mouth water. So the point is if you want to eat something that genuinely appeals to you (like bread, dairy products, potatoes, spaghetti) you’re not going to find it in her village but you will find it in supermarkets in the larger Isaan towns like Udon Thani, Khon Kaen or Nongkhai.

It’s probably true that property in the villages is cheaper than just outside these towns but even here houses are much cheaper than in or outside Bangkok, and a fraction of the price in the overcrowded sceptered isle in the top left hand corner of Europe.

I suggest that if you get a place say 50 or 60 km from her village, she’ll still be able to visit her family once a month or so. What’s more you’ll still be able to enjoy one another’s company, enabling you to live a very pleasant lifestyle in this delightful part of the world.

Stickman's thoughts:

Good stuff.