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Songkran : Real Isaan

  • Written by Union Hill
  • April 27th, 2006
  • 13 min read


Should any readers be expecting another raucous tale of drunken debauchery I am afraid this article might disappoint. In something of a break with tradition and following a recent trip to the provinces, I would like share with you my vision of Isaan during Songkran. Normal service will be resumed next time.

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There was a Toyota Soluna in the drive. OK, it was nine years old but it had been bought brand new and was still in good nick. Next to it was a brand new Isuzu pickup truck and parked along the side of the house were no less than four motorcycles. OK, they were not new (except for one) but they all worked and were fully taxed and insured.

As I pushed the gate open I surveyed the house. It was much bigger than I had expected and had recently received a fresh coat of paint.

In the corner of the garden was a Buddhist shrine. In Thai it’s called a ‘san phra poom’, which was adorned with flowers and fairy lights. Offerings of food and joss sticks cluttered its base.

We had just pulled up outside the wife’s family home in deepest Isaan. We had come for a five day visit over the Songkran festival. I had met the family in Bangkok at various times in the past but I had never been here before. Yai, the old girl had stayed with us for a few months but she was back at home now, where she belonged.

This house was home to the wife’s mother who everyone called ‘Yai’, elder sister Som, Som’s husband Pi Toon and their three boys Iff, Eff and Off (don’t ask). The wife’s younger sister Jum also lived there.

A closer inspection of the interior of the house revealed five bedrooms and two bathrooms upstairs. Downstairs was a large kitchen, a very large living room / dining area and another bathroom. Out the back was a large covered area with workbenches for preparing food and washing up and doing any other activities that you might not feel like doing in the kitchen. Just around the corner was a patio area set on which, was a large rectory style dining table and eight solid wood chairs. All in all, it was a very big house.

What struck me immediately was the distinct lack of furniture. In fact, there was a distinct lack of comfort too. There was not a cushion or soft chair anywhere. In the downstairs living room / dining room there was a solitary, low, solid wood table with six matching chairs. It seemed to have been shoved into one corner of the room and served no practical purpose. There was a glass display cabinet against one wall, a TV and a computer. The TV only received the terrestrial Thai channels and the computer had no internet connection. There was a vast area of open space in the middle of the room. I suspected the table out on the patio usually occupied some of this space indoors.

The bedroom that had been prepared for the wife and me, was at the back of the house. In it was, one very large wardrobe and a hard king size bed. Nothing else. It reminded me of a short time hotel room but I kept that thought to myself. I couldn’t say how the other four bedrooms were fitted out but my guess was that they would have been similarly Spartan.

The bathrooms turned out to be something else! I was staggered to find that although each room was fitted with a shower, none of the showers actually worked. In the three shower rooms, the showers had fallen into disuse. The taps would not turn. No water had flowed from these showerheads for years. When I looked closely, there was dust in there and probably spiders. Clearly, these showers had not worked for a long time. I doubted they had ever been used much, if at all.

Instead, each shower room housed a big plastic dustbin full of water. The idea was that you scooped the water out of the bin with a small plastic bowl and threw it over yourself to wash.

These people had had showers installed when they built this house but no-one had ever used them preferring instead the traditional method of dowsing themselves with water presumably just as if they were washing in a river. Then it dawned on me. My in-laws were bloody savages.

Having finished checking out the facilities and then hauling our suitcase to the bedroom, I went to find the rest of the household.

The wife was chatting to her mother out the back while Som and Jum seemed to be preparing vegetables and moving huge aluminium pots full of water from one bench to another. I came to realise that this was how Som and Jum spent their days.

I looked around for somewhere to sit. There was nothing to sit on. The wife and Yai were sitting on a rattan mat spread out on the concrete floor. Sitting on the floor is something that dogs do where I come from……….. I don’t sit on floors.

Not that it mattered, but we had just come all the way from Bangkok and I could have done with a bit of a sit down. I felt a bit awkward just standing there with my hands in my pockets.

Then Jum produced a small tray and a couple of glasses. She put some ice in the glasses and from under the workbench pulled out a large bottle of Coke. I waited expectantly for her to offer me a drink. She topped the glasses up with Coke, picked up the tray then trooped off to the ‘san phra poom’ in the corner of the garden. Buddha was obviously more in need of refreshment than me.

I asked where the men of the house were. Iff and Eff are seventeen year old twins. Off is their older brother. Dad, Pi Toon teaches at the local school. The women didn’t know where any of them were at that moment but they would all be home in time for dinner.

I mooched around the garden trying to find something interesting to play with. There was nothing. This might turn out to be a very long few days. Boredom was already starting to nag at me and we’d only just arrived. I hadn’t even brought my laptop with which to amuse myself. <That is how I get by when I'm in Isaan. Laptop and camera and then I can go and play with myselfStick>

I went around the corner of the house to the patio and sat at the big rectory table. I wasn’t being unsociable but listening to the womenfolk rattling on in Isaan or Laos or whatever the hell language they speak, was also starting to irritate me.

Anyway, whilst sitting there alone with my thoughts I began to consider a few things.

I knew the family had lived in this house for the last twelve years or so. How on earth did they pay for it? How did they afford the cars and motorbikes. What did they live on?

Pi Toon earned about twenty thousand baht a month and that was after a recent promotion. Jum was the only other wage earner and she would be earning really small money at her job at a Sony retail outlet in town. Iff and Eff were still in fulltime education and Off was studying chemical engineering at university in Bangkok. Som looked after the old girl at home.

I wished I could work those sort of financial miracles with my income. Then another less savoury thought entered my head. Had I been subsidising this household in any way? Surely I would have noticed if my bank account had been leaking funds to support my provincial in-laws? I decided not to continue that thought process. What I didn’t know wasn’t hurting and if I had been paying without knowing, I could go on paying without knowing.

Bloody hell! Don’t guests even get a cup of tea in Isaan?

Bye and bye, Pi Toon turned up. He was already in holiday mode and had been around at a neighbour's house getting some holiday spirit down his neck. He greeted me warmly and rebuked the women for not having given me any beer yet. Som produced a cold bottle of Heineken and a glass in a flash. Pi Toon sat down opposite me and broke out his own supply of Regency brandy. I have no idea what Regency brandy is. On the label it says ‘VSOP cognac’ and ‘Made in Thailand’. It smelt like nail polish remover to me. Pi Toon carefully measured out a capful, poured it into a tall glass full of ice and topped it up with soda. For him, this was not the first one of the day and it was certainly not going to be the last. I had brought him a bottle of Johnnie Black from Bangkok but Som had put that out of sight for the time being.

Presently, the twins and Off turned up and then various other people who I didn’t know came and went throughout the course of the late afternoon and evening.

I didn’t move again from my position at the rectory table. Enough food to feed a small army was conveyed to the table over the next few hours and I drank enough beer to float a corvette battle cruiser.

Friendly types, these Isaan folks.

I retired sometime around midnight, mellow in mind and body.

The next day was the start of the Songkran festival proper. This had its good and bad points. The bad was that the day started around five thirty in the morning. Yai, the old girl is usually up at this time anyway but on this day, Yai, the wife and her sisters were all up cooking food to feed the monks from the local wat. Why they have to feed the monks at all is beyond me but why the hell it has to be so early too, really gives me the arse.

Anyway, there’s no choice on this special day. One up, all up. Bollocks.

While the locals were doing their ritual monk feeding ceremony, I revived myself with several cups of coffee. I was beginning to learn not to wait to be asked and helped myself. Pisser though, there was no newspaper to read and no internet.

After the monks had had their nosh and buggered off it was time to get down to the serious business of ‘cleansing and renewal’ which is what Songkran is really all about.

This I found quite a quaint little ceremony if I’m honest.

By now there seemed to be dozens of people milling around the house and garden. Some I recognized from the previous evening, some I had never seen before and some were members of the wife’s extended family that I only knew by sight. I couldn’t remember what the hell their names were but what with being the only farang, everyone knew me.

So Yai, her niece Poon and some other old bugger got to be the centre of attention for a while. The three old girls sat on stools next to each other while the rest of the gathered company took it in turns to wash the old ducks’ hands and pour water over their shoulders in a ceremonial fashion. Even Yours Truly got to pour water over the old fossils.

I must say, I found this quite moving.

And talking about moving, once this was done the wife and I decided to take a look around the town because she reckoned there would be some nice things to see before the lunatic element got out and started throwing water around proper on the streets. Who was I to argue and she turned out to be correct.

Just a little way up the road we came across a troupe of girls doing a traditional Thai dance in the street. They danced in step to traditional Thai music and were beautifully turned out in matching silk costumes. Watching them was the highlight of the entire trip to Isaan.

To borrow a prolific contributor’s catchphrase, it really was ‘Delightful’.

By mid afternoon, we were back at Fawlty Towers and things were warming up nicely. Pi Toon and some of his mates were giving another bottle of Regency brandy a right good suck. They had a little karaoke session going. One of the guys was playing a keyboard, while the others took it turns wailing those Isaan country songs. Isaan country songs are easy to identify. They are the ones that sound like someone dragging their finger nails down a blackboard accompanied by what sounds like an alley cat trying to shag a rooster. Westerners can’t take too much of it.

Jum and Som were preparing and delivering food to the assembled masses. It became clear to me that the women’s lives in this household revolved around food. When they weren’t preparing or cooking food, they were washing up and getting ready to start the cycle again. I guessed this was because there really was bugger all else to do. I couldn’t help but notice that life here had a kind of ritual feel to it.

The rest of the day progressed pretty much the same as the previous evening with more eating and drinking and visits from friends, family and neighbours.

This was all very nice, but I didn’t think I could take five days of this so the next day the wife and I decided to borrow the Soluna and have a drive around the area. This suited me better. We had a tour of the countryside and decided to stay overnight at one of the nearby beauty spots.

We got back to the family home the following day and for that evening we had planned to go out for dinner and maybe take in some entertainment. Me, the wife, Jum, Som and Pi Toon.

We went for dinner and finished the evening off in a music bar which we all enjoyed. Throughout the evening every bill was picked up by me and even when the bill was handed to another member of the group, it was passed straight to me. It wasn’t an expensive evening but this kind of thing grates on me a bit. I know I had had free food and drinks at the family home but that’s what you do when guests come to stay, isn’t it?

The next day we flew back to Bangkok. It took fifty five minutes. Cousin Bramoon came to see us at home a few days later. He had driven back to Bangkok on the same day. The journey had taken him ten hours.

All in all, a very nice break. Nice to visit but I’m glad I don’t live there.

Union Hill

Stickman's thoughts:

I couldn't agree more. It's fine to visit every so often, but that's enough!