Stickman Readers' Submissions April 21st, 2008

A Home In Khon Kaen Part 4

The last instalment leapt ahead several months from October 2007 to March 2008 so that I could give a complete description of the water system which you may have gathered I am rather proud of! It is time now to step back to last October and resume my tale, but in this instalment I will give the reader a rest from complaints of building mishaps. I have also decided that rather than follow a strict chronology I will continue the pattern of the last instalment and proceed thematically.

I had spent a concentrated effort in October to get the foundations for the retaining walls done but this was not all that was happening. My day would typically begin at 7am when I would drag my aching bones off the floor mat in Noy’s sister’s house for a quick cold douch from the shower pot, a couple of pieces of toast (with bread I brought up from Pattaya) and a cup of tea followed by a 20 minute walk to the building site to start work at 8am. (The locals were very worried about this “excessive walking” and I would receive three or four offers of lifts on motorcycles and sometimes even cars would stop!) It was also dawning on me that when the village matrons called out “bpai nai?” every morning I didn’t need to wonder at their poor memory or comprehension (I usually answered “bpai baan N”), it was just their way to say hullo. Anyway I would usually work through till noon or thereabouts, stop and eat some fruit and drink more water while the men had lunch, then work again till 5pm when it was time for the men to have their Thai whisky. I would join them with a beer then resume working till about 7.30pm before knocking off for dinner. I would then return to the house afterwards about 8.15pm and continue to work until about 11pm or sometimes later.

mens clinic bangkok

I was seldom tempted to join the men for lunch. Despite daily invitations the fare did not appeal and was sometimes positively scary. One day N’s brother in law proudly showed me a duck which he had brought along to cook for lunch as a special treat. I am quite partial to duck and thought maybe I might just join in this time. Well a dirty old piece of wood was picked up off the ground, roughly washed off and the duck duly despatched and chopped up on it. I didn’t see them actually cook it as I was busy working, but delicious smells were wafting and I was developing quite an appetite, reassuring myself that whatever bad germs had been on the “chopping board” would be killed by the cooking. All the men were looking forward to this tasty treat and even N’s 79 year old father had walked up to the house to join the occasion. Some interesting looking salad vegetables and herbs were being washed off and now I was salivating with expectation of a delicious duck salad. Until I saw them chop the vegetables and herbs upon the same bloodied board that the duck had been despatched on – never mind rinsing it first! The chopped vegetables now coated with a little raw duck blood & guts were added to the chopped duck meat and I was urged to tuck in. After so unusually and blatantly obviously indicating my interest I could not refuse to eat so I took a small portion and gingerly ate it. I have to say it was delicious and I wish I could have eaten a lot more but I just did not dare – this was campylobacter territory and the last time I had that I lost 9 kilos!

During the daytime I would usually work outside with the men – doing as well as supervising. Most of the doing was correcting various balls ups, but some of it was just hard graft. On the rainy days I would be inside painting the walls and windows, fixing the doors, and at nights I would usually do the same. But sometimes the insects were just too bad for painting at night to be possible. Each prolonged dose of rain followed by a hot day saw the hatching of a new plague from Egypt or so it seemed! During this time I resolved it would be essential to add insect screens to all the windows and I had to wonder about the viability of my open outside kitchen.

By the time I had finished laying the foundations for the retaining walls my mind was racing ahead to next steps of the project. This was a blessing in some ways as my two solid work opportunities had both come to naught and I wasn’t getting many signals of interest from anywhere else – if I had stayed home I would in all probability have become quite depressed – but I was too busy. I organised delivery of several truck loads of earth to fill in and landscape behind the walls. The local dirt is a red, structure-less, clay silt. Nothing good can be said about it. When it is dry it is like rock. When wet it turns to a soft mud which can support no weight. Actually, water does not penetrate it easily – the fine clay tends to form a glaze which holds the water above it. Because the dirt is almost totally lacking in organic matter – one reason for its lack of structure – it neither holds moisture nor air, so nothing lives in it except the ants (and sometimes post hole beetle larvae!). In one year of digging the damned stuff I have never seen an earthworm. But every possible kind of ant is here – imagine a United Nations popular convention of ants to which every family of ants in the globe was invited – that is what this house of N’s was built upon. Red ants that devour timber and love mango trees – the number of times I would be set upon and half eaten alive by these cursed red ants until I finally woke up and realised my favourite pissing tree was a mango tree! Then there are the big black ants that walk so far I have never with certainty determined their nests. A smaller black ant lurks anywhere in the ground where you need to dig – when the water main split and I was digging it up these little bastards were waiting for me in their hordes – every single bite like a red hot needle with aftershocks – I am not exaggerating. Then there is another kind of black ant that likes sticky rice – the bamboo and grass pots that the men brought their luncheon rice in were always full of them but no-one seemed troubled, they just ate the rice and ants together. Last but not least the small brown ant that just gets into everything – including airtight Click Clack cereal containers

The red dirt makes a fine dust that when dry is blown for miles and provides a liberal coating on my roof and windows. When it gets wet it splatters up the walls and stains even three coats of washable acrylic paint so deeply a water blaster will not shift it. But this was the raw material I was blessed or cursed with for landscaping N’s property – but there wasn’t enough of it to bring the levels to what I wanted so I had to import some. The stuff that arrived in trucks was at first sight an encouraging brown colour but I was soon to discover it had most of the properties of the red stuff. I fear it has become brown from cesspool leakage and shower runoff in the village and has been “harvested” for sale as the Amphur gradually digs new and bigger drains for the roads. Anyway I let the men continue to build the concrete block walls while I shovelled this dirt. First I put a 6 inch layer of 1inch gravel behind the walls then a 4inch plastic pipe with holes drilled into the top and sides, then another foot of gravel to ensure that water would not be trapped behind the walls and collapse them. Then I backfilled with the red dirt and finally the brown dirt on top – where I had enough, but always ensuring I had some slope to the ground to take any surface water towards the walls and the drains. The rain here is torrential and even though I have removed a major source by collecting the roof water in gutters and tanks, I wanted to ensure I didn’t have any flooding or water-logging.

Here is a photo (from November 2007) of the nicely filled and smoothed area that was to become the front lawn looking towards the front of the house, and another from the front verandah towards the front boundary.

The backyard was a bigger challenge. First of all I had to complete the fish pond. So far this consisted of an excessively thick concrete base on plastic sheeting which extended up the sides. I purchased a roll of wire netting (what we’d call “chicken wire” in NZ) laid that over the plastic and got two of the workers to plaster over it with a two inch thick layer of concrete plaster. Before doing this I added an underground pipe from the water tanks’ overflow and then an overflow for the pool itself which initially I was just going to run onto the vacant property next door but have now decided to extend piping to the rear of the property and store that water too for later gardening use. Once the pool was plastered I was able to roughly set the ground levels and fill the backyard in. Here is what it looked like in November from the back of the house.

And another from the rear of the property towards the back of the house. (In the second photo you might notice the ill matched paint on the fascia and the generally incomplete painting above the lean-to).

wonderland clinic

I added a footpath down one side of the house with quite a good slope towards the wall – and drainpipes in the wall to shed water from the path. I wanted a garden along this – the most sunny side – of the house too, but I didn’t want this to go right up to the house as the water pipes were there and I didn’t want to have a spade through the blue plastic. I wanted easy access to the blue plastic as it is a poor quality product ill-suited for its purpose and will doubtless fail on occasion. So I left a 20 cm space next to the house for the pipe, built a small concrete wall to separate it and that left a gardening strip about 80 cm wide. This is what it looked like initially. I decided to fill the space for the pipes with stone as this could easily be removed and also allowed for easy drainage. The strip at the front of the house between the verandah and the path has the same function but I have topped the gravel off with white stones – I did a thin layer across the whole house width for about 400 baht.

Next step was to landscape the rear yard. I decided to put a tool shed in the far back corner utilising the two meter high wall that was already on the boundary as part of the structure. I wanted to get all the tools and junk out of the house in preparation for tiling and to create a tool board so that I wasn’t constantly wasting time looking for where I last left my drill bits or hammer. This was quickly knocked up – a 4 x 2 meter concrete block and post affair with a roof sloped to the boundary wall.

A fair chunk of the rear yard had the approximately 30 square metre drainage field located in it so that would have to grassed (grass sucks up moisture without putting down deep roots that can get into and clog pipes). But I didn’t want boggy grass in the rainy season right outside the back door, nor did I want excess runoff onto the drainage field. So first of all I dug a cut-off drain across the top of the drainage field about 6inches deeper than the bottom of the drainage field seepage drains, added gravel, 4 inch perforated pipe and more gravel and then ran this down the south wall and out the bottom.

I decided to build a “stone” garden behind the house as a relaxing area around the fish pond. I got the idea from the stone gardens between the rows of condos at Baan Suan Lalana in Jomtien. First, I covered the ground with weed mat. This is a woven polypropylene product (similar to rice sacks) but loosely woven so that it is air and moisture permeable while not allowing weeds to grow through. I bought over three rolls of this from the Warehouse in NZ as I couldn’t find it in KK – it was about $15 for a 20 x 2 meter roll. I covered this with gravel and added concrete pavers as stepping stones – easier for walking on with bare feet. The tops of the septic tanks were within this area so I had to disguise them while allowing access to the plastic hatches. I settled on a theme of circles of stones around the hatches with potted plants on top that can be lifted up quickly.

Here is what it looked like in December just after completion of the stone work but before purchase of all the plants. I was very pleased with it as it gives some of the practicality of a paved area without causing water runoff – the rain permeates to the ground through the stone. Also – and this is a big plus – only the potted plants have to be watered not the whole area. Grass looks nice but it devours an incredible amount of water, a scarce commodity in the village during dry season.

I purchased the reclining lady statue for decorative effect and subsequently built a deck over one third of the surface area of the pond to provide more living space and also reduce water evaporation. I like to turn on the fountain and sit out on the deck with a beer on a hot night while N is cooking dinner – she jokingly refers to the statue as my mia noi!

In December I also bit the bullet and grassed the front lawn with instant turf – couch grass. I had real doubts whether this was the right choice but just then it was the only choice available and I had to stop the red dust. I planted a hedge along both sides of the drive – I have no idea what the plant is but it is an attractive small bush with orange flowers common in parks all over KK that has clearly proven its hardiness. Quite a bit of the grass died off initially but recovered with intensive watering.

Here is a photo shortly after the lawn was established and the hedge planted.

I added a small amount of the local chemical fertiliser the farmers use on their rice – this had no noticeable impact. In February large areas of the lawn began to disappear – N said it was post-hole beetle larvae. I was tempted to take my revenge with diazanon granules but realised this would only lead to a downward spiral and my long term goal must be to create a healthy soil. The grass has now mostly recovered from the beetle larvae and seems to be benefiting from the application of a good mix of gypsum and quicklime.

The next two goals with landscaping have been to plant fruit tree and establish a vegetable garden. But the red dirt is not very fertile or healthy. I set aside a small strip – about 14 metres long by 3 metres wide for the purpose – quite small but I want to build up the soil quickly and a large area will take soil improvement resources I don’t have. I thought it would be possible to rotary hoe it but no such machine is available anywhere near the village – only the local small tractor drawn plough. So I rough ploughed it. I have been very frustrated by the complete unavailability in KK of what I consider basic gardening tools – spade and fork. Locals use a heavy variant of the dutch hoe which is useless for deep digging and not very good for breaking up clods and incorporating organic material either. The local hay forks are made from mild steel and are useless for digging.

At first I was optimistic about the availability of organic materials to improve the soil – plenty of cows and buffalo around and some nearby egg farms. But oh-no! Every bag of cow manure (and it’s mostly straw!)is sold for 20 baht. A truckload of chicken manure (about the quantity I need) goes for 2 or 3 thousand baht. I was able to get ten bags of rice chaff for free so I composted that with some straw and ten bags of cow manure to provide the first soil treatment. Forked in it is scarcely noticeable, and I need ten times the quantity. Every couple of weeks N manages to get another couple of bags of cow manure for free – so far we have added nine bags to about one third of the area of the garden. I am thinking of growing a green crop to dig in – maybe a local pea or bean, and have recently dressed the dirt with the same mix of gypsum and quicklime I used for the front lawn – but I think it might be three years before this dirt becomes anything remotely resembling what I would call decent soil with structure and earthworms.

I was also keen to plant plenty of fruit trees but the enclosed part of N’s land is not that big and no trees can be planted on the drainage field. Sourcing trees was a problem. The “garden centres” that line the road in KK to Korat, near Big C had only the occasional lime.

Here are some shots of the backyard at the time of writing showing the now grassed portion and the area marked out for vegetable garden.

Stickman's thoughts:

You've done a great job on the property and I look forward to seeing it next week!

nana plaza