Readers' Submissions

Isaan, The Impoverished Northeast



Isaan, the impoverished north east of Thailand; I don’t think so any more.

I have just returned from another week’s visit to my wife’s ancestral home in Isaan, Roi Et province, living in a small village not too far away from the adjoining provincial principal town of Yasothon.

This area is supposed to be amongst the poorest regions of rural Thailand. However, what I observed belies this notion. Just walking around my wife’s small village one can see modern cars (usually less than three years old) outside most houses, and several motor-cycles per household. The bikes are all practically new and it never ceases to amaze me that young children, boys and girls, are allowed to ride these new motor-cycles – in one instance I saw a kid of about 10 riding a bike while holding a baby as well! It also intrigues me how many motor cycles are not licensed, viz: they bear no number plates and what is even more intriguing is that police don’t do anything about it, seemingly not caring to make themselves unpopular with local villagers.

Furthermore, in several, daily walks round the village I have not seen one black and white TV, only colour sets with many houses sporting massive satellite dishes. As for mobile ‘phones; everybody has one, not just any old ‘phone, but current, popular models with many i-phones and Blackberries in use. Not only that, most, people look hale and hearty from the effects of good diets. So, where is the alleged poverty, I ask myself?

On Saturday last we went to Yasothon in our vehicle – a three year old Toyota pick-up funded from money I, the ‘farang’, brought in from overseas. We experienced great difficulty in finding anywhere to park – the town seemed full of new(ish) cars, many with red plates. I accept that these cars – new motor-cycles, too – are probably largely owned by banks and finance companies being paid for on the ‘drip’ but at some stage the drivers or owners have had to convince a bank manager that they will have the means to pay for the loan and within a given time frame.

The same thing happened when we went to the Big C hypermarket on the edge of the town, again the car park was full of new cars – current models – and shoppers were doing their ‘big shopping’ with trolleys laden.

Building construction is often seen as a barometer of economic success – I saw plenty of new houses and industrial premises in course of construction everywhere throughout Isaan. In my wife’s mother’s hamlet of, say, 300 houses, at least seven (7) new houses are being built, one a magnificent structure in the traditional style (on stilts) but constructed with modern day materials. No expense appears to have been spared for the house has beautiful teak doors and modern, sliding windows, a very ornate tiled floor, two separate shower rooms/toilets for guests, all of which is costing, I am told, about Bt.1.5M. One also sees many ornamental gates and fences, hardly in keeping with the alleged austerity associated with the region.

Another very important sign of wealth to Thais is gold – I see gold being flaunted all the time, some people (men as well) positively ‘dripping’ with gold although I accept that some of it might be imitation…a bit like love in Thailand, but that’s another story.

Immediately next door to my wife’s mother’s house lives an elderly gentleman (in his 70’s) who still makes
fishing traps from strips of springy wood obtained from plentiful local bushes, as well as nylon fishing wire. He sells them for Bt.200/each, making five per day, thus potential earnings Bt.1,000/day and likely takes Bt.25,000/month as he doesn’t work every single day. Now that is good money for Isaan; many female office workers in Bangkok probably don’t earn that much.

His son-in-law has a motor-cycle repair facility in front of the house which is always full of work to be done.

Another chap I know in the village has just opened a small shop and within two weeks business was becoming brisk, so if you have the time, the energy and the motivation, money can be earned in rural areas.

So, in conclusion, I no longer believe that Isaan is an impoverished region.

Tilac Grand Daddy.

Stickman's thoughts:

I don't doubt that these observations are spot on. There are parts of the region which really are very poor though. For example, I have spent time in submission writer Rahiri's village, stayed with him, met his wife's family and wandered around the village – and for sure, people up there don't have the sort of money that you talk of in your wife's village.

I have made many, many trips into Isaan and for sure, it is much more prosperous than it was 10 or more years ago.