A Journey to the Deep North (Isarn) and Beyond: Part One
“Once a man learns how to "see" he finds himself alone in the world with nothing but folly. In other words, all the world is a stage and everything we do are roles we act. We don't leave the world as a hermit because we don't willfully abandon ourselves, but instead we recognize the superficial roles we are required to play as human beings and in turn, rest in our silent self, the silent observer who "sees" this world as a series of necessary folly, and superficiality, and learns to limit mental chatter, thinking and rationalizing and to start listening.” …The words of Don Juan as quoted from “A Separate Reality.”
Even though it’s been 35 years or so since I first happened upon the writings of Carlos Castaneda I find myself, more often than not, these days considering the wisdom, and value, of the life lessons of his mentor, the Yaqui tribesman, Don Juan. Particularly so whenever I hear another bumbling farang outpouring his life story to a Thai who he’s decided to subject to his long-winded diatribe. Don’t they get it? Revealing your innermost thoughts about who, and what, you are to a Thai person, and particularly the wrong type of Thai person (read bar girl / prostitute / whore), is not the way to go. There is power in silence; of remaining tight-lipped and maintaining some sort of distance. It actually creates an aura of esteem and engenders more respect than babbling away endlessly, like an over-excited child, to a largely disinterested audience.
And so it was on my flight up to Udon Thani. Four seats across from me a 50-something Aussie (and I’m not picking on my dear Australian friends here, the guy could have been from Timbuktu for all I care) was bearing his heart, and soul, for all it was worth to the unfortunate young Thai guy sitting next to him. The victim of this ear bashing had prompted this uninterrupted, audible assault by letting slip that he had a reasonable understanding of the English language and was now copping the barrage. A full description of a recently broken leg, and the healing process, was followed, without let up, by a detailed summary of his personal life and possessions back in Perth, Western Australia. Before his captive audience had a chance to get a couple of words in edge wise our Aussie mate, of indefatigable verbosity, had launched into a CV on the love of his life, who was now waiting for him, in Udon Thani. She was, we were assured, of moral virtue and for this he was taking care of her and her family. On he went, relentlessly, not even pausing for breath during the pre-flight safety briefing. After about 30 minutes of this vomit-inducing, approval seeking I’d decided I’d heard enough and reached for the IPod and sound-eliminating head phones in my carry on bag.
I’ve always maintained that if one wants to have any legitimacy when it comes to making comment or passing judgment on something, or someone, it should be a requirement, first and foremost, to have a reasonable knowledge base on the subject you are going to comment / pass judgment on. I don’t profess to be an expert on all things Thai, but I believe I have been here long enough – approximately 18 years – to be able to express a reasonably informed opinion on Thai-related subject matter. If I’m lacking knowledge on a particular thing / event / situation I usually keep my mouth shut until I’ve learnt more about the particular thing / event / situation.
Those who either know me, or who read my submissions, know that I have a reasonable working knowledge of the interactions of khun farang and Thai ladies of negotiable affection. In many of my submissions I’ve expressed opinions, and made assessments, regarding the motivations of the ladies of the night who hail from Isarn. From my own personal experiences, and interactions with them over many years, I feel qualified to do so. Still I’ve felt, increasingly over the past few months, that to be truly objective about that region (Isarn) of Thailand I should at least do my opinions / assessments some justice by visiting the area.
75 minutes after taking off from Suvarnabhumi I was standing in the baggage collection area of Udon Thani airport. There were a number of other farang on the flight. Most had an all too familiar look about them; mid 50s, or above, with shaven, or bald, heads and looking rather infirm. With the exception of yours truly, the only other farang on the flight who resembled anything of youth, and physical robustness, was a 30ish looking newcomer / tourist. Standing next to me at the baggage carousel, with his Nana Princess, he looked as though he’d just come from one of Bangkok’s late night venues; he was dressed in completely black attire – T shirt and jeans – topped off by a black Fedora. His barfine had the look of a Rainbow gal about her. She was hard-bodied, dark, and lithe, and her eyes had the look of ambivalence; as though she’d done this before and it was nothing more than routine.
I picked up my bag and headed over to the taxi counter. My destination was Nongkhai. A minibus was 200 baht. A taxi, khon deow, was 900 baht. I decided on khon deow as the infirm headed towards the minibuses and little groups picking them up. Out in the parking lot, a sizable group, in a rather new looking Hilux arrived to pick up our Fedora topped newbie and his hard-bodied Nana princess; obviously her earnings were being put to good use back on the farm. I smiled as I loaded my bags into the trunk of the taxi and watched the Hilux disappear into the horizon; another lamb to the slaughter?
As the taxi ran down the miles between Udon Thani and Nongkhai, the view at ground level reinforced what I’d seen as the plane made its descent towards the landing strip. This is a flat, open land and it’s quite remarkable that there are no sizable hills to be seen. With the late finishing wet season the terrain still had a green tinge about it but I could see that, no doubt, the descriptions I’d heard from many about this being a dry, hot and unforgiving place would ring true as the days advanced towards Songkran. It looked a land without pity. A land that gives up very little. A land that has to be worked hard to get anything in return. And, therein lies a lesson in the seeming ruthlessness of the average Isarn bargirl; tough, resilient and not often prone to taking pity on another.
We are often told, by those who hail from this region, about the hardship of the average person’s life there. Poverty is widespread we are told. The large number of new, shiny SUVs I see whizzing about has me thinking otherwise. On the outskirts of Udon Thani there’s a couple of real estate developments with 20-storey houses being predominant. Most of them look exactly like the houses I see on the real estate developments around Bangkok. Out on the street, everyone looks well fed and most are attired in reasonable clothing. It must be said that if poverty exists then I don’t see it. In Nongkhai I saw a bunch of kids mucking about on skate boards. Skateboards are not the domain of the poor. A skateboard is a reasonably expensive toy. It’s my assessment that real poverty – the type that I’ve seen in African countries – doesn’t exist in Thailand. Sorry to say but we’ve been sold a lemon by those wily little Isarn princesses. The fact is that the only place where the poverty actually exists is inside their heads; it’s a state of mind, of the economically poor, and nothing more. Even in developed, western nations it’s been proven, many times over, that if an economically poor person receives a large financial windfall it soon gets frittered away in no time at all. <I rather like the term for that, but better not mention it as it gets PC people's knickers in a twist! – Stick> The main reason why many Isarn bar girls claim they are poor, or they’ve never got enough money – even though relative to the average Thai income they earn substantially more – is because of their hunter gatherer mentality. The hot, and easy, money they receive from sponsors, and punters, has no real earned value and is wasted through the living for the day approach to life. Financial discipline, and living to a planned budget, doesn’t sit well with a hunter gatherer mentality. Isarn is the poorest area in Thailand, that is true, but there is no abject poverty there. People aren’t wasting away through starvation and the clothes on their backs aren’t tattered rags.
Just on an hour after departing from Udon Thani airport I was checking into the Pantawee Hotel in Nongkhai. The rooms are clean and comfortable with reasonable rates. An 800 baht a night room even included a desktop computer. The Thai and farang food in the hotel's restaurant is reasonably priced and of a good standard. The wi-fi throughout the hotel is free. The only negative – during my first day there – being the road works that were going on directly in front of the hotel.
As I sat on the patio enjoying some green chicken curry and rice I spent a bit of time watching the guys doing the concrete pour for the new road. Most would be inclined to agree that locals involved in this type of laboring work are amongst the lowest paid in Thailand. And yet, none of them looked emaciated. They all looked fit and robust, and they were not dressed in rags. Once again I questioned the notion that there is real poverty in Isarn. If there was, I hadn’t seen it yet.
The hotel was a 10-minute walk from the river promenade, a wide paved walkway which runs for approximately 3 kilometers along the banks of the Mekong and offers great views across to Laos. The length of this concourse, and the road which parallels it directly behind, has become farang / tourist central with bars, cafes, restaurants and guest houses dotting the landscape.
Apples Café, at the town end of the promenade, is a nice spot to relax over a coffee, chat to the locals and take in the view across the Mekong towards Laos.
For those keen for a bit of exercise a fast walk will get you from one end, of the promenade, to the other in about 45 minutes. It’s an interesting trot with a number of temples (wats), in various states of newness and decay, scattered along the way.
The mid-section is predominantly the old, Thai-centric town of Nongkhai with the extremities being geared towards tourism. The second day in town I walked to the far end of the promenade to take in the sunset over the Mekong and Friendship Bridge. If you are at the other end (town central) of the promenade you don’t get the correct angle, because of the curve in the river, for an over the water shot. The far end, opposite the massive Laotian sand mining operations taking place on their side of the Mekong, is probably the best vantage point and it’s also the more sedate part of town.
With plenty of farang style bars in abundance, I dropped into a neat little place called the New York Bistro for a coffee while I waited for the sun to make its way towards the horizon. While sitting there I was fortunate enough to bump into a long time resident, an expat Aussie by the name of Trevor. Originally from Adelaide, he’d moved over this way in the mid 80s and had been in this region ever since. Although we shared a commonality in terms of work – both of us are employed in the offshore oil and gas industry – Trevor had a pretty interesting life story to tell. He’d originally gone to Laos, to work as a surveyor, on the tendering and construction of the Friendship Bridge and, after the bridge’s opening in 1994, he’d moved to Nongkhai and been here ever since. He owned a small resort, 14 kilometers back down the road towards Udon Thani, and he’d done well in the relationship stakes by marrying into one of the richest families in Isarn. The story of how he came to be the owner of the resort was an interesting, but all too familiar, tale.
“Yeah, it was a bit of a tragic story to say the least but not too uncommon for this part of the world,” said Trevor taking another sip on his white wine.
“I’m all ears,” I said as I kept an eye on the sun's progress towards the horizon.
“Well, it was a few years ago now. A good friend owned the resort back then. Anyway his missus, a local lass, passed away only for him to find out that she’d put the resort into hock a couple of years earlier. When she died the creditors came looking for their money,” said Trev with a shake of his head.
“What happened to all the money?”
“The usual story unfortunately; frittered away on gamboling and whiskey. Anyway, I bailed my friend out and paid off all the debts. A year later he had a heart attack, and died, on the friendship bridge after a visa run to Laos. The resort was already in my name so I just carried on running the place. You better get that camera of yours out mate, the sun disappears pretty quickly around here,” said Trev indicating towards the horizon.
“I think I’ve got a couple of minutes yet. Tell me, does that sort of thing happen regularly around here?” I said as I started setting up the camera for some sunset shots.
“Funny you should mention that. As it happens I’m going to bail out another guy I know tomorrow morning. His missus has done exactly the same thing. Put the house into hock, without him knowing, and blown all the money on cards. If I don’t loan him the cash he’ll lose it all,” said Trev with a shake of the head again.
“Hmmm, interesting. I’ll be back in a few minutes,” I said as I stood up and readied myself for a few sunset snaps.
A short walk across the road and I was set up on the promenade skirting wall ready to bang off a few shots. In the fading light I looked back down the road to take in a scene I’d come across with monotonous regularity during my short stay (2 days) in Nongkhai; older farang, most likely retired, huddled around a bar table with their bar girl friends.
Nearly every older farang I’ve encountered, while here, was sat at a bar, café, or roadside watering hole downing the amber fluid well before the sun had set. Some were even on it at lunch time. The locations might be different – Nongkhai, Pattaya, Bangkok, Patong – but the M.O. is the same. It’s entirely up to the individual, of course, how one wishes to pass the latter years of one’s life but I can’t help thinking that there’s gotta be a better way to go than drinking your way to an eventual alcohol-induced demise.
In the encroaching twilight I walked backed to the New York Bistro. Trevor was still there and asked if I needed a lift back into town. With darkness descending quickly, and the idea of an hour’s walk back not sounding too appealing, I quickly answered in the affirmative. As we moved off in Trev’s car, I looked into the little bars lining the road; they were filled with the farang retirees.
“Most of them go to the same bars every day,” said Trev as though reading my thoughts.
“You’d think that a bloke might want to take care of himself a bit more as he advances on in years?” I said wondering how it was that so many farang seemed to end up in the same situation, regardless of where they were, in Thailand.
“Most don’t care anymore, mate. This is as good as it’s gonna get. A lot of them are alcoholics, they just haven’t admitted it to themselves yet. And their wives don’t care. They’re just waiting it out until they can pick the carcass clean after the old boy passes on,” he said as we left the bars to the enveloping night.
“So it seems,” I replied nodding in agreement.
Trev dropped me off near the hotel and as I ambled back I started to focus on the idea of going over to Laos the following morning. I’d been in Nongkhai for two days and I’d seen enough to come to the following conclusions:
• Nongkhai is a quiet, sedate, and relaxed little town. The air quality is excellent – and that was the most striking difference for me – when compared to Bangkok. If one wanted to you could enjoy a reasonably healthy lifestyle here. Another great benefit, of being up there at this time of year, is that the weather is cool enough at night to be able sleep with the air-conditioning turned off.
• The price of accommodation and food is much less expensive than most farang-centric locations I’ve been to in Thailand.
• Unless one makes an effort, and maintains a bit of personal discipline in regards to health and fitness, you could quickly fall into the dead end, daily routine that so many there seem to have fallen into here. That being; getting on the booze every day.
• The idea of poverty is largely a myth propagated by greedy bar girls / prostitutes / whores that come from the area. Although there may be a bit of economic hardship, in the average person’s life, from what I saw no one seems to be really suffering; people aren’t emaciated and wearing rags. The only poverty I saw, or heard about, was poverty of the soul. The average Thai working in a normal job doesn’t suffer this affliction because most of them will live within their means. It’s only the bar girl / prostitute / whore, and their host of hangers on back in the villages, that can’t, or won’t, live within their means. Theirs is a poverty of the soul caused by greed, avarice and laziness. For a bar girl it becomes an unrelenting hunger to have more so that they can buy back their face and be able to show others, back in the village, that the career choice they’ve made is an acceptable way to go. In the end though, it isn’t. Alcoholism, laziness, lying, cheating and ruined health is all that many are left with. I saw that clearly with my own eyes; older girls that had returned from the glamour of the big cities only to be living the same physically, and mentally, debilitating lifestyles of their salubrious past.
Nice commentary on visiting Nongkhai and very nice photos which capture the feel of the town well.
I've been visiting Nongkhai since 1998 and must have been through the town more than a dozen times, overnighting on at least several occasions. It's one of my favourite spots in Thailand, mostly because of the relaxing atmosphere. There's nothing much to do but the environment is nice. It's a great place to exercise, eat some of the best Isaan food I've had and roam with the camera. I have seen the town move in the direction you talk of with more and more farang retirees there, with many of the sort you often see in Pattaya.
One thing that I think you have got wrong however is the Isaan poverty situation. It does exist, but perhaps not to a great extent in the places you've seen. Udon Thani is a big city that is moving ahead and doing well. But just who really owns those houses and those cars you see? The driver? The resident? Or the bank? The city of Udon Thani is one of the most prosperous parts of Isaan.
Nongkhai is a medium-sized, mildly prosperous border town with an economy based on tourism and its connection with Laos. That alone makes it very different to much of the rest of the region. The big cities in Isaan are generally doing ok, but it is in the rural areas, the countryside, where the poverty is. And that is where the bargirls come from. So let me know when you want to do a road trip and go "villaging" and we can see the real bargirl background!