Pretty provocative title I know and at times I do feel a little like Colonel Kurtz up here in my new (well not that new, I'll explain as we go along) jungle abode (Almighty, Almighty this is PBR street gang) but really this is a fairly mundane story, inspired by Bangkok Barry and Hua Hin Harry's recent submissions on life in their respective neighbourhoods. This may be a little jumbled and not all that cohesive. It is mostly random thoughts and observations I have thrown together so my apologies in advance for any lack of continuity. Also I can't speak of retirement as I am not there yet.
My reasons for going up North were threefold: a great apathy towards playing in the bars any more (and the knowledge that I could never live in Pattaya or Bangkok forever), the arrival of a new family, and the realisation I would end up like most other seafarers – broke or dead if I didn't change my wicked ways pretty damn quickly. But on with the story, oh wait… not yet! A quick preface. If you had told me 5 years ago I would be where I am now, doing what I am doing, I would have told you first to fxxx off and secondly that you were off your head but T.I.T. and strange shit just seems to happen here!
So about 4 years ago I was starting to get a little over the scene, not completely mind you, far from it, but just not every day of my leave every time I was in country. Consequently I started touring around more and ended up doing my own version of the motorcycle diaries throughout Thailand. By coincidence I happened to meet a beautiful primary school teacher up in Udon which surprised the hell out of me firstly because I look like your average Aussie boof headed lout and secondly because I always believed I was odds on for ending up with a bargirl. Long story short we ended up having a little thing. Time went by, I was still doing what I do, but travelling to Udon more frequently and then somehow 2 years ago we ended up getting married. I am not completely out of the loop. I still travel to Bangkok frequently (every 4 or 5 weeks for a few days) and down to Pattaya or Samet or Angeles or wherever whenever the boys are in town. I just no longer monger. A year after we were married, 6 months in sea time, she fell pregnant. As I had neither been married nor had kids before I thought maybe the time was right so I decided to move her home to be near the family and give jungle life a bit of a whirl. Now reading Barry's sub, countryside isn't countryside it's true. I however am deadset in the jungle. I wouldn't say it's remote because I have a car and I am pretty used to remote areas, but I can see the Laos border from my backyard, there are no paved roads and the closest 7-11 would be about 15 – 20 km away. Having said that, I can be in Udon and at the airport in under an hour if I really punch it, but yeah, it's jungle.
When I first got there it was the sticks on stilts house, shower in a bucket and squat box out back routine. It took a little getting used too but in the short term it was OK, all part of the experience. I sat mama, papa and the missus down the next day and said "I am going to need some amenities here" and so began the house building project. I agree 100% with Barry's conclusions on life in Isaan and I only diverge from him in a couple of things. I didn't have as long to prepare as Barry did. With work it was impossible to be here all the time (which I highly recommend you do if you are thinking of building up here) and I never expected it in anyway to be close to Western standards. First, I knew I wasn't going to live here forever at best until my little girl hits school age then I am straight back to the city, and second because my very understanding missus' told me from the get go "we live jungle, we don't need special". So at the end of the day it was more for her and the family and for a few little luxuries for me in the few years I'll be here.
I won't rehash Barry's sub but for me it was much the same. Family and friends did most of the building, there were plenty of things that aren't perfect but like Barry's, the place looks fine and the end result and finish was much the same as Barry's although I couldn't have the all white colour scheme (looks terrific though, Baz!). I loathe air-con and have the doors and windows wide open and I am surrounded by farms and dirt roads and have dogs, cats, chickens, cows and buffaloes all over the place that wander in whenever they feel like it – so white was out of the equation.
Things I have learnt
Build for yourself, not the family! These are a proud people that have been living this way forever and nothing you can give or provide for them will change the fact that they will eat, cook, squat and party outside in a small stick home sitting on that square low set wooden thingy. I built a kitchen and a bathroom for mama and papa with toilets, showers, cupboards, hotplates, the whole 9 western yards. The kitchen has never been used (except once I caught papa BBQ'ing fish directly on the brand new gas burner), mama and papa still shower in a bucket and to my knowledge have never used the dunny either. I am pretty sure they are still on the honey pot out back. Internet is reasonable and I just run my phone as a portable wi-fi hotspot and to be honest, most of the time the speeds are just fine. The only thing I have a problem with is we have power outages frequently and the grid doesn't really have the power to run everything at full capacity e.g. sometimes the lights or TV will flicker or you can see the fans noticeably slowing down…things like that. I suspect that is because no-one ever really ran a lot of power up here and being a rural area they cook with gas and pretty much shut up shop at night and don't run all the stuff we are used to running at home. Also the area is getting noticeably more affluent since I first came here so now everyone has fridges, a couple of widescreen plasma TVs, Playstations, media players, mobiles, notebooks, stereos, washers and dryers and a lot of other luxury items that they probably could never be bothered with before.
The people of Isaan
Again, Barry is spot on saying they are neither lazy nor poor. I have spent much of my working life offshore in the North West of Australia and let me tell you it is bloody hot. It's got NOTHING on what it is like up here for most of the year, especially the few months we are in now. I challenge anyone that thinks the people up here are lazy to come and bang out a few 8-hour days, working the land in these conditions and tell me how lazy they are. Apart from that they are subsistence farmers and they have been working this land for generations. The majority of stuff they grow from what I have seen, the busiest times would be for planting and harvesting. They don't work massive stations like back in Australia or have thousands of head of cattle or especially labour intensive crops – but they know what they are doing.
Now I am a city boy so I don't know much about farming at all but I watch them work and they definitely put in. As for being poor, again as Barry has said, many have at least decent and some substantial properties that have been in the family for generations that are now worth millions of baht. Everyone up here seems to have a new car and there are new houses popping up all over the joint. Most have a reasonable stash of gold hidden away somewhere and being in the land of sabai sabai there is no sense or reason in being ostentatious. I notice a little bit of one-upmanship, but here it isn't prevalent and even in Udon there isn't a great deal of showing off going on but I imagine there are quite a few wealthy people. One of my new uncles, who has the most land and crops of anyone in the family, and to be honest is probably more asset wealthy than me, I hardly see ever in anything but a pair of shorts and flip flops and his scooter would have to be 15 years old if it's a day. Lives in a stick house and has a great life but there is no-one to impress so why bother? What is he going to do? Sit in front of his farm in an Armani suit with some Gucci loafers dripping in gold and watch the cows go by? It just doesn't make sense up here. I can guarantee you one thing though, he is worth a shit load more than the majority of those hi-so imposters tooling around Emporium or Central Festival, but who cares? SABAI SABAI
Well, I have always been hopeless with money. If I made a $300 a week I spent $300 a week, if I made $3000 I spent $3000 so probably not the best bloke to ask. The house? From go to whoa I guess maybe a half million baht (could be a little more, it was a pay as I went job). That is a 2-storey 6-bedroom, 2-bathroom, brick house, tiled, glass windows, sliding doors, double car port, slab out front, concrete fences with stainless steel fixtures (like the Thais do) nothing flash but nice enough. Car? 900,000 baht for a four door, 4-wheel drive Hilux, brilliant! The same car will cost you near double that in Australia, the only problem being they don't sell a V6 version in Thailand. Electric @ 2,000 baht a month, have air-con in 1 room but barely use it, only for a few hours in the evening to cool the room down before I sleep. Water is FREE, we have ground water and a pump so it costs nothing but I installed a water purifier in the kitchen for 6,000 baht so I can drink the tap water. The downside of that being the water pressure in the shower can be a little ordinary at times but I am yet to have a fantastic shower in Thailand yet anyway. Food? Well if I really splash out I can feed the whole family at a restaurant in town for less than 250 baht but on average about 35 baht a dish, sticky rice and nam pla for free at home all day every day 555.
Well for me it is more of a novelty than anything, plus I won't be here forever, but I could, if not for wanting to provide a decent education for my daughter. It also gives me the added bonus of my wife being near her family and me not spending upwards of 15,000 baht a day in Pattaya or Bangkok which I used to do all day every day in my mongering days, so my liver and bank account are very grateful. If you are anal, or a nit picker, impatient or have some overriding egotism that things should be done exactly how and when you want them done then not only is this not the place for you but in time you will certainly go mad. If, however, you have learnt to go with the flow you are quite happy to let things slide and realise you aren't in the West any more then Isaan is a wonderful place with genuine people who will welcome you with open arms. Despite knowing your name you will forever be referred to as "Farang". Even worse for me as I breed dogs so I am now known as farang ma which made me want to kill a few when I first got here, because the people I knock around the worst thing you can call anybody is a dog, and here I am, white dog! It is an affectation though and you have to take things in their stride and keep them in context, no time for jai lon in Isaan. It's inexpensive, the weather is cooler than down South (no beaches or sea breezes though, which near kills me), it's quiet, relaxing and a really good way to experience Thailand in how, I guess, it was meant to be, in regards to respect, humour, hospitality and attitude. Definitely not for everyone and I would suggest trying before you buy, but if you have had enough of the hustle and bustle. Or Bangkok, Pattaya and Patong aren't your thing any more, then head North you won't be disappointed. There is probably a lot more I could add and a lot I have left out but I didn't want this to be a mini-series and I need to get another ice cube for my beer… Welcome to Isaan!
I reckon it would be a great place to retire *if* you were happy doing your own thing. As someone who craves conversation and intellectual stimulation I reckon one could feel isolated at times. But the low cost of living, the charming locals and the pleasant country environment are all things those of us living in a big city miss out on.