Life in Isaan
One or two other contributors to the Stickman Chronicles have done a very fine job of describing life in Isaan and I cannot possibly match their efforts, but I thought I’d put down some thoughts anyway. By the way, the area is also known as Isan, Isarn, Issan, Esarn or I-san. Whatever. I live there.
I lived in Bangkok for 20+ years and it was fine. The only problems I had there were Thailand-related rather than concerns about Bangkok, and regular readers will perhaps have noted my tirades about the country and its people. Moving to the countryside was a slow, drawn-out process, after I bought a house just a couple of kilometres from my wife’s village, seen while attending a family wedding. I paid cash which was pretty cool, and it came with one rai of land. A modest plot, but not bad at all.
That was some eight or nine years ago. The house was really not much more than a shell as no-one had lived in it for about eight years, the owner’s sister merely using it to keep pigs in the garden after the owner – a life-long friend of the family – had moved elsewhere. However, I saw its potential. The problem was finding the opportunity to get the builders in. In Thailand you have to watch them like a hawk, but my wife and I were in Bangkok, she studying for a degree to teach English. And when she qualified, she was teaching at a school in the city, so…
Time passed, and her father lived in the house and kept an eye on it. I visited for a couple of days at a time, maybe twice a year, as it was far from comfortable. My wife would make a few slightly longer trips. Her father was living there, by the way, after we gave him shelter when he was thrown out of the family home after a neighbour reported to his wife that they had seen him giving a woman a ride in his pick-up. Such is the ultra-conservative side of life in Thailand.
The opportunity to finally prepare a move came under tragic circumstances, when a sister of my wife was killed in a motorcycle accident. Mother was in hospital and sister was on the way to visit when a dog ran out of a garden at the bike and the sister came off and broke her neck. Nothing happened about that as in typical Thai style everyone in the area of the accident denied all knowledge of the dog. This particular sister had been the one taking care of the rapidly ageing father, so my wife decided to abandon the career she had studied seven years for and stayed up-country to take over the role. I stayed alone in Bangkok and continued my brief visits, although a little more frequently, and my wife set about finding a builder. A couple of relatives and their colleagues would do the job, and I saw a house the boss had built for his daughter and new son-in-law and it looked okay. But we had to wait several months as they were busy on other projects. We’ll return to that later.
Eventually they arrived and we demolished most of the original house and began a massive re-build. It took six of them seven months, including a month’s break for rice planting duties, to complete the job. Now, I thought that employing family would be a good idea as they would be sure to do a good job. In reality, the job was way out of their depth and they struggled, nearly giving up at one stage. They were used to building simple houses, but what I wanted was far more extensive. The basic structure is fine (at least it is for now, but faults might take some time to show up) and the boss was very good at laying tiles, of which there are a lot. But much of the interior work – painting etc – was appalling. They actually cleaned windows with sandpaper after spilling paint down them. You get the idea. The electrician, who I thought had done a very good job, we later discovered had made a couple of errors, found when some engineers arrived to install air conditioning. They also discovered that some wiring I had requested to be put in place in advance to connect to the air-con didn’t actually connect to anything. Basically, they just got fed up with the job and didn’t give a rat’s fart at the end.
And that is where employing family was a problem, as my wife found it all but impossible to take them to task. What made it worse was that I was only on-site and staying in what was basically a building site for brief periods, and my wife failed to notice a thousand shortcomings, more used to a far lower Thai standard than we are accustomed to in the west. However, the place looks fine if you don’t wear your glasses, and people in the area have called and asked where we got some sliding glass doors and other things, and neighbours and relatives come armed with cameras and go around the place ahhing at every turn. I must say it was rather amazing to be able to design the place myself, just indicating to the builder on a piece of A4 where each room should go, then deciding where I wanted all the power points to go, pre-wiring for my True Visions and CTH satellite dishes etc. No planning permission nonsense. Just do it.
So, what is it like, living in the boondocks? Well, there is countryside and countryside. I am not living in a remote area. In fact, buses from Bangkok actually pass the door and can drop us off at the house. One driver said he’d even had dinner there with the previous owner. Pretty amazing. It is only a two-lane road, but leads directly to Mukdahan and the Laos border 100 kilometres away. There is talk that it will become the main Laos-Burma highway, but that is probably years down the road (excuse the pun). One downside is that at some times of the year heavy lorries laden with sugar cane go by on their way to the processing factory some distance away. In that respect it can be noisier than living in Bangkok.
I am in a small village on this road, but nine kilometres in each direction there is a town of sorts with a market, Tesco Lotus Express and 7-11 stores. This provides just about everything I want. Fifty kilometres away is Kalasin, with huge Big C and Tesco Lotus supermarkets. When we first had plans to move here the nearest large supermarket was in Khon Kaen, about 130 kilometres away, quite a round-trip if we wanted to go shopping. That is also the location of the nearest airport.
So, we are in the countryside but have most amenities. We have satellite TV so I can watch the Premier League on CTH, but have found True Visions increasingly irrelevant and have reduced our subscription to a minor package. What I don’t have is a great internet connection. We have no phone line available, although I believe they do run down the other side of the road and I am considering trying to get a line strung over as I have seen elsewhere in the area. That might involve inviting the village head over for a drink and asking for his influence to be asserted. Apparently he’s a decent chap and lives very close, on the ‘phone line’ side of the road.
So, to access the internet I use a so-called unlimited package that limits me to 3GB of usage a month at 3G speed before downgrading me to a much slower speed. This occurs after about 10 days, but that is tolerable. A phone line, though, would in theory give me high-speed internet all the time. Now, I use a mobile phone as a modem to connect to my laptop and have a different package for my smartphone. The two packages cost me a total of 1,400 baht, about double what a phone line service would cost. But I do find it amazing that I can sit in my garden surrounded by fields and read my emails and check the internet. When I first visited the area I had to go to a village shop to make a call within Thailand and the town nine kilometres away if I wanted to book and make an international call.
As I said, there is countryside and countryside. I am not marooned in the middle of nowhere. I do, however, have fresh country air and I can sit outside and enjoy a view with only a few houses scattered in the near distance. There has been a complete reversal in that I used to love being in Bangkok and just come to the countryside for a couple of days a month, and now I enjoy the reverse. I must say that visiting Bangkok for a couple of days at a time is very different to living there. Not exactly as a tourist because I know the place so well, but I enjoy being there with little or no particular agenda other than to enjoy myself. At the same time, it has brought home to me just how busy and polluted and hot the place is. My quality of life is far higher than it used to be, although I appreciate that is partly because I now have much more space in which to live. I am most certainly not bored. One interesting aspect is the similarity between life in the country here and in my native UK, in that people never use the front door but enter the house via the kitchen door. Which is also where we spend the vast majority of our time. Eighty percent of my house is rarely used.
Now, the people. There are some who regard Isaan folks in less that a favourable light. They are lazy, stupid, uncultured, they say. There is some truth in that, but most of them are good folk, easy-going. You’ll find many who appear to do nothing more than sit under their house on stilts with a few friends chatting away or sleeping, but many work like dogs all day, dawn until dark. Some though clearly struggle in the social skills department. There was one occasion when my brother-in-law came over one afternoon with some friends and proceeded to have a party on our front lawn. Rush mat laid out, whisky bottle to the fore, music from his car radio. A chap happened by looking, shall we say, rather rural, and joined the party, and after a few glasses eventually just sat there talking to himself before falling asleep, tired as a newt. Someone eventually came to fetch him. It was only later that I discovered no-one had a clue who he was. Just a complete stranger who joined the party, and was welcomed. On that note, my father-in-law once returned home to find a total stranger in our garden using our hose to clean his car. It is also not unusual to have people walk across our land on their way across the fields, sometimes with cows being led to graze. Hey, what’s mine is yours.
Isaan people are also reputed to be poor, and they are not slow to make that claim themselves. There are indeed many living in poor circumstances (as there also are in Bangkok, actually), but just because they don’t dress like city bankers doesn’t mean they are poor. A rubbish collector that called for our construction leftovers has a daughter in a private school. Many are rich in land, owning many rai probably owned by the family for decades. And that land is worth a lot of money. The patch I have cost 3,000 baht when it was bought 30 years ago, and it is now worth one million. Some, many, of the locals own enough land that, if sold, would allow them to buy two or three luxury condos in Bangkok which they could rent out and enable them to live comfortably off the proceeds with no need for the labour they put themselves through now, planting rice or reaping sugar cane. But they know only a life of farming and sell land only when demanded by dire circumstances. Another sign of their wealth is the time we had to wait for the builders to start work on our house, and the number of new houses being built around us. A relative is spending 15 million baht on building a so-called resort, the countryside equivalent to the curtain hotels in the cities and consisting of a dozen or 20 tiny bungalows. There are plenty of them near me, by the way, so demand must be high.
Finally, the villagers get together for various festivals throughout the year, and recently we had the annual Rocket Festival. This is supposed to encourage rain for the crops after the hot season, and no doubt it works unfailingly because the rainy season always begins around the same time. I suspect though that nature, rather than the festival, is responsible. There is a parade, with participants from all the local villages in the municipality taking part. It must have stretched for two kilometres, with many very elaborate (and many very basic) floats, music and traditional dancing girls of all ages. There are no rockets by the way, as in firework displays, but ‘dragons’ firing water jets.
Ah, I nearly forgot to mention a very noticeable part of village life, the broadcasts. Most mornings some music will start up at around 5.30 or 5.45, just as it gets light, and the village head will give out information relating to the village. One thing the Thais do well is amplification, and there is no chance of anyone missing the broadcasts which can last for up to 30 minutes. I can even often hear broadcasts from other villages coming over the fields. I think the idea is brilliant and it does keep everyone informed at a very local level, but I’m not quite so sure about the time of the broadcasts. Or their choice of music.
A delightful submission and depiction of life in Isaan, proof that a submission on something as simple as the place that we live can be so enjoyable to read. Thanks for the invitation in to your home!
It would be great to hear from others in the region or for that matter, anyone living outside the main centres.