A Year In Isaan
I have been living in Isaan now for just over a year. The move from Bangkok had been coming for a long time, since I bought a house for spouse on one rai of land just a couple of kilometres from the village she grew up in, the village where much of her family still live. The purchase was made about nine years ago, from a family friend who had moved to Chonburi.
We saw the house when in the area for a wedding, I saw the potential of what was then a largely abandoned property with just the owner’s sister keeping an eye on it while breeding pigs in the sty set up in the garden, and when I returned from a trip to the UK I brought over the necessary money and paid for the house in cash. Try doing that in the Real World.
Shortly after, my father-in-law moved into the house as a kind of caretaker, something he was grateful to do after he was banished from the matrimonial home after a gossiping neighbour said she had seen him giving a woman a ride in his pickup. Such an act of consideration and kindness in a place where public transport is all but non-existent cost him his home and the pickup, which the family kept. Later, wounds were healed and his wife even spent time in our garden growing cotton.
The house was a shell, with cement walls and floor, rickety internal doors, squat toilet. Not nice, but he was happy. It was better than what he had left as most of his house, the lower floor, had collapsed when the road outside was raised and they didn’t bother with anything practical like drains and the place and foundations were flooded when the rains came. All that was left was the original house on stilts. Compensation? In Thailand? Mai Pen Rai.
Spouse and I had plans to make the place nice, but we were in Bangkok and, as we all know, Thai builders need to be watched like a hawk. She was studying for a degree to teach English so we only visited the country estate for short periods, her more often and for longer periods than me as the place was far from comfortable back then. The only things we added were a water heater for the shower and a 100 baht western style toilet to replace the squat type. No air-con, only local TV.
This impasse went on for years until, one fateful night, a sister that took main responsibility for looking after father was killed in a motorcycle accident. A dog ran out as she passed on her bike, she came off and broke her neck. Compensation? In Thailand? Mai Pen Mai. Everyone in the area denied all knowledge of the dog. Somebody else’s fault. The usual Thai way. You have as much chance of finding a Thai taking responsibility for anything as you have of winning the lottery.
So, we came up to the village overnight for the funeral and, despite so many relatives living in the area, it was my wife who had to step in as the one who would take over the role of caring for father. She’d studied for seven years for her degree and worked for only a few months and suddenly her teaching career was over. All that effort wasted. In theory she could teach locally. Her friend, a teacher, is married to the director of her old school and you know how connections work. But, actually, she is now far too busy tending to her father, the house and the garden. She spends a great deal of time in the garden and her labours are bearing fruit. Maybe she likes working the soil because she’s a farmer’s daughter. It’s turned out to be a two-year project, with much work now put on hold because outside of the rainy season the soil is too hard.
Her father is a major burden, in his late seventies and fragile. He used to be quite lively, but a few years back he was coming home on his motorcycle from some late night pond fishing trip, head down in the rain on the wrong side of the road. Hey, it’s Thailand. Don’t be fussy about what side of the road to drive on. Being fussy about such things is a farang thing. At two in the morning, on an otherwise deserted road, he headed straight into another motorcycle whose driver also had his head down against the rain, hit his head on the ground and has never been the same since. Now increasingly weak, he spends the day laying on his back staring at the ceiling, sleeping most of the time and listening to Isaan music when he’s not, often needing to be fed through his nose and always needing to be taken to the toilet in his wheelchair. Could this be me in 10 years or so? I hope not. To prevent decay I run on my treadmill most mornings. Not for long though. I’ve read that walking for 20 minutes a day is enough to maintain the status quo, so that’s what I do, about 1.7 kilometres. I’m not an athlete, so that’s enough.
While spouse lived up-country caring for her father in the less than comfortable house, I remained in Bangkok and bided my time until we could organise a builder to make the house more habitable. For one reason or another building didn’t begin for a year, and then it took six builders six months to complete the job. Some of the people we used were family. This is good, and bad. Good, because we were unlikely to be ripped off. They told my wife what they needed and off she went to buy it. No inflated prices, or good quality paid for and poor quality bought. Bad, because as family she found it impossible to take them to task about anything they messed up.
Without going into detail, although the main structure appears – appears – to be fine, a monkey could have done a better job of the painting. And they weren’t too hot with door hanging either. The boss was very good though at tiling, which considering the amount of floor space that has been tiled, as well as the bathroom and kitchen walls, was essential. My wife, unfortunately, did not watch them like a hawk and was perfectly content to accept Thai standards. To say I was upset at some of what they did would be an understatement. Cleaning paint off windows with sandpaper, for example? But what wasn’t done well I just have to live with, compensated by the fact that in the Real World I’d have paid 10 times more for their labour. And the house that I paid 660,000 baht for, with another 1.4 million for work and contents, is probably worth three million now.
So what has life been like since I left Bangkok. Before I moved up-country I had people telling me I’d be bored. I would regret it. I’d pine for the city. But after my year living in Nakhon Nowhere I can say that I have no regrets at all. I have a large house built to my specifications (a drawing on a piece of A4 and a bit of fine-tuning as we went along). I decided the position and function of each room and organised everything right down to the position and number of lights and power sockets. After all, we had plenty of time over the years to consider what we wanted to do. As for the so-called isolation I am so comfortable with being surrounded on two sides by fields and a large garden on another that I would find it difficult now to even live in a village with close neighbours, let alone live in the city again.
The difference in the weather is significant. The air is, of course, much fresher, and the temperature is generally lower than in Bangkok (which I’ve read is the hottest city on earth when averaged out over the year). I have Tesco Lotus Express and 7-11 shops within 10 minutes drive to both left and right when I leave the house, plus wet markets in both locations. I have both True Visions and CTH satellite dishes, but now barely watch anything on the former and I’ve reduced that to a small monthly package. CTH gives me all the Premier League football and Sky News is at least as good as the BBC and CNN which I no longer need.
When I designed the house changes to take it from basic to comfortable I opted for big as we had the space to do that, and it does feel very spacious. But, unexpectedly, we spend all of the daytime in the kitchen where I use my computer and we have CTH. About 90 percent of the house is unused, with my father-in-law using the biggest room as his bedroom with his mattress on the floor and CD player. Now we have wifi he can also watch YouTube videos of Thai entertainers on my wife’s laptop. I hate clutter and wanted minimalism, and the amount of space we have is underlined by having no cupboards. There is a walk-in wardrobe in the bedroom, and one room in the nicely decorated but unused upstairs is used for storage. And, like in all country houses anywhere, we use the side door into the kitchen and not the front door into the main living room.
There are a couple of out of the box ideas I’ve included. The main room, entirely white, has dual lighting so I can choose normal white or cool blue for the hot season. And my bathroom (we have two) is not only tiled in dark grey but two of the three lights in there are blue and red, giving a kind of night club feeling to it. Do you really need bright light to shower in? The bathroom also has mirrored windows so I can look at the garden and fields as I shower. You can see in at night, but I am overlooked by fields so that’s okay. Can’t get away with that in Bangkok or even the wife’s village.
The only problem I had, and a frustrating one, was the lack of a good internet connection. There was no phone line and seemingly no chance of getting one. We kept asking. Even True could not provide internet through their satellite dish (why, I wonder?), so I accessed the internet on my laptop via an old Nokia phone and USB cable. That wasn’t too bad for a few days a month, but Thailand does not understand the concept of unlimited. The unlimited 3G package I had was limited to six gigabytes a month, and when that was used up in less than a week they cut my speed by 95 percent. Not good. However, this final piece of what I needed was presented out of the blue a couple of weeks ago, when the school teacher friend of my wife said that her school, a local temple and a police office had put pressure on CAT to join us to the 21st century and provide internet service and were we interested?
For a priority service fee of 2,500 baht we could be connected. We said yes, and just two days later we were online. They finished the job at 11:40 PM on a Sunday night. Can you imagine receiving installation service in the Real World on a Sunday, let alone until nearly midnight. Unbelievable. We provided beer and crisps. Now I have fast service (they claim 15Mps, but well, you know…), the wifi covers the whole house and the garden, and both my wife and I can greatly reduce the package we pay for on our smartphones as we’ll only need to use those when we are away from home. We are spending much less for a vastly better service.
Do I miss Bangkok? Not really. Since moving away I have made a point of visiting about once a month for a couple of nights a time, to see friends. Most recently I was able to meet up with Phet and Union Hill, among others, to remember our friend Frugal Phil who left us in the middle of the year. Sometimes I’ve used the VIP bus that leaves from near my house. That takes nine hours but is comfortable, and I travelled by day rather than try and sleep on an overnight bus. Now, though, I tend to fly from Khon Kaen for not much more cash, as with four airlines flying the route instead of the one we used to have the cost has plummeted. It just takes me about three hours to get to the airport…..
Although I know Bangkok so well, having lived there for nearly 20 years, I now feel like a tourist when I visit. I stay in the centre (at Asoke) rather than the suburbs where I lived which helps give that illusion, and I can hang around as a tourist would with few pressing things to do. The only real commitment is shopping. While I can get almost all the food I need at both Big C and Tesco Lotus supermarkets about 50 kilometres from my house, or the aforementioned places closer to home, the couple of items I can’t find locally I pick up in Villa and Emporium when visiting the city. Even frozen stuff gets home okay when packed right. So, perfect. On that subject isn’t it strange that, in a country that eats a great deal of pork, you can’t get decent bacon.
Am I bored, as some suggested I would be? No, not at all. I’ve adopted country hours, rising at 5:30 AM and going to bed around 10:30 PM. I begin with a cup of tea as I look at the fields, then do the treadmill before having breakfast. Then, there are always things to do, although nothing too testing. I tend to watch the news and read the internet for most of the morning, have a siesta in the afternoon and watch videos or the football in the evening. At my age I’ve earned lounging, and I only work for a few weeks a year which requires me to go overseas.
People appear friendlier in the countryside, but I think that applies whichever country you live in. The Isaan people are often considered by other Thais to be less than civilised and I’ve seen enough behaviour (usually related to drink) to confirm that it’s founded on fact, but I’m quite good at keeping away from the idiots. I have all I need here, with even a decent computer repair shop only 10 minutes away. I thought I needed a new disc drive and after testing it they agreed and had a replacement in stock, and I ordered a new battery which was available the very next day. Not bad for the middle of the countryside. I’ve even abandoned my printer, as the few times I need something printed now it can be done a couple of kilometres away for peanuts.
Of course I’m not the only one who needs stuff and that’s why we are remarkably well catered for. A roof for the shed? Five minutes up the road. Plants and trees? Ten minutes away. Gas? Five minutes. Want a light put up to illuminate the driveway? Arranged by a cousin who visited and thought it was too dark and used his position with the local authority to put one up. Much easier in a local community than in a city or town.
So, no complaints at all. I know a life in the sticks isn’t for everyone (including Stick himself), but it suits me just fine. As for being at the ends of the earth, it’s a small world. I am a member of a Facebook page devoted to the area I grew up in London, and that has led to my learning of someone the same age living just 50 kilometres from me who used to live two minutes walk from my house when we were kids. We have been in touch and plan to meet.