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Tales from Thailand 2


Thailand tales for your reading pleasure. Names changed to protect the innocent.

 

On my most recent trip to LOS my Belle took me on a required pilgrimage to her village in Issan, which was about one hour’s drive out of Udon. Rice farming heartland. Long, flat expanses of rice farms interspaced with sugar crops. Villages dot the area, forming small hubs for the farming activities. The drive was easy. A straight main road cuts directly to the nearest town. I noticed on the way big 4×4 pick-ups are the popular choice of car on the road here, like Ford Rangers, Isuzu D-Max, Toyota Hilux, etc. Given the accident rate here, dirt roads and long rainy season, it makes sense. From the town, we branched off the main road into smaller roads, ending in a dirt road for the final approach to the village.

First impressions were ‘dirt poor’. Literally, as the roads were made of red earthy soil packed down. Houses lined the quiet streets, mostly simple structures, concrete block walls with iron sheet roofs, some had a second story constructed of wood, in the old Thai style. Stray soi dogs laze around in the heat, people go about their business on foot or by motor bike. Electrics are wired in, wi-fi is good, but I’m told the power cuts out for the whole village ‘when-ever it’s raining’. Apparently the power company shuts if off every time a storm comes, which is nearly every day in rainy season. I asked why, some story about protection from lightning strikes on the equipment. Seemed odd.

Actually, the locals were scared of lightening. A few people have been hit in the fields. Whenever the big rain came in the afternoon, she turned off her mobile! They think phones are a lightning rod.

We drove up to Belle’s house. Belle’s mother was lovely, very friendly, industrious woman. Didn’t speak a word of English of course, but with a bit of translation conversation was possible. She had a simple life, owned enough land to grow and sell rice, making a living. She had enough cash to hire workers to help with the farming, paying them the princely sum of 400 baht a day for what sounded like back breaking labour in the fields under the hot sun. Out the back was a large storage area with 100’s of sacks of rice, awaiting sale. When I asked why not sell them now, reply was the rice price is very low at the moment, so she is storing them hoping for higher prices in the future. Her husband died some years ago from a car accident and now she has a local guy as a boyfriend. He came across as a decent bloke, worked on the farm, didn’t drink, bit shy to speak.

Speaking of drinking, I had bought half a case of whiskey along for the men folk. Of which a few had appeared within 30 minutes of my arrival, checking out the new arrival. No farangs live here. The box of fire-water seemed well received and was quickly tucked away.

On to lunch. During the trip here, Belle had bought a huge pile of meat and fresh vegetables at the town market, at absolute bargain prices I would add, which was promptly cooked Issan style using those small charcoal fires in earthen pots, and a huge spread was laid out on tables. The food was tremendous, although many dishes were too spicy for me. The grilled chicken was great, along with fish soup, pork strips and innumerable vegetable dishes, few of which I easily recognised, the local veg being quite different from mainstream Bangkok, more varied and exotic. A hit for me was fresh bamboo.   After it has been raining, the bamboo shoots grow and they grow fast. So, the locals head into the countryside, find a good spot, and harvest the fresh shoots grown that morning. These I found to be a real treat, great flavour, fresh and tender.

Jokes are made about ‘we eat anything here’. Discussions abound about eating snake, rat, wasp larvae and any dogs which are hit by cars on the road. The rats I had seen in the market. They are strung to a stick and BBQ’d. A real treat, they are sourced from the fields during the season when rice is ripening. The rats eat the rice and apparently taste great. Note, they don’t eat dirty rats from the village streets. So I did try one, it has a very oily, dark meat, very salty from the cooking. Can’t say it was a treat really.

By this time about ten people had turned up to join in the feast. I noticed everyone I saw in the village so far was either old (50+) or young (less than 15). I asked where the others were. ‘Working’ was the reply. After some questioning, the situation is there is no work in the village other than farming which produces a poor income. So, working age people leave to work in Thailand’s towns and cities, or, many had left Thailand to work in South Korea, Japan and Israel, with Korea being the most popular destination. Apparently, the deal is they enter on a holiday trip, but work for farms there who pay 100,000 baht a month cash for labouring. Board is provided and they work six days a week. Young couples go there, work a few years and cash in. So the only people left in the village are the old people, working the small farm plots and raising any children their daughters have left with them while they themselves work somewhere else.

I asked about public services, e.g. hospitals, police, schools. Not great basically, as to be expected. Essentially if you want decent service you have to pay and go private. Quite a bit of hidden anger here expressed on this topic, I’ll leave it at that.

After lunch, off to the village temple to supply offerings and visit Belle’s father’s burial site. Lined along the outer wall of the temple area are rows of pyramid like tombs, about eight feet tall, with a space for the deceased ashes urn. Candles are placed on ledges and lit. Flowers drape cornicing. Very quiet here, quite peaceful and respectful.

Off to stay in a ‘hotel’ where someone has built three guest houses on their plot. I’m not staying in Belle’s house, no AC only fans and it’s hot at night here. The guest house was great. Simple, built on stilts, overlooking rice fields. Cheap, clean, straight forward and I would even say picturesque. I was the only guest there that day. Breakfast in the morning, instant coffee and toast on the porch. Nice!

Next day, more trips to temples and general hanging around. Lunch was superb again. Also I found out what happened to the box of whiskey. Those village men had saved it for today and drank the lot in one go! Well, good for them.

In the evening news a local girl was coming back to the village with her farang, so we went to see them at her parents’ house. The thinking was I would have another westerner to speak to, and I did want to meet him to compare stories. We arrived and found about twenty people hanging around their house. The girl turned up, and it was like a princess had arrived. New car, she was draped in gold, trendy clothes and expensive presents for the family. The poor farang was clearly paying for all this. Apparently she has been working in in the bars, making good coin and met this guy, who had turned into a jackpot for her. I found out later he gave her one million baht to build a house. In the subsequent months she spent the lot, asked for more, he resisted and she promptly dumped him for another farang, who is now bankrolling her to the tune of 50,000 baht a week. Gentleman, lessons here please!

One thing that caught my eye, observing all this on the night, was a row of younger girls living in the village (aged around 14) watching with wide eyes the arrival of the princess, the unveiling of the presents and the awed reaction of the elders. Something bugged me about it, like princess was setting an example of what success looks like for the younger generation. Actually, that annoyed me a lot, and still does. Also, it annoyed me the elders didn’t put this behaviour in a box.

Even more annoying, the next day some of these village ‘elders’ asked my Belle why her farang (me) didn’t buy all this stuff as well? They only thing Belle’s mother had asked me for was a weed trimer for 17,000 baht to help on the farm, which I happily provided to support their income. Therefore, I was quite furious from a number of dimensions, namely since when did this princess tart become the benchmark for farang? Piss off with that! Anyway, Belle and her mother had no part in it and pushed it off, but it did set something in my mind about the social norms and environment here in Issan which creates the conditions to support the bar industry with its workers. I know it seem obvious ‘poor people need cash’ but I think there’s more to it than that, in terms of acceptance.

There’s other ways to make money. For example, one old local guy was quite well off. He was a builder, but had quickly cottoned onto the idea he could hire a few pals and take on some bigger jobs. This idea expanded, now he runs construction jobs in Bangkok and is the village rich guy. Not saying it’s easy, but he came from nothing, good for him! Also, Belle’s two friends who went to university and got married together are now working and have moved into the large town, bought a house and are generally getting on with things. Although I did note the propensity for this middle income group to take on debts to buy new cars and crap like this (it’s always much cheaper to buy a second hand car with cash for half the price, given the steep depreciation curve cars go through). The Thais have this thing for ‘new’ which costs them dearly.

On the third day, time to say goodbye and head back to the big smoke. I enjoyed this trip, it was good to breath in some fresh air, see Belle’s mum again and drink in the countryside. I couldn’t live here, too small for me, but a few days is fine.

As for the locals, well, my conclusion is pick your company carefully. But to be fair, that goes for anywhere in the world these days.

Save travels!

Yellow Fever

The author can be contacted at : [email protected]