A Taste of Isan

A reality check on living in rural Isan.

I hear from many readers who are thinking about starting a new life based in Isan at some stage, a more rural region in the northeast of Thailand. What if you could ‘taste test’ that experience as part of your planning but in a unique way? Read on.

This is an unusual post because instead of me sharing insights about life in Thailand this time I am asking for your help, advice, and insights into a concept that I am actively thinking about.

Because the blog has become very Isan orientated, as it is a reflection of our lives based in a small rural village recording everyday activities and events, it attracts those people who are more interested in replicating this lifestyle at some stage rather moving to one of the farang beachside ‘suburbs’. 

As a result I hear from and meet a surprising number of readers who are at some point on a timeline that will see them eventually retired and living in Thailand. Because most of them have partners originating from Isan who have very close ties to family and the village this acts as a huge pull for them to return home bringing (dragging sometimes) their farang along, sometimes with a deal of trepidation.

For westerners who have lived their lives in urban centres and enjoyed Thai holidays in places that are no reflection of the real Thai experience, especially an Isan one, such as Phuket, Pattaya, Bangkok and the islands, this potential ‘new life’ is a daunting one. Sometimes it is a bridge (village) too far!

I can so relate to the cry for help in the words below copied from a Facebook post from a lost soul dragged to the family home from somewhere comfortable and familiar. For so many westerners this is the reality of their experience of Isan living and it is rejected as a long term possibility as a result.

Isaan Staying at a farm near Nakhon Phanom for an annual holiday. The wife can handle it as she lived here most of her life. 3 nights so far with 9 more nights to go. Critters found inside the home. Bugs Serious looking stinging insects flying Frogs Some large black spiders A scorpion Plenty of mosquitos Lizards with an attitude I will not be calling this a 5-star holiday. 6 cows outside my bedroom window shitting all day and night smells great. Tonight, I will be sleeping with one eye open. Just on dark tonight I wanted to go out on the road out front of the home and push my son in his stroller to sleep. Wife stops me and says don’t go past the front gate. I said it’s ok on the road. It’s not dangerous (2 cars pass a day) She says…..my father said it’s no good on the road at night as there are ghosts passing by on the road. Faark aye. 9 more days of this. Then go back to work. First and last time staying at her family home.

The trouble is that a ‘taste test’ of Isan living mostly comes in three options. Firstly there’s the one so beautifully shared above – spending time in the rural village, basic family home. Secondly there’s the small resort option; a step up but hardly the reality of everyday life if you moved here. Concrete mattresses (or they feel like that), noisy air-con (if it has one) a shower you have to run around to get wet which sprays water over the toilet and no farang food options. These are places poorly built on a budget for Thais on a budget, and are often catering to ‘short-time’ guests – rental by the hour if you know what I mean. The final option is to stay in one of the larger urban centres and drive out to see family, one that won’t be high on your Isan partner’s list and far from a reality check of village living if that’s your end objective. You are postponing the reality or hidding from it!

Or there could be an option four, which could look

something like this:

For illustrative purposes only I hasten to say first off. This is the guest bedroom in our house. Quality with neutral colours. A comfortable place for our friends and family to spend time.

One of the many sitting areas we have scattered throughout our tropical garden oasis. Lots of choices for places to have a meal or a drink – or most likely both!

A kitchen will be provided (not this big!) in our Taste of Isan guest cottage for those longer term stayers who want to really get involved. There is nothing better than cooking at home using fresh local ingredients or vegetables picked from the farm.

If you are planning to build a farang style tropical (designed for the heat) home, as I did, which would give you a comfortable, cool and quiet oasis separate from but enclosed by the village, then how can any of the three options I described above, the family village house, shoddy resort or city hotel room, give you a realistic idea of how that might work for you? Unless you can experience a fourth option that allows you to live that ‘oasis’ reality while at the same time engaging in all the vitality and variety of Isan life, how could you make an informed decision that will set the direction of your new retired life in Thailand? That’s where A Taste of Isan comes in.

The option four concept provides for a luxury farang style cottage built into our beautiful tropical gardens, the best private garden in this area (that I have seen). That’s why I have been sharing glimpses of the garden as part of this post, to give you a sense of what could be outside the available outside the cabin doors. Nothing like any resort or family home you have stayed in locally I am pretty sure. 

The lounge room will be raised slightly using old timber flooring, probably from another rice hut. Steps will lead down into a cool tiled kitchen/dining space and comfortable bedroom area. This is a 7 x 7 metre open plan design with 3 metre high ceilings (except in the lounge). Views through the doors take in a wall of lush tropical vegetation at the front and the external rice hut lounge on the left hand side.The lounge will flow into the existing decking  and rice hut though a sliding door as you can see from the image on the left.

If this project goes ahead it will be built to the same high standards as my existing house to ensure a naturally cool and quiet retreat with a minimal use of air-con for comfort. This won’t be a cheap nasty resort type building that relies on air-con to make it even halfway livable. 150mm thick AAC (highly insulated blocks), double insulation in the roof, 8mm glass in specially ordered doors, a real hot water shower with a rain head and the pressure to make it work and so it goes. Guests will have the best that I can provide within budget.

This is a forty year old Isan rice hut that I had moved onto our land, rebuilt and renovated. It will become central to the ‘Taste of Isan’ cottage. There will be an internal lounge for hot days and then this shaded open area available for cooler days and evenings. Just a magic experience.

The cottage will fit into the corner of the garden to the right of the hut behind this pot. Beautifully landscaped of course courtesy of Gaun once completed.

Evening cocktails anyone?

Why am I thinking about this concept as an option? The main reason isn’t as a business opportunity as many of you might be thinking. Of course I want a return on investment but there’s more to it than that. The blog has put me in touch with so many people from around the world and locally who are in the transition from ‘home’ to Thailand such as Kevin who contacted me recently:

On a cold damp rainy November Sunday, oh the joys of England, your post was pleasant reading for an hour. I can relate to your story as my Thai girlfriend and her family are so true to the words you have written. My girlfriend and her family are from Sisaket, which is a small rural town in the heart of Thailand. I’m a beach boy who loves to surf, so it should very interesting to keep myself active and amused, or a lot of compromising, maybe get a canoe for the river. Life is a wonderful journey. Again I really enjoyed your post. All the best. Kevin

I so enjoy sharing my experience of living in Isan, as you will know if you have read my blog stories of life here, that I have a interest in helping others make the transition as successfully as I have. I wish I knew someone like me when I was at the early stages of settling into Thailand and going through the process of deciding if I should make the move to Isan and Gaun’s village as opposed to the alternative, which was an option of basing myself in the far north around Chiang Mai/Rai.

There are three pluses I have to offer with the Taste of Isan idea:

1. The experience and knowledge contained within 350 blog posts on many aspects of living in Isan. I don’t intend this to be a ‘hold your hand’, 24/7 experience, but I would be around for casual chats and to answer any questions. For guests this package blends access to an experienced Isan resident and builder, living in the type of house that could be achieved if they were to replicate the theme of its construction, a day to day interaction with local village life (watch the monks pass by if you’re an early riser) and exploring local attractions (I would provide a GPS with all of my favourite places programmed in and a guidebook).  Freshly cooked (non-spicy optional) meals are cooked at an excellent noodle shop in the village. Bikes would be provided to ride out to the farm 1 km away. Become absorbed in what could be a replica of your future and then decide if it is for you. If there’s one investment any potential rural Isan resident should make it is this one.

2. I have written an eBook on building a quality house in Thailand and I know many people would like the opportunity to discuss that process. We have had dozens of visitors already who were drawn to make the trip to see us, have a look at the house and gardens and talk about the finer details of the unique Thai method of construction.

3. The third aspect is a reflection on the modern tourist industry, which unfortunately is more often about show and photo moments than ‘real’ experiences.

Have you been in a situation where you are lined up with lots of other tourists waiting to take the iconic photo of some place or scene? The Mona Lisa is a quick selfie and no chance to actually enjoy the painting. How about Venice as many tourists see it in the photo on the right.

How many people do the bars of Patong, a boat trip to an overcrowded island, get a massage, book an elephant ride, buy a Chang beer t-shirt and go home saying they have ‘done’ Thailand!

 

The unreality of some travel photos can be shown in this example below when Gaun and I went to the Bali wedding of friends. 

This is the scene all of us love as the ‘real’ Bali. Cascading rice paddies. A authentic rural scene. Or not?

Well not! Turn around and this is what you see. Junk tourist shops, eating places and traffic. You actually had to pay money to walk the paddies and extra to take a photo of a local with a rice basket! 

I get locals who ask ME to take their photos! A food stall at a wat (temple) festival. This is the real and the friendly Isan.

We were out and about and came across this happy froup of mushroom pickers sat on the side of the road. Photos all round 🙂

I believe that many more seasoned and probably older travellers are looking beyond this shallow tourist ‘postcard’ type of events. They’ve done the the Thailand beaches, elephant rides and hill tribe ‘authentic’ trips. What they want is a deeper experience to become more integrated in the culture and everyday happenings of being in a foreign country. For example instead of a once off expensive cooking class the alternative could be actually shopping and cooking using local ingredients day by day. Super inexpensive if you stick to local products. The comfortable and safe environment we would offer through A Taste of Isan would allow these genuine enquistive seekers to get really involved and go home with memories and photos that very few others could match.

Please note that for the purpose of this exercise I am not intending to become a tour guide wandering around with my umbrella held high. However, we would provide enough information and guidance on settling into the village that guests would feel at home. This is a concept designed for ‘adults’ (I also mean this literally as this will be a kid-free environment) and no hands will be held 🙂

For guests staying two weeks or more I am happy to provide a road trip (selection available) to show them some of our favourite ‘secret’ places at no cost.

Meeting locals not as a planned event but as they go about their day activities. These kids at a wat were so keen to have their photo taken. Lovely natural moments.

Beautiful wats (temples) hidden away with not one other westerner in sight and often no Thais either.

Real rural countryside rather than a photo showpiece. Turn around and what will you see? More rural countryside 🙂

Will it be more expensive than staying at a local resort? You bet it’ll be but does the alternative give you this? An small investment towards a new life must be worth it, surely.

It will only get better in time.

What I will be offering, if this concept happens, is not overnight motel accommodation. This is not just a place to sleep and move on (what a pain that would be) but more about helping to fulfil guest’s plans and dreams of living in this wonderful part of Thailand. Three nights will be the minimum, one week preferred and longer term ‘living in Isan’ packages available. Escape winter back ‘home’.

What guests will enjoy is a home built to my exacting standards way beyond most Thai and many farang constructions. Cool, quiet and comfortable with loads of character. You will be located in a tropical wonderland like no other in the region. You have access to someone who is the most published author on Isan rural village life and one of the few farang who have taken the time to write a comprehensive eBook on building a house in Isan. This is a package that is unique and should be an essential investment for potential retirees to the area. And for those sophisticated travellers or retirees who want to submerge themselves longer term in everyday Isan life, what better opportunity? You will not only have access to a luxury home base and gardens but Isaan Grace, our floating sala (hut) on the family pond (once it is refloated!!!) and another sala overlooking the pond with hammocks. Farm life can pass you by as you read a book or just take in the view with a glass of something chilled.

You will not only have access to a luxury home base and gardens but Isaan Grace, our floating sala (hut) on the family pond (once it is refloated!!!) and another sala overlooking the pond with hammocks. Farm life can pass you by as you read a book or just take in the view with a glass of something chilled.

Help Please

None of this may happen and even if it does, although the cabin could be built before Christmas, we won’t be open for official business until I change my visa and get a work permit early next year. I may go ahead with it and have the accommodation available for friends and family and not bother with the rest. Everything is on the table for discussion.

What I would be so grateful for is all the feedback readers would like to give about this concept. I am especially counting on my regular friends to jump in with their thoughts. Would it be an attractive possibility that you (theoretically) or others would be enthusiastic to try? Do you know of retirees that would enjoy to spend time based in and exploring the real Isan, shopping locally, cooking at home, taking part in the cycle of festivals and celebrations, engaging in the changing seasons at the farm and discovering places most other farang will never see? Is the Taste of Isan something that you think would ‘sell’?

Any and all feedback, ideas or bookings (555) would be MOST appreciated. You can use the comments section below (the silly question required to make a comment is only there to stop the amazing amount of spam I would otherwise receive) OR on a more personal basis you can email me at [email protected]  I will answer all questions or helpful suggestions.

Thank you in advance.

 

Tony