Welcome back to Isaan – The Small Stories after a long absence on my part. These entries are a bit of a cheat because I have been writing on my Facebook timeline regularly to keep my friends and family up to date with daily life here and these are extracts from those posts. I hope it doesn’t make them any less interesting. I have however made an effort and many of the stories have been expanded and updated.
You won’t find any big “must do” in my Isaan stories but a heap of little everyday things that make up my life here. I think they are more involving as a result because they are the sort of events you won’t find in the travel blogs or social media pages, which have a tourist sightseeing focus. Like living at any location in the world it is most likely your everyday revolves around very small local sights and happenings and the big outings only occur when you have visitors!
A huge mix of things here with more to come shortly in Small Stories 12. Also some of these stories were originally written earlier this year so aren’t seasonally correct.
We saw these fish at a resort/restaurant on the way to Udon Thani the other day. A bit daunting if you came across one swimming.
I think they are Arapaimas and are described by National Geographic as follows:
Also known as the paiche or the pirarucu, the Arapaima is an air-breathing fish that plies the rain forest rivers of South America’s Amazon Basin and nearby lakes and swamps. One of the world’s largest freshwater fish, these giants can reach 9 feet (2.75 meters) long and weigh up to 440 pounds (200 kilograms). They have a wide, scaly, gray body and a tapered head.
Though Arapaimas can stay underwater for 10 to 20 minutes, they tend to remain near the water’s surface, where they hunt and emerge often to breathe with a distinctive coughing noise. They survive mainly on fish but are known to occasionally grab birds close to the water’s surface.
The Arapaima’s proximity to the water’s surface make it vulnerable to human predators, who can easily target them with harpoons. Some indigenous communities consume the Arapaima’s meat and tongue and collect its large scales, which are fashioned into jewelry and other items.
Songkran at the Farm
My Thai family are busy planting up for Songkran – Thai New Year on 13 April. It is one of the huge celebrations in Thailand where everyone returns home to party and a fun time to be over here. With the resident population of Isaan doubling and everyone eating and drinking the demand for local produce ensures the farmers are busy.
Recently (late May) a full day was spent clearing more space and getting more plants in. Perfect timing as the rains have started in a minor way and it is relatively cooler (36 instead of 42). These bougainvillea (3 for $4.00) will be bursting with colour in no time. They will stop local traffic as the villagers have never seen anything like it. Many will think Yuan and Lud are crazy but they will enjoy the flowers anyway.
Gaun also paints her nails at night, as you can see from this photo, and I have no idea why because by mid-morning they are almost gone! No sitting around for my lady – unlike me!!!!
A Wreck in Motion
This is the transport for a large digger that is enlarging a pond close to the family farm. After several years of drought they must have word from Buddha that we are to get rains this year. Everything is brown, super dry and dusty here, a big difference from the postcard images of Thailand. We will have almost NO rain here for seven months of the year.
The place next to the family farm grows manaw (limes) so we picked up a kilo for 40 THB (A$1.60) on the way home. They will either go into cooking or Mojitos cocktails, whichever comes first! Fresh limes and mint picked from the garden (and just a hint of rum) makes for a yummy cool drink at the end of a 40 degree day, which is forecast for today.
If you are into rum and have some limes lying around then give a Sangsom Mojito cocktail a go when you are here. Super refreshing. SangSom is a local rum and I think pretty tasty. If you do enjoy it then at 40% proof and $12.00 a bottle life looks better and better after each glass. The official history of Sangsom can be summarised as follows:
Driven by a passion to create world-class quality Thai liquor, Mr. Chula Kanchanakaksha, who is widely acknowledged as Thailand’s best master blender for his unique ability to balance both the art and science of spirit blending, created “SangSom” in 1977. An exclusive ageing process in oak casks and the use of fine Thai herbs as key ingredients have been the secret of the distinctively ‘Thai’ taste of SangSom that is loved the world over.
One of the best recipes for a Thai Mojito cocktail, that wonderfully refreshing tropical lime, mint and rum drink can be made using Sangsom and looks like this:
Thai Mojito: serves 1
1 lemongrass stalk
½ fresh lime, seeded and quartered
8-10 fresh mint leaves
2 ½ teaspoons sugar
2 oz (1 shot) Sang Som Rum (or other dark rum)
4 oz (½ cup) sparkling water (club soda)
1 round slice of lime
1 sprig fresh mint
Remove the outer layers of the lemon grass until you reach the lighter inner layers. Trim the bottom of the stalk and mash it with the back of a knife. This will release the essence of the lemongrass into the mojito when muddling and stirring.
Place the quartered lime, mint leaves, and sugar in a tall clear glass. Using the lemongrass stalk as a muddler, smash the limes, mint leaves, and sugar together; extracting the juice from the lime quarters, bruising the mint leaves to release the essential oils, and dissolving the sugar into the mix.
Add the rum, stir vigorously to exchange the flavors, and top up with the sparkling water.
Add crushed or small ice cubes to fill the glass. Stir with the lemongrass stalk and garnish with a sliced lime round and a sprig of mint leaves. Leave the lemongrass in the glass for stirring.
The quantities of ingredients can be increased exponentially for making a pitcher of mojito mix, adding the sparkling water once the mojito mix is poured into individual glasses filled with ice.
This recipe is pinched from HERE.
Substitute lemonade or a lime soda if you like your Mojitos a little sweeter, which I do. I also like to add the juice of one small lime into the mix at the beginning. Ignore the lemongrass bit if it is all too hard. We have it growing in the garden so no big effort required.
This photo was taken with my stepdaughter Peng in front of these artfully leaning salas at a local wat (temple) called Wat Nong (lake) Prakao. They would be an engineering marvel if designed to be like this. Unfortunately it is just poor workmanship on display. The ever widening gap between the walkway and the salas has been covered over with wooden planks, so it is all safe now!
Hard at work on the farm
I had some computer work to do recently so as my wife Gaun was already out at the farm cutting bamboo stakes for the garden I decided to base myself there. You never have to wait long for food to appear in Thailand and this was no exception. Pappaya salad and a pork mince with freshly cooked rice. As an office it was a big improvement on the multi million dollar Canberra government complexes I spent too many years trapped in. The food is better too. Yuan and Lud, brother and sister-in-law with veggies just picked from the farm.
It was forecast to be 40 degrees this day but that didn’t slow Gaun in her mission to cover every inch of the garden with flowers. She wheels soil in from mama’s house up the road, fills these plastic pots and then takes cuttings from other plants to fill them up. Once they flower we will have large beds of beautiful colours filling the space between larger shrubs.
The second photo is of Gaun building the frame a few months ago. The third shows the bamboo structure Gaun built to hide the water tanks covered with bougainvillea (called paper flowers in Thailand). If you compare the size of the bougainvillia you will understand what a delight it is to garden in a tropical country.
Cloud 47 Bangkok
We had to visit Bangkok to get some documents witnessed at the Australian embassy, which required some recovery time that evening at Cloud 47 cocktail bar on Silom Road. It is hard to find and a bit disappointing as a bar but the views were great. More information HERE.
I have to say that you can keep Bangkok and Pattaya. My place in life is Isaan and it was with delight and relief that we flew back to Udon Thani after our Bangkok/Pattaya trip. I knew we had arrived home when I spotted two guys net fishing in the pond next to the airport terminal. Welcome back to Isaan.
The Hot, Hot Season (March 2016)
I suspect that the hot season has arrived in Isaan 🙂 Thank goodness for a highly insulated house. 40 degrees plus outside (we got to a maximum of 43 for a number of days and six weeks over 40) and it is a comfortable 28 inside without air. Even cheap foil insulation under the roof would make a big difference but most Thais and quite a number of farang don’t use it.
We lived in Gaun’s mama’s house for five months while ours was being built and the heat upstairs from the uninsulated tin roof was unbearable during the day. Air conditioning is your best friend this time of year.
As I am on the subject of the temperatures here and building a cool house I thought I would share a couple of relevant photos. I monitor temperatures inside the house, outside and in the roof space and it has been really interesting to watch the affect various aspects of the house design have on internal temperatures.
The first photo shows outside temperature compared to inside with no air con – 39 v’s 29. The second shows the temperature in the roof space with a 5 degree reduction 39 v’s 34. Now this decrease is due entirely to the combination of a light coloured, aluminium roof with silver foil under it bonded to a 5 mm foam insulating material.
This photo shows a 5 degree drop from roof space to the room temperatures inside the house is due to Rt 37 foil insulation batts that sit on top of the ceiling and the design of the house with cool walls and no internal sunlight.
The temperature build for a typical day looks like this:
- 10:00 am inside, 28 outside 35, roof 30
- 12:00 pm inside 29, outside 39, roof 33
- 14:00 pm inside 30, outside 41, roof 35
And the cost for all this insulation – 35,000 THB or A$1,400!!! What a shame all this “high tech” is beyond most Thai builders and many farang too.
Elephants and More
Elephants seem to be part of my life at the moment. We went to the opening celebrations at a small local wat (temple), which included nine (a Thai lucky number) elephants in one of those unexpectedly odd Thai moments. Heaps of food, live music and friendly smiles. Show an interest in whatever is going on and Thais will embrace you. They love to see a farang having a good time.
We have been invited to a wedding tomorrow and then another temple festival on Saturday to complete a busy week. Retirement is very tiring here!
The cotton creation was that of a ladyboy (if you want anything arty done in Thailand engage a ladyboy) who got the idea from YouTube! The people left to right, Gaun’s niece Puck, one of my brother-in-laws Lud, Peng and my sister-in-law Yuan.
The mobile clothing repair pick-up turned up today. Everything you’ll ever want passes our gates over a period of time from guttering, bbqs, fish, chicken, eggs, bedding, ice creams, pancakes, filtered water and much more. A zip with cost you A$1.60 and pretty well everything else A$1.20.
We were invited to another local wedding this morning. Weddings, like funerals and the initiation of new monks, is very much a community event and most people get involved in some way.
The ceremony is always held in the bride’s house and the groom travels to her. In this case from Sakon Nakhon about three hours east from us so not a big group from his side. Heaps of food and beer makes an appearance as soon as we arrived, which at 8.00 am can be a bit of a struggle for me. Still I gave the beer my best shot and didn’t think I disgraced the Aussie tradition of beer at all hours.
The party is held the evening before, which is always good fun, but we missed out on that as my Thai family were having a Isaan buffet because their sugar harvest money had finally arrived.
I have been to many weddings here and it seems to be the role of bridesmaids and groomsmen to look sad. It is rare to see one with a smile. Very un-Thai. Children are expected to support their family financially so when they get married there is a potential loss of “superannuation” income for their family. The groom makes good for this by paying a lump sum called sin sod. It is not a payment for the wife as many farang think.
Drought In Thailand
A photo that reflects the reality of this dry season in Thailand away from the coast. Not exactly what you might expect from the tourist brochures. With seven months of almost absolutely NO rain and several months of high temperatures you end up with a dry, brown and dusty landscape. Come July these paddy fields will be planted up with new rice and the postcard image will have arrived again.
We also get several months of smoke as you can see from the photo resulting from local burn offs and smoke drifting in from surrounding countries. Blue skies are rare this time of year. You need to do your research if holidaying in Thailand so you know what you’ll be seeing if travelling around the countryside.
This is the power centre set up for a festival at a local temple – sound and electricity. Surprisingly it all seems to work.
Fresh produce growing on the family farm as of 20 March 2016.
30 May 2016 – Gaun has just spent all day helping her sister and brother-in-law Yuan and Lud at the farm to fill an order for 100 kilos of coriander. They got this order from someone who has the word that coriander will fetch 240 baht a kilo at the Udon wholesale markets tomorrow. As Yaun is selling it for 100 baht a kilo he has the potential for a quick profit just for the transport one hour up the road. A 10,000 baht day for Yaun and Lud (A$400.00). In the typical generosity I have always received from my Thai family they are giving ME beer in payment for Gaun’s work! I’ve just been sitting at home writing this post 🙂
We met these guys as we cycled back from the farm. Can you believe the top photo is from Thailand. Looks more like outback Australia.
Fresh Coconut Milk
We had friends over for dinner the other night and this called for pina colada cocktails. The main ingredients coconut cream and pineapple came from the local markets. The difference between the commercial coconut cream and the one that is made as you watch is like chalk and cheese.
Home Cooking Farang-style
The end result of the super fresh produce available locally. Homemade coriander pesto sauce with tomatoes picked from the garden, warm French bread and a newly opened tin of tuna – dolphin free 🙂 A tasty light dinner just right for the end of a 40 degree day.
Coriander picked 30 minutes before using from the farm, chili, lemongrass, lime and chilies from the garden, fresh ginger and garlic. Thai honey. A great recipe, which you can find HERE.
Sugar and More Sugar
After four months the sugar harvest is finally winding up, which is a great relief. Farmers having been turning to sugar to replace rice during the worst drought in 10 years.
Although helpful for farm income sugar has no other redeeming feature. The crop is mostly burnt before harvest contributing to the smoke haze over the region and showering houses with burnt leaf residue. Huge sugar trucks chew up the small back roads never built for more than local traffic. The trucks are often ancient and overloaded causing them to overturn if you breathe too heavily on them and they cause dangerous overtaking by impatient drivers.
You will notice that the trailer has crossed to the wrong side of the road and then overturned, which would be exciting for anyone coming the other way. There could be several motorcyclists under that load – who would know.
And after all of that there is an oversupply of sugar and the prices are a lot lower this year. The current government has stated that next year there will be no burning of sugar prior to harvest, which will be a good outcome for us urban type folk but may not make the farmers happy so we’ll see what the outcome of that edict will be.
This crop hasn’t been burnt because the sugar is being cut up and then used to replant another field. Each pack is a two person lift.
Farmers are getting 600 THB (A$24.00) a ton this year with a separate contractor loading and transporting the cane from the field. If the farmer arranges delivery they will get an extra 200 THB a ton, which is why you see lots of these ancient small farm trucks transporting sugar to the collection points.
A cooler day with temperatures in the low 30’s so we took the opportunity to get out of the house and visit a local monkey temple about 30 minutes drive from us. Plenty of monkeys looking for food and anything else they could get their hands on under the watchful eye of a couple of monks with slingshots! The temple itself was rubbish, as so many are, but it was worth the trip to see semi-wild monkeys.
After the monkey temple we continued our drive into the countryside to complete a loop back home. Even in the dry season this was a very scenic drive with the backdrop of these low but rugged and interestingly shaped hills.
You can read the full story about this wat HERE.
I learnt something new today thanks to Gaun, my Thai wife. The contents of the pods shown in the first two photos are used to stuff the cushions and super hard mattresses you see for sale everywhere in Thailand. It is a natural substitute for foam rubber.
On the way back from our afternoon out we stopped for iced shakes (my stepdaughter Peng and me) and an ice cream for me from one of the mobile vendors you see everywhere.
I hope you have enjoyed these glimpses into Isaan life as much as I have living them. I promise to get the next issue of Isaan – The Small Stories out soon in between writing my eBook on building our house, which you can read about HERE.
Thanks for reading.