We have now being living in Isaan for over a month and I thought I would write another in what will probably become a series of little stories about living a “small” local life in a rural Thai village. You can read the first of these collections of happenings HERE. Our first month’s anniversary also gives me an opportunity to ponder the change between living 12 months in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city, and moving to one of it’s less populous towns in the North East, an area called Isaan.
It won’t surprise you to read that it has been quite a change. When comparing the two situations in my mind for this story I was reminded of one of my very early posts called “The Resort Experience” and you can find it HERE. In it I spoke about many tourists who skim lightly across the Thailand experience by isolating themselves in a resort and only venturing out to tick off the list of must do’s often in an organised tour format. I only raise this because having lived in Si Bun Ruang for five weeks now I can almost apply the resort analogy to my previous life in Chiang Mai.
Looking back on the year we lived there what has become very clear is that I had taken on some attributes of a particular category of farang very common not just in Thailand but everywhere expats find themselves outside their home comfort zone.
What do I mean by this? Well many foreigners living in Thailand, and you may be one yourself, attempt to replicate “home” in as many aspects of their lives as possible and exclude much of the local. Their houses are in farang friendly communities, mostly gated Moo Baans, they buy food from farang supermarkets like Rimping, find places to drink and eat where other expats go and they can get western food, see Duke’s of Chiang Mai for example HERE, and they shop in the big malls etc. Let me quickly say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this lifestyle. Each to their own as long as you enjoy the life you choose. However there is no escaping the fact that this is a “resort” experience and quite deliberately excludes the notion of diving deeper into Thai life and society, for better and worse.
In our case we too were largely living a resort lifestyle. I wanted to ease myself into the challenges of living in Thailand permanently and it was a deliberate decision not to get too close to the more raw Thai environment. I wrote about why I made that choice in my post “Occupation Retired” HERE. After a few months in Chiang Mai I started to feel more confident and comfortable with being an expat here and towards the end I was becoming a little restless in being so isolated from what I now regard as the “real” Thailand. In my defence we did try to take a more middle path and engage lightly with the local scene and explore attractions a little outside the main tourist traps.
I don’t want to give you the idea that moving to Si Bun Ruang has suddenly thrown me into living like a local Thai. It hasn’t and I have no wish to do so either. I have a comfortable bed, not the substitute for a slab of concrete the Thais enjoy. We have a hot shower, a western toilet and water pressure pump, all installed in the family home before we got here. The outside kitchen now includes my Italian coffee machine, a microwave and toaster! High speed internet is a must to keep in touch with the world and for producing my blog, which helps keep the brain ticking over.
But what I can’t escape from here, even if I wanted to, is that the stream of everyday Thai village life flows around me unlike a secure Chiang Mai Moo Baan. Some of the happenings are impossible to avoid and other aspects you can choose to engage with or not. Also I have found that living in the family home allows me to observe the seasonal changes of workflow involved in running a busy mixed produce farm.
Maybe I am now sitting just outside the gates of that resort. I have many of the comforts of home but I am thoroughly enjoying engaging with anything that’s going on in the village. Perhaps this middle way is the best of both worlds. I am hoping my collection of small stories will give you a taste of what that looks and feels like.
One of the first purchases we made was to buy a couple of mountain bikes for local transport. 21 gears and we use 3 – it’s pretty flat country around here!
In Chiang Mai we used the car exclusively to get around. Our home wasn’t close to anything much useful or interesting and going places, even to the local markets, involved a drive. Here we live in a Moo Baan, or suburb of Si Bun Ruang called Chomphutong and as you can see from the Google image below it isn’t a big area.
It’s 100 meters from home to the land. The village shop is the next street down and it sells all the basics one needs. The family farm is a 10 minute bike ride away at the top of the photo. Even Si Bun Ruang central would only be a 20 minute bike ride. Meats normally arrives with one or other of the family or we buy direct from the markets and vegetables come directly from the farm each evening. We only use the car for infrequent visits to town to get non-Thai things like milk, butter and bread and of course for longer trips to do with the house build.
The Primary School
One of the loudspeaker announcements made early morning across the village was that the local school was looking for assistance to “pretty” itself up. Schools that made the grade were then eligible for a grant of money from the Royal family.
We decided to donate some money so the school could buy some plants to decorate a photo of the King and Queen that sits at the entrance. We turned up and were take to the principal, something that usually happened to me in a different context in my early life, the guy to my right in the photo and it all turned into a big event. Available staff were summoned and photos taken of me handing the money over.
We were then taken on a tour of the school going into classrooms, the students standing and practising their English by saying “good morning” and a few were told to introduce themselves to me.
The Soccer Match
Having made a connection to the school we were back a couple of weeks later to donate some food to be used as prizes for their soccer day. We knew the day was on because the school had been practising their marching all week.
The day before the event these students were doing the rounds of the village asking for donations of rice for lunch the next day.
On the Saturday we turned up with our food and the principal and teachers greeted us like part of the family and we were seated in the VIP area!
The day started with some running races for the small kids.
The school soccer matches were kicked off so to speak by a friendly game between the teachers and other assorted spectators including one farang.
The teams were split male/female and although it started OK there was a bit of deliberate tripping and holding of shirts only by the female team of course!
The Turtle Float
One of the things I had to do for the house build blessing ceremony was to release a turtle and a bunch of snails into the local temple’s pond, as you do. The rest of the blessing ceremony happened on the 16th and you can read about it HERE. The hold-up for this part of the blessing has been the lack of turtles in the local market! Evidently turtles are out and about in the wet season but harder to find in the dry. The useful tips just keep on flowing in this blog.
However good news. Five turtles made an appearance at the market this week and Gaun picked one up for 50 THB or A$1.70. Snails were less of a problem. Gaun headed out to the family farm, went paddling in one of their ponds and came back with a bag full. It must have been wrench to hand them over because normally they would be put in fresh water for a day and then made into soup one of Gaun’s favourite meals!
Turtle and snails in hand we headed to the local Wat and the final part of the house blessing floated into place:
The odd thing about the turtle release was that when I was getting my house plans drawn up the draftsman said that with the big hip roof I wanted the house would look like a turtle or Tao in Thai. The house has been called Baan Tao or Turtle House ever since!
Some Unrelated Photos
The photo below is nothing more than one of colour coordination. Very small children often stand in the front of motorbikes. When they get slightly bigger they can hang onto the rider at the back. Better view this way.
Another photo with no story. This has been slightly tuned for impact but not by much. Taken from a window in “our” part of the family home upstairs looking over the Moo Baan.
Blog central. Sitting in my sala doing some serious writing! Gaun kindly keeps me topped up with cold water and chilled sweet pappaya.
Peng recently went to a two day “retreat” at one of the local temples. We went to pick her up on the last day and I was invited inside by the lady sitting at the front of this photo below – a teacher. The final closing session was very non-Buddhist music, dancing and hugs all round. This photo was one of the groups post-event. The large monk on the right was also a big character in real life. Turn up to an event, show an interest and often you’ll be invited to view if not actually join in! Thais are the most welcoming of people.
Our bedroom in the family home. All timber with a corrugated iron roof. Super hot on a sunny day. Mosquito net as there’s no glass in the windows let alone insect screens! I will get around to buying a bed base once we finish the house. Impossible to get upstairs in our current location.
Another procession by our now friends at the primary school passed down our road earlier this week heading to the house of the “mayor” of the Moo Baan. I caught up with the group afterwards as they marched back to school. Gaun then told me this was a sex education event to encourage the use of condoms to prevent HIV. The procession had now been expanded to include a bunch of heavies and staff from the local hospital and other dignitaries.
The Farm in December
Gaun’s family farm is in the post-rice harvest phase and flat out producing some beautiful vegetables. We now use the bikes to cycle out there and it’s a dirt track that could almost be part of Australia.
With the family farm turning out some wonderful looking vegetables I got myself on a delivery run to the local food markets this week to see the end result of all this hard work.
Si Bun Ruang is a typical small rural place with many people living either directly from the land or in associated support businesses. A day in the rice fields will earn you A$10.00. An income of between 200,000 and 300,000 pa is considered average. That’s A$8,000 – 11,000. People are thrifty here. Money counts in a way we have largely forgotten for those of us coming from a well paid and thrown away society.
I took this photo of a produce basket on the farm. Repaired many times by the look of it. The couple of dollars involved in replacing it, which is what we’d do, is not a financial option here. It has a few seasons left in it yet.
Recycling isn’t done for the environment. It’s financial. Plastic, paper, cardboard and glass is all collected here and then sold. A kilo of plastic will get you 2 THB or A$0.07. It’s an indication of the economics here. Want a new towel rack? Do what Gaun did as part of her natural upbringing. She went out to the farm cut herself a nice piece of bamboo and our towel rack is in place with no homeware store or China involved.
More Unrelated Photos
These are concrete rings used for building septic systems. I will be using some myself for grey water in my house build.
Family BBQ Feast
I organised a Thai BBQ for some of the family to thank them for their support in the building project and also just because I could. What happens is that you order up the number of bags of food, meat, veggies and noodles, for the number of people you need to feed at 200 THB each and then get them delivered with several charcoal burners for cooking. All delivered on the back of a motorbike with fires already going!
Place the round metal lid on the top of the coals, add a soup mixture to the base and cook on the top or boil in the soup. Add a few beers or Sang Soms, a Thai whisky that’s actually a rum, and the evening is looking pretty good. The next day a guy comes round and collects the pots.
I fed nine people, eight of them Thais who put away their own body weight in a sitting, for 800 THB or around A$30.00. For me a small cost, for the family, going back to examples like a day in the rice fields for 300 THB or 20 lettuces for 120 THB, a 800 THB dinner is completely out of the question. A great time had by all.
The fish basket was a central item in our house blessing that I mentioned previously in this post. I came across the guy who makes them the other day as he’s only a couple of house down from where we’re living. Like so many handicrafts I am sure the knowledge to produce an item like this will die along with him.
Everything comes to those that wait
I have mentioned this in a previous post but have seen in happen over a longer period now. Sit around long enough and whatever it is you need will pass your front door – or sala in my case. Food is popular of course, eggs pronounced Kai Gai – egg chicken, fish, chicken, pork, fruits and some vegetables are sold from vehicles that pass through from time to time. My personal favourites are the ice cream man and the pancake guy.
Wat to do at 4.00 am
I had a period of waking early morning and not being able to get back to sleep. At some point in that early morning period I often heard a gong being sounded a number of times from the local wat or temple. Looking at my watch this happened at 3.45 am. so one morning I decided to get up and see what was going on.
It turns out that this is the time the monks do their morning chant. I turned up in the hall and I think shocked the single monk there who probably thought I was a ghost making an appearance. The chant only goes for 45 minutes but if you are into that sort of thing, which I am, then it is a peaceful way of starting the day. I was home by 5 am and then managed to get some sleep even missing the 5.30 am loudspeaker announcements from the two Moo Baan chiefs, which is quite an achievement.
My visit to the wat was all around the village by the time I got up as the monks do a 6.00 am walk through the streets to collect food, something I wrote about with a video HERE. I heard back later that one of the theories for my odd behaviour was that Gaun and I had a fight and I had fled to the temple to take refuge 🙂
I have been back to the wat a number of times since so I think that the village is reconciled to the fact that Gaun and I are still an item.
I think that well and truly covers more small stories than you thought you were going to get.
Thanks for reading.