Another of my ramblings about the small everyday stories I come across living a “small” life here in the North Eastern part of Thailand, a region called Isaan. These are some of my favourite posts because they don’t involve any big touristy attractions but are made up of little moments that form part of my life here. They are unique because you won’t find them on the many other Thailand blogs that more often focus on the big stories in Phuket, Pattaya and the two Chiangs in the North West. I hope they give you an insight of Isaan life that makes for enjoyable reading.
This is absolutely one of my favourite Thai moments and sums up the lovely but strange relationship the people have with the spirit world. The road out of our nearest larger town, a place called Nong Bua Lamphu, climbs into some low hills before flattening out into a fast dual carriageway to Udon Thani, a major centre 40 minutes away. Part the way up the hill there is a large collection of spirit symbols and San Phra Phum or spirit houses. Many cars will sound their horns three times as they pass for good luck. You can read about the installation of a spirit house at a friend of our’s home in Chiang Mai HERE.
One of the times we passed what I thought was a serious place of spiritual meaning there was a stage set up with loud Thai music being played and three rather attractive dancers wearing not a lot gyrating around. I was so surprised that I missed the opportunity to pull over and take photos. Ever since I have been hoping the event would be repeated so I could report it in my Small Stories post. Luckily on 30 December as we drove to Udon the stage was back and this is what it all looked like:
Now the theory behind this somewhat raunchy display is that if you want to bring about a certain outcome in your life and get the spirits on-side then you can hire a music and dancing girl display to be set up in the hope that the spirits will be so impressed that your wishes will be granted! I have this wonderful image of the ghosts, as Gaun calls them, sitting back maybe with a drink or two enjoying an earthly girlie show with the occasional nudge, nudge, wink, wink and a few stories exchanged about the good old days when they had bodies. Gotta love Thailand.
Just on the subject of spirits and blessings I had always assumed that these marks above the rear vision mirror in our car were a leftover from some accessory removed by the previous owner:
Wrong. They are the finger marks left by a monk as part of a blessing ceremony for safe driving when the car was originally purchased. You will often see examples of this if you look out for it as well as the more obvious Buddha/monk statues and photos plus plastic and real flowers. I even saw a Nok Air plane that had a large version painted on its nose. I hope they were also relying on good maintenance and aircrew as part of their safety strategy!
Short Time Resorts
Staying on the same sort of theme of strangeness one of the odd things I noticed driving around Isaan is the large number of small accommodation resorts scattered around the place. In my innocence I thought that there must be a large number of travelling salespeople passing through at any one time to provide the business for these mini one bedroom/ensuite places.
We had a friend visit us from Chiang Mai recently and we headed out to find some decent accommodation for him close to where we are living. In the process the true nature of these resorts became clear. Many Thai men have a very active “bit on the side” life if they can get away with it. These resorts provide a stopping off point, maybe a lunch break or on the way home, to cater for the randy aspect of life here. This concept can extend to wealthier men actually maintaining two households, one for the main wife and the other for what’s called the Mia Noi or minor wife.
In a less sleazy explanation the other reason I give for the popularity of these short stay places is that Thai family houses are not set up for privacy. Very often multiple members of the family sleep in the same large room and for younger couples to do what younger couples have always done must be pretty restrictive. Thai society is also still very conservative, on the surface anyway, and sex between unmarried couples is not as generally acceptable as it is in our western society.
I became educated on the dual nature of these resorts when we were looking at a cottage in one of these places for our friend and a young couple arrived on a motorbike and popped into the place next door. “Short time” said Gaun, who obviously knew how these places worked far better than me. Drop in, pay 250 THB for as long as it takes! and you’re on your way mission accomplished. Another priceless tip from tonyinthailand!
Having said all of this the resorts also provide a totally “normal” accommodation function. Over the New Year party season Gaun and I actually booked into one on the edge of Si Bun Ruang for four nights to escape the loud late night music. Set overlooking rice fields it was a very pleasant place to spend time although the bathroom gave a hint that it wasn’t totally family orientated:
At 400 THB for a small one bedroom place and 500 THB or A$18.00 a night for a larger version it’s no big drain on the pocket for a change of scenery.
A concept promoted by Rama IX the current king in that Thailand “would not resist modernity and globalisation, but it would take more care to provide enough for everyone and to protect itself from future shocks. “Being a tiger is not important” said the king. “The important thing is for us to have a sufficient economy. A sufficient economic means to have enough to support ourselves… we have to take a careful step backward.””*
Rural Thailand naturally supports this concept as traditionally this is a population with limited incomes and that has resulted in families living from the produce grown on their farms or back garden. A spare area of land is far more likely to be planted up either with a small crop to sell or to supplement the family meals than as a garden for show. Isaan is a people of hunters and gatherers. Where you and I would see a landscape of vegetation an Isaan person will see a whole meal!
For those people who for whatever reason have lost their land and that ability for self sufficiency the government has stepped in to help out. How connected this is to the king’s ideals I don’t know but I suspect there is a link there because of the huge influence and level of respect he held by the Thai people both official and the public.
The reason for this preamble is that on the way to the family farm we pass an area that has been set aside as small market plots for people who don’t have land of their own.
I know there are similar schemes in England where housing estates without gardens have access to community land to grow vegetables. It is good to see government assistance to help keep people’s connection to the land alive and also to promote the king’s enthusiasm for self sufficiency. If the world economy ever goes belly up there would be no better place to be than in Isaan.
The Sugar Industry
Large areas of Isaan are being planted up with sugar, a crop less reliant on water and less demanding of labour than rice. The rainy season of 2014 didn’t happen and those farmers who relied on the annual deluge to provide a good rice harvest have seen their crops die or have ended up with a very reduced output. The government has just doled out 1,000 THB per 1,600 sq metres, an area called one rai in Thailand, of rice land for farmers whose crops failed. The take-up rate has been enthusiastic and you’d think that no one grew any rice last year. I will leave it at that! The family farm has invested in a large bore but the cost of running the large diesel pump to bring the water up and flood the fields has been a drain on finances.
Sugar is planted now in the dry season which lasts until March/April and apart from a little water to kick start the new shoots it is happy to grow in these waterless times. Largely maintenance free it can be left to do its thing and is then harvested December/January. Each planting regrows twice after the initial harvest giving three year’s income for the one establishment cost.
The family moved a lot of their farm across to sugar last year, planted late in 2012, and are converting more rice paddies to sugar this year. In order to get some rough unused land cleared for planting sugar in 2012 they came to an arrangement with a guy who had all the heavy equipment needed. They provided the sugar shoots and he cleared the land and planted the sugar. In return he gets the first year’s harvest, an event that will be happening sometime very soon now. The family then get the next two year’s output before having to replant again.
For your next trivial pursuit evening 100 kilos of sugar cane will be sold by the family for 700 THB or A$25.00 if the buyer cuts. If the cane is sold harvested it is earning 1,000 THB per 100 kilos.
Some of the family’s own crop was harvested recently so that it could be replanted on the ex-rice paddies. Harvesting is mainly done by hand and looks like a back breaking, hot and dirty job. I wrote in a previous post about the good money that can be earned through cutting sugar. A steady worker can earn 400 THB or A$15.00 a day while a star working long hours can double this. Where a building worker earns around 300 THB a day this is big money. However having seen the effort that goes into cutting sugar I have decided not to compete with the locals in this area of employment.
Because this sugar pictured above is to be replanted the crop hasn’t been burned as is often the case with the cane that is going to be sold for processing for ease of cutting and transporting.
As the rural population ages and the young people take off to the big cities you would have to think that the sight of machines like this one I spotted in Nong Bua Lamphu will become more frequent.
You can see a video of this harvester in action HERE.
To replant the cane the fields were ploughed and all those paddy field levy banks flattened. No turning back now.
The cane bundles were then collected by hand on the farm’s old putt putt tractor and moved to the planting area a job that took three days.
The actual planting is done by tractor. The cane is loaded up on the back and the tractor cuts the long cane into smaller pieces, trenches, plants and covers the cane over.
The roads this time of year are full of huge ancient trucks transporting sugar from farm to processing plant.
Most make it – some don’t. Photo taken between Nong Bua Lamphu and Si Bun Ruang, our home town.
I wonder how long Isaan will remain the rice bowl of Thailand. Like everywhere people here will take the easiest path to make money and with a reducing rural workforce larger farms, increased mechanical aids and less labour intensive crops would seem to be the way of the future. There will be something lost when rice no longer forms the basis of community here.
We have two mango trees on our land that have just started to flower with a crop expected in April. However one of my banana trees has just now produced a huge bunch of bananas, the first time I have ever had this tropical fruit growing on my land. I never had much success growing bananas or mangoes in Canberra for some reason!
Still green I haven’t had a chance to try them out but will report back when I do.
Another very minor piece of Thai information. In Thailand the King’s birthday is also celebrated as Father’s Day and the Queen’s birthday Mother’s Day. My step-daughter Peng was kind enough to give me this memento for the day, which was a lovely unexpected touch.
Doesn’t look much but inside it is full of handmade birds:
….are a constant fact of life in Thailand as they are in Australia. As an ex-Aussie I am used to keeping an eye on the ground ahead when walking in natural country and here is no different. Most snakes are keen to get out of your way but there are instances where you can find them in your space like this one found by a neighbour in his bathroom:
I looked this snake up on the internet and the closest I could get showed it as a tree snake and pretty harmless to humans. However Gaun said if you got bitten by one you should go to hospital “quickly”. I have a feeling that I would be taking Gaun’s advice rather than making myself another coffee if attacked by one of these little fellas.
Just out of interest King Cobras grow to 18 feet and can raise one third of their body in the air, which has them eye to eye with you. I will make sure a have the camera handy when that happens.
This impressive wooden house is owned by a policemen just outside Nong Bua Lamphu, our nearest larger town. We went inside when it was being constructed and the main frame structure is made up from massive tree trunks. Not my sort of thing but a great example of this style.
The World’s most boring…..
……fleet of motor vehicles! Until I came to Thailand I was a keen observer of cars keeping an eye out for new models especially at the more exotic end of the market. Thailand and Isaan in particular has cured me of this habit because not only are there almost no cars of any interest to an enthusiast but 90% of what is on the road is in the most boring of colours being a choice of white, black or silver.
Just to illustrate how desperate things have become I now point out to Gaun the new Nissan NP300 Navara pick-up if one drives by.
When I start to drool over the latest Honda Dream motorbike you can take me away!
I have more stories to share but will save them for the next “Isaan – the small stories” post otherwise I will quickly run out of things to write about.
Thanks for reading.