I think this series of posts will end up being an ebook. The stories just keep on coming. I really enjoy writing these posts because they pick up on the variety of life here and allow me to skip around a whole range of often obscure subjects rather than just plod through a single topic. I will be out and about with my camera and take a photo and already see in my mind the story that will go with it in the next “Small Stories” publication. Without that motivation many of these moments wouldn’t have been either recorded or shared.

For example yesterday I especially came home a different way because I wanted to capture this particular scene and relate to you the story that goes with it.

The Drought

DSC_0536

All is not as it seems.

One of the small rural roads that joins the main highway 228 to our Moo Baan (village) takes me through this countryside. From an initial viewing you’d say that it looks like lush Isaan rice paddy land. Not so. We are having our second year of drought here in the North Eastern part of Thailand. For farmers with access to water either via a river or bore water, as the family farm has, then things are not so dire. The cost of raising the water using either electric or diesel pumps is an extra expense but at least the water is there to feed the paddy fields.

The lady who owns the land in the photo above is totally reliant on the wet season rains to flood her rice fields and has no other option available.

I have never seen this pond with water in it and I have been coming here for over two years.

I have never seen this pond with water in it and I have been coming here for over two years.

Flooding rice paddies has a couple of benefits. Firstly obviously the rice grows more quickly, strongly and gives a higher yield. Secondly the water also keeps the weeds under control. Added benefits include a larger frog population, which supplements the food available to those families that eat field wildlife – snails, frogs, snakes and rats.

DSC_0535

Can you see the weeds that have overgrown this rice field?

A closer view.

A closer view.

I watched this lady have two goes of backbreaking work weeding these paddies by hand when there was a chance of the rains arriving. She has since given up as it is too late for this crop. Rice grown smalltime like this and by my Thai family is often intended for their consumption not for sale. The loss of a crop means that the rice will have to be purchased with a full year effect on the family’s expenditure. Last year the government handed out 1,000 THB or A$40.00 a lai (1,600 m2) as a result of the drought. I can see the same happening this year too.

Compare the previous photos to these on the family farm. Irrigated rice.

Compare the previous photos to these taken on the family farm. Irrigated rice. No weeds.

Looking back to the farmhouse.

Looking back to the farmhouse.

Family rice in the front and their sugar crop at the back.

Family rice in the front and their sugar crop at the back. The farm extends to those trees in the very far distance.

Farming is one of the hardest occupations in the world no matter where you are. Like the local lady with these paddy fields you can do everything right and put in the hard work and still have it all come to nothing as a result of events outside one’s control. All this will do is push more people into planting sugar, a crop that required less work to establish and very little water to flourish. An ugly and dirty crop (pesticides, burning off and endless sugar trucks wrecking the small back roads and overturning regularly) our part of Isaan will lose some of it’s Thai charm if the paddies disappear.

The Farm

As we are on the topic of farming I may as well continue by giving you a quick report on the family farm. As you can tell from the photo above the longer term crops of rice (for family use) and sugar (their cash crop) are coming along nicely. The rice is a mix of steamed and sticky, the latter a staple Isaan food source and the basis of almost every meal. The rice will be hand harvested in November and the sugar after that. The labour that cuts rice then moves onto cutting sugar. There aren’t enough people to do both at once.

Yuan and Gaun collecting cut sugarcane. It's the three h's - hard, hot, heavy work.

Yuan and Gaun collecting cut sugarcane at the beginning of this year. It’s work with the three h’s – hard, hot and heavy.

I have written several stories following the progress of the rice season. The latest covered the harvesting, which you can read about HERE. I also wrote a section on sugar in “Isaan – the Small Stories 3”, which you can find HERE. If you do read the sugar entry the photos of the new sugar being planted is the same sugar I pointed out in the photo above. Now over six foot high and apart from some water to give it a kick start it has grown basically without water. In 2015 we have had a few thunderstorms and a couple of days of full rain. Nothing more.

Apart from these crops the family (when I say family two of Gaun’s sisters and their husbands work the farm of 56 rai or about 22 acres) grow mixed vegetables, which are used to supplement the family dinner table as well as being either sold wholesale to the local markets or directly to the public.

This is Yuan and Lud's part of the farm.

This is Yuan and Lud’s part of the farm. All planted, weeded and watered by hand.

DSC_0476

Lettuce on the left and something on the right that in Gaun’s Thai/English dictionary is called Chinese cabbage.

Corn.

Some corn being grown on the other half of the farm along with coriander and peanuts.

Gaun's sister number 4, Paed and Tham her husband getting coriander ready for the market. This had been pre-sold to a wholesaler for 80 THB or A$3.20 a kilo. The buyer will split it into small bundles and sell them for 10 THB each. The profit margin is double.

Gaun’s sister number 4, Paed and Tham her husband getting coriander ready for the market.

This had been pre-sold to a wholesaler for 80 THB or A$3.20 a kilo. The buyer will split it into small bundles and sell them for 10 THB each. The profit margin is around double. 16 kilos picked so a decent day’s takings.

As always whenever we go to the farm a bag of whatever is being grown is automatically set aside for us. This is another wonderful example of the freshness of produce here. This coriander was in the ground this morning. It will be in the markets by 10.00 am and included in a Thai dish this evening.

Paed heads off to the market to sell the coriander.

Paed heads off to the market to sell the coriander.

Fish

Seafood is surprisingly an integral part of the Isaan diet. Fresh fish grown in ponds and rivers are delivered alive daily to the local markets. Choose your fish, it’s weighted (80 THB a kilo) and killed and gutted as you watch or not in my case. Squid is another very popular ingredient here as well as prawns (decent sized prawns will cost you 260 THB a kilo or A$10.40). The family farm has a couple of ponds one of which is quite large as pictured below.

Yuan's pond.

Yuan’s pond.

At the end of June we bought 200 small fish for 200 THB (A$8.00) from a place outside Nong Bua Lamphu and transferred them to the farm. I saw this as a good investment for future eating.

DSC_0679

Gaun and Lud with the new residents. 400 more have since been added.

The fish seem to be surviving on a variety of food. There’s whatever naturally happens with the pond life, they also enjoy freshly cut vegetable leaves and in this case ant’s eggs.

This is an ant's nest being cut up and fed to the fish.

This is an ant’s nest being cut up and fed to the fish.

Resulting in happy fish.

Resulting in happy fish.

Whatever they are eating it seems to be doing them good because I took this photo yesterday and the fish are several sizes bigger.

DSC_0490

Now about 6 inches or about 15 cm for us decimal people.

At some stage I plan to have a bamboo sala built overlooking the pond under some trees because I think the image of dropping a line into the water and then cooking the fish on a charcoal brazier with a cold beer sounds pretty unbeatable to me.

This is a small sala at a fishing farm on the way to Nong Bua Lamphu, which I wrote about HERE.

This is a small sala at a fishing farm on the way to Nong Bua Lamphu, which I wrote about HERE.

Pappaya

I am sliding smoothly from talking about fish to pappaya another essential food source for Isaan people. Our garden doesn’t have a dedicated vegetable area. What Gaun has done is spread various edible plants throughout the garden often hidden away out of sight. When she is cooking in the evening she will disappear and come back with freshly picked chillies, lemongrass and Thai basil. Leaves from a neighbour’s tree were added to a soup the other day.

Ingredients include, green papaya, small green and red tomatoes, long beans in season, fish dead long-time (don't ask - just NEVER open the jar inside), garlic, a little bit of sugar and a handful of chillies.

A pappaya salad. Ingredients include, green papaya, small green and red tomatoes, long beans in season, fish dead long-time (don’t ask – just NEVER open the jar inside), garlic, a little bit of sugar and a handful of chillies.

Pappaya forms one of the most authentic Isaan dishes you will find – pappaya salad. It will be unusual for this salad not to make an appearance for lunch or dinner several times during a week. It is an acquired taste being both sour and very hot. Your level of Isaan’ness is determined by the level of hotness you can take in your pappaya salad. Where us farang rate chilli heat by the number of chillies added (I’m a three chilli guy for example) no such exactness is required for someone from Isaan. A handful is about right and some additional chilli on hand at the table to be added in case the taste buds have any feeling left.

My brother and sister-in-law love a pappaya salad, prepare it when they are in Australia, and are verging on being accepted into the Isaan hall of fame for levels of heat.

My brother Richard and Sam "enjoiying" a pappaya salad bought locally. Sam's face maybe tells a story.

My brother Richard and Sam “enjoying” a pappaya salad bought locally. Sam’s face maybe tells a story.

Steve and Bronnie, friends from Australia. Can you stop what Yuan is holding?

Steve and Bronnie, friends from Australia. Also Peng my stepdaughter. Can you see what Yuan is holding?

The green papaya is pealed and then chopped into slices using a large kitchen knife. Focus is required.

The green papaya is pealed and then chopped into slices using a large kitchen knife. Focus is required.

The end result sits proudly in the middle of the table.

The end result sits proudly in the middle of the table.

Another feast that I wrote about HERE.

Another feast and you can see the salad just behind that beer bottle.

Because of the importance of this fruit ( and I love the ripe deep orange ripened pappaya, which when eaten straight from the tree still warm from the sun is pretty amazing) a row of them have been planted just beyond our outside dining area so that they are to hand so to speak.

The view from our dining table.

The view from our dining table. The pappaya are just above the pot to the right.

Closer.

Closer.

Quite a crop.

Quite a crop.

Seeing we have about ten of these plants I am thinking of opening a stall outside our gates and supplementing my modest income. I suspect that I might have some competition.

Bamboo and rubbish

In my days of living an urban life in Canberra, Australia the requirement for garden materials meant a visit to Bunnings, a large nationwide hardware chain. In a previous lifetime when I was obsessed with various projects I got to know the place so well I was directing the staff where to find things!

Isaan is slightly different. Gaun needed some garden stakes to support her plants and instead of a trip into town we headed the other way to the farm to find some bamboo. Bamboo is used in all sorts of ways in Thailand. Our clothes line at the back of the house is a long piece of bamboo.

We combined this trip with a rubbish run. Our moo baan falls outside what is called the Tessabaan (Tesaban), which is the area covered by the equivalent of a town council. You know whether you are inside or outside a Tassabaan by whether your garbage is collected or not. As we don’t pay rates the fact we have to organise our own garbage disposal seems fair enough.

Garden and household rubbish ready to load onto Lud's pickup.

Garden and household rubbish ready to load onto Lud’s pickup.

The solution is to take everything to the farm where it is either dumped and filled over at some stage or burnt. Goodness knows what happens with the Tessabaan rubbish. Like the local sewerage system, which seems to be based on a lot of small trucks available to empty septic systems, best not thought about.

Our very own rubbish dump.

Our very own rubbish dump.

Back to bamboo:

Gaun off to Paed's bamboo clump. You can see the result of even a little bit of rain. These backroads become impassable for vehicles other than motorbikes. That clay sticks to tyres like glue.

Gaun off to Paed’s bamboo clump. You can see the result of even a little bit of rain. These backroads become impassable for vehicles other than motorbikes that can navigate around the larger ruts. That clay sticks to tyres like glue.

A local supply.

A free local supply. Just cut your own.

Another eminder why you should never mess with an Isaan woman. They are very handy with a machete and there's always one of these close by :-)

Another reminder why you should never mess with an Isaan woman. They are very handy with a machete and there’s always one of these close by 🙂

Bonus - mushroom.s. Poisonous evidently so for show only.

Poisonous mushrooms evidently so for show only.

The end result? A new trellis is built to support the bougainvillia that will eventually hide the water tanks and pumping system.

The end result? A new trellis is built to support the bougainvillia that will eventually hide the water tanks and pumping system at the back of our house.

And the bonus?

New bamboo shoots are sliced up, leaves from a nearby tree added with chillies and you have a wonderful soup. Here I am speaking from an Isaan point of view. Hot and extremely bitter is my description of said soup.

Dinner.

New shoots found in the search for the full sized bamboo are sliced up, leaves from a nearby tree added with chillies and you have a wonderful soup. Here I am speaking from an Isaan point of view you understand. Hot and extremely bitter is my description of said soup.

Furnishing the Garden!

I had put some money aside for the end of our latest building project, which you can read about HERE, to buy some ornamentation for the garden. In my opinion there is only one place in our part of Isaan to go for quality pots, statues, rustic timber and stone furniture. Head down highway 2 toward Nong Khai and the Mekong River and a few km after HomeHub and Do Home, which you can’t miss on your right, you will see this place on your left. This is where we went shopping.

DSC_0533-001

You only see a faction of the place from the road. It is a lovely treed and shady spot just to have a wander even if you don’t buy anything.

This beautiful water feature pot was bought from this place a few months ago.

This beautiful water feature pot sitting in our lilly pond was bought from this place a few months ago.

As was the tao (turtle) that guards the entrance to the house.

As was the tao (turtle) that guards the entrance to the house.

We ended up with a carload this time and I have three more larger items picked out for a return trip with my brother-in-law’s pickup.

DSC_0551

The first item on the left is a wall water feature. The base is hidden in this photo.

DSC_0539

Maybe not to everyone’s taste but I liked it and for obvious reasons fits into a Thai garden theme.

DSC_0548

You can see the wall feature base here on the right. Also four pots, a ceramic pot base, three cement flower wall hangings, an owl, three mushroom for Gaun. Out of sight is another turtle and a small Sawadee figure.

We called into a garden centre too and picked up ten ferns and thirty other starter plants for about A$10.00. The bill for the ornamentation ended up at A$220.00.

And how do they all look in the garden?

A deeper water trough will be bought and the existing base and statue will be raised higher up the wall.

This is the back wall of the carport. My apologies for the state of the lawn. I will talk to Gaun. The base and statue will be raised higher up the wall and I will have a light installed above to make a feature of it at night, which will be seen from the outside lounge area.

Pot and base A$17.00.

Pot and base A$17.00.

Sawadee (welcome)

Sawadee (welcome). A bit over A$20.00 for him.

Owl and solid stone base.

Owl and solid stone base. The owl A$18.00 and the base A$7.00.

The tao meets you as you first enter the garden.

The tao meets you as you first enter the garden.

Gaun's mushrooms join the lamas in a true mix of cultures.

Gaun’s mushrooms join the lamas shipped over from Australia next to the pond in a true mix of cultures.

A figure from the last visit.

A figure from the last visit. More of Gaun’s mushrooms in her one moment of Thai weakness for extreme colours. Those pots cost A$1.60 each.

A Few Quickies:

Flags – the current prime minister of Thailand, an ex military officer called Prayut Chan-o-cha, delivered a “recommendation” in one of his recent Friday TV appearances that there should be more flags on display in the country. Following such advice is always wise in our current political situation and so more flags it is. The three flags that are to be flown are the national one and the king and the queen’s flags. Yuan, who is the family organiser, arranged for them to be bought and Lud got the poles (bamboo – you’d never have guessed) and installed them at our house as well as the family home. The village is now ablaze with colour.

This is Paed and Tham's house in the family compound.

This is Paed and Tham’s house in the family compound. The flags on display.

The king’s flag is yellow and the queen’s blue . If you read “Isaan – the Small Stories 6” HERE you will remember the reason for the different colours – the king was born on a Monday and the queen was born on a Friday.

Based on your birth day.

Based on your birth day.

DSC_0458

More flags outside Gaun’s mama”s house along with some of Gaun’s flowers, which are gradually taking over the village.

Ice Cream

We have three ice cream deliveries to choose from and they all slow when passing our house because of my weakness for ice cream, a habit I could kick at any time if I felt like it! True doctor. Nestle (which I believe is more like the Peters of Australia), Walls (Streets for you Aussies) and small block coconut based local ice creams are the range of our choice. A pancake man also drifts by from time to time.

The Walls bike stops at our place pursued by a couple of local kids.

The Walls ice cream “van” stops at our place pursued by a couple of local kids.

I buy water ices from Walls ten at a time at 10 THB each and Cornettos for 28 THB each – not just the regular Cornettos but the Royales! It is nothing but the high life for me in Isaan.

A useful step up for small people.

A useful step up for small people. You can just see our Thai flag on the left. We have the other two flying as well further down the wall. I want to add an Aussie boxing kangaroo flag but will have to order it online or wait for my next visitors.

Decisions, decisions.

Decisions, decisions.

I get a bargain with the local ice creams because I get eleven for the price of ten (100 THB or A$4.00). I ask you can life get any better?

Free Flying Food

I still walk around looking at life through farang eyes, although I am getting better the longer I live here. I have seen these neon structures scattered around the village and I thought they were odd but maybe a Thai way of nighttime beautification.

DSC_0566-001

A neon light attached to some corrugated iron. Weird but this is Thailand.

What I thought was a sort of Thai mood lighting.

I thought this was a sort of Thai mood lighting.

It was only the other evening that Gaun pointed out that the idea is to provide tomorrow’s dinner. Flying insects are attracted to the light and then slide down into those tubs of water and drown. The next morning you just fish them out and fry ’em up. Combined with some sticky rice and a pappaya salad you have a nutritious and free addition to the family’s menu options. Isn’t it funny how our western minds creates a story that relates to our concept of how the world operates. In Thailand and I am sure elsewhere the reality doesn’t match up with our expectations.

Wats, Wats Everywhere

Temples are the most consistent architectural structures in Thailand. Every moo baan (village) will have at least one and sometimes more. There are hundreds in a place like Chiang Mai. The temptation to follow signposts to a wat can sometimes be too much. The result is mostly disappointing. Local village wats are often built in an enthusiasm of money and support and then lapse into disrepair. The traditional red, gold and white structures are new and interesting to visitors but sometimes I wish for something more creative and just different.

We turned off highway 228 to find a wat that is signposted there in an eternally optimistic moment that THE wat was just around the corner. My optimism was rewarded recently when we discovered a magnificent temple on a hill in a location where a structure of this size and richness just shouldn’t be a little way a little way outside of Roi Et on our way back from the Udon Ratchathani candle festival that you can find HERE.

Wat Pha Nam Yoi

Wat Pha Nam Yoi. Worth visiting by reading my post HERE.

Closer to home our find was more modest. The only similarity was that this temple is in the middle of nowhere as well. Who funds these sort of constructions and who uses them on a regular basis?

A Chinese influence in this part of the wat.

A Chinese influence in this part of the wat.

Chinese dragons.

Chinese dragons.

I loved this.

I loved this. A great way to raise money. Post your envelope (provided) with a donation to gain merit for your “lover”! See the sign halfway down the box.

More Chinese influence.

More Chinese influence.

And the out the back you have this Thai Buddhist image being refurbished.

And the out the back you have this Thai Buddhist image being refurbished. You can just see a worker on the scaffolding which gives you a sense of size.

Gaun was far more interested in the plants than the structures.

Gaun was far more interested in the plants than the structures. A wrap-round skirt is kept in the car for temple visits a good tip if you are visiting Thailand and happen to be female.

You have mail

Our first delivered mail. How exciting.

Our first delivered mail. How exciting.

Normally the postman won’t leave mail in the postbox if we aren’t at home. He will check with the lady across the street to see if she knows where we are and otherwise he gives it to Gaun’s mama, who passes it onto us later. This day was the first time we actually got mail in our postbox a receptacle more likely to be used as a home for geckos than mail. One tax letter from Australia and one bill from TOT broadband in the unlikely event you were interested.

Just to point out a little insight related to this service. The mail originating from Australia has an English script address on it for obvious reasons. The local mailman and indeed the entire Thai mail system has the ability to read this address and get the item to us in Isaan. I wonder if the Australian postal system can do the same for a Thai script letter heading the other way?

and finally the sala:

I bought this bamboo structure the first day we moved to Isaan 1 November 2014.

The sala being delivered early evening to the family home.

The sala being delivered early evening to the family home. All the village gathered for the event! Peng, my stepdaughter in the middle.

It was originally meant to be sited on our land and be used as a base for me to supervise the building of our house. It never served this purpose and it was only after we moved into the new house in that the sala was transported the hard way from the family home to the land.

The A Team, some of the people who built our house, in action.

The A Team, some of the people who built our house, in action. This cost me a few beers!

This photo was taken early April.

This photo was taken early April with the sala in place.

And the same view more recently:

DSC_0624

 

A variation of the view.

A variation of the view.

The sala has now been connected to electricity as part of our recent improvements, which you can read about HERE. A fan has been added for free thanks to bonus points collected at our local building supplier (three fans and a rice cooker was my final result) and a toaster. Broadband reaches the sala and I can sit there in the morning shaded by the mango trees and have breakfast and catch up on emails from people around the world who contact me via the blog.

DSC_0530

Thailand has its challenges but for much of the time moments like this and the stories shared with you in this post make everything very worthwhile.

Thanks for reading.