This series of stories is designed to capture those little moments of everyday life here, which in themselves don’t warrant a separate post. I travel everywhere with a camera and will often take a photo with the Small Stories in mind. For subscribers to the blog you will recognise some of the stories, which I sent to you in my regular update just recently. However there are a lot more new entries here so don’t be put off. Enjoy.
An Afternoon on the Road
Peng, my step daughter is currently on holidays from school so with an afternoon to spare, and most of them are, we headed off to find a monk! Not just any old monk but a guy who had very kindly provided me with an English translation of a Pali chant used in the local temple Wat Pha Silawa we visit a couple of times a week – see further down this post.
We had been given the recommendation for another wat in the same area so we ended up visiting two temples in one trip.
Most Buddhist wats are not like the temples you will find in major centres especially places like the old town of Chiang Mai. Every local community will have at least one wat within the village, which has been built and extended over time using donated money and supported by the people of the area. These are usually very simple structures in the white, red and gold design you see so often and may only have a few monks living there. I believe that for a wat to be “officially” recognised as a wat it must have a minimum of three resident monks.
There is also a subgroup of wats usually with “Pha” or “Pa” at the beginning of their name, which means forest in Thai. These are based on the Thai forest tradition, which is described as:
The Thai Forest tradition is the branch of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand that most strictly holds the original monastic rules of discipline laid down by the Buddha. The Forest tradition also most strongly emphasizes meditative practice and the realization of enlightenment as the focus of monastic life. Forest monasteries are primarily oriented around practicing the Buddha’s path of contemplative insight, including living a life of discipline, renunciation, and meditation in order to fully realize the inner truth and peace taught by the Buddha.
The reason they are called a forest wat can be easily shown. This is a Google image of Wat Pha Silawa, which is the temple we go to. That entire treed area is walled and the monk’s living quarters are scattered through the site giving them plenty of space and quiet for meditation and study. You can find more about the forest tradition HERE and HERE.
If you are looking for more spectacular architectural holiday snaps then for the most part it is best to avoid the “pha/pa” wats. In line with their philosophy, as described above, they tend to be very modest affairs and this is also reflected in the temple where our translating monk (remember him?) was based called Wat Pa Chantharaprasit.
The place was a hive of activity because a member of the royal family was arriving the following day to “open” this new Buddha construction. The temple must have connections because as you can see, scaled by the guy in the shade on the left, the monument isn’t very big or memorable. The rest of the temple is less than memorable as well! Getting any royalty to somewhere often involves stopping traffic, closing roads and hundreds of police so it isn’t just a casual invitation. Unfortunately we had an appointment at the dentist for Peng the next day so couldn’t attend, which was a bummer as I have never seen Thai royalty other than on TV.
Our names were inscribed on the labels, as Peng is doing here, and these will eventually form some part of the new Buddha memorial. My name will live on.
Gaun chatted to a spare monk and he led us off on a path that eventually brought us to the house of “our” monk. He was a young man serving a four month term as a monk, which is the sort of time many Thai males give to monkhood in their early adult life. I now had a name other than “the translating monk”. He is called Mark and has just completed a degree in English, which is why he was able to do such a good job translating the script I wanted. Every Thai receives their degree papers directly from a senior member of the royal family and Mark was getting his from Princess Sirindhorn (my favorite royal) in December.
Keep an eye out when in homes and businesses in Thailand. If someone in the family has a degree you will often see a ceremony photo on the wall.
Mark was a lovely bloke and will be returning to Si Bun Ruang after his stint as a monk and wants to teach English at one of the schools here. His conversational English was excellent so whoever picks him up will be onto a good thing. Gaun asked him to get in contact to see if we can arrange private lessons for Peng. Maybe he can teach me Thai!
Back on the road we drove a short distance and found the second of our wats for the day Wat Pa Promwihan. The “Pa” means it was another forest temple but the part I wanted to see was the chedi (pronounced jaydee in Thai) or stupa or tower, a structure I had seen on the internet. In real life it was nothing out of the ordinary and I wouldn’t make a special trip just to see it but as part of an afternoon on the road the chedi made a destination point.
I was in the mood for driving so we returned to Si Bun Ruang, a 30 minute drive and then headed out on a small rural road that runs through our village and disappears into the countryside. The best way to get a real glimpse into Isaan is to do something like this and see where it takes you. The roads will meander through farmland and lots of small moo baans or villages. I took a few photos I thought might end up here and they have!
I had to take this photo below because it had the same feel to it as a shot I took in a small village called Bawley Point on the South coast of Australia; between Batemans Bay and Ulladulla for you Aussies reading.
When I first saw one of these structures from the car I thought it was some sort of ant hill.
Actually they are charcoal kilns (?). Wood goes in and charcoal comes out. These bags of charcoal are sold all over and are used in the little cooking stoves a lot of the Isaan people still use. Gaun’s older sister Paed lights hers up to cook the evening meal at home and they have one on the farm too. For me at the end of a long day working in the fields turning a gas knob would look like an attractive proposition but that’s the way its always been done.
Next to the kiln a farmer was growing a crop of tomatoes, which were being irrigated, something I haven’t seen a lot in Isaan.
We finished up the day dropping in on sister number 1 (Gaun has problems remembering their names) who lives in a moo baan to the North of us.
Some food and drink stories:
I confess to being slightly obsessive about my coffee. I have a high quality Italian espresso machine and only buy fresh beans (Thailand grows some great beans) to maximise the flavour of the end result.
For anybody who takes an interest in coffee you will know that the art a barista “draws” on top of the coffee can only be done if the coffee and milk has been prepared correctly. My level of latte art is pure luck I have to say, although my coffees are pretty good I hasten to add. Because of my hit and miss record the result I created the other morning was enough to have me capture it on “film”.
I called Gaun over to share the excitement (I told you that it’s a small life here) and said that it was my Valentine to her. Gaun’s response? “Very nice. Chicken heart with sour bamboo and sticky rice – wonderful”. Oh well, I should have known that romance to an Isaan woman is through her stomach. A tip for any new players reading this!
Our moo baan (village) has a number of roadside eating places. As with anywhere in Thailand you are never more than 100 metres from someone cooking something to sell! Thai culture involves eating with a little bit of other stuff squeezed in-between meals.
Anyway back to food. For 25 THB or A$1.00 you will get his tasty and fresh noodle soup meal for two people shown below, although I think Gaun ordered another helping of sausages for 20 THB extra. It is just delicious and a reminder of how good and cheap street food can be in Thailand. Do graze like a local when you are here.
Why is pappaya such a widely used ingredient here?
The clue might be in the photo below. My stepdaughter Pend modelling here. You will find that Thais are very shy around cameras – not. Photo taken at the family farm.
I wrote about the famous Isaan pappaya salad in Small Stories 7 HERE so check that out for more information. You will burn your tastebuds just reading about it.
Ice Cream on the move
You are always close to food in Thailand and this involves not only stationary food but food going places. If you ever do break down in the car not to worry. A whole feast of eating options will pass you by as you wait for a repairman. A case in point below. After visiting Wat Pa Promwihan, the wat mentioned in my first story above, I overtook this motorbike and sidecar selling ice cream – a substance I have a weakness for along with coffee! We pulled over and it was ice creams all round.
You will find that you have several serving options with ice cream from these stalls. A cone, a plastic cup or a bread roll. Hmmmm I hear you say not sure about the bread (actually worth trying – a very sweet roll). Not only that but you can have side orders of sticky rice, rice bubble cereal, carnation milk and various weirdly coloured jelly things that don’t taste of anything. All of this for 10 THB or A$0.40.
Free food for retired pensioners on a tight budget.
No wonder so many people are subscribing to this blog. The money saving advice just keeps on happening.
Once again you will find reference to this topic in Small Stories 7 but this entry gives you important updates! I spoke before about the neon lights you’ll see everywhere in Isaan this time of year designed to attract insects, which then fall into tubs of water, drown and are then ready to be fried up for breakfast. Well Yuan, Gaun’s younger sister, has had the Rolls Royce model installed at the family home.
Now what makes this special is that it is a dual light version. There is a neon tube at ground level as well as that the light at the top of the bamboo pole (bamboo also covered in SS 7). This being so much higher attracts the insects from a wider area resulting in a better yield and isn’t that what we all want to achieve? Not any fluorescent tube will do either. It has to be an ultra violet coloured one like in this photo:
Yuan’s contraption collected over a kilo of insects the night before I took this photo. Some were sold while the others provided a tasty treat for the family, which excluded the author of this blog. Now, leaving aside our western prejudice against eating insects, isn’t this just the most amazing situation. If I said to you all you had to do was stick up a light, some iron sheeting and a tub of water in your garden and a kilo of lamb chops would be waiting for you each morning at no cost………………………I rest my case.
I do admit that it would be harder to achieve for some of us who lived in ultra regulated places like Canberra in Australia. I have several readers who live in or know the place and they will relate. You’d have to get planning permission, signed approval from neighbours, a licensed electrician to install the light, a fence put around the tubs to stop kids falling in and drowning and a regular health and safety inspection to ensure the lamb chops were of suitable quality for human consumption. Ah Thailand….gotta love the place.
Walking on Water
Is this a result of Gaun’s nun-like behaviour during Buddhist lent?
Not this year. The walkway has been submerged after some recent rain. She is after a lotus plant from the pond at the family farm. Our koi seem to have a liking for ripping into the lily plants we bought to fill our pond at home. In my posts I have been calling it a lotus pond but I am now up with the correct jargon and should have been referring to them as lilies.
A possible solution was to replace the lilies with lotus plants, which have a hardier leaf. The first of these arrived after Gaun, who likes to do a couple hour’s work before I wake up! took her motorbike out to the farm and dug out one of Yuan’s (her younger sister) lotus plants from the pond. This was delivered shortly after my first coffee of the day!
The koi seemed intimidated by this new occupant of their space and left it alone so we went back to the farm for another one. As it was almost daylight I went along for the ride.
So far the new plants are surviving well. The small turtles like them too for sunbaking.
A Dinner Party
It’s not all Isaan insects and frogs on the menu at our home Baan Tao (turtle house). We had some friends over for dinner recently, an Aussie and his Thai wife who live close to us in Si Bun Ruang. I had bought a New Zealand shoulder of lamb at Makro in Udon Thani on our last visit there (our nearest big city) and wanted to make it the centrepiece of a meal. A trip to the local market (tlad in Thai, which sounds like Talad) provided the other ingredients.
The end of our shopping spree looked like this:
Mojito and Pina Colada cocktails were on the agenda to get things started so we also called into the market coconut shop to pick up some coconut cream for the latter.
You buy the weight of coconut meat at 30 THB per 100 grams. This produced an unexpected amount of cream – enough for an evening of cocktails anyway plus some left over. I had to open a commercial version of coconut cream on another occasion and you won’t be surprised to hear that the taste was entirely different and not in a good way.
Orange and brandy chicken liver pate with French bread to start, NZ lamb with fresh mint sauce, a potato and onion bake and vegetables for main. Fruit to finish. A decent bottle of French red wine to accompany the meal. Yes it is a hard life in rural Isaan!
Seriously this is the joy of living in Thailand. Although some ingredients are a challenge to source you are able put together the sort of meals you enjoy at home if that’s your thing. Try that in Myanmar, Laos or Cambodia and it may be more difficult. Thailand has an almost ideal balance between the two worlds East and West.
I had a friend write to me who had made contact with another blog reader and visited them on a Chiang Rai visit. Kev is an ex-chef and Jenny reported that she enjoyed “Salmon with pistachio/basil crust and beetroot puree. Breakfast yesterday morning was ramekins of tomato, onion, garlic, Tabasco with eggs on top and italian cheese on top baked in the oven with crispy bacon and fried crispy home made bread in garlic butter…” Poor thing.
Little Photos 1
We saw one of these turtles in a local temple’s pond and the shell would of been at least a meter long. Ours have a way to go.
Thai roads are mostly excellent but once you get down to village level the money doesn’t seem to extend to upkeep. This local road had the holes filled in with dirt, which sort of did the job until the rains came!
If you stop at any traffic lights in Thailand (except in central Bangkok!) you will be see people walking up and down the stationery cars selling these for 20 THB or A$0.80. They take ages to do even for an expert and I would go blind(er) making them. Worse than working for the Australian public (civil) service.
The idea is that you do a little Buddhist blessing (if Thai of course) and hang them from the rear vision mirror. You should also find as many Buddha statues to put on the dashboard to limit forward vision as much as possible. Make sure you put a dark tint on the front windscreen too for nighttime driving!
The Drought Part 2
In Isaan – the Small Stories 7 my headline topic was the drought we were experiencing in Thailand and the failed rice crops. Well since then we have had practically no further rain. There was one downpour that lasting all of one day and into the night and did at least fill up some of the dams.
We have basically finished the rainy season and that’s pretty well it until mid 2016. This year we have had two days of rain and a few thunderstorms. Gaun is back to hand watering the garden and it’s going to be a long time between natural drinks for the plants.
Wat Pa Silawa
This is the local temple we like to visit a couple of times a week for an evening session. During the three month Vassa or Buddhist Lent, which finished on 27 October ( and you can read about my alcohol free evening surprise in Bangkok HERE), many people turn out daily to take part in the evening program. Maybe the early morning one too but as it is at 4.00 am I didn’t get to see too many of those!
Unlike many temple in Thailand this one is immaculate. Those flowers are changed very regularly and there are two other smaller halls which are equally well looked after.
We went there for the evening program last night and there was only one monk in attendance, the other six were involved with programmes elsewhere, and two other people. A bit of a change from the photo above. We will continue to go because I enjoy the time there and that doesn’t relate to festivals in the Buddhist calendar.
You can tell Buddhist Lent has finished because the parties have started. The first one in the moo baan happened today with the ordination of a new monk (they can’t do this during Lent). I have written about this before HERE so won’t cover it all again, just add a few photos.
We heard another monk celebration happening when we went into town later that afternoon so it has kicked off. All the wats will be having festivals to mark the end of lent. Wat Pa Silawa’s is on the 7th and I will report back next Small Stories. Also no one gets married during lent so there will be a backlog of those happening soon. It will be a fun, noisy time to be in Isaan.
If you are a teacher in Thailand and hit 60 then you retire with a pension. Not only that but the school closes for the day so you can have a party and the whole village drops in to congratulate you. We went along to a retirement party at our local primary school because two teachers were finishing thier careers.
We were immediately drawn into the event, taken to a table and food (of course) and drink (of course) quickly appeared.
Thais like nothing more than to see you enjoying yourself and it’s hard not to in a community as open and friendly as this one.
Lud was supposed to be helping Yuan, his wife, on the farm but we met him in the street and invited him in for a drink. He never left and got a little mao (drunk) by the end of the day. Yuan is pretty good because Lud is a hard worker and they both work extraordinary hours. I am so pleased when they find time to enjoy life outside of the farm.
The boy on my right is a kathoey, a ladyboy. Gaun refers to them in the female so I will too. She is dressed up in female costume for a dance session on the stage. That’s her mum behind her and she doesn’t look too worried does she.
Isn’t it interesting that a decision on your gender path in life can be made so early and the outcome is so accepted in Thai society. Can you imagine the psychology bills if the same thing happened in Australia with a kid this age? Not really because of course it would all be suppressed with a good dose of guilt thrown in. I wonder what the “natural” percentage of kathoey would be if it was an OK thing in our society. I have read 5% in Thailand but I doubt that’s based on any detailed research.
A Local Noodle House with Junk
I have been meaning to call into this place since it has been recommended by a couple of blog readers. It is unusual in this part of Thailand anyway to find a place that has made some effort to be a little different. Your take on “different” may vary but at least they have tried and unique is a word that springs to mind.
I would rate the noodles at our local shop already covered in this post as a better meal and far better value but that is an individual taste. Good on them for trying and I hope it works out for them.
That will more than do us for this edition. Lots of small stories ends up being a big read!
I am planning a trip happening shortly that will have us following the Mekong River at the Loei end before it turns into Laos and then heading into the wilderness of the Northern hills following the Laos border before we turn West to visit the city of Nan. We will return through Phrae and test the upgraded highway 12 over the hills into Isaan. It will be a very varied and interesting few days and hopefully results in a post or two so keep in touch.
Thanks for sharing my Isaan life with me.