Introduction – Skip if you are a regular reader

I have got SO behind in these posts I call “Living in Isaan”, which are a series of small stories I have recorded that make up my everyday life in a small rural village in the northeast of Thailand, a region called Isaan/Isan/Esan. It has been a busy year establishing a new tropical garden, writing a book and filling in time with far more than I ever thought would happen day to day as a result of retiring to “boring” Isaan. I am on a mission to catch up so although the timeline is a bit out of date the material is still relevant sharing what life looks like here. I will now give you my standard introduction for these posts, so skip if you are a regular and head straight to the stories:

You will find many expats writing blogs about life in the coastal centres and places like Chiang Mai but fewer make the effort to record what living in the northeast (Isaan) out this way looks like.

None of my stories is spectacular and will never be found in the search results of tourists looking for adventure. However, most of the readers who follow this blog, and there are some who have become “virtual ” friends over the years, are people who have a much more committed and personal connection to Thailand and have moved well beyond elephant riding, zip-lining and bar hopping. For them, these little insights help maintain that connection to village life if they are living elsewhere, and for those who are newer to the scene maybe help with understanding what a life in rural Thailand might look like if that ever happens for them.

I used to call these updates of life in Thailand “Isaan – the Small Stories”. I felt it was time for a change in name although the scope of content is the same. This edition covers early March 2018. These stories are extracted from my Facebook page, which I use as a mini-blog to give me an everyday outlet for my enjoyment of words, photography and of course the wonderful lifestyle I am privileged to enjoy. They are very day by day accounts as a result. I hope you enjoy them.

1 March 2018 – Si Bun Ruang Festival

You can only get bored in Isaan if you never leave your home. There is often something happening if you know where to look, I absolutely love these formal Isaan dancers whenever they make an appearance. Beautiful costumes and they dance with such grace. A great way to start the day.

Over 500 dancers made their way to the main shrine in Si Bun Ruang, just before you get to the hospital, for a ceremony that happens every year. Always a pleasure to see these beautiful costumes and ladies. An incredible collective effort to put on this show.

After the formal dancing this morning a lum music group started up (in this format usually a single guitar and lots of percussion) and there’s nothing Isaan people like more than an ad hoc dance session. Great fun to watch and the crowd love it when a farang joins in so feel free.

If you want to watch a larger lum group playing go to my video HERE:

This is an annual celebration held at the central town shrine for King Naresuan, an ancient Thai king held in great regard. All the villages that make up the town of Si Bun Ruang send along dance groups and it is an impressive display. I love the dancing and costumes but end up taking most photos of the local folk individually or in small groups just because I enjoy the endless variety of faces and situations.

There are three dance groups. There’s this lot, another duplicate behind the bushes at the back and then a smaller group inside the shrine area. I was told 500 dancers were involved and can quite believe it.

Schoolkids. Simple but beautiful colours.

Every time the costumes are different. The presentation is outstanding.

Simple elegance.

Drones are part of life these days. I did look at buying one for my photography but although it would add a “higher” dimension to my shots I couldn’t justify the cost.

Added just cos I liked it.

This is taken from the shrine looking back at the dance group inside. The tables at the front were loaded with food and flower donations. The slightly smokey look is due to mass incense.

A group photo at the end.

Mum and daughter.

Yet more incense being added to the display. Beautiful colours.

And one more!

This rather robust ladyboy appears at many of the events I have been to locally involving dancing. She is always enthusiastically involved.

A lum music group started to play at the end of the formal dancing. I find them very catchy. I believe “lum” is instrumental only, usually a guitar and heaps of percussion while “morlum” involves singing.

Gaun loves her dancing like any true Isaan person.

Gaun blending right in! I am sure she is going to heaven. Needless to say, this T-shirt was a gift from a friend from the Netherlands!

Last indulgent photo.

One of those characterful faces. This guy was part of the lum band.

At the end of the formalities, everyone can take away the food! A sort of give and take situation.

This lady is from our village. We came across heaps of people we knew, one of the joys of fast becoming a longer-term resident.

Sweet. The girl on the right is the daughter of the lady on the left.

Music of a less traditional nature happening for the next five evenings. It’s all happening in Si Bun Ruang. Although these bands are a couple of km from our house I am glad to have double glazing in the bedroom. Thai music is played at absolute maximum volume

A smaller donation table leading into the small market that has been set up for the six-day festival. 🙂

In one of those interesting background things happening, which we farangs would normally miss, what do you think these people are doing inspecting the food in the photo above? Looking for lottery numbers of course. Duh. Today is the first of the month and the national lottery is drawn today and on the 16th. Thais look for subtle clues to lottery numbers in just about everything. Someone had spotted a 13 in the incense smoke and Gaun was passing that onto Yuan, who makes a modest investment each draw. I just love this stuff

The villages were contributing to a competition for food cooking and displays. Some had made a real effort.

Beautiful freshness and colours.

Stylishly simple.

The boss guy here called everyone in so that I could take this photo. That really sums up a lot of Thailand and why I love its people. They still have a spontaneous enjoyment of the ordinary that keeps me young(ish).

1 Match 2018 – Ants, Ants and More Ants

This is a longer video but I think it is fun to watch. It shows Yuan and Lud harvesting ant eggs for sale in Friday’s local markets for a big payoff. I particularly like the bit where Lud gets up the ladder to collect by hand! These red ants give a decent bite, although they don’t cause an itch like the small red fire ants. Great motivation Lud.

Following on from the video about the red ant egg hunt these are a few photos to add more to this very rural Isaan story.

This is one of the nests made by these large red ants. They prefer mango trees because of the larger leaves, which they stick together to make their nest.

A basket on a long bamboo pole is all you’ll need to access the nest. Bump the basket under the nest and it falls open discharging ants and eggs.

The ants aren’t too happy about the whole process as you can imagine.

Nest left, basket right.

The eggs are tipped out once on the ground.

And cooking starch added to discourage the ants from staying with the eggs.

Yuan gets more on her than the eggs!

Gaun modelling starch 🙂

The end product. Yuan will get 1,000 baht a kilo at the Friday markets tomorrow.

Peng enjoying the ant egg hunt, from a distance.

A couple of other topics. This lovely statue is being moved from a slightly hidden spot in our “old” garden to the new one. I will show you next update.

Now that’s what I call a snail.

The original garden is such a contrast to the new one. With the cool season over these red flowers are in the process of blooming and trees like the one in the middle of the lawn that lost a lot of their leaves are quickly sprouting fresh new ones. Such a lush delight.

3 March – A House Warming

We’ve had a busy social time the last couple of days. We met up with an American living in Nong Bua Lamphu for a coffee yesterday, a connection made via my blog. It is always a pleasure to meet “good quality” farang who have settled into life here and enjoy the Thainess of it all. Many don’t. We look forward to getting to know him better on his return from an annual six-month escape from the heat of Thailand.

We were also invited to a house blessing ceremony taking place just outside NBL. Thank you, Robert Cullearn and Nana Cullearn for involving us.

These are always pretty light-hearted events where the ceremony itself rates equally with the food provided at the end! This one was a bit unusual in that a “spirit-man” undertook the initial blessing, to get the “ghosts”, as Gaun calls them, onside for the people about to take up residence. This was followed by eight monks who came in to do a Buddhist blessing. This is a well-blessed house.

Today we headed to Udon Thani for a brief hospital visit, and dropped in to see Yurt, Gaun’s older sister, to exchange vegetables from the farm for lots of food and things she has picked up on sale for the family! I didn’t miss out. She had lots of Iceberg lettuce for me, which you can’t buy in our town, and a bag of pork mince ready to go for a dish I enjoy. Onto a birthday party BBQ for a friend of ours before a late return home.

Some of the older participants and Gaun, who I think was enjoying a break from gardening.

Bob and the spirit-man about to enter the house. This happens after all the guests have walked around it three times. Lots of symbolic aspects as Bob had these two little baskets and other people carried bedding.

The monks arrive from the local temple.

The Abbot. He looks as if he has had a life well lived, doesn’t he?

Each monk is handed an envelope with money in at the end. They would normally be offered masses of food but this ceremony was in the afternoon and they stop eating at midday.

Back in a pick-up for the return trip to the wat. I always love the strong contrast of robes and greenery.

The Abbot preferred to walk and heads back to the wat alone.

And for many here is the best part of the whole event! Have mat and you have your Isaan dining table.

Thanks Daryl Newman and Tik. A treat to have some decent beef steak.

4 March 2018 – Sugar Harvest

With no social events planned for the day, we headed out to the farm to inspect the sugar harvest, which is now underway. I had hoped to catch the burning of cane at night, which is brief but spectacular, but we all missed it as the contractor is working separately from Yuan and Lud and didn’t tell anyone when he was doing it

They are harvesting in stages so there’s another burn planned for this afternoon and Yuan will phone me (Gaun) when it is about to happen. I hope it is after dark. TBA

As always I am totally undisciplined when I have the camera in hand so there are a few extra non-sugar photos as well.

The devastation post-harvest. Do you see the cane still in the ground where Gaun is walking? After being originally planted these reshoot twice after harvesting so can be cut a total of three times (once a year) before being replaced with new sugarcane.

Hot, heavy and dirty work.

It’s in the mid-30’s today heading tp 39 later in the week and to spend all day cutting cane is not something high on my list of wanted jobs. Many women undertake this job. As I point out to any expat – never mess with an Isaan lady. She’s probably stronger than you and cutting stalks with a machete is second nature for them 🙂 Normally contract workers get 3 baht (or that’s what it was last year) for ten canes cut and bundled. These guys must be working for a daily rate (normally 300 baht or $12.00) as the canes aren’t being individually bundled.

Waiting for a large mechanical grabber to come along and load the truck.

Low prices this year as there is an oversupply and maybe less demand. Yuan is getting 600 baht ($24.00) per ton. The price at a weigh station, where the contractor will sell the crop, is between 800 -900 baht a ton. So the contractor gets 200 – 300 baht a ton for burning, cutting and delivering. The money Yuan gets from this year’s crop will fund extending the farm pond, doubling it in size, and adding a porch area to the house they are building at the family compound in the village.

A simple San Phra Phum for the spirits that live on the farm. Can you spot the small bowls of rice that have been offered on the ground in front of it? Hard to see I know.

Gaun noticed that the spirits didn’t have any water so Yuan was sent off to fill the bottle up. If you have a spirit house you have to feed and water the occupants otherwise they get upset and you don’t want that! More HERE and a story I wrote when in Chiang Mai about a spirit house blessing HERE.

If for any reason I had to build another house it would be at this site on Gaun’s land at the farm. It is surrounded on three sides by trees (all Gaun’s) and you can see the farmhouse in the background. A beautiful location but I think we might stay where we are!

These teak trees turn into one long bare stalk in “winter” but like everything here new growth is suddenly appearing.

Morning Glory on the right and lettuce, Chinese celery, and onions are the other crops heading to market.

The long beans are coming along now they have something to grow up.

And isn’t that a beautiful flower. The outside leaves will peel away to reveal the bananas inside like the bunch directly above it. A wondrous process you miss when buying them from the supermarket!

5 March – A Small Local Forest Wat – update

I hadn’t been to the small wat being built down the road from the farm for a while so I thought I’d drop in this morning before coffee. Although it is still largely a building site there are signs that one day this will become an attractive temple. The head monk, Dit, is unusual in that he appreciates landscaping and that shows through in the following photos. You can find the temple on Google Maps HERE.

This is the entrance to the temple from the farm road.

All these flowers stretching into the distance were originally donated by Gaun. Dit has a couple of yai (grandmothers) who have made it their life work to expand and maintain the gardens and it shows.

Steady progress being made on the new timber temple building.

I thought they were going to leave the hall at ground level but since my last visit those concrete supports have been poured around the uprights and you can see some horizontal timbers that will form a floor quite a distance up from the ground. I am never sure how planned these constructions are as the work is mainly done by volunteers and the monks themselves.

I wonder if having built such a tall structure they found that the uprights required more support than just being in the ground and the additional concrete “footings” were added forcing the floor to be a raised one.

This shot gives you a better idea of the new floor level.

Being an ex-office worker my first thought was how they got the circular concrete supports around the existing timber uprights! Duh. They weren’t pre-made but a poured on-site using semi-circular steel moulds.

A very five-star toilet block! The grass is so unusual in Isaan, especially in a temple environment.

This is the original Buddha building on the left. You can see that an effort has been made on landscaping. You will find Gaun’s plants mixed in with this lot.

The pathway to Dit’s accommodation. I hope that blue water pipe is hidden at some stage but being Thailand that is not a given.

Starting to look very settled.

This is a forest wat so super simple and mostly constructed from timber.

You may be thinking “not another garden photo” but this scene in a temple compound is very unusual. Often the focus is on the buildings and not much attention is given to landscaping, which is unfortunately true across Thai society.

Is there an upside to recovering from a hernia operation and following doctor’s orders to minimise physical activity? Oh, I don’t know – maybe 🙂

6 Mar 2018 – Sugar Cane Burn

Some of the sugar cane was fired late yesterday afternoon. It was less spectacular in daylight so I haven’t taken many photos. I have covered this topic before anyway.

Today it was cut and loaded. We are expecting rain over the next three days, which will slow things down as obviously the contractor can’t burn the cane and also they can’t get machinery into the land. Fish on the menu for dinner tonight caught in the farm pond this afternoon.

Doing our bit to add to an already very smokey environment. That black smoke brings with it a black ash from burn leaves. If the wind is in your direction it drops from the sky in what the locals call “Isaan snow. As a result, it is a constant effort to keep outside areas clean over this period.

Huge amounts of cut cane being transported on tiny backroads to weigh stations.

It’s a ferocious flame when it’s happening but it only lasts a couple of minutes.

They have people with powered water sprayers to make sure the fire doesn’t spread into other people’s crops.

All cut and being loaded today.

This was a field of green cane yesterday. You can see the problems if we do get rain. This is clay soil and turns soft and sticky with any moisture.

Net fishing.

Gaun is standing up so the pond is quite shallow. Once the sugar cane money comes in Yuan is doubling the size of this pond and also digging this bit out to make it a lot deeper. I am hoping we can do it in stages and save most of the fish.

Dinner.

7 Mar 2018 – Tips & Tricks

Come a bored moment I will write a blog post on some of the small tips I have noted as well as the do’s and don’ts I’ve picked up since I moved here, which is getting on to be almost five years ago. The internet has a lot of similar posts but they often tend to be for tourists rather than permanent residents who live a “deeper” life.

For example, the photo I have included shows two cooking-related tips. Firstly add toothpicks to your salt shaker to stop the humidity clogging it up. Better than rice as toothpicks are less likely to fall out into whatever you are using the shaker for. I’ve had mine in there for months and never had to change them.

Secondly do try making a jam/chutney from tamarind and sugar, which is what’s in that jar. Gaun’s mama made this batch and when I tried it I asked for a jar-full. It is a sour/sweet combination and I think delicious. As a plus tamarind is supposed to have a lot of health benefits, which might balance up all that sugar  Read about them HERE.

BTW the greenery I have included are Chinese celery (don’t bother looking for the thick stalk farang celery here), basil and eggplant, all picked at the farm this morning.

9 Mar 2018 – Sugar Harvesting the Easy Way

I could hear this constant drone of machinery in the far distance and being an Isaan farmer these days I wondered if it was one of the big sugar harvesters in action. I have seen them stationery but never working. We jumped in the truck and headed to the outskirts of the village where we were lucky enough to catch a mechanised harvest in progress.

Over time I am sure this will become the norm as cutting sugar by hand will become more difficult due to the ageing of farm workers. However, there will have to be changes because sugar is currently planted in small ex-paddy fields so you just don’t get the long clear runs that best takes advantage of the efficiency of machines.

Like everywhere as farming families die out land will be amalgamated and the sight of people with machetes cutting sugar cane at $0.12 for a bundle of ten will be long gone and something more raw and personal lost.

This will be the future of sugar harvesting in Isaan.

This team does the lot. They plant, harvest and sell and pay the farmer a rental for use of his land.

According to one of the guys working here the sugar has to be planted 1.6 meters apart so that the machine can get a clear row to harvest. Because there was such a short run the machine had only got going before having to turn around, which takes time.

No pre-burn. The machine cuts the cane into small bits and dumps them straight into that truck. Excess leaves are stripped and left on the ground.

A very thick layer of sugar mulch. I am sorry to report that I believe this will all be burnt so it doesn’t end up being better ecologically than burning the cane in the first place. July 2018 update: No it wasn’t burnt but left on the ground. The new sugar cane came up through it.

It will be a little while before you see scenes like this in Isaan 🙂

A couple of other small topics. We have a new fern that needs shading before surrounding plants grow. Gaun’s solution is a very personal one!

Breakfast of ant eggs in chilli offered yesterday at the farm.

I passed you’ll be surprised to hear but the locals enjoyed it. This quantity of eggs if sold would fetch around $10.00, so quite a treat. Yuan and Peng are selling eggs at the Si Bun Ruang Friday markets as I type, some of which were donated by our garden yesterday, and they will make 1,000 baht from them. Where a worker’s wage is 300 baht a day this represents quite a windfall.

10 Mar 2018 – Phuket

I don’t normally repost old stories but watching Yuan and Lud enjoy the sea for the first time in their lives one year ago was such a buzz it is a memory worth sharing.

These photos were taken on Coral Island just off Rawai at the tip of Phuket.

Yuan and Lud had never seen the sea before let along played in it!

This experience was the talk of the village when they came back.

Sisters.

10 Mar 2018 – Moving Isaan Grace

A big day today for Isaan Grace, our floating sala (hut) on the farm pond. With Yaun’s money from the sugar harvest on its way (180 tons so far and more to come) this year’s project of doubling the size of the farm pond is about to get underway. Not only is the pond to be expanded but the old one is to be emptied and deepened, which meant that Isaan Grace had to move into dry-dock.

The existing pond with the floating sala. You can see why this is one of my very favourite places to spend time.

This is the area that will be dug out to create the expanded pond. You can just see the sala in the background, which gives you an idea of the size of the new lake.

Soil from the new pond will fill this emptied pond, which was originally created as a result of moving 180 truckloads of farm soil to our block of land in the village to raise it one metre.

I have a lot of admiration for Isaan rural woman who can put their hands to just about anything and are just as physically active as the blokes. Yuan here, clearing the area the sala will sit using a powered weed cutter.

In a funny coincidence of timing, Isaan Grace had the opportunity for the last sail (for the moment) when a bunch of kids turned up looking for lizards (which they capture and sell). Not sure they have ever been on a boat before.

The voyage seems to be going well. Not too rough.

Note the happy smiles getting OFF 🙂

Yuan had a tractor doing some work for planting new sugar cane and he was roped in to help get the raft out of the water on his way home. Nop, a neighbour who provides our beautiful limes, and Yuan and Lud’s son Game were also helping.

I was worried the whole thing would break up under the strain so it was a tense moment.

I must have built it properly in the first place. No problems. One barrel taking water, so a good opportunity to empty that for the re-float.

The kids in the family then had a chance to play in the water 🙂 Gaun (of course) here.

And this is where Isaan Grace sits tonight. I will keep you up to date with the expansion as it happens and the big re-launching ceremony of course.

Thanks for reading and please leave a comment. It’s the only payment I ask for what is for you a completely free Thailand resource.

 

Tony