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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Whatever they are eating it seems to be doing them good because I took this photo yesterday and the fish are several sizes bigger.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Back to bamboo:
And the bonus?
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.
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.
The first item on the left is a wall water feature. The base is hidden in this photo.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
You have mail
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.
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.
And the same view more recently:
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.
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.