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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 I am on a mission to catch up so although the timeline is a bit out of date the material is still relevant sharing what life looks like here.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 mid to late February 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.

19 Feb 2018 – Ant, ants and more ants

One of the joys of living in a new culture, which helps keep me young in spirit if nothing else, is the ability to observe strange and interesting activities that just fall into my life without any effort on my part. Today was such an occasion as we turned up at the farm for our morning coffee ritual. Dung beetles and ants have now been added to my knowledge base giving me even more opportunities to sound like an expert and impress visitors! WARNING: this is not a post for the squeamish 

Yuan had spent some of the morning collecting ant eggs from surrounding woodlands. This is so that she can “seed” her own trees and harvest eggs to sell later.

That orange colour on the ground and lower branches are red ants (mostly dead) and their eggs. They include queen ant eggs, and in time a new nest will result.

This is a small red ant nest in the making. Once it gets large the nest will be harvested and the eggs extracted and sold. They are a delicacy in Isaan and get top baht. If you get a bit ho hum about the thought of eating ant eggs think of the money people spend to eat fish eggs (caviar).

Lud has hung out some water to keep the ants happy.

That collection of ant eggs on the right will sell in the markets for 100 baht ($4.00).

Yuan made 700 baht last week just on ant eggs. Where a worker in 7/11 makes 300 baht a day you can see these must be seen as special to get that sort of money.
We have eight nests in our garden (they love mango trees) so Yuan will have a windfall this week.

I never thought I would come across dung beetles here in Thailand. 

I guess it hasn’t been high on my list of expectations either! I remember dung beetles being introduced to Australia to clean up animal droppings and reduce the number of bush flies. Expand your knowledge and read this HERE These very nice looking balls are actually buffalo dung that have been rolled up with a beetle larvae inside. That’s mum who quite rightly was very worried about the whole process.

Sorry about the focus – not my camera. The ball opened and the lavea can be seen.

This poor little guy who isn’t having a good day. 

Needless to say the balls are sold and the lavea are eaten once they reach a stage a little beyond this example. Hungry anyone? With the gradual disappearance of buffalo (although there are still good numbers of cows around) you wonder at the long term survival of the humble dung beetle.

19 Feb 2018 – Rice Mulch and more

I have written about the amazing ability of plants to double in size every year and create beautiful lush tropical spaces in no time at all when compared with cooler places like my ex-home of Canberra. The trouble is that the weeds (defined as a plant in the wrong place!) are equally impressive in their growth habits.

Gaun has a constant battle on her hands in the new garden and has applied several solutions to minimise the march of the weeds.

This is rice husks, which is used as a mulch here. 

Rice is stored with the husk on and then taken to a shop which has a machine that shakes the husks off to reveal the white rice we all know and love. The husks are then sold for between 5 – 10 baht a bag. We picked up 10 bags at top dollar – 100 baht, only because the processing is done behind the house across the road from us – so easy.

For 10 baht a bag they are supposed to supply bags, fill and deliver them but Gaun seems to be doing all those roles this morning.

Lud picked them up and delivered to our home.

A thick cover being applied. The weeds will still happen but hopefully this will reduce them slightly. Gaun’s rose garden surrounding the pot.

A completed area.

The mulch tidies it all up even if it does nothing for the weeds.

The second attack is to plant ground cover that will largely smother the weeds once it gets established. These are all sprouting seeds taken from plants at the farm, mainly the ones in the next photo.

Hardy, super colourful and flower for ages. They will make an amazing mass planting in the garden once they get going.

Here cuttings rather than seeds have been harvested from the Gaun’s garden at the farm and transplanted to the new garden. 

They looked pretty sad for a couple of weeks but are now up and away and will provide a mat of colour across this entire area. One of my bougainvillea mounds in the background.

And again these cuttings of small burgundy plants will quickly grow to form a coverage that will stop all weeds from coming through.

Just a quick update on the new garden. After six weeks everything is looking very settled and new shoots are appearing everywhere. It now feels like a garden that is on its way rather than seeing everything rather limp just after being planted.

We found a shop in Udon Thani that sell these lovely succulents and they finish off this display nicely.

And a spare tree truck converted into a feature by creative wife.

Very happy plants. The new sprinkler system is a blessing. We turn it on half/half for five minutes a side every evening and job done.

Six weeks old and already starting to look like a settled area.

19 Feb 2018 – A Mix of photos

Some photos taken yesterday proving that new scenes can be captured even after over three years of living here.

These rustic rural buildings always remind me of outback Australia with rough timber and rusting iron roofs. It just needs a couple of Holden car wrecks to complete the Aussie flashback!

This is the land next to the new garden looking towards Gaun’s family home which is to the left of that blue pick-up (you can just see its roof). This area could be for sale and if I had the money I would buy it just so that we could walk all the way to mama’s house on our own land 🙂

I am in the process of writing a short book and have the choice of setting up my laptop here or………………

………..or here. A choice of offices!

Sticky rice baskets at mama’s house. 

You will see these being sold and carried everywhere in Isaan – not elsewhere in Thailand unless you see Isaan folk working outside the region. Even if the food is provided mostly people turn up with their own supply of sticky rice for some reason. Gaun never steams sticky rice. She waits for mama to make a bulk batch morning and evening and then walks across to pinch some of hers! Kids are the same whatever the age 🙂

We received a hand delivered wedding invitation yesterday for a village event on the 24th. The top line of the envelope reads Mr Anthony Peter Eastmead (that’s me BTW).

Keep the envelope because when you attend you put your donation of money in it and then they can easily record your contribution in the financial register for the wedding.

We drove out late morning to a house being built by an Aussie and his wife about 45 minutes from us on the other side of Nong Bua Lamphu. The interesting aspect is that this is an almost exact replica of our house. Bob liked our home so much he copied the plans and is building the same design in a different location.

Bob and Nana are up to the tiling and window installation stages. The end is in sight. This photo is take from the lounge area looking to the kitchen.

This is the exact same space in our home. I bet Bob and Nana Cullearn can’t wait.

This is the house across the street from Bob’s place. No wonder Isaan people think we are a bit strange if you compare the new with the old!

Filtered water being delivered along with 70 bags of improved soil made by the local school. The teacher chatted with Bob while the students did the hard work!

A new wall at the local school is being painted and I think it blends into the landscape pretty well 🙂 In their defense this a school “sponsored” by a Thai princess who’s personal colour is purple.

Long beans are sprouting at the farm. Grown from seed these will have eucalypt trellis to support them once them get to the climbing stage.

Beautiful tamarind trees on Gaun’s farm land. Gaun can remember climbing these when she was a kid so they have been around for a while. At risk from being chopped down in a normal Isaan situation but they are safe as long as Gaun is around.

Tham and Paed hand weeding on their part of the farm watched by Lud and a neighbour. Endless weeding is part of farm life.

Gaun on her land. Those long sticks are actually teak trees in the early stages. Gaun planted them last year. They are deciduous obviously, which is why they look a bit sad.

A photo only remarkable because it shows an Isaan person sweeping their farmhouse. Not the tidiest people farms. Yuan and Lud’s farm is basic but spotless something visitors comment on when they visit.

I bought his shelf unit for our kitchen in Chiang Mai. It has made it to the farmhouse. Aren’t those little water filled feet a good idea to keep the ants out.

19 Feb 2018 – Community Farming

I know this will be of interest only to a select few who follow the farming side of this blog and not to others.

Do you remember when I reported on the village community vegetable plots being established? Well these are now in full swing and after only a few months are producing crops. It is a pleasure to see a wasteland of nothing much transformed into such a productive area giving people who wouldn’t have access to land otherwise a way of growing food for their own consumption or to sell and make a bit of extra income.

This was the land in November 2017.

And today.

A bore/well provides communal water using a solar powered submersible pump to fill these tanks. Gravity water pressure only.

Each plot has its own water tank. No metering so the water supply must be free. There maybe some monthly fee involved – I will have to ask Yuan who knows everything.

Corn on top and cabbages underneath. Maximising returns.

Lettuce (I can do that one – called “salad” in Isaan). Spring onions or garlic. I will consult Gaun when she gets in from the garden. Corn on the far left.

Not bad for such a short time.

I should know this one. TBA

Nice to see the interesting mix that occurs when you have 32 people each doing their own thing.

A couple of plots are growing flowers as an income. These are cut and sold in small bunches of flowers (10 baht in the markets) given as donations to temples not for personal display.

Each plot holder had to give four pieces of thatching to this community sala.

The structure is made from Eucalyptus. Unless treated I give it two years before the termites destroy it 🙂 They LOVE softwood in/on the ground.

CCE has always been my preferred soil additive (only kidding). Heaps of it here.

The view over the allotment area from the sala.

Running alongside the road and separating it from the allotment is this sort of moat arrangement. 

The bets are on as to how long it is before someone drives a car into it. This bridge was constructed by the community. The ladder is to allow people to get into the water to fish using a net. The “moat” is filled from the bore.

20 Feb 2018 – Operation Day

I am recovering from a hernia operation this morning at AEK International hospital Udon Thani. 

My first real test of both the Thai medical system and my private health insurance, which might result in a blog post sometime. I am paying top dollar but am pleased to report that systems seems to work very well and efficiently. My first criteria of success is that I am still alive, which I believe I am, and everything else is a bonus 🙂

We have a large and modern room on the 6th floor with a balcony I won’t be using anytime soon and views over a very smoky Udon. The TV here is bigger than the one I have at home. I will get Gaun to check and see if it is screwed down.

Yuan and Lud drove me up this morning and stayed until I got back to the room. I think I am only here one night and they are coming back to pick me up tomorrow.
I take inspiration for not being a big baby over this process from my step-daughter Peng who had TEN more incisions than I did and never complained during recovery.
As always with airports, hospitals and big cities I can’t wait to get home.

21 Feb 2018 – Day Two

Thank you to the many people who wrote wishing me a speedy recovery based on the last post. 

Very much appreciated. I am happy to report that I am back home and for any of you who have been in hospital you will understand what a pleasure that is. I will write more about the whole process for the benefit of those expats who might end up testing the medical system here because it has its own processes, which may be different from your previous experiences elsewhere.

Total cost 75,000 baht or around $3,000. Does anyone have a comparable cost for the same type of operation done privately back “home”? My total outlay over the insurance cover was 700 baht, which is pretty good.

The photo is of two friends who very kindly dropped in to see us – thank you Daryl and Tik, and two of the three ladies who turned up with my farewell basket of goodies.

18 July – I did end up writing a blog post about my experience and you can find it HERE

24 Feb 2018 – Another Wedding

For any of you living in Isaan I bet you are reading this with the thump of music happening in the background. Today is an auspicious one so there are weddings happening everywhere I am sure. We have four on the go, two in our village and two others that I know of in surrounding moo bans. My Thai family are involved in three of them.

Gaun was up at 4:00 am helping Yuan and others cook for the wedding of a nephew of the lady who acted as a surrogate mama for me at Gaun and my wedding back in 2014.

I have covered weddings before so won’t do it all again but as always there are some unique photos to share.

Just out of interest the groom pays a dowry to the bride’s family called sin sod (200,000 baht in this case or A$8,000). A lot of farang have a problem with this concept mistakenly believing it is some sort of payment for their bride.

In fact in its original form it recompenses the bride’s parents for the loss of “superannuation” income their daughter would have provided had she not married. By that I mean in traditional Thai culture children have an obligation to support their parents financially. Even today many Thai kids send money home regularly. When a daughter marries her obligations move from her parents to those of her husband, so the income she might have generated is potentially lost.

Sin Sod is like a payment of that potential income in advance by the husband. It is also a statement of the value the husband places on his bride in a very public display. Sin Sod is never secret and everyone in the village will know the amount involved.

Everyone is invited.

You will always find these type of photos at the entrance to a wedding. They are actually taken pre-wedding, so the couple have to hire clothes and photographer and get the full make-up done before the day. The lovely flowers on the left are plastic!

My “mama” a senior and very well respected lady in the village. She and her family own half of it! A delightful person.

The bride.

And groom.

Gaun is in a particularly good mood as she has a wedding to enjoy this morning and then a street party for the local temple in the afternoon. Us older folk post-operation might take things a little slower 🙁

This is my builder Ming. He is has had a few whiskies by now and I saw a friend taking him home to recover for this afternoon’s party maybe.

A couple of the bridesmaids.

My brother-in-law Tham, who doesn’t smile for the camera, a friend of Yuan and son of my “mama” – a naval officer, Yuan and Gaun of course.

Minus Gaun plus me!

24 Feb 2018 – Guttering

I ordered some new guttering to cover an extension to the tiling from our outside living area to the new garden. Today they turned up to install, which has interrupted Gaun’s party time at the wedding 

Guttering comes in various sizes but short lengths so they measure up and build to size. I have used these guys for all my guttering and it is a very efficient husband and wife team. He does the installation side while she builds the guttering.

You are less likely to see these pick-up circulating for business now as it is the dry season. 

Come May they will be through the village every day. See the short guttering, which are soldered together to the required length. The downpipes are made individually too.

This is roof area I am having covered so that new tiling doesn’t get runoff from the roof. I am getting the largest size in aluminium, installed for 300 baht ($12.00) a metre.

The husband on the roof. Cutting the existing Colorbond so the gutters fit.

While the wife does the soldering work. See the way they use a gas bottle burner to heat the soldering irons? The guttering people also individually make the tin lids you see on the big waterpots. I need two of them, which they will deliver later. 150 baht each.

24 Feb 2018 – A Photo

The street party ended up being a very small affair so I won’t bother sharing the few photos I have of the event. However while at the village wat I captured this image which I really like, in a slightly macabre way. This young girl is walking in front of our local crematorium. You will see them all over Thailand, usually close to a temple.

I saw it as a great illustration of the beginning and the end of life. Do you think my current (temporary) abstention from alcohol post-op is starting to have an effect?

25 Feb 2018 – A Mini party

Loud Isaan dance music passing through the streets meant that a few locals had got together to try and raise some money for the local temple plus have some fun. I look back to the sterile suburbs of Canberra and know where I would prefer to be.

Donations added to that money “tree”. The small guy in the cowboy hat on the left is the head of the moo ban (village) next to ours.

Land of Smiles – how did they get that name I wonder 🙂

This photo brings a smile to my face and I bet yours too!

The wat is at the end of this street where the money will be handed over.

Gaun having a chat to the neighbours Isaan style. This is the front “wall” to the new garden. Designed to keep out dogs and chickens rather than look good. Our existing land in the background with a real wall.

26 Feb 2018 – Back to the Farm

It’s nice to be back in routine and get to ride out to the farm in the mornings for a coffee, a sit on the boat and to check out what Yaun and Lud are up to. Long beans are taking a lot of their time and the following photos will show you why. Also a superbly beautiful flower bloom.

With the long beans, originally planted from seed, now doing their jack-the-beanstalk thing it is time to build the trellis that will support them for the next few months.
Stage one on the left and two on the right. The poles and horizontal bamboo supports are from farm stock. The upright sticks were cut from the roadside recently.

It’s almost an artwork photo.
Note how each upright is tied to the support. The completed structure will have been a time consuming process and reflects the care and attention Yuan and Lud put into everything they do.

Those ties are made from thinly cut bamboo sold in bundle like this. You soak them in water to make them flexible enough to tie like an all-natural string. Each pack have 100 ties and they sell for 100 baht ($4.00) for ten packs.

Garlic laid out to dry for replanting late in the year.

Isn’t that a beautiful burst of colour. 

These vivid palm-like plants are super hardy and when they grow too tall you just cut the tops off, stick them in the ground and you have just doubled your number. This is the first time I have noticed them flowering but being a male that doesn’t mean they haven’t in previous years! This one is on the farm.

Now is that tropical or what!

28 Feb 2018 – Another Mix

A mix of photos starting off at the farm and then more aimed at the gardening types who read my posts.

One for those interested in the technical aspects of farming life here. This is a new pump bought by Yuan and Lud for 3,000 baht ($120.00) to extract water from the pond and use it to water crops. It is unpowered and requires one of these versatile diesel engines to work it.

Yuan and Lud have been having problems with pumps because they replaced their main bore/well pump, which worked on the same sort of system with an electric submersible pump. 13,000 baht for the pump and 3,000 to have the old pipework (metal) extracted from the bore hole. Modern plastic piping now installed.

The long bean trellis was finished yesterday after two more loads of these branches were delivered to the farm.

I previously mentioned the bamboo used to tie these supports. The added advantage is that you don’t need to tie as a knot but just twist the ends like this. Quick and easy. BTW the price has gone up and Yuan paid 130 baht for 1,000 ties!

Also mentioned previously. The garlic that was drying in the sun has now been tied in these half loop arrangements, which makes them easy to hang for drying at the family home, which is about to become a vampire-free zone.

The unusual sight of me actually working had Gaun rushing for the camera. I am doing some modest weeding, which had Gaun worried I was overdoing it post-op – “you work very hard and you tired” was her opinion, which if you notice the size of my contribution to the task of clearing weeds might be a bit optimistic.
For you jackfruit fans out there that’s what’s hanging in that white plastic bag. Keeps the bugs out. The mulch is rice husks bought for 10 baht a sack.

The following photos are examples of the incredible ability of plants to regrow here. A combination of good soil, mild climate and lots of watering.
I am constantly amazed to watch the process that happens when Gaun chops an existing plant into pieces, sticks the bits into the ground and then tells me that even though they look dead all is actually OK.
See the original plant on the right. A goner? No – new shoots appearing. In a few month’s time this will be head height.

More growth from “dead” root stock.

I posted a beautiful flower in my last post. This is plant it comes from. These are all cuttings. Gaun just chopped the heads off existing ones and stuck them in pots. Once they get some roots happening they will be transferred to the new garden. The ground cover will be a mass of yellow flowers soon. Grown from seed.

Last week all that was showing was the twig – totally bare. This week new growth. This is a tree called Dok Khun (Golden Shower tree) and will be 10 metres tall in less than three years. It has magnificent cascading bright yellow flowers in April.

This was totally a bare stump a month ago. A definite goner. Nope, wrong again. This is a custard apple tree and we’ll be eating the fruit next year I am sure.
The plant that looks like a weed just behind it is Lemongrass. Gaun has planted an entire bed of it here, donated by a neighbour.

I am sure there are lots of YouTube videos about the right way to take and cultivate cuttings involving greenhouses and special fertilisers 🙂 With Gaun all you need is a machete! See the new shoot happening on the right?

And one more.

Ah, the memories – taken 6 Jan 2018. See that “dead” tree trunk on the far left? The guy was going to take it out but his tractor got a puncture and he had to leave. See the next photo.

Much the same view as the previous photo. Hard to believe it has changed so much in less than two months. Notice that dead tree trunk. Very happily growing now. It’s a guava tree.

Gaun’s strategy for controlling weeds revolves around massed planting of flowers. These new shoots are all seeds taken from plants at the farm.

Once again that ground cover has been grown from seeds and will provide mass colour closer to the wet season April/May and beyond.

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