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 I am on a mission to catch up so although the timeline is a bit out of date the material is still relevant sharing what life looks like here.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

11 March 2018 – A Mix of Photos

Just to wrap up the last edition of Living in Isaan’s breaking news on the pond extensions at the farm. The water from the existing pond will be pumped into a dry pond on Gaun’s land. Some of the fish will be relocated there and a neighbour is buying the rest to stock his pond. I am sure that fish will be on the menu for a while too. The newly expanded pond will be re-stocked with a type of fish that has fewer bones, mainly for my benefit as Isaan people don’t care.

It seems to be the season for construction because we will start the build of a big utility area in the new garden next week, which will complete the current design until I can find a rice storage hut to relocate (now achieved and you can read about this wonderful mini-project HERE)

I have also snuck in a few (more than a few the truth be known – I am hopeless when it comes to the garden) updated photos of the garden because it’s a perfect Thailand day, sunny and warm, and the plants wanted the moment to be captured. A final couple of photos for the many Thai motorbike fans out there!

This is the pond on Gaun’s land. It is far smaller than the current one so some water will be lost.

I am not sure why they aren’t digging the new pond, leave a wall between old and new and pump into the new one. I know that Yuan wants the old pond to be emptied and dry out so that the excavator can make it deeper. Maybe she wants all the digging to happen in one go.

Lud and friend with yesterday’s catch.

….and some were dried for longer term use.

This area is being built at the front of the new land next to the street.

The utility area is for soil, gravel, bricks and to give us space to recycle stuff Isaan style (i.e. burn) The undercover drying area is for the wet season because you can never tell when it is going to rain (the wet season is heavy bursts of rain, rarely consistent rain over a day or days). Unlike Australia where the skies go dark before the rain, here nothing changes – unless it is a tropical storm. It just gets wet. Dry or wet the skies look exactly the same so you can’t pick when to take clothes undercover – odd.

The new utility area will be built in that untouched area at the back of this photo in front of the green screening. It will take up all of that corner from the black dustbin on the left to the wheelbarrow on the right.

A few garden update photos but not too many as I have covered this all before in my regular posts on developing a new tropical garden, which you can find with these links:

Meanwhile, at the other end of the new garden Gaun’s work to mass plant flowers from seed and cuttings is starting to pay off.

This photo was taken six weeks ago.

And today! Hard to believe.

This is Yuan’s son Game’s motorbike. He’s a bit of a bloke, not that you’d ever guess. He’s supposed to be in the army but seems to spend a lot of his time at home. Not a Ducati but pretty cool whatever. It lights up at night and I must get a photo of that.

It’s a tip-toe ride for a small Isaan lady!

12 March 2018 – Basic Thai Construction

This is Gaun’s older brother Jun’s house, which is being built on family farmland.

He had a contractor do this, which now includes the steel on the roof, and for what you see the total cost was 15,000 baht or around $600.00. I think it took them four days. Interestingly Jun and his family work in construction Bangkok way and they are coming back home on the 20th this month to finish the house. I will be very interested to see them in action.

I thought I would explain how a construction like this is costed for labour, which might be useful for locals who haven’t done this before, and probably of limited interest to others unless you want to experience a touch of envy about how cheap building costs are here.

Leaving aside costings for a farang style house, which can be more complex, the way a basic Thai structure or a simple shed and wall project like mine is costed is really simple. Regular Thai structures (and my house) are structurally based on columns holding up the roof and walls are non-load bearing. Footings hold the columns in place and provide a base for walls. Footings are built on top of the soil, so you normally go up a few steps into a Thai structure. A concrete slab sits on top of the footings. Add a few windows, three power points and two fluorescent lights and job done!

Columns are often placed in a 4 x 4-metre grid pattern (sometimes 3 x 3), which is why you’ll sometimes see a column stuck in the middle of a larger room. If you ask a Thai person how big their house is they might respond by telling you how many columns it has. If you get plans drawn up professionally the draftsman’s costs could be based on how many columns you have included. I only emphasise the columns because this is the basis of how the labour costing works, Each column will be priced at 1,000 baht and this will be whether there is a roof involved or not for some reason. So look at my plans and there are eight columns, some with roof some without, so 8,000 baht. This includes digging the hole (500mm) for the columns, the supporting footings with rebar and any roof (welding the frame and fitting sheet iron) installation required.

The concrete blockwork in between the columns is priced at 140 baht per square metre, including rendering. Laying a concrete floor including rebar reinforcing is 100 baht per bag of concrete (mixed by hand). And that’s it! All done on the back of an envelope.

So my construction costs are 8,000 baht for columns, 4,550 baht for 32.5 sq mtrs of walls and rendering and 400 baht for the floor to the storeroom (4 bags of cement) a total of 12,950 baht or A$525.00 at today’s pathetic exchange rate. The 4 x 6 mtr roof over the storeroom and clothes areas is included in the column price.

Now the individual prices may change according to where in Thailand you are building but the process for a simple structure will be the same. All materials on top of course down to the last screw. Thai builders provide some tools (maybe) and NOTHING else. If you want it painted you provide paint and brushes for example.

Update: I have just ordered all the materials for my utilities area and they cost 16,000 baht so a total cost of around 30,000 baht or $1,200.

14 March 2018 – New Pond at the Farm

Activity happening on both the new pond construction at the farm and the utility area at home. All our building materials were delivered yesterday and six guys turned up to start work today. It’s only a small project but indicative of how a larger basic build would be done here so I will show you the various stages as they happen each day.

A team that has worked together before because they arrived and then split up into groups each doing their own thing, measuring, painting anti-rust of the steel, digging holes for the columns, with very little chat. Yuan and Lud dropped in on the way back from an early vegetable delivery run to the markets.

At the farm this old faithful tractor was chugging away pumping water from the pond into Gaun’s pond.

The costing came in from the excavation guy at 70,000 baht, which was a lot more than Yuan had originally been told. The big difference is that normally the cost of moving soil is covered by the contractor because he on-sells it to people who want new soil elsewhere. This soil is being used to fill in an existing pond so Yuan has to pay for the trucks to transport soil from the excavation site to the pond. I will advise the outcome as there are a couple of options.

The pipe snaking through new coriander planting to Gaun’s land in the background.

And this is the small pond where some of the water will end up. 

Above photo: In the background is a two rai (3,200 sq mtr) area where the sugar cane didn’t grow last year. This has been dug up and new cane is being planted today. Water from Guan’s pond will be used to kick-start the new cane (it only needs a single water to get it going).

And on a totally different subject but building related. The marks on this piece of timber are calcium residue from untreated bore/well water.

If you are using bore water for use in the house (non-drinking of course) and it is high in calcium (hard) then you should consider a water softener system to extract the minerals before they clog up your pipes, stop your toilet flushing and leave these sort of marks on everything the water dries on (windows, glasses, crockery, taps etc). Vinegar is your friend to remove these marks and you can buy it in large containers super cheap in places like Makro supermarkets.

We have a water softener for the house but the garden is straight from the bore, which accounts for these marks. You have to immediately dry the car when washing, for example, otherwise the windows and paintwork have these marks on them and they are difficult to get off once dry – vinegar again 🙂

14 March 2018 – Same Day Update

The daily news from Isaan, Thailand. I wish the rest of the world’s news was as uncomplicated and stress-free as mine. As always a mix of photos I snapped today each with its own little story.

Following on from previous posts this is Gaun’s pond now filled waiting for the sugar to be planted in the background field so it can be watered sourced from here.

For those Isaan farmers out there who follow this sort of rural detail, this is part of the other half of the farm and these crops have been mulched with rice straw. We recently touched on sugar cane mulch, so there is a reason for this photo. Very neat isn’t it?

Those long beans have really taken off. Yuan was tying the stems onto the poles while Lud was clearing weeds from the paths in-between the rows. A model farm.

I have covered these bamboo ties before. These had a more personal touch as they were made by Gaun’s mama using bamboo supplied from the farm so I thought I would include the photo.

Photo above: The original bamboo is split into pieces like the one in front and then mama splits them further using a machete. These ties are being used by Yuan to attach long beans to the supporting poles as I showed you in the last photo.

I am always so impressed by how tidy the farm is. This is SO unusual in an Isaan context and plenty of farms back in Australia wouldn’t match this one for orderliness. Although the storage is all home-made everything has its place.

How’s that for neatness!

My view from the drydock is still worth the ride out most mornings for coffee.

Gaun and Lud added that screen at the back today so that I had privacy from the road. Spoiled – me – never.

A big windstorm came through this afternoon and blew over a longan tree in the new garden.

It had split in half last year so I wasn’t too surprised. Unfortunately, it had thick foliage and protected some of the gardens from the westerly setting sun. There is a mango next to it that now has the space to grow outwards and we will plant something to fill the void. In typical fashion, Gaun phoned Yuan and Lud and they arrived 30 minutes later with a chainsaw and proceeded to cut and remove the tree. This is a family that gives so much.

This is the gap that has appeared as a result of that tree falling over. Yuan and Gaun tidying up the last of the leaves.

The building site. As always builders take a piece of land and turn it temporarily into a disaster zone.

They only worked a couple of hours today measuring up, digging the eight holes for columns and filling them with concrete. The concrete needed to dry, which was good luck because they all took off for a spot of fishing and no doubt a few Isaan whiskies. For any Thai based expats who might be building first-time the height of the columns is determined by the depth of the holes and the amount of concrete in each one. Columns aren’t normally cut to size. If you are building a heavier structure the concrete at the bottom of these holes with have reinforcing rebar. For a light structure like this and privacy walls – not usually. Most Thais will use the old but trusty water in a tube trick to measure levels. Works. All that broken tiling and concrete came from an ancient archaeological site – a house floor buried under the earth that had been brought in to raise the level of the land. No bones so far!

I have written before that you almost never need to leave home because if you wait long enough everything you want passes the front door.

Today was an example of that. I have been after a bamboo ladder for a while and this evening while we were having a drink Gaun heard the loudspeaker of a passing truck advertising ladders. Lud was dispatched on the motorbike to flag him down and I am now the proud owner of a 4-metre ladder bought for $12.00.

A mix of aluminium and bamboo ladders plus a few other bits and pieces.

With the ladder bought it was back to more important business. My thank you to Lud and Yuan for all their help.

16 March 2018 – Health Care Comes to You

Not much of a photo but it’s the story that might be of interest.

Regularly in the village, an announcement is made over the loudspeaker system that nurses are in attendance at the community centre for blood tests and to hand out medication for the many diabetics here.

As a lot of the people affected are elderly this is a useful outreach service that means they don’t have to make a trip to the local hospital. At a cost of 30 baht ($1.20) for Thais, this is both a service and expenditure we can only dream about.

I don’t know if the rate of diabetes is higher in Thailand/Isaan than say in Austalia but it is very common in the village. A very interesting background article here:

Diabetes a Concern for Thailand

16 March 2018 – A Building Update

A quick update on the building project. This is day three or two and a half as they only worked a couple of hours day one. Yesterday the columns went up and concreted in, the framework for the roof was done and the footings for the walls were poured.

Afternoon yesterday. The four columns on the left define what will be an enclosed garden storage, the open area behind that will be the undercover clothes drying space and the two columns on the right a privacy wall to hide the utility area from the garden.

I leave most of it to Gaun who knows as much about building in Thailand these days as I do. She keeps a close eye on what’s going on and makes sure it is up farang standard.

Concrete mixed by hand. All very rough but generally gets the job done. This is what will be the storeroom.

Halfway through and a 6,000 baht payment due. Gaun trusts Thais less than I do so not only did the boss have to sign for the money, Gaun took a photo of him getting it 🙂

Today the roofing goes on and the walls start. They will be finished by the end of the day.

Both those spaces in-between the columns will be filled in with blocks and rendered. That gap is the entrance.

You won’t spot our small visitor the first time he is so well camouflaged.

A construction enthusiast!

19 March 2018 – Finished

Our small building project was finished noon yesterday and as always it is a pleasure to have our space back again. The team ended up doing a pretty good job and I will use them again when we get around to building the front wall. The final cost ended up being about 45,000 baht – labour 14,000 and materials 31,000 baht or A$1,870. Like the red wall we built in the centre of the new garden, it looks a bit stark now but the landscaping is already planned and we just have to buy the plants.

Coffee time this morning. The new utility area blending into the background to the left of the pot.

A closer look. The storeroom on the left will be painted pearl white, like the rest of the house, but the right wall will be left as it is.

I paid extra to have that look. It is the swirled smooth concrete finish you sometimes see in modern cafes and restaurants on walls and floors. It is still to fully dry and then it gets cleaned and sealed.I am planning to make a rusted iron wall sculpture for that space, which I think will add interest and complement the wall. A tall hedge with a doorway cut into it is the plan on the right to hide the road and that house opposite. A small hedge will also go in front of that space between the two walls with an entrance pathway behind.

That red iron top will be painted pearl white. I like that finish and it will only improve once it is cleaned and treated.

The utility area. A garden store on the left (it has a door) and the undercover clothes drying area on the right. Four metal hanging lines so plenty of space for bedding. This area will be levelled and then gravelled. The next project is to start paving the 220 metres of paths so we can store bricks and sand here out of sight from the rest of the garden.

I recently posted a similar photo so this is a bit of a repeat except more flowers are blooming now.

I only add it because someone recently posted an FB video of tulips growing in the Netherlands and I showed Gaun, who was most impressed. Since she saw that post this flower bed has been called Isaan tulips, a name that will stick for sure.

Just because I had the camera in hand. You can now start to get a better impression of how this avenue will look once the golden palms have grown leading down to the pot at the end, which will be floodlit at night. Once this is paved, and that’s going to be a priority, it will look even better.

21 March 2018 – A Visit to the Embassy in Bangkok

A busy couple of days with a quick visit to Bangkok yesterday and then this morning at Immigration in Udon Thani, an hour’s drive from us, both trips relating to extending my Thai visa for another 12 months. I am happy to report that I am good to stay until 2019 otherwise I’d have to get Gaun onto Facebook so I could follow the garden progress from Australia!

A brand spanking new building. I found it super stark and sterile, but others may like it. Fort Knox to get in, very impersonal and I couldn’t pick up on any reminders of the home country. Not one concrete kangaroo in sight!

For any expat Aussies reading this please note the following:

* The Australian embassy has moved so if you go to where it was it now isn’t 🙂 * They are moving to a credit card only system, so if you were used to paying in cash for services it is no longer available.
* They are also going to be moving to an appointment system in their passport section so keep an eye on their website for that HERE

I had to share this photo. Flying back a very tall farang sat in a front row seat and these were tattooed on the back on his head. I had these eyes looking at me for the entire trip.

Stop looking at me!

Leaving boring visa admin stuff behind here are a few photos from today.

We passed our favourite garden centre coming back from Udon Thani and had an empty pick-up truck so………….150 small shrubs and 12 bushes are in the process of being planted as I type.

I know this is looking very stark and out of place but it will soften in time:

A more recent photo.

These will grow into a tall hedge, which will hide the utility area in two years – see the next couple of photos. 100 baht or $4.00 each.

The same plants in the “old” garden. These are three years old and are trimmed to this height.

And the same age. three metres plus high after trimming. This is on the westerly side of our house and these shrubs protect the outside dining area from the setting sun.

A combination of the hedge (thin ATM because it loses leaves in the cool season – new leaves happening now) and golden palms behind.

I wrote last year about a friend of Peng’s called Thoy, who set up a stall selling fried chicken wings mostly to school kids in the late afternoon. She started with just a table and wok and business has been so good this more permanent construction has been built. No planning permission, health and safety – just private enterprise meeting demand. The lady who owns the house behind is a relative so no problems with the location.

Don’t you just hate it when mangos get in the way? Life is hell.

25 March 2018 – Another Street Party with Friends

The local village temple had a party yesterday to raise money and have fun. These are never big “change the world” type events. Just part of everyday life here. We had some friends drive from Udon Thani to have lunch and spend the afternoon with us. Daryl, Terry and Mai, always a pleasure and Tik – we missed you.

The day started with ceremonies in the wat compound but early afternoon broke out into a street party with booze, dancing and loud music. A big evening dinner with live music finished the day.

As always I find it is the little moments that make the day rather than trying to take photos on a wider scale. The pace of events will start to pick up now as we head into Songkran, Thai New Year, happening in April.

Kids get a free ride on the music truck. Getting in practice for doing the same thing as adults – riding on top of loads on the highway, a sight you see often here. All good unless the truck has to stop quickly in which case……….

Terry making a donation to a happy Yuan, who had the family’s money “tree”.

Daryl adding his bit. He is holding a cup of whiskey and coke (we think) kindly (we think) donated by a local. Chop a plastic drink bottle in half and you have a free drinking glass and no washing up! — with Daryl Newman.

Every moment is captured in some form.

Lud looking very tropical.

Some dance and others watch. The young girl is taking video of me taking a photo of them!

Yuan is one of those people whose smile lights up the day.

Gaun having a good time as always.

Traditional dress. Lovely.

I have some news for family and friends……………(not really).

200 baht ($8.00) a seat for dinner and show. Inside the temple compound so no grog 🙁 Profits going to a building project the wat is trying to finish.

Peng with two iced teas – given away free by people wanting to earn Buddhist “merit points”.

Thais love group photos. The building in the background is the one they are hoping to finish this year.

All the money raised is presented to the monks in a ceremony.

Peng and me with the proceeds of our 100 baht investment in a lucky dip. I was after a fan but it wasn’t to be (a bit low on merit points maybe!)

26 March 2018 – Spooky Mannequins

In early December I took a photo of some mannequins at a shop in Si Bun Ruang modelling Christmas clothing and made the comment “Personally, these four manikins look slightly spooky to me. The sort of thing you might find in a horror movie at midnight all with Isaan machetes.” I was particularly worried about the one with the hat over her eyes.

I came across them again the other day and nothing has changed my opinion. I am convinced they are on the hunt after dark and are responsible for multiple missing persons in the area.

The original photo.

They aren’t happy in their profession, are they?

27 March 2018 – The Farm Pond Extension

It gets worse before better seemed to be the theme of the morning. The farm pond was emptied this morning, which involved Gaun being called out there at 6:00 am to help move fish to their temporary home in another pond. The end result is a muddy wasteland, previously the pleasant and wet home of my floating raft “Isaan Grace”. Oh well.

Two bits of positive news. Firstly a contractor has been selected and will start work deepening the existing pond and creating a new one at a cost of 25,000 baht. Secondly, some of the fish didn’t make the transfer so you can guess what’s on the dinner menu tonight (better news for the humans than the fish).

Finding the last of the fish. You can see why Yuan wanted this pond to be deepened.

Over time it has filled up with soil and is now very shallow. The extension to this pond, doubling its size, will happen on the left. The guy in the background is a neighbour (husband of the lady we bought our new land from) who bought 1,500 baht’s worth of live fish to stock his farm pond at 70 baht a kilo.

My floating sala (hut) looking a bit grounded.

Gaun transferring fish to the holding pond. Most made it but some didn’t. The black objects are snails, not stones.

This is the pond on Gaun’s land, which is normally dry, but has been filled with water transferred from the main pond as part of the emptying process.

I think this is a snakefish.

And an interesting article HERE

Some decent sized fish were transferred.

Some of these will be dried and the rest are feeding the family this evening.

A photo was taken by Peng to show off one of the catches of the day. This one has been picked for my dinner. Stuffed, salted and BBQ’ed. Yum.

One for local farang. How often have you seen this scene in your kitchen? Granite benchtops just aren’t up to the making of a decent papaya salad 🙂

I was going to add one more story but it involves lots of photos so I will leave that until the next edition with just a teaser below for the guys:

The comments from regulars give me the incentive to keep on keeping on (thank you ) They are so much enjoyed at this end of the typewriter! As always I am amazed at the number of opportunities that pop up to share photos and their associated stories..