Love Living in Isan - June 2019

Stories about living in a rural village in the northeast of Thailand

After the excitement of a week on the road backward and forward to Chiang Mai, getting my stepdaughter Peng settled into university and a few posts related to that trip, it is a pleasure to return to everyday Isan life. These are a few local stories I hope you enjoy.

Although I enjoyed the variety of our time away from home spending time in the big city atmosphere of Chiang Mai, it was such a pleasure to return to the slower pace of life in the village. We have resumed our morning trips to the farm and there’s something comforting watching the cycle of crops happening there. June is the month to plant rice, new fields are being prepared for vegetables. After the urban concrete ugliness of Chiang Mai, which like all cities separates us from any connection with the soil and basic activities like farming, it was great to be back.

It was a delight to kick off my shoes, dig my feet into the earth and reconnect with a simpler life. You do realise that the whole kick off the shoes thing is only written in theory don’t you. I hate getting my feet dirty. Anyway, here are a few insights to a real life here in Isan. Not one restuarant review, bottle of wine tasted or bargirl in sight!

5 June: This paddy has been flooded using bore/well water because the wet season so far seems to have passed Si Bun Ruang by this year as it has every other year we have lived here. Yuan and Lud are throwing out rice that has been soaked in water for two days. Sticky rice to the left of Lud in the green shirt and steamed rice (for me) on the right.

Yuan and Lud grow the highest quality of rice, which involves growing seedlings first and then replanting them by hand into other paddy fields to ensure uniform spacing between plants for maximum growth.

18 June: This photo taken today with the rice well established. There’s always a bit of concern that heavy rain hapens once the seeds are thrown out that, which tends to clump the seeds and requires more application to ensure an even coverage. Not a problem this year.

I could tone down the green in editing but the new rice really is that colour. This is a view of some of Gaun’s land, which Yuan farms. The trees in the background would have been cut by now on any other farm but as long as Gaun is around they are safe.

A new field ploughed ready for planting new vegetables. Yuan and Lud’s farmhouse is on the left.

Lovely rich soil on the farm. You can see four raised beds have already been prepared on the right. The second photo is a closer view. Seeds have been planted and rice husk mulch is being applied. Shade cloth is in place to give the seeds protection from the sun. With the absence of rain this rows will be hand watered every evening.

Lud on rice husk spreading duty. Each bag cost 10 baht.

Yuan distributing seeds. This is a well oiled team after over 20 years working together.

Seeds on the left and on the right is the result of two days cleaning up of our garden at home after a week out of action in Chiang Mai. This will be burnt (unfortunately Mel if you’re reading). The quantity of waste vegetation here as a result of high growth in this tropical climate makes alternative options realistically impossible. 

I only add this photo to show Lud’s farm footwear! His feet like his hands are built for purpose.

Bear, Gaun’s older sister, is growing some corn on her part of the farm. It is a lighter coloured version and a lot less juicy than the bright yellow versions I remember from ‘home’. The pick-up on the right is delivering ice to farms further down this road including the wat (temple) at the end. Fridges are not used a lot and ice boxes are filled every day to keep drinks and food cool. at 40 baht ($1.70) a sack why not?

Gaun’s farm garden continues to flourish although the bougainvillea has finally mostly stopped flowering after seven months.

The master-gardener herself up a ladder trimming bougainvillea a job started at 5:00 am this morning after she brought mama to the farm.

On the way home we called into this flower farm to buy some marigolds that Gaun wanted to make into garlands as part of a commitment we have to deliver six elephants to spirit shrines in exchange for their help in getting my stepdaughter Peng into university! It’s a story that requires more expanation and I will cover it in a later post.

Earlier this month we drove to Udon Thani. our closest large city, to collect some things Gaun’s sister Yurt, who works there, wanted to give mama and the family. I took the opportunity to stock up on coffee beans from an outlet in the centre of town. I can buy fresh beans locally but Thais only seem to enjoy an espresso and I prefer a medium roast. More information than you need probably (except for Greg and Yuri).

Thailand has a big cafe culture, often with coffees made by people who have never drunk coffee, but there you go. I am a coffee snob and because I think I make a better shot of coffee than most places I never bother buying outside home.

Very close to the coffee shop is a wholesale clothes market hidden away behind the main street. Car free it is a relief to wander through without the endless traffic of Udon Thani. We had a full car with Peng, Yuan and Lud on board.

This Google Earth image shows you Aroma coffee shop on the right and 5 Yaek markets on the left. The link is HERE

This was before the new king’s coronation and yellow was all the go. He was born on a Monday and yellow is that day’s colour.

Jeans for Yuan and Lud’s son Game. 150 baht (A$7.00)

Modern Thai culture!

New clothes for mama.

The centre of Udon Thani. Thai city streetscapes are universally ugly. Anyone who tells you different is living in a dreamworld. You don’t come here for urban architectural photographic opportunities.

On the way out of Udon we always end up calling into this garden centre to check out what’s on offer. It’s just past the airport heading west on highway 210.

The other purpose for the trip was to visit ia rural area west if Udon that specialised in spring onions. Yuan wanted to get some dried ones to plant at the farm.

We stopped at this place owned by a ladyboy as we were after directions to a farmer able to sell Yuan the dried onions she wanted. This place was in full production preparing spring onions for market. These will most likely end up at Udon’s wholesale markets next to Makro on highway 22 HERE on Google Maps. Well worth a visit especially if you have visitors to see the diversity of fruit and vegetables available many in massed quantities. Here you will see those massively overloaded utilities being unpacked bringing crops from farm to market.

Bingo.

50 kilos at 60 baht a kilo.

It’s times like this that a pick-up makes sense. We already had half a load with Yurt’s contribution and adding 50 kilos of onions was no problem.

The farmers wanted to check out local spring onion production. Bulk plantings with irrigation.

Following on from the above, the photo on the left taken yesterday shows Yaun and Lud planting those spring onions we bought outside Udon. I will get to see the whole process from beginning to end will and have made a small contribution to the end result.  The photo on the right shows Gaun’s teak trees are making progress on her wooded part of the farm.

Happily chomping on grass at the farm. These fields will soon be turned over to rice so this cow had better eat while she has the chance.

Thanks for reading. Please leave a comment. I alway enjoy them and will respond to each one. Tony

8 Comments

  1. Greg Carroll

    Hi Tony,
    So pleased to read Peng has started Uni in Chang Mai. What is she studying? Hope she enjoys the new found freedom that comes with moving to a big city and doesn’t get too homesick.
    Yuri enjoyed the photos of Udon Thani’s markets – “girl’s heaven” was her comment.
    Glad you posted the image of the coffee shop – Yuri’s brother may be working there from time to time soon (he introduced me to Tong’s Thai coffee). He will be pleased to know there is good coffee available.
    Speaking of coffee and Chang Mai, Yuri’s brother gave us the address of a great little coffee shop in Chang Mai call Khajee. Well worth a visit next time you and Guan are there. Plain and unpretentious but with great coffee.
    Like the way Guan is planting Teak trees. We have heard these have to be registered – guess we’ll be planting plenty of these on our land as well.
    Cheers…Yuri and Greg

    Reply
  2. Jim Busby

    Back on the farm where time sort of stands still. Sorry to hear about the dry period again in what should be the rainy season. Maybe Elon Musk can lend you guys a big SpaceX rocket for next year’s Bun Bang Fai festival to increase your luck. As opposed to burning your green waste, maybe you could look into composting which you can use on the gardens and farm. Very interesting that they still use ice boxes instead of modern refrigeration to keep things cool. At least they won’t break down. Did you pick up any new shirts at the market? I have to agree that Thai cityscapes are butt ugly. I guess a standard concrete formed building is the cheapest way to build, and that beats aesthetics any day. From hand prepping the soil, to hand planting the seeds, to hand mulching, to hand fertilizing, to hand watering, to hand weeding, and then finally to hand picking the crops is just amazing that people still farm this way. Still, they are very proud of their work. Glad to see the elephants did their job and got Peng accepted to the university.

    Cheers,
    Jim

    Reply
    • Tony in Thailand

      Good to hear from you Jim. Yes, today was a beautiful bright, sunny day not a cloud in the sky this morning. Perfect for a lazy retired person like me but not so good for the farmers. Every year has been like this, a bit of rain and then nothing. We had the sprinkler system on last night and will again today but the look of it. Temperatures in the high 30’s so things dry out very quickly.

      The trouble with composting is just the quantity involved. In the last month we have taken five large pick-up loads to the farm and there’s almost one more ready to go now. We don’t have flower or vegetable beds so wouldn’t use any and the farm relies on it’s rotation of crops through the fields to keep things nourished plus they plough in grass and left over crops ready for the next planting so they have a ready made composing happening. The soil is beautifully rich as you can see from the photos and they have been farming it for over 20 years so it seems to work.

      Fridges aren’t in big demand because Isan people store almost nothing. They don’t have the longer term items that we use like dairy products, beer (haha) and food that is bought for use at a later time. The family buy or cooks for each meal. Whatever is left over goes to Duk Dik and the next day starts fresh. Sticky rice is prepared by Gaun every morning and she does enough for everyone for the day. Drinks are not stored cold but made cool using ice, which would be a complaint from you and your beer. Many other farang have the same problem with that but if you go to a wedding or funeral the beer arrives straight from the box with ice. It’s either hot beer or cool diluted beer 🙂

      No new shirts Jim although Gaun bought me two t shirts on an outing she did with Yuan and Peng. I was really clothes conscious back ‘home’ but these days I am still wearing t shirts I bought in Phuket six years ago. My shorts I get from a stall outside Tesco Lotus for 100 baht. Slip on shoes 100 baht. US$10.00 and I am done!!!

      We have discussed farming methods before Jim and one day that blog post on the future of Isan farming will make an appearance. There is some sign of changes to allow for an aging farming population. Rice at a farm near to us was planted by machine. I missed seeing it happen. More work is being subcontracted to the bigger tractors to do the bulk soil preparation while the detail is still the Isan workhorse diesel plough and by hand. More sugar harvesters seemed to be around this year and if they enforce the rule about not burning off the sugar they will be more in demand. Cutting by hand is harder and slower if the crop isn’t burnt so maybe less people will be willing to do it and it might be more expensive. As you saw with the spring onions there is some irrigation happening and that might slowly spread. In the case of Yuan and Lud and others of their generation I suspect we won’t see too many changes just yet as they do what has always worked for them. I did suggest we try planting some jasmine bushes as the flowers get 300 baht a kilo. The idea wasn’t taken up because they have never had jasmine before! It’s not my place to push ideas so I just watch to progress of farming life unfold. Yuan and Lud are totally at peace with their life and take great pride in what they produce so while physically they can do the work involved how can that outcome be improved on.

      Peng is settling in fine. They are keeping them busy and engaged with activities and she seems to be making friends. Studies start next week so she will get a taste of reality. She loves learning so it is no hardship for her.

      Cheers Jim.

      Tony

      Reply
  3. Submariner Steve

    Crickey Cobber,
    I don’t know how you find the time to scratch yourself ?!
    My guess is, you are currently happily more busy and more contented with your life here in Isan, ( Ican never decide if it’s Isaan or Isan), compared to what ever your government duties were in Canberra in your past life.
    There is that ongoing sense of freedom combined with the relaxation & satisfaction personally obtained with the pace of life here in a rural village, compared to what we experienced in our past lives downunder.
    My nicknames for Sydney were ‘Vallium Valley’ & ‘Coronary City’, good place to visit on holidays with my Thai life partner, but I wouldn’t want to live there. You live your life on the clock.
    When I was ‘shore-based’ from sea going submarines, I lived in a Naval residential home, amongst civilian properties, in North Ryde Sydney.
    Walking down to the bus stop to catch the 05:25am bus from near home to alight near ‘Dawn Frasers’ old training swimming pool, just above Luna Park, at North Sydney.
    Arriving there shortly before 06:00 to swim some laps, I would then walk down to the Submarine Depot HMAS Platypus at Neutral Bay to be onboard the depot prior to starting work there at 07:00.
    ‘Turn To’ at the Naval Base until 4pm, walk back up to North Sydney and catch a bus to alight at Sydney University, where I studied Civil Engineering. (This was to prepare me for whatever followed after retiring from the Navy)
    After 4 x 1 hour classes, I would then catch a bus back home to North Ryde, getting home around 10 pm.
    Do my homework from Uni, iron my previously washed uniforms for the next day, then go to sleep waking up around 4:50am to catch that bus at 5:25 am, and do it all again.
    I had a car, but that wasn’t worth the trouble of taking it out of the garage in North Ryde for the daily grind, traffic and parking hassles.
    Getting back to life here now, I am amazed as to how quickly and how well things grow here.
    Obviously, the climate and rainfall has a lot to do with that.
    If you have a stored water supply handy, you can grow crops here all year round.
    My lady Ratsamee wants to hook up, with your fellow native farmers, when everyone has time, to swap farming info and other topics.
    I am sure all of the fairer sex members would enjoy swapping tales over a plate or two of ‘Som Tum’ and side trimmings.
    I would enjoy catching up with yourself also, with a cool refreshing beverage.
    Another good blog mate, but I still don’t know how you find the time?!
    Best regards to you and yours,
    Aussie Submariner Steve !!!

    Reply
  4. John Tryon

    Great photos again, Tony. I love to see what your wonderful family is up to as the seasons progress. I saw the photo of the cow and was wondering if you have any concerns about getting close to one of these creatures here to take photos? I was warned by some Thai to stay away from buffalo or cows if they don’t know you. They can have quite an attitude problem.

    Reply
    • Tony in Thailand

      Thank you John. It was a pleasure to catch up on and share the latest small farming achievements. I find it so restful even just being an observer of the cycle of the seasons. It is basically comforting and probably connects with ancient memories when our lives were so dependant on what was growing outside the front door!

      That photo was taken with a telephoto so no risk. We had a lady in our village who crashed her motorbike into a cow on the road between us and the town of Si Bun Ruang. The cow panicked and gored her and she died shortly afterwards. Unusual circumstances I know but as with all large creatures I prefer to keep my distance.

      Good to hear from you.

      Tony

      Reply
  5. franklin r bond

    Morning Tony, lovely to see so much work going on around the farm and home, and all by hand, amazing. Do you think Gaun is thinking about putting sprinklers on the farm to help with watering? Just think it would save you from standing there for hours holding a hose! As far as coffee is concerned, I commend you on making your own. Where ever I am I order a flat white with one and hope for the best, so you see I’m not really a coffee connoisseur (spell check). That’s one of the longest words you’ll ever get from me.
    I hope the farm has some decent rain soon, it must be a chore trying to keep everything going for the “team”. Well done Gaun on saving the trees, I just read about poachers taking trees from temple grounds there, very sad. (Bangkok Post) Another fabulous story Tony, and much appreciated when I can sit down, relax and enjoy reading. Cheers Frank

    Reply
    • Tony in Thailand

      I have questioned about using sprinklers before but they prefer to hand water. Thais have a whole different attitude to how they use their time than we do I think. Spending several hours watering each day would drive us to look for alternatives. With Yuan and Lud it is just the thing they do between 3:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon. They do constantly rotate the crops through the fields, so there is never a stationery crop. The watering system would be always being moved.

      I enjoy a couple of morning coffees and alway have. It’s partly the coffee itself but also partly the routine of making it. It is a sort of comforting ritual to start the day. I make one for Gaun too, but she has three in one but with foamed milk, which is unusual as many Thais won’t drink milk. None of the family will, except for Peng.

      The rice on the farm has been flooded with bore water. It has been mostly dry here for the last ten days. We had some rain most evenings late May early June and then nothing. There are storm clouds around this evening but if nothing happens, and usually it doesn’t, we will be running the sprinkler system on the garden. Crazy in the middle of the wet season but it’s always been that way in Si Bun Ruang since I moved here.

      Yuan’s son game was conscripted into the army for two years. He spent some time in forests protecting trees from poachers. I very often see timber loaded up on trucks when driving and although it is probably legitimate to be out in full view I do wonder how long we can continue to cut things down without a very healthy replanting strategy. Locally I have watched so many trees come down and they are never replaced. We are doing our bit but it’s a lonely effort.

      Thanks for the feedback Frank.

      Tony

      Reply

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