I want to share some of my impressions of an Isaan farming community as represented by what I have seen so far. Having only been here for a few days I make no claim to any deep understandings of the community and how it works. However, I am so lucky to have a non-tourist farang view of what little I have seen as Gaun’s family have been extremely welcoming and happy to show me around and include me in activities.
My rambling below is therefore based mostly on my observations of their situation, but that seems to be fairly typical of the area.
I am located outside a small town called Si Bun Ruang, which sits midway between Udon Thani to the North and Khon Kaen to the South. The town itself is mostly a strip development of small shops on either side of the main road running between Udon Thani and Khon Kaen. Squint your eyes (a lot) and you could be looking at a small rural town in Australia. All pretty ugly and ramshackle, which seems to be the Thai norm. Five minutes drive and you’re through the town and on the other side.
There are several main components to the town. A couple of large schools which must service the entire area are situated on the outskirts of the town as you drive in. Come four o’clock and the place is full of kids on motorbikes with buses and cars picking up for home delivery.
There is a bus station in the centre of town with regular arrivals and departures from and to Udon Thani and Khon Kaen. These bigger towns centres then connect via bus to places like Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket etc. Plenty of food stalls around the bus station as you’d expect. Thais with time on their hands need to be eating!
There is a large police station – function unknown. The police are a fairly constant presence in Thailand. Road check-points are a regular occurrence, although I have only been stopped once to have my papers looked at. I’m not sure the crime rate justifies this but maybe they are government’s statement of authority. Funnily the local police have a large blue van parked outside the station, which identifies itself by the large words “POLICE” on the side. Maybe this is only used to pick up English speaking offenders. I hope not to have to report back on this assumption.
The local markets sit behind the main road in the form of a couple of large tin sheds. The stall holders spread themselves and their produce over low wooden tables from which as much gossip as sales seems to occur.
When I arrive the “farang” word seems to be included in many overheard conversations. Huge smiles and friendly faces are provided free of charge. There are morning markets and afternoon markets with slightly different locations. Not sure why as some of the stallholders seem to just move from one place to the other.
Many of the shops are geared towards farming. Gumboots (is that an Australian word or have I fallen back into being a pom?) are a big item on display. Every colour and some multi-coloured available – a gumboot collectors paradise.
There are whole shops that seems to exist just to sell sticky rice containers. This interesting staple food item is cooked in bulk and then rolled into the right shape to be stuffed into round bamboo containers which have a close fitting lid. String handles are provided so you can take your sticky rice wherever you go. It is eaten hot or cold and will be produced for any Isaan meal offered. I went on a picnic with Gaun’s family recently and two sticky rice containers came with us!
Surrounding the town is pure Thai countryside with glimpses that are truly what you will see in the travel brochures. Vivid green rice fields, small farmer’s huts and lush vegetation. Really very beautiful to an Aussie’s eyes after our dry brown country.
Gaun’s family land is split between two locations. The family’s home base is located in what I guess could be called Si Bun Ruang “suburbs” and currently has three houses built on it. There is the original house that Gaun’s mother and Gaun’s young daughter Bang live in. Next door is another double storey house, which was built by a daughter while a third smaller structure is used by Gaun’s younger sister and brother-in-law when they’re not working on the farm. With no planning permission required here there is space for another two houses if anyone in the family wants to build them.
The street-scene is of very narrow, concrete paved streets set out in a grid pattern. The houses are built for Thais so pretty rudimentary on the whole. They are often a concrete block ground floor sometimes with a wooden top floor. Inside the ones I have seen are just large open rooms with tiled floors and not much in the way of furniture or creature comforts. Much of life seems to be lived outside so I guess the house is less important than in our Western context. There are often additions or out-buildings constructed in wood and corrugated iron. These would fit in well with some of our Australian rural settings.
The family’s farm is outside the village about 5 minutes motorbike ride away (thought I would throw that in so you can appreciated the efforts I’m going to bring you this local lifestyle report) . I don’t know how much land they have but it is a reasonable size. My understanding is that Gaun’s Mama has split the farm between the seven children but most of the work seems to be done by the youngest daughter Yuan and her husband Lud. I don’t know the relationship between land, work and income. Gaun owns two shares of the land having bought out one of her brothers. Most of the rest of the family (seven kids) live elsewhere and earn a living that is not based on the land. A story replicated the world over.
Lud and Yuan live on the farm itself, certainly at the moment when there is work to be done. The “farm house” is an open structure with a tin roof. There is a wood fired kitchen where meals are cooked including for the workers during planting and harvest times. Rain is collected from the roof in large clay pots. The raised area in the middle is the sleeping platform with mosquito netting. Another raised platform, where I’m sitting talking to my brother on the mobile (Telstra please note. Also interestingly spell-check offers castrate as an alternative to Telstra ) is used for eating. Once again this is all very basic but seems to meet the need and the mortgage is pretty non-existent! Protection from the cold is not a high priority here.
On the first day I got a tour of the farm, which is currently growing mainly rice and corn. Rice is being planted out now with a harvest in November. In the photo before the one above you can see the rice shoots being harvested from the “nursery”. These are then bundled as you can also see and taken to the workers in batches on long poles where they are planted out.
Sugar cane is the other main crop but it has been harvested and the land is sitting fallow. There are smaller crops of mixed vegetables, which are grown for sale and to supplement the family’s meals. Picked today eaten today.
I was invited to do my bit for the Thai economy so jumped in and put in a pretty good effort for half an hour! These people do it from sun up to nightfall. Way beyond my endurance. All undertaken with such good humour. Lots of chatting and laughter particularly about my planting techniques I suspect.
I have gained an insight to that rural way of life where the connection between the farmers, land and crops is so close. This is not a culture reliant on the Woolworth’s weekly shop. The markets are used but it is all local products bought from local people. What is eaten is what is in season. No refrigerated apples or strawberries flow in from who knows where or when. Gaun’s mama is out gathering during the day and when we arrive in the evening she has a contribution of vegetables to make to the meal. When our world sinks as a result of its over complication these people will most likely continue leading a life much as it is today.
Gaun and I show up at home for the evening meal, which is when the family members working on the farm arrive in after sunset. Mama’s kitchen is a larger version of the one on the farm – super basic. There’s a wood “stove”, earth pots for water and a single gas burner. No running water, no sink, no electricity apart from one florescent light and very little in the way of kitchen implements.
Yet from this arrangement in no time I get meals like last night, where I had freshly BBQ’ed fish, chicken in red curry sauce, a minced fish dish, a pork dish, steamed and sticky rice with about five different types of greens all picked that day. Not bad.
As we slave our lives away to repay our fancy kitchens I wonder who has managed to achieve the right balance. Easy for me to say with a good external income I know but the priorities in our lives seems to have got a bit out of whack. Gaun is critical of those who borrow from the bank to build for “show”. “Build for what?” she asks. How much of what we do is for show and how little for actual necessity.
I have gone all philosophical and lost the plot so will end it here. Am sure I have missed some stuff but will catch up in the next blog coming soon.