Two days in rural Isan

I hope to make this post as interesting as I can to show you what a well run Isan farm looks like and the cycle of activities and crops that make up the life of fulltime professional farmers like my wife’s younger sister and brother-in-law, Yuan and Lud. 

To do this I thought I would share two of the days activities that I recently captured in photos.

When we arrived at the farm Yuan and Lud were busy taking down the trellis that had supported the long beans, when they were in production earlier this year. I think this field will become a rice paddy next.

Gaun jumped in to help. Note that both ladies are using machetes, something I constantly point out to males reading. Don’t upset your rural Isan partner because she was born with a machete in her hand and knows how to use it  In this case the knives were only being used to clean the trellis from dead long bean growth….phew.

Chat, lots of laughter and the job gets done. Yuan was thinking of employing someone to do this, but decided that it would take twice as long so is doing it themselves. Yuan has a little time for slack or slow workers. She and Gaun are twins in many ways.

The stripped branches that make up the tellis are neatly stored off the ground for the next time they are needed. The type of organisation and attention to detail that makes this farm pretty unique.

Yuan and Lud wanted to buy some spring onions from a neighbouring farm and chillies from Noi, Gaun’s eldest sister, who has a farm 30 minutes from us. I wanted to be part of the outing so off we went.

The photo above on the right is the farm producing spring onions. Yuan wanted some for her Friday street market stall happening tomorrow as her onions aren’t ready to be harvested yet. Irrigation in place, which is an unusual sight in this area.

This is more how Isan farms ordinarily look like. I am always amazed at the personal connections that exist in a simple scene like this, which would escape my understanding except for Gaun’s kindness in educating me. 

This group consisted on the guy who moved and rebuilt both of our rice huts and his wife. This is her sister’s farm so she was there with her husband who also buys Yuan’s sugar crop in season. A younger sister-in-law of rice hut man was working plus the mother. A cousin of Gaun completed the group. After over four years here I slowly start to not only see faces I recognise but fit them into the village relationship puzzle.

Obviously today it was all hands on mud rather than ‘on deck’ to clean and prepare spring onions.

Gaun was dressed for farming with her headgear but her shirt reads ‘Good girls go to heaven – bad girls go to Amsterdam’ courtesy of a friend from the Netherlands needless to say. She doesn’t look bad does she 

Yuan and Lud picked their own onions, cleaned and washed them. 3 kilos at 40 baht (A$1.65) a kilo. Yuan will separate these into 10 baht bundles for sale at her market stall tomorrow. We will be going there so I will show you the outcome then.

Guesses?

Not a termite mound but a hollow clay cover for producing charcoal. The timber goes inside and it is sealed for a slow burn. A sack of charcoal sells for 100 – 120 baht and is still widely used as a cooking method.

Our next stop was at Noi’s village the eldest of mama’s children.

There’s more to the photo than it seems. Left to right – (1) Noi’s daughter (2) Yuan, who is talking to Yurt, the second eldest sister who works in Udon Thani but phones every day to check on the gossip (3) Noi’s husband who recently broke his foot so has been housebound (4) Five kilos of chillies at 100 baht (A$4.40) a kilo (5) Gaun of course who is bringing Noi up to date with the split of the family farm between the children, which should be wrapped up this month and (6) Noi herself, the eldest of mama’s kids. This is a typically ‘furnished’ Isan house. The only addition when lunch was served was that a reed mat was rolled out!

Speaking of reed mats outside some reeds were being dried ready for weaving into said mats.

I liked the contrast between an ancient tradition like the mat weaving and the satellite dish in the background. It is this wonderful mixed of old and new that makes rural Thailand so interesting and easy to live in.

Inside the house it was all business and gossip so Lud did what any guy would do – he pulled up a hammock and promptly fell asleep. He was woken up for lunch!

I say this all the time but if I had lots more money there are more scenic and historic places to live with food more suited to my tastes etc etc BUT there is something so inclusive and honest about a morning like this that all in all I suspect I would choose this life over a Tuscan villa!

Day 2

As usual we headed out to the farm in the  morning. It’s what we do most days but today I especially wanted to visit and see what Yuan was preparing for her Friday street market stall, which I will photograph and share later in the day.

Yuan was in her farm office working away. In this case preparing morning glory picked from Bear’s (Gaun older sister who runs the other family farm) pond next door.

Look at the way this is presented! The quality of everything done on this farm is why I am proud to share Yuan and Lud’s achievements to others. These bundles will sell for 10 baht.

Back to Yaun. Each morning glory stalk is inspected, the lower leaves are cut off individually and the bottom trimmed. Half of what is in front of her is discarded waste, which will be given to the fish in the pond. Many other farmers would just bundle what they picked and sell like that. It’s why Yuan ALWAYS sells out at the markets and usually leaves before anyone else. The proof of this can be seen later in this post when we visit the markets.

Doog-kha Jon – fried with garlic and oyster sauce – really good (borrowed words – thanks Stig). And these are officially Telosma Cordata and the Wikilink is HERE and thanks to Alvin for that information.

This is the plant they originate from. Always grown on a trellis.

Freshly picked lettuce. I want to get a sign made for Yuan’s stall which says “Vansutha Farms – picked today, sold today’. Many of the other stalls sell product brought in from Udon Thani wholesale markets and the product can be a few days old. 10 baht a bunch.

Remember the spring onions Yuan and Lud picked yesterday? Check the previous post if not. 40 baht a kilo but each of those smaller bundles will sell for 10 baht. Yuan gets between 10 and 12 bundles per kilo so up to a 200% return on investment.

Chinese celery.

This is why Yuan couldn’t sell her own spring onions. They still have a little way to go. Celery and dill in the background. This land belongs to Gaun, which is why it has a backdrop of trees. The temptation to clear all land for planting sugar is too much for most farmers. It will never happen in Gaun’s lifetime.

With some but no significant rain the farm is back to pumping bore/well water to flood the rice field. They are still a couple of weeks (?) off harvesting this seed bed for replanting in the paddies. 

This photo was taken of a new vegetable area seeded on 20 June. 

This is how it looks two weeks later.

Gaun’s pond plantings are growing well now that it is cooler and we have had some rain. A triple layer of shrubs and trees. The Dok Khun, golden shower trees in the centre will be three to four meters high in 12 months.

This is a ‘before’ photo. That bare earth area has been seeded with flowers taken elsewhere in the farm and hopefully will be a sea of colour in a few weeks. I will report back.

I keep sharing this photo in relation to the relocation of the second rice hut we bought and the garden Gaun created around it. This is the before.

And this is seven months later. I was passing so had to capture this image. I still find it hard to relate the before with this magnificent outcome in such a short time. Flick between the two photos and you’ll see why I was am so impressed.

I give the impression that I do nothing while everyone else is busy around me, but this is only because I usually have the camera in hand (true….no really). Just to prove this largely unknown fact here is a photo taken by Gaun this morning at the farm of me making Gaun and Yuan a coffee. It’s a tough job but someone has to step up and do it. Keeping the wheels of Isan agriculture turning.

At the markets that afternoon

This story is to round off this morning’s story above about Yuan getting ready for the Friday street markets. We got there late, because of the service guys, and found that by 5:00 pm Yuan had pretty well sold out of everything. I had hoped to get a photo of all the things you saw at the farm earlier actually displayed on her stall, but you have to be quick. A few final photos with stories to finish the day.

By late afternoon school is out and workers are heading home via the markets. Rush hour in Si Bun Ruang.

This is basically what was left when we arrived. A few bags of chillies and a small number of bundles. Gaun being shy as always.

Yuan with customers. Always happy to be selling and making money.

The rush was on.

The final morning glory you saw being prepared this morning is sold by a lady sharing Yuan’s stall.

This lady was trying to sell these. A nice flower arrangement I thought, but evidently you boil them and they’re good with fish! 10 baht a bundle. Alvin Sumedha Lee you will know what they are. Update: Yes he did. Siam Tulip and you can find the Wikilink HERE.

When Peng was living here she often joined Yuan to help sell vegetables and really enjoyed it. This evening she was there in spirit via a video link from Chiang Mai 

Outside the food and farmers stalls the rest is standard bulk made in China stuff with very little originality. These commercial stall holders move through a local market weekly cycle, so see one market you have pretty well seen them all.

Leaving Yuan we picked up some fresh eggs. 110 baht (A$5.00) for 30 big ones.

And a large bunch of asparagus for 20 baht (A$0.90). I doubt this is grown locally but will be shipped in from the Udon Thani wholesale markets.

If you want to keep up with the daily happenings of rural Isan and use Facebook, then join my group Rural Isan, Thailand HERE Lots of information published most days.

8 Comments

  1. Annette Manley

    Tony I open your stories thru comments also. Great story and pics. Thanks again.
    Annie from Tassie

    Reply
    • Tony in Thailand

      Lovely to hear from you Annie. I thought I had lost you. Thanks for confirming that workaround. I will get organised and put something better in place. I just get carried away putting energy into the stories and forget the admin, never my favourite pastime.

      A new story just published, which I hope you enjoy.

      Tony

      Reply
  2. Jim Busby

    Sorry to hear about your koi. I have a very heavily planted aquarium that had three beautiful Discus (SA fish), and once they died, it was sort of why keep the tank going? Laughter, is the cure to everything in life, and if more people would laugh, the world would be a better place. I think it’s time you have a separate index with a Vansutha family tree diagram, so we, and you, can keep track of your relatives, since Lud and I must be related with that hammock shot ;-). Funny that making your own charcoal is unique, considering much of the World is now involved in producing BioChar. It’s really great to see hard working people, who put their best efforts forward, are rewarded for their dedication. 300% return is what my lazy butt can get for buying and selling selected stocks over several years. Personally, I’d rather pick and clean vegetables for that % profit in a much shorter time. Amazing that we try to delude ourselves into believing that having the best furnishings in our house, is a testament to our success, rather than seeing it as a distraction to what is really important, and fun in life. Those freshly cooked prawns will taste just as good on a straw mat, as they do on a fancy dining table. That’s really charming that Peng was able to Video chat with Yuan and mom at this function, since she used to participate, but can’t be there now. Did you buy Peng a laptop with a camera, so she can also Video chat from her laptop? Those eggs are huge, like duck eggs. Also, were you making coffee for the ladies, or just dispensing it, Senor Barista? A big difference in the two :-).

    Great post on rural Isan life,

    Jim

    Reply
    • Tony in Thailand

      Jim, as always your comments are a delight to read. It is my reward for writing the post in the first place.

      Yes, we were sorry to lose the koi. It’s just a fish so no big deal, but he was part of our family having been with us since shortly after we moved in. The others seem to be OK so just a once off for whatever reason.

      I am sure that Jim Busby is in the family tree somewhere, probably on the black sheep side. Between lounging on your pool and now I learn in a hammock as well, your life sounds just as it should be.

      I so agree on the return on investment in time, effort and money. The pleasure is that Yuan and Lud don’t see this as a chore but absolutely love growing and selling vegetables. Yuan is the powerhouse and organises everything and controls the money, which is quite common in Isan. Dear Lud does what he’s told and is a quiet achiever. Yuan will give him money for something and then check she gets the correct change! It sounds a bit harsh but Lud takes it all in his stride. A very solid relationship.

      As you know I am in total agreement also on the futility of our constant desire and expectation that ‘things’ bring happiness. What a trap we have made for ourselves. I get great inspiration in observing the enjoyable simplicity of my Isan family’s life. It is far more based on an enjoyment of the moment, which is the true reality, rather than blanking out the now for a vision of a future that may never arrive.

      I know modern technology can isolate people as they focus on the phone rather than what’s actually around them, but in these instances it can be very connecting. Gaun and Peng talk everyday. We had friends over for dinner two nights ago and Peng phoned and Guan was able to show her the Isan food on the table, which Peng misses as they don’t do ‘proper’ Isan food in Chiang Mai. We will be up there next week and Gaun has an order of essential home supplies to take up including lots of powerful chilli paste. Pizza is also on Peng’s wishlist so I have had a positive influence on her cultural experiences 🙂

      Yes, I did buy Peng a laptop the first time we went to Chiang Mai and it does have a camera. Peng tends to use her phone when she contacts home as the calls are often made when she has a break like at lunch time, so she’s on the move. Excellent quality either way. Peng is actually talking to Gaun as I type to you now.

      I used to buy duck eggs but have switched back to chicken. The yoke in duck eggs was great but the whites were tougher than chicken eggs. The eggs are sized here as they are in the west, but a lot cheaper obviously. Locally grown but under what conditions I don’t know. The yokes are a nice yellow, which certainly in Australia wasn’t the case with supermarket eggs.

      I was actually making coffee in that photo Jim. Hard worker me. Only three in one, which is a super sweet packet mix. I do make a real, freshly ground coffee with the full Italian espresso machine at home to kick start the day, but Gaun won’t touch it. Too strong and it tastes of coffee! I will keep you topped up when you visit 🙂

      Cheers Jim. I am having a burst of blog activity for whatever reason so you will find another story already posted I think you’ll enjoy.

      My very warm regards.

      Tony

      Reply
  3. kevin O'Doherty

    Another great story for Issan! My wife is also from Si Beung Reung originally, so I’ll have to drop by next time i’m in the area if that’s possible…

    side note.. the pictures from your blog do not seem to show up inside Gmail for me. I need to open the link to your site to see the images…. I seem to remember they did show up inside g-mail before, but I could be mistaken.

    Either way, great job!

    Reply
    • Tony in Thailand

      Thank you Kevin and we look forward to meeting you both if that works next time you’re over.

      I know about the problems with the emails. I upgraded the format of the blog and it isn’t compatible with the notifications. It is on my list to fix and I intend to be more active in advising subscribers of updates shortly in a different way. The home page is actually an active post on its own as I update it with things like a photo and small story of the day and it also has useful links that connect you to the hundreds of stories I have written over the last six years. The Pinned area towards the bottom has lots of links to practical aspects such as paperwork and living tips etc

      Thanks for the comment.

      Tony

      Reply
      • mark

        G’day Tony another great story of everyday life in rural isan, I enjoy having a read and looking at the pics. Everything looks so green and fresh. On a side not, from what Kevin commented on about emails and pics not loading. When I get your email I open it and it only has words no pics, I scroll down and click on comments, it opens a new tab with all the words and the pictures in place. I hope this helps.

        Reply
        • Tony in Thailand

          Thanks for that tip Mark. I hope to have a solution shortly to make it all more straightforward. As always I am happy to know you are taking an interest and have the time to leave a comment. Cheers mate.

          Tony

          Reply

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