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Oct 20 2014

Life in an Isaan Village

Life in an Isaan Village

Isaan Rice Farm

You may or may not know but my wife is a Thai national of which I met in Thailand. With that I have spent a lot of time in the family’s village getting to know the way the Isaan people live. Isaan is a Thai word meaning “North-East” Isaan is the North-East region of Thailand and some of the big name destinations are Udon Thani, Khon Kaen, Khorat, Nong Khai, and Surin. In Isaan the native language is not the Central Thai language spoken in Bangkok but is similar dialect which differs from each area throughout Isaan. My wife is from Udon Thani so they speak a dialect that consists of Thai and the Laotian languages. In the Isaan region it is very common to see farms for growing rice which is a large part of the lives of the Isaan people as it is their largest export along with Pineapple.

Isaan Tractor

The culture of the Isaan people is very much the same as the culture of the people in Lao. During the 13th century the Lao Kingdom dominated the Isaan region with many wars between the Thai, Laotian, Burmese and Cambodian people over the land. It was not until the French-Siamese war in 1893 where borders were set and the Isaan region became the North-East Region of Thailand. Later on the Thai government promoted a “Thaification” cleanse to de-emphasise the Lao and Khmer cultures and languages in the area. This was due to the Thai government fearing people may one day return to Laos Cambodia. To this day the Lao culture and Isaan language is still very predominant throughout the Isaan region but learning the Central Thai language at school is a requirement.

As mentioned above my wives family are located in the Udon Thani area of Isaan. Their Moo-Barn (village) is about 35-40 minute drive east of the city of Udon Thani. The road heading out to the village is a paved highway-type configuration and it lined with extravagate mile-markers, bus stops and many soi’s (side streets) leading to villages. Some of these side streets will be paved while others may be dirt roads. The street leading up to the In-laws village is paved with so many potholes you cannot avoid them. Some smaller cars do struggle to use this road.

 Isaan Village houseAs you are driving up the street you will see many farms with small huts made of scrap wood and bamboo. Some of these are homes to people and othersare just shelter while for working on the farm. As you enter our village you will find more established houses, a school, roads in better condition, and some very small shops/stalls. These shops are normally house fronts set up as a convenience store. On the side of the road is a stand that will see fresh (unrefrigerated) meats, and the other side will have a stand with a person selling glass bottles of fuel for the Motorbikes. To visit a Supermarket or Petrol Station you will have to travel down the pothole-filled road to the closet town which can by a great distance from many villages. If you have been to Thailand you will see that the main form of transport is the Scooter/moped so often larger Petrol Stations are not required.

As you drive past the houses you will see that they are all very run down and consist of minimal materials. Some people will live in what appears to be a tin shed; others have managed to construct a dwelling with 4 brick (block) walls and a roof. Once you get into these houses there is not much to see. No dividing walls, no carpet, no timber frame with plastered walls, just a concrete floor and if they are lucky enough they may have stand alone wardrobes and a gas stove, like you would take camping, for cooking.  The houses are open-aired so bugs, birds, frogs and lizards will often drop in. Mosquitoes are a big problem in these areas as they can be carriers of malaria and many other diseases.

On a normal day all will wake up early, and clear their bedding. The bedding they have in a thin mattress on the concrete floor with a mosquito net for cover. All will sleep together across a couple mattresses and have blankets available for the cooler nights during the middle of the year. The shower/bathroom is normally a room external to the house. There is no pressure in the water system so there is no traditional with a shower head. The shower consists of a large bucket full of water with a smaller container to pour/splash water on yourself, the water is at room temperature as heating water is an expensive luxury on the money these people make. Towels are kept to a minimal and are not to be used for your feet, this is considered dis-respectful, and generally a towel is kept to the side just for feet.

Issan KitchenProperty boundaries are very different in the village. There are no fences and no one is worried about other coming on to their property. With my the In-laws most of the extended family live next to each other and without the fences it appears like one large block with multiple houses on it, like its own community. In this community there are all the herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables growing fresh all year round which are for use of anyone in need. Imagine walking up to your neighbour’s garden and taking what you needed… I can imagine they would not be very happy but in these villages everyone works together to look after each other. Food is often minimal and meals may consist of whatever you could find around. Meats are not eaten every day, as it is expensive to buy. Most families grow their own rice which generally lasts them the entire year but some other families will grow rice in commercial quantities. Some families/communities will also raise cows, pigs, chickens and ducks which later become their source of protein. Often families will own 2 farms, one for growing the rice and one for other vegetables and bits and pieces. At the farms Fish, Rats, some seafood and large insects can be caught for eating.

Isaan Shop

If meat can be afforded it would generally be eaten in the morning for their breakfast. I have woken at 4am just so that we could drive down to the next village and buy some meat that it so fresh the cow was killed just hours before. We would then arrive back to the house to find that the beef was not cooked and eaten raw by all. My western stomach cannot take the raw meat so I stuck to the rice on that occasion. It is also great walking through the village where everyone wants to have a talk. A family could be sitting down for a meal that they have managed to put together with what very little they had but still offer someone walking by a seat and a meal. Maa! Gin Khao (Come! Eat) is one of my most heard phrases in Thai. Eating is another very big part of the Isaan people lives, it is a social activity. Eating is done sitting on the floor as dinning settings are un-heard of. You could sit of the floor for hours grazing over the food in front of you just talking about the latest Thai Soap Oprah or about the sick Grandmother and how they are going to come up with money to treat her.

If a family own a TV it almost becomes communal. All the local children will convene and watch their favourite cartoons, while in the evening, the adults will gather for the news, Muay Thai or the Thai Soap Oprah’s. The houses are kept clean at all times as the Isaan people have pride in what little they own. Entering a home you must take your shoes/thongs off as a sign of respect. I have to say I have never seen someone wearing shoes in a house in the village as children are taught very young, and in most touristy areas it can be the same entering a shop. The water in this village is also minimal. The village’s water is stored in large water tanks and is not enough to last all day. For many hours throughout the day no water is available and when it is available there is very little pressure. If this was to happen in the western world there would be outrage and health and safety problems would occur.

Isaan TV Time

The Isaan people will do whatever they can to earn money to eat and live. But the options for work are very minimal. Most of these jobs are hard labour jobs working 12-15 hours a day on a farm with no shelter and the extreme heat for around 100B(recently risen to 250B) for the day. There is no welfare or unemployment benefits and no Pension or Superannuation schemes so life can get very difficult. Unfortunately a lot of people will drop out of schools at an early age to go and work to support the family. Schooling in the Villages is not up to the standards we expect in the western world and university is too expensive so not normally an option.  In the village culture the children will generally relocate to an area where they can find employment, like Bangkok, Malaysia, Israel and wherever the tourism is in Thailand. I have touched on this in a previous post on Why are there so many Sex workers in Thailand? But family is number one, and the children will do what they have to, to support the families, even if it means not seeing their own children for months or even a year at a time.

The Buddhist religion is very visual throughout the areas with most villages having their own extravagant Temple’s that almost look out of place with the surroundings of the local’s houses and dirt roads. The law in the villages can be very different to the rest of Thailand. A lot of the time the Police will not get involved in Village problems but leave it to the Village Chief. The Village Chief is an elder of the village who has the respect of all the people and can be the judge, jury and law in most cases. The hierarchy of the village is assigned by age, so the older the person the more say/respect they will have in the village.

Isaan ShowerAs the sun goes down and all the adults are returning from work fires are lit to cook and help keep the mosquitoes away for the evening. Most people will stay together and eat and talk and most of the males will sit together having a drink. Alcohol is consumed by the males almost every day. For 70B you can purchase a small bottle of “Lao Khao”, very strong rice whiskey that is not recommended to be consumed as it can cause many health problems. This is often drank or a homemade version with a shot glass and along with Leo or Archer beer (Beer of Thailand Post) with Ice to cool it down but only if it can be afforded. People will then shower and cover their bodies in baby powder which is believed to keep them cool overnight. Beds are set up and all will sleep and start again the next day.

It is amazing as well to see a smile on everyone’s face even though they can struggle with day-to-day life and getting a good feed every day. As there is so little money available the luxuries we have learnt to live with are not an option to the Isaan people. I personally think that these people are amazing and very strong to be able to do what they do in the state of which they live. I enjoy spending time in the village and unfortunately this is not always an options to tourists but if you have the opportunity to spend some time in a Village. We had our Thai wedding ceremony in the village and had family and friends come from Home and all loved the experience. I call it the “real” Thailand.

Thai Petrol Station

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