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Letter from Issaan part 1


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I started this a couple of weks back under the title "back in Issaan", but it has grown topsy turvy, and I decided to rewrite that bit, and break the whole story down in segments. Any feedback welcome. At the moment my main problem seems to be that I can not keep up with enough writing to cover all i want to describe.


Letter from Issaan (1)

Although I have been in Issaan (N.E.Thailand) before, I’m still a relative newbie.

But not after this visit.

It started of on Sunday 23/12/01 when we flew to Nakom Phanom.

Nok had some nefarious bureaucratic business to attend to in her home district, regarding her multiple identities, resulting from various marriages, widowness, divorce etc, which had created some problems for her. Although she had tried to explain it to me, it went above my head, and although I accompany her to the many visits to the ampur and the copshop, I’ve given up trying to understand.

Anyway, last time we were visiting her family, we stayed at a hotel in Nakhom Phanom, with her family living in a village about 20 km NW of the town. But the hotel is about 1500 bt per night, this could be a long (2 wk) visit, so when she said 'maybe we stay at my family’s house ( actually she said “my house”, since she paid for building most of it), I jumped at the opportunity.

After reading CENT’s stories, I’ve wanted to experience home life in Issaan. I have once been in an Issaan household before for 2 nights, but accompanied by an English speaking friend and two other falangs. This was to be cold turkey from falang culture, on my own, with only my GF who speaks only rudimentary English, and no one else in the household speaks any more. My Thai is even more rudimentary.

One snag ( there always is one) was an explanation that there was no bed for us, maybe I could sleep on a bedroll on the veranda, and she’d sleep with mum.

Like hell! Maybe for a night, but not what might be a week or two. Compromise , we buy a bed. Maybe that was the agenda in the first place, but I’ll never know.

On arrival at 5.00 PM on Sunday, we get picked up by Sister in the family pick-up truck (Toyota single cab 3.0L diesel) then driven to town to buy a bed, ON SUNDAY evening in a small town in rural thailand! Yes, a market is open that sells King size beds, and we add a wardrobe type cabinet, since Nok says we need it. I suspect sister needs the bed and wardrobe at some stage, but since the whole deal is only 6000 bath, cost of 4 nights hotel, I don’t mind at all. Mattress proves to be a bit spartan, but I’ll survive. Both bed, mattress and wardrobe get stacked in the back of the Pick-up. Then we go into town to try buy some roofing iron, but we’re too late and they have all gone home. On our way through town, we pick up ‘takeaways’, or as the Yanks call it, a ‘take out’ meal. In plastic bags, a variety of unidentifiable substances. ( and a box of Leo beer, I wanted Singha, but was told “Issaan people are poor and drink cheap beer” wink.gif" border="0.

Then half an hour on the red dust roads, listening to Molam (Issaan kind of “Country and Western” music, sometimes raucous, usually sentimental, lots of tears, broken love affairs, illicit love affairs etc) from the car stereo, mixed with loud discussion in local Lao dialect between Nok and Pit. Funny, their tone of voice often suggests they’re having a flaming row, raucous voices, but they’re only having an amicable sisterly catch up.

I now and then pick up a few words, for instance where Nok recounts that although she may now be my Mia noi ( minor wife), my Mia leua ( major wife) is still somewhere in the picture, so I am Chao Suu ( lit: a philanderer). I cut into the conversation, pointing out that at least I am open about this, and about the fact that I have formally separated from number 1, while she has all this time strung two guys along, me and a similar age Brit, while claiming to both of us we were the only one. I don’t mind too much, after all, I am here now, but if I am Chao Suu, so is she, and more so. That results in uproarious laughter by the sisters. Obviously , falang are always cheating, but puying Thai have different standards.

After dark, we get home. An interesting aspect of Issaan people is that in my experience, they don’t seem to worry too much about the formalities of greeting. We got out of the car, dad came down to help us with all the gear we brought, but didn’t seem to take any notice of the daughter he hadn’t seen for a month, or the falang she brought along. Neither did any of the rest of the family. I don’t think they deliberately snubbed us, I just don’t think it occurs to them to say hello.

First action upon arrival: Eat! Food is the most important focus in Issaan, and all of life revolves around it. Most of the dishes we picked up on the way were delicious (I like Issaan food), one tasted foul in my falang taste.

Maybe because we brought food and a box of beer, by the end of the meal, two women and three men had joined us (“neighbors & friends” wink.gif" border="0 , who then proceeded in great confusion to put the bed together in a dark room by the light of a torch. I pondered about the multiplicity of cooks, and decided my advice was not needed, sat down in a corner with a beer and a smoke.

An hour later, it had been accomplished. Then the whole tribe got to the open living area and put on a Molam concert DVD. It sometimes amazes me, the contrast between in our eyes extremely basic (I was going to say ‘primitive’ wink.gif" border="0 facilities like cooking on a charcoal burner, having no hot water, no flush loo, no roof over the kitchen area, etc, and the casual use of modern hi-tech such as DVD players, TV etc.

The men joined me in consuming the box of beer, the 3 older women got stuck into chewing (betelnut, I assume), and frequently spitting the bright red end product skillfully into a spittoon between them.

I had a cigar, and went to bed. Oops, parents are next bedroom, walls are made of plywood, new bed had the plastic wrapper kept on, on request of sister, so every move creates crinkly plastic sound.

Nok is petrified. She assures me that she has never slept in her home with any man, and that it is seen as improper to sleep with a man you are not married to. Which seems ironic in the light of her former profession. She’s 28 now, but felt like a 16 yr old who smuggled her boyfriend in through the window of the bedroom. OK, first night, no sex.

In fact, more or less OK, she’s been keeping me on the edge of my potential these past few weeks, I am starting to realise that at 53 there are limits, and she keeps trying to push the boundaries. I have an inkling that it has to do with a deep seated distrust in the fidelity of men, “all men are philanderers, and the best thing to keep them from straying is to keep them totally drained”.

One night abstention is fine with me. However, she’s been suggesting we stay here until well after New Year. I explained that in that case, we’d have to either take the odd night on a trip away like in a NP hotel, or go visit short time hotel in NP during daytime. That has her in stitches.

Beer drinking at night means the need for the odd late night bladder relieving. Cent has written a lovely story about this, mine is remarkably similar, be it not so poetic. The ablution facilities consists of the usual squat loo, a concrete basin filled with water,

and a plastic bowl for flushing and washing yourself. It is located in a concrete building with tin roof at about 20 ft from the house, separated by earth, grass and mud. Additionally, there are house alterations going on, so the straight line to the toilet is littered with building material. Nok explained to me that if I have to piss at night, I can just do it on the grass next to the house. But ONLY at night, in daytime that is not polite! (Never stops her from doing it in the daytime when she thinks I don’t see her! ) Anyway, getting outside for that purpose at night is an interesting exercise. It means getting out from under the mosquito net, leaving the room (without door) walking 8 ft towards the 3 steep wooden, unevenly spaced steps down to the cooking area. Then right for about 10 ft, down another 12 step uneven wooden staircase, At the bottom of which is a low corrugated iron gate (To keep dogs and other animals from crawling up the stairs into the house at night. Open the gate, (primitive wire around nail catch, search in the dark for my slippers, and wonder off into the field next to the house. Bliss! Had been postponing it for too long, dreading the hassle of getting down. Then reverse order back to bed. Keeping in mind that the house is like one great wooden sound box, and any stumble, bumping into unexpected objects etc is likely to wake up most occupants.

4.00 am Nok gets up, calls mum, lights an open fire outside in the garden next to the house and talks with mum and sister loudly until 6.30, when I get up. I find them, and an elderly lady from some house a few doors down, squatting around the fire, warming their hands, and gossiping.

Make coffee, join the fire. Memories of my hippy days, sitting around at beach in Eilat around fire.

Breakfast with unidentifiable Issaan dishes yum! Includes various visitors, “friends”, who I suspect come to check out the falang. I make my morning coffee, which is sampled by some, but not really appreciated I think.

Brother 1 arrives with daughter, who gets haircut by Nok, while sitting on the mat next to the fire, shy.

I didn’t know he existed, I thought she was the eldest child. Eldest daughter, she explains, and she never mentioned the elder brother because he doesn’t matter. He is not contributing to the upkeep of mum and dad, like her and her sister, but only looks after his own family, and on top of that, Nok judges him as rather lazy . She also judges her younger brother a bit lazy, explains that his young wife earns most of the family income, and does most of the work.

“Shower” (Bucket of water over your head) is cold. It is winter in Issaan and at night quite chily. Later I learn to do my main shower late afternoon, using the garden hose dragged into the bathroom. This is connected to the only tap, in the middle of the yard, and produces water that is a lot less freezing that that which sits in the concrete reservoir in the ‘bathroom’.

Then off again by car to Nakhom Phanom, pay car payment, visit ATM, visit internet shop to pick-up email, buy roofing iron, get a lock for the wardrobe, then drive back home. I sit in paddock under tree reading my Dalai Lama book, until I find I’m covered in ants. Get up, shake them off, and shift to a different tree. Nok comes along after a few minutes and says “pibabo” (You’re crazy), dangerous snakes. I say “bullshit”, but decide to shift back to the porch. Then, in the next two days I see snakes quite close up on three different occasions. They seem to be poisonous, I don’t know how dangerous, but the locals are quite casual about them, although they kill them when they can.

Part 2 following

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Wonderful stuff!! Hahahahahaha! Loved it! I can see everything you describe vividly. Please do continue with these tales from the village! Uh, where I go there has been no problem with poisonous snakes though, thank Christ! Be careful! You may want to find out exactly how dangerous these buggers are if you plan on spending more time there. And maybe get an anti-venom kit, just in case the dumb falang stumbles across something that a local village Thai would have the experience and sense not to. Better safe than sorry! :-)

One tip, the hose shower. Have your lass bring you to the local plumbing supply shop. Find one of the kits which has a shower nozzle and metal or plastic goose-neck that affixes to it. Now get a hose clamp, the kind used for automotive engine hoses, that is the right size (actually a bit larger to accomodate the hose rubber) for the goose-neck pipe in the kit. I know that the hong nam by your house more than likely has those concrete blocks up above the wall which have the holes or spaces in them to et in light and air. Put together/assemble the shower nozzle and goose-neck pipe and slide the pipe through one of these holes. (A hammer and screwdriver can be used to enlarge the hole if necessary, the concrete used for these blocks is pretty soft stuff.) Now fix it in place, inside and outside, with some twigs and twine or tape, electrical or duct tape will do, or just jam some twigs or wood around the hole where the pipe goes through the hole. Thus fixing the shower head firmly in the hole with the end of the gooseneck pipe sticking out the outside of the wall. Now whenever you want a normal, albeit cold, shower you just take the garden hose with the automotive hose clamp and secure it to the pipe. When the water to the hose is turned on you get something which actually resembles a shower!! No more ladle showers! (That water sitting about all night in the cistern does get mighty fucking cold!!) Primitive, yet serviceable!

And as you said and observed, if you use the hose that has been sitting in the yard under the sun all day you can actually get hot water for a shower for a couple of minutes which even stays a bit warm as the shower progresses because the rubber on the hose is still very hot from sitting in the sun. I call this my "solar shower"!! Works quite well until you have enough extra cash to have a real shower put in for your visits. And cheap too. Maybe 700 to 1,000 baht, maybe less.

A real shower, and new water well and pump for the house can be had for around 12,000 or a bit more. Around a 150 US$ will get you a new well drilled and a new pump for the well. Another 100 to 150 US$, depending on how far way the pump is from the hong nam, will get you plastic pvc piping from the pump to the shower in the hong nam, and while you're having that done you might as well install a western flush toilet at the same time. A real toilet is pretty damned cheap actually. (A novelty in most Isaan villages!) A cheap wall unit shower water heater goes for about 2,000 baht. (There are more expensive ones for 3,000 to 6,000 baht) But MAKE SURE the electrician grounds this COMPLETELY, which you'll also have to pay for to install the electricity for the heater, or you may be in for a big shock while showering one day!!!! Ask Long Gun about this bit of shocking fun! A fellow Brit of yours.

This may sound expensive, but if you're planning on staying with the lass you WILL be doing more village visits. Making your stay as comfortable and pleasant as possible is a must if you stay for more than a day or two.

The beds and wardrobes are relatively cheap. I think maybe 3,000 baht gets you a King sized platform bed. (Hint: Get the mattress that is reversible. One side is soft, the other side is firm.) Also bed linen, pillows, and a comforter can be had in a set for fairly cheap at Makro or Big C.

The wardrobes go for about 2,000 baht, and is a good place to store extra clothing for yourself and the lass for your visits to the village, without having to lug along suitcases on the bus ride up to the village. Every trip to the village I used to leave a couple of pieces of clothing, shorts, underwear, t-shirts, a pair of extra sneakers or sandals, and such you can change into while there and then leave until next time up. Also an extra razor and blades, and a toothbrush. Saves on lugging so much crap around.

Thanks for the story so far Phoenix. Well done. Had me laughing, and missing the village.


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Great stories....Remind me of the old days growing up in Baan Bung (a little north of Korat..pass Chok Chai.)About the shower, I recommend getting one of those "solar showers" campers use. It's a big black water container with a shower head. The water inside gets heat up by the sun during the day and in the evening when you shower the water is nice and warm. I use it all the time when I go camping.

I'll be in Kamp Pang Pet (sp) 1st week of Feb but will be spending 2-3 weeks in BKK after that. Hoping to meet some of you guys to swap some stories.

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Someone once recommended one of those camping "solar" shower water heaters to me before. Might have been you yourself, I don't remember now. Sounds like a good idea. Can they be had in Thailand?

I also saw an article in the Bangkok Post recently about a guy who has a way to build houses cheaply in poor countries using hay bales and cement. They're supposed to be very energy efficient and cheap to build. Cool in the hot weather, and warm in the cool weather. Has anyone seen this article, or does anyone know the url for the guy's website. I searched for it on the net when I got home in the states, but haven't been able to find it yet. Maybe I'll search the Post's website to see if I can find the article there. There's plenty of rice hay bales all over Isaan to do this with. An idea that might be worth a look to build a cheap, energy efficient home in the villages. A couple of small solar panels used for electricity there would probably be a cheap way to get out of the electric bills too!


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Don't know if you can get those solar showers in Thailand, but one word of warning about them. If you fill them up, then leave them in the sun all day, the water get HOT!!! shocked.gif" border="0 Try filling it up only partialy, then just be for showering, add some colder water to adjust the temp.

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GREAT posting. I was married to a Mexican/American and her parents had a house in the hills of Tijuana, Mexico. Everything you said about you trip to Isaan, I experienced in Tijuana, minus the snakes. There house was actually well made, for Tijuana standards, but with no indoor pluming. To take a shower, you has to do it from a bucket also and the water was damn cold. The toliet was a regular toliet but there was not pluming. So after you did you business there, you had to pour a bucket of water in the top and then jiggle the handle and HOPE the damn thing flushes.

After I married her, we went to her parents house for the first time (her parents have a house also in the states). I was the only white male in the neiborhood and every neibor around had to come by and see what type of people my wife married. I felt like I was in a zoo on display.

Reading your post reminded me of my many trips there her parents house. It brought back many fond and not so fond memories. I have a hard time going there now after see passed away in November of 1998. There house is now full of pictures of her. Thank Phoenix for bring back some wonderful memories.


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"We got out of the car, dad came down to help us with all the gear we brought, but didn’t seem to take any notice of the daughter he hadn’t seen for a month, or the falang she brought along. Neither did any of the rest of the family. I don’t think they deliberately snubbed us, I just don’t think it occurs to them to say hello."

Surprising. We always get the opposite.

When we arrive the entire family seems to gather and everybody is wai-ing. Same when we leave.


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"I just don’t think it occurs to them to say hello."

KS:> Surprising. We always get the opposite.

When we arrive the entire family seems to gather and everybody is wai-ing. Same when we leave.<

Yes I was very surpised. It happened both times when we warrived a bit after dark. When we left, we were waved out, but no waining. Maybe the situation is different, you are married, and far closer in age to your wife than I am to "Nok". It is conceivable that although the family accepts and appreciates the contributions I make, they don't particularly accept me personally, or the vague connection I have with their nr 1 daughter.

Having said that, nr 2 daughter was friendly, be it shy, Poh got increasingly friendly over time, and Meh always beams big smiles at me. But maybe that is the way she looks at ATM's in general.

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Originally posted by Cent:


I also saw an article in the Bangkok Post recently about a guy who has a way to build houses cheaply in poor countries using hay bales and cement. They're supposed to be very energy efficient and cheap to build. Cool in the hot weather, and warm in the cool weather. Has anyone seen this article, or does anyone know the url for the guy's website.



I don't know of the Bangkok Post article, but I asked my brother about hay bale houses. He's into all that environmental stuff and considered building one. He eventually built a log cabin instead. But he recommended these links for all the 'how to' basics:


This one requires you to have Adobe Acrobat to open. It's a 78-page construction manual that will get you from start to finish: http://www.strawbalefutures.org.uk/pdf/strawbaleguide.pdf

And, hey, good luck! wink.gif" border="0

[ January 09, 2002: Message edited by: mikem ]

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