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Trip to Isaan

On Wednesday the 6th, New and I hopped onto a 10:00pm bus to go up to the Northeast area of Thailand to visit her family. They live in a small town near the larger city of Sarakham. The bus ride took about 5 hours with a short stop midway for a quick bathroom and food break.

When we arrived at our location the town was very quiet with only a few tuk tuk drivers waiting at the station to take some of the passengers to their final destinations. New’s family lives about 8 km from the station so we took one of the tuk tuks. It was pitch black out with no moonlight so the entire ride to the house was a bit of a mystery to me. Once we left Bangkok I wasn’t able to see much of any of the landscape so I didn’t know what was around me. I’d have to wait until the next morning to see where I’d ended up.

The house we stayed in is very modest and typical of the homes found in the town we were staying in. There’s a small living area in the front and a couple of rooms for sleeping. There is no kitchen area as all of the cooking is done outside in the front, or inside in the back if it’s raining too hard. The back of the home has a covered area where laundry can dry if it’s raining and there are two small rooms, one with a squatting toilet and one with a big water bucket. These would only be the beginning of the cultural differences I’d be dealing with over the next 10 days or so.

Once I crawled out of bed the first morning I was able to get a good look at what I’d be surrounded by during our stay. As I mentioned above it is a very modest home. There aren’t a lot of furnishings and the beds are simple mattresses laying directly on the floor. There is no air conditioning and no hot water for showers. The toilet does not have a seat. You have to squat and there is no running water for flushing. Instead you have a large barrel of water to scoop out of to flush. The bathing area is also a small room that has no hot water. You simply scoop up a large bowl of cold water from the large bucket and dump it on you as many times as is needed to clean yourself. The weather in Isaan is hot, but very humid. That said, the cold dumps of water in the morning are still a bit of a shock to the body. It is a welcome coolness, though. Unfortunately it doesn’t last long.

This is monsoon season in Thailand. Just about every day around 4:00pm you could feel a slight breeze pick up and the sky would darken. Within a few minutes more rain than you could imagine would begin to pound down from the sky. Sometimes it would last 10 minutes or so, and other times it would last for hours. It made going outside to do anything impossible, but it brought a welcome cooling. Temperatures were probably in the mid to high 80’s, but the humidity was near 95% so it felt much hotter than it was. The only way I can describe it is that the entire region consists of rice fields, which are basically flooded farm land. Mix in the heat and the whole area is literally a rice cooker, and you’re in the middle of it.

The heat and humidity took some getting used to, but the insects were probably the most difficult item to deal with and I never got used to them. There were some really cool beetles that would come in and out, and there were some other really interesting bugs that you never see in the States, but it was the darn flies and ants that made it miserable at times. The ants are everywhere and they bite! The flies are relentless, too. Since the food is prepared and eaten outside it was a chore trying to keep the flies away. The people that live in the area can handle them much better than I ever will, but they still cause havoc to them. It seems that you’re always fanning your hand over the food and going back and forth to keep the flies from taking over. It sounds disgusting and at times it appeared that way when the flies would win a battle over a bowl or something else they wanted. You just had to toss the food out and try again.

The small town New’s family lives in has about 120 or so houses. Of those houses I think New said about 10 of them have family of some kind in them. Just walking down the different roads we’d always run across an aunt or a cousin, or a grandparent. There is a definite sense of community that I haven’t experienced before. Just about everyone knows everyone else and they always stop to talk when passing by. If you walk by a house and someone is in the yard they have a word or two to share even if we don’t slow down our walking. Nobody ever goes by without getting some kind of acknowledgement. I’m more used to people just going about their business and sharing the rare “hello”.

While we’d be out walking around I would always be the center of attention. I’m called a farang, pronounced fah-long. It means foreigner or westerner. I don’t speak Thai and only know a couple of small words, but just about every conversation would mention the word farang. Old ladies would come and want a photo with me. Young kids would just come to laugh and giggle. Others would simply stare with a smile. It was a bit awkward having people surround you and talk about you, all the while not knowing a thing about what they’re saying. It would only be afterward that New would tell me that they just wanted to know where I was from, why I was here, and if I was having any problems with the cultural differences. Everyone always greeted me with a smile and made me feel welcome even if I didn’t know what they were saying most of the time. It’s very rare that someone outside of the Thai community comes into their town so it’s kind of an event for them.

There isn’t a whole lot to do during the day. This time of year people are out working in the rice fields planting the rice. Outside of that most people are just hanging out in the front of their houses talking to anyone that passes by. A large part of the day is spent preparing and eating food, which I found a bit difficult. I can only eat so much, but they are able to eat all day. I don’t know how they stay so thin, but I’m guessing it’s the fact that they’re eating vegetables, fruit and rice rather than McDonalds.

My favorite activity was taking the motorbike and driving around the area. The rice fields are really pretty to look at. Everywhere you look you see green fields with some small trees lining some of the farms. This part of Thailand is flatter than Florida. If you step on a rock you’ve reached the highest point for miles around. The sky was always filled with big white clouds, and when the thunder storms rolled in they’d become very dark and ominous. The lightning shows were pretty spectacular and lasted the entire night. I enjoyed it, although the cows didn’t seem to like it too much.

I think I’ve summarized the last 10 days pretty much. I enjoyed my stay, but there were also things that were difficult. It’s just a matter of understanding that things are different everywhere you go and making the best of situations that are not as comfortable. I think I was able to do that. I have a few other posts I’ll make about a trip to see a temple and a few other things we did so stay tuned.

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