Throughout 2015 I was living with a local family in rural Thailand. I was living in a small village called Broken Road found in the Buriram Province of Northeast Thailand, better known as Isaan. We were not far from the better known town of Nang Rong, just follow the main road through then take a right at the road signs to ‘Baan Khanom’ or “Snack House”. There are very few significant landmarks in this part of the world where a typical landscape would be rice field upon rice field. Settlements are few and far between. So I have visited Broken Road on short visits in the past and it had always reminded me of The Shire from ‘The Hobbit’. A fruitful place, cut off from the modern world. People are also small here and at roughly 5 foot 10, I am likely the tallest resident of Broken Road. So for the year I embark on a simpler life surrounded by rice fields, rich Thai culture and strict Buddhism.
Before our arrival to Broken Road we lived a comfy life in Bangkok’s city center. We in fact move from harsher climates in the city where Isaan is actually cooler, but, with lack of western comforts, it in no feels like this. When in Bangkok we lived in air-conditioned units, travelled in air-conditioned taxis, and frequented air-conditioned malls and restaurants. Before now we had barely noticed the relentless heats which Thailand is known for. It’s constantly between 30’c and 40’c, which maybe fine on a quick holiday, but in day-to-day living, it is harder to deal with. So it is a new climate for me, but I had always expected it to be tougher than previous surroundings and Fanfan did warn me in advance that there wouldn’t be four months of hot season, as expected, but in fact there are 12 months of hot season, in which four are like hell. Asides from the seemingly endless landscape, of rice field upon rice field, we are also close to Cambodian borders and a short drive brings us to ancient Khmer ruins and deep jungle.
Through the year we live in Fanfan’s childhood home which has sat more or less abandoned for the past six years. When the family went their own ways in the big cities, the house has been used for little more than storage. But, after a spring clean and a layer or two of paint, the house comes out. For just the two of us we have a three bedroom home, with balcony views over banana groves and further to the nearby communal lake. We are one of three houses here within a family compound where next to us, just on the opposite side of the garden path, lives the grandparents and aunties in the main house. The dividing path then leads behind to the great-aunt’s house, where she lives with our second cousins and niece. We aren’t fully rural, in, that we are not living in some far-flung farmhouse completely cut off from civilization, and I quickly come to appreciate this as there’s a lot more intrigue in the close-knit rural community which we are part of. At the same time we are just a short cycle from the seemingly endless stretches of rice fields, lakes and landscapes which are found in the region.
In village life we also have close connections with local temples where on Buddhist Holy Days we would wake in the mornings to country music and Buddhist prayer which sounds through a PA system linked through Broken Road. Pretty much every morning without fail local monks will pass the house as they circle the village on their morning alms collection. We are never far from Buddhist culture here and, given the family’s strict following, we find ourselves involved in the annual events and ceremony of the local temples. For me, visits to the temple would be weekly and involvement in Buddhist ceremony is much the same although, for the rest of the family, these duties are more daily. Life does revolve around the temple. At one point there was talk of me ordaining as a monk where, as the male of the family, I can bring merit to the family. But it isn’t something I could commit to fully and while it would have been great to write about, I had to decline. These ceremonies can’t be taken half-heartedly.
Isaan is often labelled as the “poor part of Thailand” which from my own experience I find to be misleading. There is a difference between being poor and having low incomes where in this region of Thailand there isn’t really much need for income where households are often self-sustainable. Families can live off the land and our own compound is not so different. Almost everything we eat comes from the family gardens and farms when something is need it can be swapped, bartered or bought at the local market. On the compound there are coconuts in the coconut trees, plantains in the banana groves, mango trees. If we need eggs, we nab them from the chickens. Bushes grow fresh chilies, basils and all sorts of herbs and ingredients and meals through the week often depend on what’s ripe in the gardens. Even the path out front is lined with lemongrass, lime trees and kaffir lime leaves, and every time they are trimmed the citrus smells breeze through the village. So, since moving to Broken Road, our monthly cost of living dropped to a third of what it was before, but our quality of life was better. Our budget was under 10,000 Baht per month, around 200 British quid, where much of the costs were going to the usual overheads of electricity, phone bills and internet bills. Another large chunk would go towards my weekly beers and pork barbecues.
A lot of my adventures take place on the back of my crap bike. Well actually it is Meh’s bike, and it was pretty much wrote-off by the time I got my hands on it. But I have really taken to it with its rust and its scars, and I’m sure if this bike could talk, it would tell some fascinating stories, although few would be much further than the local market road. But it does have character and, while it is slightly embarrassing when ten year olds speed past me on motorbikes, I’m in no hurry. It lets me savour my surroundings and it would be the perfect way to get around, if it weren’t for all the stray dogs in these parts of rural Thailand. Dogs like to chase bikes. But my crap bike is also symbolic to the way of life here where things aren’t as “throw-away” when compared to the wastefulness of my previous lives. So if a brake is broken, we fix it, and there will never be too many patches on the tires. It’s quite nostalgic in a weird way. But it also took slight adjusting for me to get used to where during the fix up of the house I was desperate to buy a new bed after finding one of the existing wooden beds was riddled with ants. I could have replaced the bed, but the family would never throw away the old one which meant it would be cluttering up the living rooms for the foreseeable. I conceded and sleep with one eye open.
I find it’s mostly grannies and infants living in Broken Road which, I’m guessing, is because the working ages are often took for better opportunities in the big cities. Even if there were any folk my age, it is still unlikely that they would speak any English. For the year, Fanfan is the only English speaker I know in the village. But I do manage to communicate with the rural grannies where conversation will likely circle round the same three things. First is “Kin Khao?” which means “Eat Food” which is talked about constantly. Food is always on the agenda. Next would be “Maak” which means “Betel Nut” which they will be chewing from dusk till dawn. Then there would be “Nong Yang” which is the name of the local market where they go to gossip during the day. These are the three pillars of a rural granny’s existence. So if I just mention these words, and nod my head knowingly, they go off on one, in full blown conversation. I’m not really part of the conversation but they’re happy I am interested and I get to hang out with them. This happens mostly on granny Yai’s porch where I regularly watching them chew betel and shout at one another, as old people don’t hear well. Even if I could speak Thai I’d still be clueless as there are local dialects here and the grannies like to mix in Khmer words so the younger generations don’t understand them.
In 2015 I spent a year living in a close-knit rural community in Northeastern Thailand (Isaan). I was based in the small village of Broken Road and ‘A Potato in a Rice Field’ chronicles my time there as I bumble through life, culture and etiquette within a strict family of tradition and Buddhist belief.