For the second time this year I find myself typing away with a fan behind me in the village of Baen Non Waeng in Northeast Thailand. The fan is 5ft tall, a beautiful bronze complexion, and twists smoothly back and forth imparting relief and pleasure at every moment. Unfortunately this relief is provided by courtesy of Mitsubishi Electric rather than a sensual and adoring oriental lady but the pleasure and relief in the oppressive humidity is nonetheless appreciated!
After 5 busy days in Hong Kong encompassing activities as wide ranging as Hong Kong Disneyland and Night Racing at Happy Valley (one significantly more costly than the other for me if not for my wife who tended to select horses by name rather than by form!) I have just spent three days relaxing at the Tohsang Khongjiam Resort on the banks of the mighty Mekong River about 50 miles north of Ubon Ratchathani in Northeast Thailand.
I had long wanted to visit this hotel as relaxing by a river has always appealed to me since my first overseas journey to the banks of another great river, the Rhine in 1964. Strangely, on this occasion after five weeks of travelling I found it difficult to switch off and relax as I fell into the trap of wanting to catch up with my emails before I lost internet contact for a few days , reading a book or two whilst lazing around the pool and exploring the local area. In the end I managed no more than an unsatisfactory attempt on all three and ended up doing none very successfully.
Isaan in general and the area around Khong Jiam in particular is far from the famous resort destinations of Pattaya, Phuket, Koh Samui, Koh Chang or Chiang Mai and Bangkok which together form the Poster destinations that most people associate with Thailand. Indeed this area sees relatively few foreign visitors although I did notice a few Farang (Foreigner) – Thai couples at breakfast but I have no idea where they and others went by day as the hotel was totally deserted each day until dusk. I suspect the other guests must have taken hotel cars to one of the two local National Parks but these expensive excursions never register on my radar as options for exploring areas I am visiting – and not when I had the chance of visiting the places in my own taxi and with an all day cabaret included.
Because after three days I was being collected by my friend Ampai and spending a few days back in her village at Ban Non Waeng – maybe 100 miles away.
And this being Thailand Ampai’s mindset is why waste a good taxi fare on collecting a Farang when the whole family can benefit at the same time! At 0730 I get a call that the taxi was on its way and at 1030 the utility/pickup arrives. Ampai has brought her father Put in his mid 70s – not an ounce of fat on him but alas he is beginning to slow down. Ever since I have known the family he sleeps at his fields in a lean to hut but now he has left his fields for good after a lifetime of growing rice and is now living with Ampai who cooks for him. I am glad she brought her father and is looking after him as my own father died 42 years ago when I was 21 and I hardly got to know him really. But for Ampai to do so is as natural as sunrise and sunset. It is a family duty to take care of your parents but I worry who will look after Ampai if she does not marry and have children but she is Buddhist and phlegmatic – ‘I will get a nephew to look after me and he will have my house in return’.
One of Ampai’s elder brothers Chouan has come after spending a year as a Monk living at the temple and on his own at a small forest temple and his son Boy has also come along. I had not seen Boy who is now 13 for few years because he is living at a distant temple where the Monks did not have any young aspirant monks and he is going to school near that temple. Bedecked in Orange robes and with shaven head he looked very serious until his mobile phone came out to play games and take photos!
Ampai’s nephew Baumi (10) who lives next door to her had come for the ride has had his playmate Chai, son of Ampai’s other sister who lives the other side of Ampai. If you have had the opportunity to read the piece I wrote earlier in the year ‘Matchmaking in Ban Non Waeng’ you will recollect that Chai’s 15 year old sister Ning was being courted and she came along, still with her mobile phone welded to her hand , and she brought a friend Ang.
Ampai had suggested it would be nice to combine collecting me from the hotel with a trip to a local beauty spot and I agreed it would be nice to make it a family outing and the taxi driver’s wife (a cousin) decided it would be nice to come along with their son and together with Ampai and myself that made a group of 12 and the reader will now appreciate why the most common vehicle on the roads of rural Thailand is a utility, not to take the rice to market but to accommodate that rare but treasured opportunity – a family outing!
Somehow we squeezed six in the cab (the driver, Ampai to navigate, Chouan, Boy, Chai and the honoured foreign guest who we have to keep happy – after all he’s paying!) and the other six sorted themselves out in the back around my case.
Our destination was the Nam Tok Tad Ton Waterfall some 25 miles north of Khong Jiam and after I suggested three or four times it might be an idea to ask the hotel reception which direction to go (given they run daily trips) Ampai came back from reception with a photocopy of a map of North eastern Thailand – an area the size of Northern Italy!
Perhaps I should interject at this point and comment that after maybe a dozen plus visits to Thailand I have yet to meet anyone who can either read or use a map, nor give directions in an easy to follow manner. Add to this situation the fact that Thai’s do not like to lose face by asking nor lose face by admitting they do not understand the answers if they do ask then the seeds were being sown for an interesting day navigationally and sure enough within 400 metres of leaving the hotel the debate began as to whether we turn left or right. Given that I abhor people saying ‘I told you so’ I was determined not to sully the day from the beginning by commenting ‘I thought I asked you to ask’ and so I was determined to enjoy the day wherever we ended up whilst Ampai stared at the map of half of Thailand wondering whether to turn right or left.
Now Thai’s are the most respectful people who always defer to instructions but like people the world over all bets are off when with your family and friends – you whoop, you explain, you ask and you shout at top volume and it gets more interesting with brother, sister and driver in the same cab and none of whom have been in the area ever before but each is convinced they had the answer regarding which way to go.
We eventually navigated through the village of Khong Jiam despite no one wanting to ask for instructions (partly thanks to me keeping an eye on the English road signs) and got on the road towards Pha Taem National Park and logic might dictate that given I had a 2011 Guide to Thailand loaded on my Kindle, 30 years experience as a Tour Operator, a degree in Geography and had checked the Park website prior to departure my input might be given some consideration when reviewing the route and when we made the first turning into the Park I quickly commented
‘No – we go on and take the second turning after 10 miles for the waterfall’.
‘Ampai – I think we need to turn around’
Ampai’s English is not fluent but it is serviceable enough to have worked as a Cleaner and Au Pair for an English family who invited her back to work with them for two subsequent years but I could have been talking Egyptian for all the impression I was likely to make between two Thai siblings discussing directions.
‘Oh I am sorry my brother and I were fighting on which way to go’ she commented when we finally got the car turned around and she worked out I had been trying to interject. I never worked out which of the two agreed with me but both agreed a Farang’s input is best ignored in Thailand – Thai’s know best!
I could tell a Thai for 30 minutes that Barack Obama was the President of the USA and get the response ‘No it is George Bush’. I could explain that the President changed in 2008 and I spend a lot of time in the USA but this would make no impression or be humoured at best. If another Thai came up and confirms that Barack Obama is President it would be accepted in a heartbeat. Thais are loyal to their country and their families above everything and will believe and not challenge their own.
In truth we made fairly good time to the waterfall covering the 25 miles in less than an hour and upon arrival the absolute staple of every Thai day had to be accommodated – eating. A mat was laid on the ground and food purchased from the neighbouring vendors for an impromptu al fresco picnic along with several other family groups.
I had a late breakfast so was happy to read and people watch as another utility pulled up and parked nearby disgorging 8 people from the back and another 8 from inside the cab – there were so many emerging from one vehicle that I gave up counting twice although to be fair 5 of the group were 5 years or less. One guy started playing the guitar, two adults put a big tarpaulin on the floor as more and more dishes started appearing making our groups lunch gathering for 10 look like a snack on the run! Thailand is all about the two F’s – Food and Families and they are in heaven when they can combine both in a Family outing!
Entrance fee for the Park was 200 baht/£4/$6 for me but gratis for Thais and I don’t have a problem with this – I earn more in a day than Ampai and her 9 brothers and sisters earn in six months. Ampai and two of them recently went fruit picking in Southern Thailand for 6 weeks – 10 to 12 hours a day 7 days a week and made about £200/$320 each with free accommodation but bought their own food and train tickets. She built a roof over the rear patio of her house with her share of the proceeds.
The waterfall was about a 500 metre walk from the car park past a viewpoint overlooking the surrounding forests and then down a steep gully. I met a retired teacher from Bangkok on the descent who had decided it was too steep to continue and walk back up and I told her that was rubbish as Ampai’s father was in his mid 70s and I was older than her and was always walking in the Alps and Himalaya. She looked good and fit for 60 and was happy to continue down with me as she could practice her English and asked about all the places I had travelled to. She asked me if I had heard of the nearby Plarankoi Centre which was famed for its meditation techniques as the famous Monk who was the Director had brought a group to the waterfall and was fluent in English and ‘I think he would love to talk to you (‘Sure’!). As it happened I did have a chat with the venerable Monk with a classical Oriental Ho Chi Minh type goatee beard (quite unusual in Thailand), the teacher chatted to Ampai and thanked me for encouraging her to continue the descent to the area at the foot of the Falls where we joined about 200 happy bathing and singing Thais , all taking pictures of each other and flashing smiles and the obligatory V. Can any Asian be photographer without flashing a Churchillian V at the camera? After all my years visiting Asia I have finally decided to relent and follow suit myself!
The waterfall was delightful with about a 20 metre fall into potted sinkholes where people were sitting and bathing and then the streams ran off the ledge via another two waterfalls into an enclosed pool with our group already swimming in whatever they were wearing for the day. Only 75 year old Put and Boy who did not want to get his robes wet (he had not brought a change of clothes) did not bathe and the rest of us enjoyed the refreshing water. I never cease to be amazed at how much real pleasure Thai’s get from the most simple activities. It was a privilege to be with them and I deeply regret that despite coming to Thailand fairly frequently for 8 years I have picked up not one word of Thai.
It also puts some perspective to ones situation. I was a little concerned and reflective about the possibility of paying a £50,000/$80,000 uplift on a property to which we had secured planning permission and I felt almost embarrassed explaining this to Ampai whose brother is pretty pleased to be earning £10 a night hunting for tree lizards so he can pay for his fiancées hospital bills!
After a couple of hours of frolicking in the water and the obligatory group photos it was back to the Car Park, load up and reverse our route back to Klong Jiam, located at the confluence of the Mekong and Mae Nam Mun, one of its larger tributaries in Thailand as we planned to take a boat out to see the Two Colour River effect where the rivers congregate. After strolling along the pleasant riverside promenade past a succession of restaurants and shops we negotiated a fee of £7/$11 for a 40 minute boat trip and were off – or were we? Chouan decided he was not interested in a boat trip but wanted to visit Laos on the far side of the river to ‘do some shopping’!
It is human nature that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence and I have noticed that around the world in almost every nation people love to cross the border to shop on the other side where things are cheaper/better/more readily available or whatever. Canadians living near the border go to the USA to buy their Gas whist Americans are driving into Canada at the same time to buy goods with a lower sales tax or because the restaurants offer better value! Thais who live in Isaan speak Lao not Thai anyway (Go Figure!) and so they want to go to neighbouring Laos or Cambodia where things are cheaper but Ampai pointed out two pitfalls – whilst Thais can cross the river and enter Laos with their ID card and a £1/$1.60 payment) I needed to cross at a recognised border crossing and obtain a Visa and in any case…………………how could Chouan shop when he did not have any money!
Case closed and 9 of us went on a boat trip whilst Chouan and Boy declined with good grace and opted to remain at a riverside cafe sipping iced coffees.
At first I thought the boat trip was going to be a waste of time but in fact it was both relaxing and enjoyable as we motored past a Lao village, admired the whirlpools and eddies where the rivers met and finally – Yes you could see the different sections of water combining and one more colourful (muddy) than the other. The Mekong was wide and presumably shallow judged by the number of trees seemingly growing from either the river bed or more likely ‘drowned’ islands as the water level was high. We motored past the hotel where I had stayed and watched the local villages practice for long boat racing – not quite Oxford and Cambridge nor the Olympic Eights but fun to watch crews of of 8 plus a Cox paddle and chant in unison in their incredibly long and narrow canoes.
Time was getting on as it was now 4pm and we also intended to visit the nearby Kaeng Tana National Park and I will spare you the repeated debate on who was right about which approach road to take but we eventually managed to cross the Pak Mun Dam, enter the Park (only one of us had to pay again – guess who?) and arrived at the two bridge viewpoint. After getting lost twice we managed to walk across the Suspension bridge to Tana Island before ending up at Nam Tok Tad Ton waterfall as dusk approached for a final group picture and all that remained was the 125 mile drive back to Ban Non Waeng.
Well almost all as we still needed two further stops – one for dinner (of course Thais cannot function without at least three formal meals a day) and the other to buy cereal/porridge/fruit juice/potatoes etc for your correspondent at the Sisaket Tesco Lotus, one of two major chains in Thailand vying to be the Thai equivalent of Wal Mart.
I remember an article in the English Language Bangkok Post about seven years ago reporting that the Thai Association of Chambers of Commerce was planning to write to Tony Blair requesting he halted Tesco’s relentless expansion in Thailand which threatened to put small traders out of business (sound familiar?). This was in the Taksin Shinawatra era and Thais clearly thought that British Prime Ministers could sort issues as decisively as their Prime minister . (Drug Runners? No worries! Shoot the dealers once we have them in Police custody).
Interestingly enough all Thais defer to a higher authority and although four months of protests did not rid of the twice democratically elected Shinawatra a word in his ear from the venerated King who has been on the throne for 60 years and he was gone in a heartbeat and now his fairly well received sister is the Prime Minister! But I digress – Tony Blair was clearly not able to bring the Tesco Board around (!) and Tesco Lotus and Big C continue to expand and despite criticisms seem to be as well received and patronised as Wal Mart in the States – and I was able to buy my cereal!
We finally got back to Ban Non Waeng at around 2200 some 15 hours after the group had left in the morning and a good time was had by all for the princely sum of £50/$90 for the driver and his sturdy vehicle. Everyone enjoyed themselves and I am forever impressed by the capacity of half a dozen Thais to sit in the back of a truck for hours on end and always maintain good humour with plenty of laughter – or was it ‘My Buddha, did that stupid Farang really pay $1 for that tasteless cereal Ha Ha Ha!’?
I have now been here for 4 days – the rice is within a month of being harvested and I have never been here when the landscape is so green and lush. Isaan has a reputation for being dry, dusty and poor but the people are enterprising, stoical and hardworking and there is always something going on and I have enjoyed going out and wandering through the Paddy fields despite the heat.
The kids are on holiday and Baumi and Chai keep appearing with these giant bugs which look like a cross between a cockroach and a scorpion with big pincers. They keep about 10 in a box and take great delight in opening their pincers, clamping them around each other in clumps of three and four and set them off on each other in a Thai Superbug version of extreme fighting! I never realised that such small bugs could make so much noise, hissing and spitting nor how strong they are to survive being pulled apart by a 7 year old kid with their claws wrapped around each other. And once they detangle themselves the kids put them back together for another round of action. Cruel? Well it fills the time until the bugs are fried for dinner!
Today the kids went harvesting for lunch. There are lots of tasty bugs in the soil in Thailand so dig a few holes and the chances are you will hit some interconnected underground bug burrows. Then get a bottle, fill it with water and ram it down the hole and flood the bug passageways. Pretty soon bugs will start breaking up through the puddles and will be grabbed by the kids. Ampai drowns them (well most of them) and tosses them in the frying pan and says ‘You try Michael’. This is an order not a question and ‘But I don’t eat meat’ does not make much headway especially as they know I do like the deep fried small riverbank bugs but these were somewhat greasy and so two was all I could manage and spat the wings out after the remainder were taken next door for the family lunch.
We walked to the river yesterday and visited the Paddy Fields overflow channel and the kids took great delight in pulling up clumps of bushes and their roots, sitting on them and sliding down the concrete embankment into the overflow pool – it kept then amused for hours without an X Box, Play Station or computer in sight.
And the adults are just as enterprising.
Ampai’s brother Tom needs to pay the Medical bills for his pregnant girlfriend so he has been going out at night hunting for giant tree lizards which are light green with speckled blue spots. Apparently they are greatly sought after in China and Vietnam (either as an aphrodisiac or culinary delight) and yesterday the buyer visited the village to collect their efforts. Most of the neighbours turned up to watch the heavily gloved buyer untie the sacks of shrubs and lizards and skilfully hold and count about 8 lizards at a time whilst skilfully keeping their jaws prized open so they do not bite. Occasionally one got free accompanied by shrieks from the villagers before teens keen to impress gave quick chase to prove their skill and manliness by retrieving them without any gloves before the lizards climb up the nearest tree and if they do manage to reach a tree to knock them out of the tree before they climb too high. Tom and his mate each earnt over £20/$35 for two nights work.
And a couple of days ago brother Chouan returned from the river with a fish he had shot with his blunderbuss! I often wondered how successful the fisherman shooters were!
My visit has also coincided with the annual Soccer tournament where each of the local villages fields four teams 18 -30, 30 -45 and 45 -60 as well as a Ladies team. Several games are played every day over a two week period in stifling heat and the Thai’s take their football seriously. Every player is kitted out in matching kit as are the Referees and linesmen and I was most impressed with the officiating. The teams march out accompanied by the UEFA Champions League theme (Quite catchy – I used it as ring tone for a while!) and shake hands and the two games I watched were a mixture of the good, the bizarre and the ugly. Thai football at village level seems to be all one touch and in any direction with some players (despite their impressive kit) looking as if they play once a year and are more comfortable kicking a coconut around a paddy field! But intermixed with this was some great skill and I saw three goals that would not have been out of place on Match of the Day – a sweet volley into the roof of the net from outside of the box, a diving header from a beautiful cross (You are better at shooting fish than playing at left back Chouan!) and a wonderful sweeping move goal keeper to left back to midfield who played it out wide to a winger whose first touch was a cross to a striker who beat the offside trap and swept it into the net. Brilliant!
The healthy crowd were mainly wives, girlfriends and kids watching husbands, boyfriends and fathers and other teams waiting to play and there was at least 30 Food Stalls around the pitch and 5 policemen controlling traffic and the crowds. And despite the incessant conversation, which almost drowned out the amusing (I assume from the commentators own guffaws) commentary broadcast over the tannoy, the crowd very much kept up with play but were more amused by errors, fouls and miskicks than the skilful episodes but all in all a great mornings entertainment. I thought I was going to get a game as an overage substitute (goalkeeper) for the 30 – 45 team but as it transpired they rustled up a genuine Thai and not a ring in but I could not have been any worse as he let in three soft goals in a 4 – 0 defeat.
We went on another excursion today – me, the driver and 9 family members this time including Ampai’s semi crippled mother in her mid 70s but she preferred to go in the back and not in the cab with that new fangled air conditioning. We went to Sisaket and found most of the places fairly easily by Thai standards once we realised that one of the temples was actually 40 miles past Sisaket and too far! Of course my questions of exactly which extra temple were we going to substitute never did get a response. (Understanding Thai culture 101 – If you don’t know the answer pretend you have not heard the question)
Sisaket turned out to be a really good day. I was not quite sure what an aquarium was doing do far inland but it was a revelation and must be one of the finest in South East Asia with two walk through tunnels and the Zoo was OK although Thai’s and Asians generally do not have a great record in regard to animal welfare. Some of the animal compounds (sorry cages!) were somewhat dated but plenty of deer, ostriches, monkeys, bears to justify the40p/60 cents admission.
To be fair to Ampai she said all along we were going to visit the main Wat Phra That Rueang Rong Temple on the way home and it was really impressive – in fact the most interesting temple I have ever visited in Thailand with hundreds of ornate and colourful statues including policemen, soldiers, giant oxen and other animals, a giant Buddha, a chariot and dancers and the most gruesome collection of photos of mutilated bodies! Together with a beautiful series of ornate pagodas and a six storey climb to overlook the surrounding countryside there was plenty to keep me occupied for hours rather than the 90 minutes we had left at the end of the day.
We went to Big C to buy another Fan and for some dinner on the return journey and got back at 8.30 pm 12 hours after we left – 11 satisfied punters for a £30/$50 outlay.
I will stay here for one more day as I want to take some pictures of the lush paddy fields and then I plan to move on to the coast and who knows when I will next be back. I enjoy visiting Ampai’s house partly because I know how each bit has been built by her and her brother s when she has saved the money and although it has been built piecemeal and in an unorthodox style it is very personalised and reflects the love and effort that has gone into building it – I remember when I first met Ampai almost 8 years ago she said it was her dream to have a home and look after her parents and I admire her for doing it but I worry about her nonetheless. The house is hers but the land is her mothers and Thais do feel that what belongs to the family belongs to all. And when she is not around and everyone uses her house and motorbike they don’t quite look after it with the care she does. And with the large flat plasma screen TV guess whose lounge serves as the family cinema every night and when she is away.
As well as Ampai’s father sleeping in the her lounge her 20 year old brother (Tom) and his pregnant girlfriend have moved into her spare room – and out again whilst I am visiting as I like peace and quiet! Ampai may complain that the others don’t take care of her house but she would no more be likely to bar them than I am likely to fly to the moon. But will they inadvertently take advantage of her over the years? With the only hot shower and sit down toilet you can see who has the luxury dwelling in this compound! Is the expansion from one to four living here in the six months since I was last here the thin end of the wedge or just the natural Thai way of things. Ampai says her brother and his girlfriend will move into the family home when they have the baby as they will need to be on the ground floor and Tom will get a job and his own place to live eventually – once he has raised the £800/$1300 dowry to marry his girlfriend that is. It could be a long wait!
Last year Ampai bought some land – although I am not sure she has got the full title to all the land but she says she can trust the sellers as they are ‘family’ so of course she did not use a lawyer! – She tells me that 70% of it will be productive this year and she should a lot of Rice despite the ‘naughty plants’. I finally deduced she was talking about weeds!
Having failed to get Ampai married off (see my earlier piece Matchmaking in Ban Non Waeng) I am now encouraging her to take overseas visitors (something along the lines of www.ampaisthaihomestay.com!) as spending a few days in Baen Non Waeng certainly gives people an insight the real Thailand that most visitors never see.
She does not believe there is anything to do at Baen Non Waeng and people would not be interested in coming and what do I know anway? – I was only a Tour Operator for over 30 years!
Of course if a Thai told her it was a good idea………………………………
© Michael Bromfield 2012