Alun is a frequent visitor to Thailand and writes personal accounts of the country's great attractions in a series of easy-to-read articles
Living in Udon Thani
In the past few years on four separate occasions, I have spent several of my vacation weeks living in a small rural village in the northeast of Thailand, as the guest of a Thai family. During that time, I came to learn a little about the way of life in the village in a part of Thailand not very well known to most Western tourists.
I should be clear that this is not the story of some remote hill tribe village lost in a land that time forgot. Maybe that would be more interesting for some readers, but that’s just not the way it is. This is modern Thailand, a Thailand of people who, if not wealthy by Western standards, are not very poor either; they have access to many of the modern conveniences, but they live in a little rural village with a community spirit and a laid-back lifestyle. This page is a short introduction to the village and the people who live there, a pot pourri of anecdotes and some personal memories from a charming part of the world.
All the photos on this page were taken by the author in or around the village of Ban Nanokhong, in the province of Udon Thani, in northeast Thailand.
I stayed in the Province of Udon Thani in northeast Thailand in the district of Phibun Rak, and in the subdistrict of Na Sai, which is a rural community of several small villages. In one of these villages - Ban Nanokhong* - lives my Thai girlfriend Alisa with her family - father, mother and little brother known as 'Lucky'. The family home consists of an upstairs bedroom area originally supported on stilts, and a downstairs living area, only enclosed in the past 30 years to incorporate a kitchen, a bathroom and a small grocery store.
Village life tends to be close knit, and often the ties between neighbours are closer than mere acquaintances and friendships. Living next door to Alisa are an aunt and American step-uncle and two cousins (a third has recently married). And next to them is another uncle and aunt. And down the road is another aunt. And there are more relatives in some of the neighbouring villages. That seems to be how it is in this part of Thailand.
* The 'Ban' in the name of the village is simply the Thai word for "village."
Location of Ban Nanokhong in Udon Thani Province
Trade and Occupations
People have to work to earn money of course, and nowadays, many of the villagers travel to the big city of Udon Thani (capital of the province of the same name) which is approximately 50 minutes distant, or to other large towns each day, to earn their living in conventional jobs. Alisa herself was training in accountancy in Udon Thani when I first met her.
But this is still a rural community and Alisa's father, like many others in the village, owns and manages a small plot of farmland cultivating paper trees and rice. Others grow crops such as sugar cane or rubber. Rice is a major crop for many, for domestic use, for sale in the village, or for sale in the city. But harvesting is seasonal and only provides income for a short period of the year. Hence, the family has other sources of income, with a grocery store serving the local community on the ground floor of the house, and a gas pump providing fuel for the large population of moped users (see also the section on 'transport').
The roads in Ban Nanokhong, as you might expect, are quiet. Most are dust tracks with potholes (although main highways and city roads in Thailand are as good as any other country).
Nearly everyone has cars or pick-ups, necessary for travel to the city, but locally it is uncommon to see cars being driven in the village. Bicycles are everywhere, while the three-wheel motor tricycles known as tuk-tuks are very common tradesmen vehicles, sometimes grossly overladen as in the rather comic example elsewhere on this page. Local farmers may drive hybrid motorised ploughs around the roads, But the most typical method of transport is the moped, the small, low-power motorcycle. And everyone uses them - almost literally - from children of 10 or 11 years old to great-grandmothers. And each moped is put to good use too, sometimes carrying as many as three or four passengers - including a whole family of father, mother and two or three small kids. None wear helmets.
(Road safety is not seen to be a high priority, but in a small village with minimal heavy traffic, nobody worries. I never saw anyone have an accident in the village, but I did fear just a bit for the numerous free-roaming village dogs).
The province of Udon Thani is part of the whole cultural region of North Eastern Thailand known as 'Isaan'. Isaan culture is distinctly different from that of the rest of Thailand and indeed the region even has its own dialect which has more in common with neighbouring Laos. Likewise the cuisine of the Isaan region is rather different to southern Thai cuisine, tending to be rather hotter and spicier. A local speciality is green papaya salad - much too spicy for my taste. The main ingredients of cooking in this part of Thailand tend to include salad vegetables, noodles, chillies, grilled fish, chicken and sticky rice (sticky rice is a type of rice which - as the name suggests - sticks together so it can be rolled into a clump); Thais tend to gather a ball of this rice together in their fingers and use it to scoop up flavoured sauces and curries.
The main meal of the day at Alisa's house tends to be an informal family affair held on the patio adjoining the road. If guests like me are present, an array of dishes may be laid out on the table, and people - sometimes including friends who just happen to be passing by - help themselves to whatever they like, more often than not using just their fingers (although forks and spoons are available for us foreigners).
Deep Fried Insects
And speaking of Isaan food, there was one dish in particular which attracted my attention, if not my desire, on my first visit - a bowl of scrunched up little black goodies. The legs projecting on all sides from each morsel gave it away - this was my introduction to the local delicacy of eating deep fried crickets, and the first time that insects have ever raised their ugly little heads on my menu. Given the pick and mix culture here, I began to eat from the various dishes, quite naturally and unadventurously selecting the most familiar, while all the time my eyes were wandering to that bowl of dead black things, and to the multitude of relatives and friends gathered around the table for the occasion. Alisa's aunt has an American husband, so I looked to him for some encouragement and support, only to find that he shared my aversion to this food. When his wife lovingly dangled a few little beasties in front of his mouth, he laughingly cringed away; Dean is obviously not yet fully acclimatised to all aspects of local life. His wife Wen meanwhile happily chewed on a veritable swarm without so much as a mild grimace.
No pressure was put on me and no offence was taken at my hesitancy. I wasn't inclined to take the plunge, but I felt I had to; otherwise I’d always wonder what I was missing. Aware of my discomfort, Alisa eventually took pity on me, and tried to make the ordeal as easy as possible. She pulled off the longer legs and decapitated the offensive heads, and dropped one squidgy body into my mouth while my eyes stayed firmly shut. After a momentary pause, I just munched quickly and the insect was gone, amid considerable clapping and much mirth from the assembled spectators. Then she gave me another, and that went the same way. With my confidence rising, I felt it was time I made a conscious effort, so the next three I physically put into my own mouth and chewed. Five is enough I felt, but everyone seemed impressed with this minimal attempt at integration into Thai culture. And the verdict? Well I wish I could say deep fried crickets taste like chicken, or even that they taste awful. The truth is, they were slightly scrunchy but fairly tasteless. Maybe if there's a next time, I’ll try the heads and legs.
Fishing - Thai Style
Fish are an important ingredient in Isaan cuisine, and fishing (or to be more accurate, fish harvesting) is practised by many villagers and may indeed be quite a communal affair as I witnessed on one occasion. Behind the house in which I was staying there was a large pond - basically just an excavated area of ground. Periodically the pond is stocked with young fish which are then allowed to grow to maturity. Then, when the time is right, the water is pumped out, and all the fish are gathered. As with so much else, many of the neighbours are involved in helping out, including the children. The children probably really enjoy it, because this is also a very muddy affair!
(If anyone can identify the fish, please do so in the comments section!)
A slightly more orthodox way of catching fish can be seen on a local lake, where a huge net is stretched around a framework of long bamboo poles. Usually the fisher - always women in my experience - will wade out into water as deep as she can manage, and submerge the net under the water. I'm not sure if any bait is used or whether the fish population is just so plentiful that they swim over the net in very large numbers, but eventually the fisher, with some physical exertion, will raise the net and her catch.
The Sounds of the Village
A little wooden-housed village in the countryside, far from the city, far from busy highways, a place where children can play on the roads without a care and the multitudinous local pet dog population roams free. Obviously a peaceful and quiet haven. Not a bit of it! Leastways, not when you're trying to sleep at night. Many was the time when I would be kept awake at night by a torrential downpour smashing against the roof of our house. But even when the rains stayed away, the chances of a peaceful sleep until daylight were slim. First there would be the village cockerels announcing their presence to the world before dawn. Then soon after the cockerels calmed down, there would be chants and drums heralding the new day from the little Buddhist centre in the village. Then the grating sound of the metal sheeting at the front of Alisa's home being raised to admit the first customers of the day to the family grocery, and the first barks and howls of the dogs as they left their masters' homes to roam the roads. And then the calling and laughing of the children, as they followed the same route on the way to school.
It wouldn't have been possible to stay asleep for too long, but would you want to?
The dominant religion in Thailand is Buddhism, practised by more than 90% of the population, and many villages have their own little temple complex. Some are quite impressive and all are coated in gaudy colours (mainly gold, red and green), and they all have the very ornate and intricate decorations which are characteristic of Buddhist temples in the region.
Nanokhong has a very small place of worship, more of a hut than a temple, set in its own grounds which are lined with cemetery pagodas and entered via an ornate gateway. But just a few miles down the road is a much larger religious community with a lovely temple and living quarters for monks, and this is the temple featured in most of these photos.
Although I must say I am not religious, Buddhism is one of the aspects of Thai culture which first attracted me to the country and the people because it seems, at least as practised by the Thais, to be the most tolerant and peaceful of religions. Although the Buddha figure and holy places are revered, the people are respectful of different beliefs and quite tolerant of foreigners' lack of understanding. Generally people are easygoing. Two of the pictures in this section are of little schoolchildren in Nanokhong in a class taking lessons from a Buddhist monk. I was really surprised when Alisa said it would be okay for me to enter and take these photographs. Somehow I cannot imagine all communities or all religious faiths being so welcoming of such intrusion.
Village Entertainment: a Communal Movie
One of the most enchanting aspects of any village, but certainly one which is true in Nanokhong, is a community atmosphere and a shared sense of experience - something lost to most city dwellers in any culture. One day in the village there was a fair in the grounds of the local Buddhist centre with a few rides for the children, some stalls selling foods and treats, and some musicians playing in front of a marquee. Then in the evening there was a public outdoor movie screening.
A screen was installed in the field, supported by bamboo scaffolding, and as dusk fell, around 200 of the local villagers gathered bare foot on raffia matting to watch a martial arts caper. 'Lucky' wanted to watch the movie so I went with him and we sat with all the others. More than half the 200 would have been young children, and most of the remainder would have been their parents (I guess teenagers were probably out on the town). I couldn't follow a word of the film (no subtitles), but I didn't care. It was still a really nice experience, as it was such a relaxed, informal communal event.
Images from the Village of Ban Nanokhong
Some aspects of Thai life I will never understand, including some of their priorities and consumer values.
The modern lifestyle is embraced by Alisa. She drives the family pick-up, owns a cell phone, and the family has a computer (albeit not brand new), and she does most of the things that any Western person enjoys doing. Yet I have seen her drinking coffee out of an old glass jar because she didn't have a proper cup, and one time I caught her stabbing at an aluminium can with a carving knife to open it - cups and can-openers are readily available in the city supermarkets which are every bit as modern as any in the West. So why? She just laughed when I asked her.
No prizes for guessing two of the items I packed for my next visit to Thailand.
The Western Influx
Of course today, many of the younger village residents move away to study at college, or to work in the cities. But family ties are strong, and many will live in the family house long after most Western youngsters have flown the nest. Certainly the lifestyle of the village has much to recommend it.
And today it is by no means Isaan natives alone who like the village lifestyle. There's also been an influx of several European and American men, perhaps first and foremost attracted by the prospect of a Thai wife. Thai women have a strong reputation for being very loyal to their husbands. But not all of these men are intent on just taking away a wife back to their own country to look after them. Some, like Dean, enjoy the lifestyle of the village and are more than happy to settle into the local community, and even indulge in farming the land.
Miscellaneous Images of the Village
Thai Village: A Way of Life to Be Envied?
So this is Ban Nanokhong, its people and its culture, and the lifestyle of a village in northeast Thailand.
Although there are aspects of living here to which many Westerners may find it difficult to adjust, I would say that such rural communities have so much to recommend them - peaceful, free from serious crime, free from stress (at least the stress of the day to day city grind), and with a simpler lifestyle, yet also with access to the shopping facilities and all the modern attractions of cities like Udon Thani.
It's a village which will live long in my memories.
You may be wondering how the relationship with Alisa has developed. It would be wrong of me to say too much without her consent. All I can say is that there are cultural differences which can be respected, but unfortunately there are also some differences of tradition which we have not been able to reconcile. And there is a responsibility to try to ensure we are both happy in the future, which sadly has made it difficult to proceed, but we have remained in contact as friends and we will see what the future brings. Whatever happens, it does not alter my affection for the village, or for the family, or my best wishes for Alisa.
Additional Postscript (2013)
Since writing this page in 2011, Alisa and I have remained in contact and further visits to Thailand have been beneficial to our relationship. This year (2013) we intend to apply for a visa for Alisa to visit England. If successful, Alisa will get to see life in England and experience life with me and away from her family. Then we will know if we can live happily together in marriage. Wish us well!
Final Postscript (2014)
Sadly things have not worked out. Alisa visited me in England, but it was not many months before she decided she did not want to be with me or live in my culture. She wanted to go back to Thailand. We parted on good terms, but the experience has left me saddened and feeling very alone. The experience has left me wary of trying for any further relationship. It has not however, led to me changing one word of the narrative of this article - the village will always retain a place in my heart.
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© 2011 Greensleeves Hubs