We were on the road to Sakon Nakhon and had just climbed Highway 213 to a flat part, maybe 40 plus klicks to SN. We stopped at a 7-11, loaded up with drinks and snack foods for our "isloated" resort cabin where we would stay. Four foreign guys going to an Isaan wedding the next day. My first ever.
Later that evening, we revisited the 7-11 for some strategic party essentials but, SHOCK!, this store did NOT stock booze. What's wrong with Sakon Nakhon? What were we to do? I’ve never seen that before. Nothing to do but hope the resort had stocks of beer at least. (Even in the big cities of the northeast, 7-11's are not as liberally sprinkled in the districts as they are in Bangkok.)
After we left the store, we passed by more than a dozen roadside stalls with everything. Maybe? I spotted bottles. Driver Khun Miken (and fellow celebrants K Jannik and author K Dean Barrett), ever alert for opportunity, threw out the anchors.
Indeed. Beer Leo could be had. Our little gathering of four farangs (white foreigners) suddenly became the centre of a throng of locals. About 10 local girls and three or four guys. They peppered us with smiles and questions. It can't have been because we were a rare commodity -- white guys in deepest Isaan. And it can't be because there's nothing on TV because most don't have a TV. Maybe the new BMW we arrived in had the eye appeal. Buddha knows we're not such handsome men anymore. We got the usual questions: where we come from, where we were going, what were our names, and if we had "fan" ("lady Thai" or girlfriend) or "palayaa" ("lady Thai" or wife)?
Such was the press at times, we couldn’t physically move. We found ourselves conversing for some time, with each of us at different levels of Thai and Lao, me definitely having the least fluency and Dean, with 10 years here, taking the lead. So Khun Miken says let’s open a “pop”. We did and offered “pops” all round. But most of the girls declined. The gathering continued for some time as girls, some in the 40-plus range, continued to keep up the light-hearted, sometimes suggestive patter. It was all in good fun and we got invited to come back for Songkran water festival next month.
I have experienced this Isaan friendliness in many of my travels throughout the northeast of Thailand. But never with this many eager listeners. It was just about the best experience I’ve had in Thailand.
We couldn’t let this go to our heads though. We had to get ready for the wedding of two Thai friends just off Highway 213, in a little village of dusty driveways, stilted wooden homes, ancient motor scooters, water buffaloes, raggedy children, sun-blackened faces and rice farms. And I’m saving the best adjective for last: happy! The smiles and friendliness would have been hard for even a committed curmudgeon to miss.
We made it to the resort, which did indeed have beer.
But earlier in the day, we had been invited to the family house for a warmup and what a warmup. Incredible food (laab moo or stir fried spicy minced pork with salad, grilled pork strips, and the most amazing grilled beef with the astounding naam jim jao spicy dipping sauce), store-bought beer, and homemade sticky rice cider (satoh, Lao for a cider like drink) and rice whisky (lao khao). We were treated like honoured guests.
They had set up a picnic table for us types that have to sit to eat and drink, while a few metres away, Thai people squatted or reclined on the low wooden decks, with 60-years-plus Isaan folks embarrassing us with legs folded nimbly underneath them, watching our every move. Fortunately, several of us visitors can speak some Thai and Lao, the latter being the unofficial language of Isaan, along with the Isaan dialect. Laughing and smiles never stopped.
The ladies and men laboured in the outdoor kitchen, with its coal-fired hot pots and grilles, pans full of chilis, cold leafy vegetables, and ice chests full of meat, beer and lao khao. No one misbehaved. It was one of the best experiences of my life, well worth the 700 km journey from the Kingdom’s capital.
The next day would dawn early, with wedding to begin at 7 a.m. You can imagine how in a steaming hot country, you want to get anything important done as early as possible. However, there was still the matter of dressing the house for the ceremonies, the arrival of the groom’s party of 40 or more in a bus from distant Ubon Ratchathani and gradual buildup of the bride’s friends and colleagues some of whom, after getting off work at 11 at night, boarded a minibus in equally distant Bangkok for Sakon Nakhon.
I won’t describe the village or our friend’s home. Look at the pictures. I think of the joyous time everyone had during the wedding; then look at the surroundings and forget about your first thoughts. People of Isaan have a rough life but you would never guess that from the proceedings or indeed, of those of any other day of the week. A ready smile and willingness to help anyone out despite the daily burdens make you look at yourself and your life and “how rough” you had it.
Give that some thought for a while. Think about what you would give up just for one day. Would you really be less happy? Doubtful. These people have far, far less; others have almost nothing.
"Less is more" is one phrase that is easy to toss onto the table of discussion. I am not focusing on the accumulation of products and services. Much of those things really exist to distract us from conversation, companionship, loving, sharing, listening, observing and analyzing in the sense of the need to survive. I think you will have a rich life if you observe, listen, converse, share and love. There can be time for modern conveniences but I think it's unwise to let them rule your life.
I question myself about the following thoughts. I can remember being embarrassed, as a kid, about not having this or that thing. Or my parents not being cool. Or not having a nice winter jacket. But I had food, warmth, a roof over my head. Well, some of my Thai friends and many acquaintances never had anything and I never detected any reticence among my two Thai friends in welcoming us into the humble rice farming community in which they were born. I've heard many storeis from Isaan farm girls who come from the same or worse conditions. My GF recently showed me pictures of her family’s village home. It has a thatched roof, dusty ground floor and no electricity. She was proud of her parents and would do anything for them.
Photo notes: top, family home on wedding morning decorated to receive the couple; four foreigners visit the night market and gain an unlikely audience; the completed meals plus beer and satoh or Isaan country cider from sticky rice; food preparation that would never be complete in Isaan or Thailand without killer chilis; and last, below, the village on early morning wedding day.
Background note: With the wedding in our sights, we decided to make this part of a larger tour of Isaan. We drove from Bangkok to Chaiyaphum the first day. Then after one night there, went to burgeoning, lovely Khon Kaen. The wedding was held about halfway between Kalasin and Sakon Nakhon. Post wedding, on day 3, we continued. On heading south, we passed through Kalasin again, then visited Roi Et (practically every bar and restaurant is called 101 plus something, hardly surpising considering the city's name is, in Thai, 101). Then the roads carried us to Korat (Nakhon Ratchasima) Tuesday and finally to Bangkok Wednesday. More reports to come.