These are edited excerpts from our book A Potato in a Rice Field: Through 2015 I was living with a local family in rural Thailand, I in the small village of Broken Road (Thanon Hak) found in the rural rice fields of Buriram Province of Northeast Thailand. A region better-known as Isaan. So we are not far from the small Isaan town of Nang Rong, where you just follow the main road through before taking a right at the road sign for ‘Baan Khanom’, which translates in English as “Snack House”. As there are very few significant landmarks in this part of the world, where a typical landscape follows rice fields upon rice fields, and settlements are just very 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’, as it really is a fruitful place, cut off from the modern world, and people are just small here. So at roughly 5 foot 10, I am probably now the tallest resident of Broken Road. Anyway, for the year I enjoy a simpler life, surrounded by rice fields, rich Thai traditions, and strict Buddhist teachings.
A Harsher Climate
Asides from the seemingly endless landscapes of rice fields and rice fields, we are also close to the Cambodian borders, where a short drive brings us to ancient Khmer ruins and the deep jungles of far-flung Isaan. Whereas, before moving to Broken Road, we lived in relative comfort in Bangkok’s city centre.
It is cooler in Isaan compared to the big city, but in rural life, we otherwise lack the western comforts and modern amenities that we are accustomed to in Bangkok. As, before now, we lived in a comfy air-conditioned condo, and we travelled in air-conditioned taxis and frequented air-conditioned malls and restaurants. So we never really noticed the relentless heats that Thailand is known for.
It is constantly between 30’c and 40’c in Thailand, almost everywhere, which may be fine for a quick holiday, but for day-to-day living, it is a lot harder to deal with. So it is no doubt a new climate for me, and Fanfan informs me that there are not really 4-months of ‘
Our New Home
Fanfan’s old childhood home had sat more or less abandoned for the past six years, as the family followed careers and education to the bigger cities, leaving the house to be used as little more than storage. But after a spring clean, and a layer or two of paint, the house becomes our new home for the coming year, and longer.
So it is just the two of us when we first move, and the home is more than enough, given it’s a three bedroom house, with balcony views over banana groves and further to the nearby communal lake. We are also just one of three houses on a family compound, and next to us, on the opposite side of the garden path, is where the grandparents and aunties live in the main house. There is then a dividing path that leads to the great-aunt’s house behind, where she lives along with our second cousins and niece.
But we aren’t fully rural, as in, we are not living in some far-flung farmhouse and completely cut off from civilization. Which I quickly appreciate, as there’s just a lot more interest and intrigue in the close-knit rural community that we become part of. And, at the same time, a short cycle brings us to the seemingly endless stretches of rice fields found throughout
The Local Temples
We are always guaranteed close connection to local temples in village life, where on Buddhist Holy Days we would wake to the sounds of country music and Buddhist prayer which play through a PA system connecting through the village. Then, every morning without fail, the local monks will circle past the house on their daily collections of alms in the local village. So we are just never far from Buddhist culture here.
We also find ourselves involved in all the annual events and ceremony of the local temples, due to the family’s strict following of Buddhism, and visits to the temple become at least weekly. Although involvement for the rest of the family in Buddhist ceremony is pretty much daily.
So life revolves around the temple, and at one time there was even talk of me ordaining as a monk, where only males can join the temple through ordination. And, as one of very few males in a predominantly female compound, I was able to bring merit to the family by becoming a monk. Anyway, it wasn’t something I could commit to fully, and while it would have been great to write about, I did decline. As these ceremonies should never be taken half-heartedly.
The Good Life
Isaan is often labelled as being the “Poor Part of Thailand”, which, from my personal experience, seems a bit misleading. As there is a difference between being poor and having low incomes. Otherwise, there isn’t really much need for high incomes in this region of Thailand, where households are often self-sustainable, and families can live off the produce of their own land and gardens.
And our compound is no different, where almost everything we eat comes from the family’s farms and gardens. And when something is needed outside, it can often be swapped or bartered with neighbours, or bought at the local market.
So, on the compound, we have coconut trees, banana groves, mango trees, papaya… in the bushes grow fresh chillies, and basils and just all sorts of herbs and ingredients. Even the path out front is lined with lemongrass and kaffir lime, and every time the hedges are trimmed, the smells of citrus breeze through the village. If we need eggs, we just nab them from the chicken coop. And meals through the week often depend on what’s ripe and in season in the surrounding gardens.
Therefore, since moving to Broken Road, our monthly costs of living have dropped to a third of what they were in the city. Yet our quality of life had jumped tenfold. And our monthly budget came in at around 10,000 Baht, which was 200 British quid at the (before Brexit), and many of these costs covered the usual overheads of electricity, phone bills and internet bills. As well as a large chunk going towards my weekly beers and pork barbecues.
My Crap Bike
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 really grew fond of its rust and scars, and if this bike could talk, I’m sure it would tell many fascinating stories, although few would be beyond the local village market. Anyway, it does have character, and while ten-year-olds speed past me mockingly on motorbikes, I’m never in a hurry in Broken Road. As it lets me savour my surroundings. When I’m not being chased down by yapping stray dogs.
But my crap bike was somewhat symbolic of the way of life in rural Thailand, where things aren’t as “throw-away” as they were in our previous wasteful lives. So if a handbrake is broken, we have it fixed, and there will never be too many patches on the tires. And it is quite nostalgic in a weird way.
But it did take some slight adjusting to get used to this thinking. And during the refurbishment of the house, I was desperate to buy a new bed, after finding one of the existing wooden beds to be riddled with ants. And while I could have replaced the bed, the family would never throw away the old one, meaning it would forever be cluttering up the rooms and living spaces. So I conceded to sleep with one eye open instead.
The Rural Grannies
It is mostly grannies and younger generations living in Broken Road, which I’m guessing is due to the students and working ages looking for better opportunities in the big cities. But even if there were folk of my age, it is still unlikely that they would speak any English, where Fanfan is pretty much the only one I can communicate with through the year.
But I do manage to get on well with the rural grannies, where conversations always follow the same three things. First, it is “Kin Khao?” which means “Eat Food”. People talk about food constantly. Next would be “Maak”, which is “Betel Nut” in Thailand, and the rural grannies will be chewing this constantly from dawn to dusk. Then it is “Nong Yang”, the name of the local market, which is where the grannies go to gossip during the day. And these are the three pillars of a rural granny’s existence.
Anyway, if I just mention these 3 words, and nod my head knowingly, they will go off in a full-blown conversation. And while I’m not really part of the conversation, they’re always happy that I am there, and I am interested. And I am always happy to get to hang out with them.
So this happens mostly on granny Yai’s porch, where I regularly watch them chew betel and shout at one another, which is normal because “old people don’t hear well”. But even if I could speak Thai, I’d likely still be clueless in conversations, as they have local Isaan and Nang Rong dialects, and the grannies like to mix in a few Khmer words to stop the younger generations from listening in on their conversations.
A Potato in a Rice Field: 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. Find it on Amazon here.