Thailand has chosen it’s marketing strap-line well, ‘The Land of Smiles’. Everywhere that you go it’s the smile that welcomes you and it’s the smile that makes you want to return, or in many cases, never to leave. Every province is different from it’s neighbour; culture, personality, cuisine language, yet every thing and every place still remains uniquely Thai. It’s a little like the United Kingdom where England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Island are very different from each other but together they form part of the same United Kingdom. However, unless you can imagine a Wales or an England where everybody is constantly happy and nobody ever moans about their lot, then that is precisely where the similarities between these two Kingdom’s end.
Khon Kaen is situated in the North Eastern province of Isaan and while it might lack the beautiful beaches of the south, in my eyes it more than makes up for it in the richness of it‘s culture. The people here in Isaan are very proud, their traditions are as old as the fields that that they farm and far older than the machinery that they use to work their fertile land. Twenty years ago when I first came and fell in love with this region, the land was cultivated with ploughs drawn by animals and the crops were harvested by families. A wealthy rice farmer may have owned a Tak-Tak; a petrol driven rotivator that is also used to tow trailers and transport children to school, but most farmers would simply have shared a water buffalo or an ox with their neighbours. Things have changed, the Japanese pick-up has replaced the Tak-Tak as a means of family transport and the only animals that you’ll see are more likely destined for the dining table than a life of toil in the paddy fields.
I guessed that the man sitting cross-legged beside me on the floor was in his early eighties, perhaps a little younger, but then perhaps I was being unkind. A life spent farming beneath the year round blazing sun with absolutely no knowledge of SPF creams and lotions, I suspect does little to reduce the aging process. He points to his bright orange tractor and smiles at me with pride. It’s a small tractor, probably half the size of the kind that you’ll see in England, but it’s perfect for the narrow furrows of his rice fields. He knows that my Dad was a farmer, he wonders why I didn’t follow in his footsteps. He only needs to look at me, I might make a good office-boy but I’m not biologically built for even the mildest form of manual labour. We’re eating Tom Yom soup and sticky rice, it’s been prepared especially for me, ’mai phet’, not spicy. The beautiful Tassaneeya comes out onto the veranda, hands me a cold LEO beer and sits beside me on the raffia matting. She’s acting as translator. Here in Isaan they speak a language derived from Laos, a language that is a million miles removed for my ever diminishing grasp of Thai. The old man is her Grandfather and the man sitting next to him is her Father. I recalculate my estimation of his age, it must be closer to ninety. It seems that the entire family has gathered and they comment on the friendship bands that have been tied to our wrists by the students at the college. They laugh, they joke and the family drink beer while the mosquito are content to gorge themselves on my blood. Everybody is happy.
It’s very late, Tassaneeya’s parents have seemingly retired for the evening and the relatives have silently drifted away leaving her Granddad and myself alone to talk. The detail of the conversation I miss, some of the Laos I just simply don’t understand, but the overall meaning seems only too clear. The affects of the beer instantly vanishes, the blood sucking mosquitoes become irrelevant. He’s joking, he must be joking, or perhaps I’ve simply misinterpreted the conversation. I ask for clarification and he willingly gives it. I laugh nervously and he smiles at me with a gleam in his eyes,….. time for bed.
One day I’ll feel brave enough to recount that conversation with the old man in the village with no name, but that day might be a long time in coming. I hate leaving, especially if I’m leaving for a place that is less inspiring than where I am already. It’s even more difficult when I’m leaving good friends, no matter how temporarily, behind me. My destination is Bangkok and then onwards to London in a few days time. I say goodbye to Tassaneeya, she wants me to stay and I certainly don’t want to leave but there are as always, a million things that need to be done.