We have always toyed with the idea of living in Thailand’s rural countryside, back to basics to live that happy simple life. Now living in Bangkok the move is always an easy option and if we decide to do it we could be there tomorrow, bags packed and away we go. Fanfan was born in rural Thailand and spent much of her childhood living a simple farming life in Nang Rong, Buriram a small rural town not far from the Borders of Cambodia (5 hours east of Bangkok). Her family, my now in-laws, remain in Nang Rong where they own farmlands 15km out of town; mango tree forests, rice paddies, lakes and endless lands of Thai fruit and veg. Name it they grow it. While the farmland remains, the family rarely see it as the older generations retired and the newer generations follow their own ambitions in government and other industry. The family now live closer to the local town in a compound of three houses shared between the family members who remain. One of the three houses belongs to Fanfan a three bedroom teak building in dire need of spring cleaning. On this visit we stick to the family home and stay with Yai (Grandma) in the front house.
At the family home life centres round food, someone is always cooking, preparing food or collecting ingredients. Living seems self-sustainable as the house is surrounded by mango, pomegranate, papaya and kaffir lime trees, dotted between are veg and herb gardens and out front is a chicken coop for collecting eggs. The back garden perimeter is now overgrown and while desperate to explore I am always called back because that’s “where snakes live” you know, King Cobras etc. The back room of the main house is similar to a storage room with stocks of farmed rice and ingredients piled against the back walls. This is where most of the cooking happens but it does spill out to anywhere.
Pulling to the home front Yai is as always cross legged on the porch pummeling her next hit of betel nut. It’s another lazy Sunday in Nang Rong. In the house we drop our bags and join Taa (Grandpa) in front of the TV to watch the weekend Muay Thai fights play out. In the air is a foul stench of rotten fish from a new batch of Pla Ra pickled fish sauce which Yai left to ferment in the back room (fortunately it didn’t linger). In the back house Aum (Auntie) and Yai 2 (Granny 2) are probably watching slapstick comedy shows or over-dramatized soap operas as per usual. Life is normal.
New to the house we find four kittens roaming between rooms, all four with no names, one with no tail. The kittens don’t actually belong to the family, they just turn up, eat, sleep and live in the house. “Are they yours?” “No, they’re just there”. With little going on we join Naprao (Auntie 2) on a run to the local market in Nang Rong town centre. On the shopping list is Yai’s betel chew paste and Fanfan’s Kap Moo and Prik Pon (deep fried pig skins and dry chilli flakes). We then return home to find Yai 2 now sat hunkered in the driveway feeding sticks to a portable wood-fired cooking stove. Helping is her granddaughter ‘Mind’ and some kid from across the street. Next minute shouting breaks out; Yai 2 shouts at Yai, Auntie Naprao shouts at Yai 2, Fanfan shouts at everyone and just when things are about to kick off they look at me and laugh “you look scared?” Apparently this is talking in Nang Rong only louder because ‘the old people can’t hear well’. A little terrifying.
To avoid deafness we nab a motorbike and go for a ‘night on the town’. As always we have our to-do list for food in Nang Rong making the most of cheap eating while we have the chance, in rural Thailand you will find it hard to pay over 500 Baht ($15US) for two people to dine. Having just arrived from a 5 hour bus journey we skip past the hands-on eating of Jim Jum Hot Pots and Moo Krata Barbecues and go with something more simple an Isaan restaurant with fresh water fish. The restaurant is decorated with carved wooden interiors, revolving fans and sits next to a lake / water feature – to describe one restaurant in rural Thailand means to describe them all. Restaurants often double as nightlife with live bands of Thai country, rock music (bearable) and groups of more affluent locals sharing big bottles of Thai rums and whiskys.
Arriving home Yai 2’s stove has been left alone (20.00 hours). We creep silently through the front doors to find Yai and Yai 2 cross legged in front of the TV. Again the shouting begins, Yai 2 “Lee Gay, Lee Gay” pointing to traditional Thai performances on the TV “Yeah, he does look it!” I reply with a snigger. My childish jokes float like a lingering fart. Ligay I am told is a prestigious folk soap opera performed with traditional dress, music, singing and dance. As a kid Fanfan and Yai 2 would follow performances locally which played overnight many starting 9pm (at night) and finishing 5am (the following morning). Ligay is only performed on special occasions such as temple ceremonies, monk ordinations or local weddings and if planning to host one expect to pay a cool 120,000 Baht per night ($3,600US). I fail to find the fascination and slug off to bed after 5 minutes. Yai puts us in an upstairs room, windows facing the front gates, old teak interiors, creaking floors, straw mat beds and sheltered by mosquito nets – no comfy bedding, air-conditioning or silence as we are accustomed to in Bangkok. We sleep under a chorus of frogs, lizards, crickets and a lonely tokay gecko yelps from the rafters above us. We don’t sleep well.
We wake 5am to the clunk clunk of Yai’s mini mortar and pestle where she grinds her first betel mix of the day. The sun only now rising and the call of frogs and lizards are soon replaced by song birds and ekky ekk eks (cock-a-doodle-dos) of a distant cockerel. It was almost idyllic if not for my aching back and Fanfan’s sneezing, again, we didn’t sleep well. I sneak a quick and cold monkey shower, throw on some clothes and join the cat with no tail on the porch. We watch over the world. Soon Yai arrives sporting her winter clothes, thick woolen cardigan, neck scarf, the 19’c heat clearly not impressing her. She hates ‘the cold’. Having spent the previous month in China with -12’c temperatures we’re fail to feel worried. We wait on the doorstep for the morning ‘Bintabaht’ where local monks circle the community collecting donations for the local temple. I hold my own offering which includes a bowl of rice and a goodies bag of incense, yellow candles, soy milk drink and tin of sardines in tomato. The first monk passes and Fanfan calls to him ‘Nee Mon’ (Welcome) I run to take place, kick off my shoes and kneel before the monk. I bring the the rice bowl to my forehead three times, spoon boiled rice into the monk’s alms bowl, pass him the bag of treats and hold my palms together in prayer (wai). The monk blesses me. I say farewell “Saa-Tu” before scurrying off to eat the left over grains of rice which are now blessed for good fortune.
The breakfast table is empty this morning as the workers of the family rush out early (below is a photo of the usual breakfast feast). This is not really a problem living in Thailand where you find street food everywhere from the earliest of hours. Again we nab the motorbike and scoot round town to pick up Fanfan’s favourite bites. First off Kai Yang grilled chicken, the breakfast of choice in Isaan and I guess the rest of Thailand. Accompanying is a big bag of sticky rice. Next is Fanfan’s favourite Som Tam shack served by a sweet old lady nicknamed ‘Phi Pop’ after a cannibalistic ghost of Thai folklore. Terrifying to Fanfan but to me she’s quite adorable Check here for our guide to Isaan food and on the off chance you’re in Nang Tong here’s our Nang Rong food tour.
During my handful of visits to the family I have found some unforgettable experiences. Back in 2012 was my first ever visit following our friend Aun from Bangkok for his monk ordination at a local temple. Easily in my top experiences from living in Thailand. We don’t actually visit the family home until the second visit when Fanfan introduces me as her husband. Having chosen our own simple wedding in Bali this was a big deal in Thai culture. The family welcome me, bless the wedding and each family member ties Sai Sin sacred thread bracelets to our wrists. On the same visit, as the newest member of the family I am involved in a Monk Blessing Ceremony which takes place at the family home. Next visit… maybe a Ligay performance?
Nang Rong is one in a thousand of small towns dotted through Thailand, north to south. Of course regions vary but you will find Buddhist culture, traditions and simple life stay similar to the same. For now we will stick to Bangkok but the charm and simple life of rural living in Thailand will always have its appeal.