Monday, July 20, 2009

We love Isaan

Thailand has four main (not sure if they're official) "areas", the north, the south, the northeast and the central area that are not only geographically different, but ethnically and culturally diverse as well.Well known and travelled places in the north, which borders Myanmar and Laos, are cities like Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. The north is famous for its ethnically diverse hill tribes, wild elephants, more recently a newborn Panda cub at the zoo up there, mountains and not so hot winters. Two main things that come out of the north are unfortunately pirated DVDs and CDs and drugs. To be fair, most of these come from Myanmar, but they do have to be allowed in (corruption at some level of the gub-ment) and distributed by somebody...probably those Thais I see on the news almost nightly that were caught with 250,000 pills of meth and 3 million baht stuffed in their mattress or moped tires.The south borders Malaysia. The farther south you go the more the balance of religions favors Thai Muslim rather than Buddhist. The south is flanked on both sides by the Andaman Sea to the west and the Gulf of Thailand on the east. Beaches and beach cities such as Phuket, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui are popular attractions in the south. The insurgency in the deep south has kept us away from this beautiful area, but I look forward to getting down there one of these days as I feel it is one of the jewels of Thailand. You may remember Christmas of 2004, the tsunami hit this area hard leaving the Kingdom grieving.The central area pretty much covers Bangkok and many other cities and provinces. Bangkok is the capital and largest city here, but as you get just a few kilometers outside of the city, you start noticing a more rural environment and way of living.

This brings me to the northeastern area here in Thailand, or Isaan. As Pae is from the Isaan region, We've probably spent the most of our free time there, exploring and visiting family. Probably the majority of this blog is Isaan related as we go there probably three times a year.

I find Isaan to be quite relaxed, especially in contrast to Bangkok where I work and live. Isaan borders Cambodia to the south and Laos to the north and east. There is a mixing of blood, language and culture nearer to the border as well. Many in Isaan speak the Isaan language or dialect. I think speaking Isaan is a mix of Thai and Lao. I've been discouraged from learning Isaan by the family, but pick up something new when I hear Pae talking on the phone to her parents, or when we're sitting in the car road tripping with them.The pace of life is much slower in Isaan. Rather than the hustling, bustling, polluted air, taxis and buses, and general chaos of the Bangkok morning commute, things are much slower and less "planned". The food is also quite different from the other regions. Each region has their regional menu but I think Isaan food is the most unique and most widely known in other parts of Thailand.

Isaan is more quiet with farmers tending to their fields, ranchers gathering and feeding their flocks, and workers planting rice. I'm not saying that Isaan is a po-dunk-hillbilly-redneck-Private-Pile-yeehaw-sheep-humping area (I think West Virginia has that nailed down). It's just that the difference from the city is quite noticeable. Yeah, Isaan has its doctors, lawyers, government workers, architects, engineers, bankers, accountants, lattes and cappuccinos, but the rural country life is more at the forefront there.Our last visit took us from Ubon to Srisaket on the Cambodian border, and Phana where Pae's dad was born. Once you get outside of the main district of Ubon, there are fields for miles and miles in all directions. Fields with livestock and fields with fruit. Fields with fish ponds and fields to grow rice. And in each of these fields you can see men, women, children and beasts planting, plowing, tilling, harvesting, fishing...doing what needs to be done everyday to survive. Their bodies are soaked in sweat already at eight in the morning, their clothes caked in mud before many people have had their morning coffee. These people put so much into their work. Their 70 year old, ripped bodies (muscles, I mean SOLID), their faces wrinkled and darkened by the sun, and their mid-day power naps in a hammock loosely strung between two trees are testament to this. They are very hard working and nice people.Isaan people aren't all work and no play though. When they have the occasion to sit and relax with family or friends they usually do, with tables of food, a never empty drink (adult variety), karaoke, laughter and a lot of smiles. From the first day I stepped foot in Isaan, I've felt that it was a very special place. There I feel a much closer, tight-knit family feeling than I have anywhere else here, even between people who are not related or people who just met...It almost has a Hawaii (Waimanalo) feeling to it I guess you could say, minus the beaches! Aloha!

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