Siam in-between: Livin’ la vida local

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Over the last few weeks the frequency of the updates on this blog has diminished, I am well aware. Getting a visa that allows my (Thai) fiancée and I to get married in Belgium has proven to be a daunting task. So much so, that I decided to fly to Thailand a few weeks ago to help get things sorted, locally. One Blue Monday, we found ourselves standing on the side walk outside of the Belgian Embassy, administrative challenges handled, red tape cut … and both of us with two weeks of holiday ahead, wide-open. Why not take the opportunity to experience vintage country-side living before this options disappears?

What I conveniently left out of the intro was the fact that we spent a few days at the beach first. Relaxing, meeting friends en generally enjoying life. Another guilty omission concerns our intentions. Yes, we wanted to experience the country-side lifestyle Khwantippa knows from her childhood. Part of the intention was related to this blog. A major part of our motivation was budget-minded as well. The long process of obtaining a visa entails a long list of smaller costs that amount to a considerable sum.

Before we headed North for a retro experience, we drove by the Angsila Market for fresh seafood. The market is literally on the pier and sells produce that is about as fresh as it gets. One of the things about Thai society I have learnt over the years is that food isn’t skimped out upon, not unlike in Belgium. Settings might not be glamorous, and one might have to sit on the floor, but whenever opportunity arises Thai people eat well, extensively, and preferably by means of a wide range of dishes. Once our purchases has been packed in a styrofoam box filledwith ice, we hit the road.

Almost six hours later we arrived in Phimai, in the Nakhon Ratchasima province. Regular readers of this blog will know that I live here about 3 months a year. The only difference is that this time, no house with modern amenities was waiting for us.

Khwantippa’s family, however, was. Even though were are always greeted with smiles and pleasantries, I’ve always felt awkward when we arrive at short notice and all of them jump to accommodate our wishes. If there is something I want to avoid at all cost, it is coming across as the colonial farang (‘foreigner’) who expects locals to jump and stand tall when he decides to show up.

Paa Weaw & Lung Ten, cooking

After our arrival around 7 pm, Lung Ten (‘Uncle Ten’) and his assistant for the evening Look Nong Khem (‘Cousin Khem’) immediately shifted into action. The amount of dishes and general quantity of food that is turned out with a limited amount of ingredients astonishes me every time, truly an example where the outcome is larger than the some of its parts. While there are many similarities between Thai and Belgian culinary habits, the differences are plentiful too. Like Belgians, Thai enjoy their meals, and love to eat a multitude of dishes. Unlike Belgians, Thai prefer to see all dishes appear simultaneously and eat them in extremely quickly. The first time I was invited to a family dinner in Khwantippa’s family, I left the table hungry like a wolf. Before I had truly started eating, everyone else had finished and the table was being cleared. I have picked up my pace since, and I have notice that the family has adapted and eat slower whenever I am around.

After dinner, we retired to the traditional house we would call home for the week to come. The house has been vacant for a few months, ever since Khwantippa’s mother moved to Maha Sarakham, Thailand’s university city. Mae (‘Mom’ in Thai) is a hard-working lady who used to work in the family’s traditional silk industry and now runs a boarding house. The Thai active population is an extremely mobile one. It is not unlikely to work hundreds of miles from one’s home and only to go home for the weekends. Some couples don’t see each other for months at a time.

The house is entirely made out of wood and is elevated on pillars above a concrete platform. In flood-prone areas this protects against water damage, but in this rather dry area it mainly avoids bugs and creates a cool area in the shade, underneath. Almost a century old, the house was built by Khwantippa’s great grandparents and remains largely untouched, except for the addition of an electrical system (added in the sixties, if I would have to venture a guess) and all-around exterior walls.

Inside one finds a large open area with a slight stepped elevation, and two separate bedrooms. In a sense, it slightly has a loft-like feel, which I like. In my opinion, the traditional and loft styles could be blended together to create a new and fresh style … something to consider for the future. At night, the many open nooks and crannies offer plenty of options for mosquitoes to enter, which is why we sleep under a net. Camping inside, in other words. Not an outdoorsy person, it is my type of camping.

The house does not have an indoor bathroom or toilet, however. This consisted of my biggest challenge. Just like at my grand parents’ houses before WWII, one needs to head out when nature calls. The bathroom is located in a small outhouse that contains two small water basins, a shower and a Thai-style toilet. Yes, the type of toilet that has two foot rests and a hole. One basin is used for scooping up water to wash oneself, another to flush the toilet. With the option of a shower present as well, washing was just as convenient as at home. The toilet was not my favorite feature, but I am quite proud that I’ve coped.

Would I stay in our traditional house again? Sure, for limited periods of time I certainly would. Permanently? Let me put it this way. Getting married to Khwantippa in a few months, we will always happily live at the crossroads of our cultures. Bathrooms, however, are not up for compromise. We will always live somewhere in-between.

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