Since arriving in Kham Pia, a small village of 400 farmers and rice growers in Northeast Thailand, time has slowed to a trickle. Things are different than in the rest of Thailand; and I think the villagers like it this way. For the ones that don’t — the occasional number of restless young — they shed themselves of it like a skin that is too tight.
People and animals share the same living space here. This is not just limited to dogs and cats (our homestay dog shared my living space one day and ate my towel), but to livestock such as chickens, cows and numerous birds too. There are other animals also, such as lizards, which collect in corners like dust collects back home. As I type, there are at least nine geckoes on one wall, of various sizes and dispositions. One larger lizard, at least a foot long, scampers back and forth underneath a sofa. And the bugs! They are everywhere! In the morning, they cover our floors like dew. The termites are especially messy: they seem to emerge all at once, in cycles depending on the weather, and shed their wings in order to begin a new life of crawling and scampering. Their discarded wings blanket the floors like leaves in the fall.
None of these things are that surprising, though, as Thai houses are built differently than Western homes. Our homes back home are meant to seal off Nature and the rest of the world, creating a seam between the wilderness and civilization. Here, homes are built with walls missing. Where our front door would be, their entire wall opens to the street, like a child’s dollhouse that is sliced crosswise, opening on hinges.
Though it is only 6:30 am, the village has been stirring for hours. Even the roosters here are confused by the time and begin crowing much earlier than they should. They forgot to synchronize their cocks, I joke daily. As I lay in bed, thinking murderous thoughts towards poultry, other sounds begin: the calling of the monks to the monastery down the road, dogs whimpering and chasing each other, ducks clucking in the neighbour’s pen, the women washing and scrubbing their family clothes in the basin outside, a radio blaring some indistinguishable Thai tune. Eventually, amidst the noise and the unbearable heat, we get up and start our day.
The food here is remarkably good – well, the dinners anyways. Breakfast so far has consisted of disappointingly cold sticky rice and eggs, followed by granular instant coffee. Dinners on the other hand are mouth-watering and of a different style than we had experienced back in Bangkok. Although one could easily find a regular western-style restaurant in most larger Thai cities, Kham Pia is deep in the heart of rural Isan and consists of a culturally-rich, though mainly poor, agrarian people. This is reflected is the type of food eaten (a lot of rice) and the way it is prepared (on the floor mostly).
Here, meals are taken sitting down on the family mat, barefoot and cross-legged. Everything eaten is freshly made, as refrigeration, though sometimes available, is normally reserved for keeping beer and bottled rain water chilled for drinking. Food is eaten with one hand, similar to traditional Indian style, and is typically scooped up into a handful of the region’s famous sticky rice, Khao Neow. Rice is stored, served, and eaten from small woven, oval wicker-type baskets. There must have been a sale on, as every family seemed to have one of exactly the same style in their homes.
Our favourite Isan meal, which we have occasionally made since returning home, is minced chicken salad, or Laap Gai. Like typical Isan cuisine, it is fairly spicy, though you can certainly make it milder by adding less chilli powder. Traditionally it is made with ground, roasted sticky rice in it, though I usually skip this step for simplicity without noticing the difference.