Visiting the house of my Thai wife’s parent

There are lots of different types of families in Thailand, and what the family home of the Thai person you visit is like will depend on a number of things such as what part of the country they live in and how wealthy they are. My experience of visiting a Thai family home was in the North East region of Thailand in a small rural village.

Bringing A Western Man to the Village

My wife and I were together a few years before we got married, as is normal for most modern couples. I had met her parents already before we got engaged but I had not been to the Village and met the extended family. It was not that I didn’t want to go, but my then future wife did not want to take me because of what people would think.

Pune Sawan
Main road through the village

Thai Girls from the North East Region Marrying Foreigners

Up in Isan (the North Eastern Region of Thailand) it is really common now for Thai women to marry foreign husbands. Indeed a study by one of the regional universities suggests that these unions of Thai women and ‘farang’ men bring hundreds of millions of Thai Baht in investment to the region to the extent that they estimated it has created a staggering 750,000 jobs across the region. From this perspective it is not that far being the number 1 industry of the region, save for rice production.

family meal
The extended family eat together in the front room

Negative Connotations

Despite the frequency of these matches between Isan girls and foreign men they are still viewed by many in a negative light by the wider community, although not by the families of the girls themselves, who are often very poor and view the foreign husbands as walking ATM machines. The cliché is that the young girl leaves the village to seek employment in Bangkok or Phuket or Pattaya. When she gets there she starts working in a restaurant or factory or the such like – girls from poor families in Thailand tend not to get much of an education – and if they are pretty they soon realise they can earn three or four times as much working in a bar or the sex industry directly. Sooner or later (if they are lucky) they meet a Western man, generally older than them, that they can hopefully marry.

Ma and Pa House
One of the better houses in the village

My Wife Worried About Her Reputation

My wife and her family did not want to be seen in that way and I understand her reluctance to bring me there. Although our ages are not that dissimilar, and we met through friends, people would still have assumed that we met under different circumstances. The family are proud people.

With a ring on her finger, my wife to be and family decided it was fine for me to go to the village.

Village in the Middle Of Nowhere

The village is in the middle of nowhere, about 2 hours drive outside of Udon Thani. If you have never been to this part of Isan then let me describe it to you. When you come into land at Udon Thani Airport you will see that the land is as flat as a pancake as far the eye can see, which explains why it is so dry and hot and the land generally so unproductive for agriculture. Udon Thani is a large, busy, modern city full of concrete and car fumes. From Udon Thani to the borders with Laos and Cambodia it is a series of small villages and mostly unattractive small and medium sized towns. People in this part of the country are generally not prosperous.

isan mushrooms
The family picked some great mushrooms

Small Scale Farming Makes Little Money

The main local industry is farming on small holdings. There is no real money to be made in this type of agriculture. On small holdings it is difficult for people to use large farming machinery and as a consequence the cost of the labour required to do the farming (particularly rice farming which is very labour intensive over a short period of time) erodes all the profit. The structure of land holding and the farming industry is one of the key economic facts of life in Thailand and it affects around 70% of the population. Electoral politics in Thailand hinges on the issues surrounding the giving of farming subsidies to make this economically unproductive way of life viable.

planting rice
Everyone helps out planting the rice

Thousands of Similar Villages

My wife’s village is pretty much similar to thousands of others in Isan. The concrete roads of the main highways turn to dirt roads once you turn off into the village. It has a cluster of around 200 or so houses all made predominantly of wood, some clearly 70 or more years old, others like my wife’s parents’ were built more recently and are slightly more comfortable. Everyone has electric, and most running water, albeit from their own wells as the municipal water supply is poor and unreliable at best. This is not the ‘Third World’ as such. No one is hungry, everyone goes to school and no one is without medical care. Nonetheless, it is a long way away from the rapidly improving living conditions of people in the Central and Southern regions of Thailand.

Pune Sawan
Some of the houses were very basic

Waiting for the Rice To Mature

Life is slow in the village. For most of the year the only people who stay there are old people and children, lots of children. Most people of working age have to leave the village to find work. It was a bit busier when I went because it was planting season for the rice. Everyone comes back twice a year, first to replant the rice from the nursery beds into the submerged fields and then to harvest it. The rest of the year it’s peaceful, or boring, depending on your perspective.

The Family Were Welcoming

The family were polite and welcoming. I can’t really communicate with my Thai parents – my rudimentary knowledge of Thai was completely redundant as they speak a dialect closer to the Laotian language in Isan – and without my wife to interpret there is no communication at all. The brothers and sisters were much easier to get along with and communicate with as they spoke Bangkok Thai. I think part of the communication problem with the parents was lack of shared culture, willingness to try, and (to some extent) a fear of the unknown.

The Village Was Not A Comfortable Place to Stay

I should warn any of you thinking of venturing up to a small Isan village that it is not very comfortable. In my younger years I really roughed it. There have been weeks when I haven’t slept in a bed because I was hitch-hiking around Europe, walking in the mountains, or generally staying in the cheapest sh*thole hotels of North Africa and Asia. Maybe it is because I am older (and softer) now but I found staying in the village really hard going. The food is inedible. They ate small frogs for breakfast and extremely spicy food with no meat in for lunch and dinner. I brought a bag of croissants with me and eat only that for 3 days. Sleeping was difficult as well. The bed was uncomfortable with a thin mattress and thinner pillow, the single fan was inadequate and the chickens and dogs started up at 04.00 every morning. Forget about an internet connection or English TV. At least I had the foresight to bring several crates of Singha beer with me and a book.

Positives From My Visit To The Village

There were some good points to the visit. I got drunk with the family and the local Mayor came round and shared my beer with me. He was a friendly chap but couldn’t hold his beer. The brothers got the lao khao (rice whiskey) out and we all got drunk and shared lewd jokes. I also got to plant the rice. The process involves taking the plants pulled up from the nursery beds, pulling them apart and replanting them at roughly 30 cm intervals. For rice plants to be really productive they need to be spaced apart; left to grow from seed to maturity untended the yield is massively reduced. Rice planting is really hard work as you are bent double most of the day with your feet submerged in the mud and water half way up your calf. I didn’t see any rats or snakes – as I understand it the locals like to eat them – which was a relief.

The youngest member of the family liked me

All in all I felt this was an instructive and positive experience. I had to go and ‘show my face’ in the home town. More than that I felt it gave me an insight into Thailand. I do not think you can understand Thailand, and its culture, properly until you go to stay in a small village as part of a family. Many of the manners and cultural idiosyncrasies relate back to living in small communities. The general prohibition against getting angry being a case in point – when you live a small community you do not want to fall out with anyone as seeing them every day would make your life hell.

It Was a Relief to Book into A Good Hotel

This said I was ecstatic when it came time to go back to the relative civilisation of Udon Thani. I checked into the ever reliable Charoen Hotel, cracked open a beer, logged into the internet, switched on the satellite TV and ordered room service. As I understand it there are some small resorts in the vicinity of the village, and the next task is to work out how to convince my wife that we should be staying there rather than the family home next time we visit Ma & Pa.

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