Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Nam Sohm, Thailand

12 March – 18 March

K. and new friends
We're in the heart of Eesan, or so I hope. A place where only farang fans come. The husbands of the ex-bar girls. Maybe that is too false-hearted of me. Too ugly.

Although also true. We told a tuk-tuk driver in Bangkok that we were headed to Eesan to get away from farangs, and he said: but they're still there. “Fans” are there. “Fan” is the Thai word for intimate partner or spouse, a borrowed word from English. It's a fun word to use. Whenever I say that K. is my “fan” I feel like a celebrity.

So the town is chock-full of ancient decrepit boyfriends with cute perky Thai girls in braces. But I'm the only female traveler in town, and people seem shocked to see us—what brought you here? They ask. We don't get many tourists here. It only makes sense when I explain that my brother has a friend from here, and she told us to come visit her family. The only people that come here have a connection.

Which is exactly what we're looking for. Despite the fans, there is cultural wellbeing here, a sense of true authenticity. In short, it's the best week we've spent in all of Thailand (and that includes the week at the beach villa).

For one thing, the food. As always, the food. Prices are more or less standardized across Thailand, so a bowl of noodles or a simple dish over rice is always basically B30-40 ($1-1.2o), with the notable exception of tourist resorts and restaurants. But what is not standardized is quantity and quality. What B35 buys you at a city bus station, a half-full bowl of broth-heavy soup (albeit still delicious, arguably better than the best Thai food in the States), a bowl that leaves you needing to find a chicken skewer to fill up, is probably half of what B35 buys you here. Here, we go out for noodles and receive giant tureen-sized bowls chock-full of noodles and meat and bean sprouts and greens, more stew than soup. We almost can't finish them. Almost.

I'm actually able to have Thai conversations here, able to hang out with Thai people and cook and eat with them and do: what? Live a normal life, but in Thailand. People here are happy to see two goofy Americans drive by on a miniature bike (miniature only in comparison to our size), happy to smile and laugh and not try to overcharge us, thrilled at my attempts to speak Thai. They are thrilled just that we are here visiting—like the old Thailand, the Thailand from fifteen years ago, the Thailand I remember.

It's also a vague relief to have a break from these places where there are a ton of sights to see and attractions to visit (not that there aren't plenty of temples and waterfalls to visit here, too, that we're not getting to), because all the sightseeing begins to feel oppressive. Like a duty necessarily carried out, not something pleasurable. Nam Sohm just feels like normal Thai life in a normal Thai town, about the size of Mars Hill, the town where we go grocery shopping in Aroostook, and in the same pastoral landscape. The town is surrounded on all sides by rice farmers, the same way we're surrounded on all sides by potato farmers in Aroostook.

Somtahm with sehn, noodles, added
People here make sense to me. They live the same kind of life I do at “home.” I compare prices with them, finally able to communicate in something approaching comfort. Meat, dairy, and potatoes are unsurprisingly cheaper in the States. Things like shallots and limes—exotic ingredients in the States but necessities for Thai cooking—are cheaper here. We eat food that we've never eaten before, like green papaya salad (somtahm) with noodles mixed in, an all-in-one Lao dish that they only make in this province. It's delicious and spicy, a refreshing change from noodle soup and sticky rice.

One of the lizards we ate for dinner.  A bearded dragon, I think, like the ones they sell in American pet stores.  The boys in the neighborhood go fish for them, with bamboo poles and noosed ropes.
We eat lizards: skinned and dried in the sun and fried and then pounded in the mortar and pestle with herbs and spices into a kind of meat salad, like lahp. They tell us they eat snakes and scorpions and rats (not city rats, they explain with a shudder—ground rats from the forest—which is better if only mildly so). They'd eat them more, I guess, but they say they're harder to come by now, harder to find, that it's hard work to get them. Unlike the tourist areas of Thailand, where I feel wrung dry by touts, here I feel dazed by my own wealth. We go the market and buy 100 baht ($3) worth of chicken and pork and innard skewers to share, and the lady shoves in a whole handful extra. People behind us comment that we've already spent 100 baht, as if it's an unearthly extravagance. I feel guilty for my mild indulgences, my B10 yogurt drinks that are still half of what a big bag of market soup costs, enough to feed a whole family.

Lizards, cooked, as lahp
Here, on a budget, we live like kings. We found a teak house, three-bedroom, for B1500 a month. It doesn't seem possible, and yet it is. I dread going back to the reality of the tourist track with its crepe and falafel stands, all-you-can-drink specials, reggae bars, and dance clubs. I'm just happy. I'm trying to just let myself be happy, not obsess about how little we're doing or how little time we have left or much there is we could see.

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