The alarm sounds at 3:50am as I blearily roll out of bed, splash on a face full of wake up cold water, throw on my backpack and pick up my Canon 60D and lens kit. This weekend I’m off to visit Roi Et in Isaarn, catching the first outbound flight from Bangkok.
I want to visit Roi Et, but where?
Isaarn is the huge mass of land filling the North East sector of Thailand, bordering Laos on the northern half and Cambodia on the southern part. Look up North East Thailand in your Lonely Planet guide and you’re likely to find little more than 2 pages covering the entire region, and likely no mention of one of the major cities Roi Et. It is by no means the most-traveled or documented destination for western tourists. That is one of the main reasons I am going there.
As a staple diet Thailand consumes a huge amount of rice every meal, every hour, every day. A huge portion of this rice is grown and harvested in the Isaarn provinces such as Roi Et. With the intention of gaining a better understanding of how food comes to the plate, I will be spending the following days living with a local family in a remote rice farming community called Selaphum, about one hour outside of Roi Et city. Here I will learn the ways of life through the village and its people.
Touching down in Roi Et shortly after 7am we walk out of the airport which is no wider than a standard Bangkok expressway, less the lane dividing stripes. The air is fresh and cool in the early morning, and lacks the distant pollution smog that Bangkok provides on a daily basis. It is already a relaxing change of place being in the countryside.
As we walk out of the airport we are greeted with huge smiles and open arms of three well-tanned locals; Go, Goi and Bic. These welcoming people are my host family, and stand proudly next to their 10 ton family truck which becomes our bumpy, airy, conversational ride home for the next hour on the way to the village of Selaphum.
Before reaching Selaphum, we make a detour to pick up grandpa and a few other family members. The Thai people place a heavy emphasis on food, and this is no different in Roi Et as the enlarged groups heads off to feast at a local Isaarn restaurant. Here we eat a variety of classic Isaarn dishes including; grilled pork neck, papaya salad (somtam), grilled fish, another papaya salad, minced spicy duck, some cold beers and another variation of a papaya salad. It is good to note here that the Isaarn people are absolutely crazy for their papaya salads of all variations, be it with salty egg, fermented fish or rice paddy crabs.
On arriving to the house in Selaphum, the village of Roi Et, we unload the truck with the food supplies of the next week and head into the house. The open air house is a huge, magnificent piece of craftsmanship. It is built over the generations’ entirely by hand and locally sourced wood. The yard surrounding the house is filed by a live animal farm including ducks, chickens, pigs and cows which the family brings up for extra income. The chaotic underside of the house is filled with exotic pieces of machinery used for harvesting rice, between which handmade hammocks are strung for escaping the midday heat.
When offered, we jump at the chance to take one of the family’s motorbikes out to the surrounding agricultural areas. Within minutes we are able to encounter amazing landscapes dotted with lakes and ponds in among evergreen eucalyptus forests and sweeping rice paddies. What I wrong assumption I made in expecting my visit to Roi Et to be encountering a deserted wild west of sorts.
I thought the first wake up in Bangkok was a once off early morning, however this was quick to become a routine in Roi Et. With Go waking daily at 5am to head out to work on the rice paddies, the communal multipurpose living room lights switched on and the kitchen fires up as soon as the sun shows the first signs of creeping over the horizon.
The morning starts by taking the family’s cows across the road to greener pastures so that they can feed for the day. We then take a brief walk across the road to collect some fresh homegrown produce from yet another extended family member who is already awake and tending to her vegetable patch. As we return home the house is soon filing with an infusion of smells combining freshly chopped Thai herbs boiling away above a wood fired stove. The countryside in Thailand is evidently not a place for sleeping in, with people of all ages brining the early mornings to life.
By 7am everyone in the house has eaten, showered and is ready to start another day of work. Our task for today is to dry the rice harvested from the previous week so that it is ready for sale at the traders in town.
Go, who previously seemed shy to talk due to the language barrier, starts to warm up when he asks if I can drive his car. Looking at the 30 year old beaten up Hilux I reply with a somewhat unsure dai krap (Thai for yes can). We slowly work our way down the village road unrolling the mesh on the asphalt where we unload the 6 ton rice harvest of the week. What looks to be a quick 10 minute job turns out to be 2 hours of manual labor in the already beating hot sun. Now I understand why everyone gets up so early to work before the midday sun has hit.
After the rice has been well sundried and lost its undesired water content it is time to reload everything back into the truck, again through manual labor. With a break no longer than the blink of an eye we are loading ourselves into the proud family truck to cash in the hard work of the rice season at the rice traders in town.
I always knew the rice industry was huge in Thailand, but I as was soon to become clear I had vastly underestimated the actual immensity of the amount of rice traded on a daily basis. On arrival to the rice traders in Roi Et we pull in to see trucks lined up after trucks all fully laden with rice, waiting to weigh in and cash in. At 10 thai baht per kilogram (about 30 cents per kilogram) there are tens of thousands of dollars traded in this one warehouse every day, meaning literally mountains of rice.
At the end of a day’s work it is time to return to the village to a big family sized papaya salad and a bucket of ice cold beers. Tomorrow will be the beginning of a new cycle, again working hard to harvest and prepare the rice to sell at a premium price, before it ages too far in the season and loses value.
In the villages like Selaphum surrounding Roi Et, the days are long and the work strenuous. However the lifestyle is an active, communal and yet relaxing way of life. The Isaarn Thai people present a vastly different culture to the people of central Thailand, with their unique language and foods. These 3 lengthy days, but short trip have been a real eye opener, with a definite return to experiencing the rural life in sight.
Photography equipment used in this blog includes the Canon 60D camera body, Canon 50mm f1.4 lens and Canon 10-20mm Wide Angle Lens. Deepen your blue skies and pop your green landscapes with CPL filters from Hoya.
Josh Shephard (JShep) is an independent traveler and enthusiastic travel photographer who has called Thailand home since early 2014.