Thai New Year Isaan

Thai New Year in Isaan Part 1: Culture Shock, Concerts, and Booze-Pushers

26 comments
Expat Life, Thailand

There is a place near our house in Bangkok that is a hybrid street food stall and restaurant. All the cooking is done on the street but there is an indoor area that has the trappings of a Thai restaurant – simple tables and chairs, a cooler for beer, and a TV playing the requisite Thai soap operas.

Other than my wife and I, farang rarely eat there, so perhaps that is why the husband and wife co-owners, Pat and Krong, took a liking to us. We go about once a week and always order the same thing – blah pow (grilled fish coated in salt and stuffed with lemon grass), papaya salad with one chili, sticky rice, and a big Leo beer. They see us coming and don’t even bother to take our order – they nod in acknowledgment and start plating our usual. It is nice to have a place like this.

A few days after Thai New Year in April of 2017, Pat showed us a few videos of people in colorful clothes drunkenly dancing to loud music in the streets of her hometown. In one video Pat was dancing with childlike glee. “Mao mao,” she said – very drunk. 

“Next year, you come,” Pat said. We immediately accepted though we were not sure if she was serious. But, every time we ate at the restaurant, she reiterated the invitation, and asked us if we’d been studying Thai. Our language skills were limited, and she had warned us that no one from her village spoke English.

A year later, we flew into the Roi Et airport and Pat and Krong picked us up. I didn’t really know what to expect, except that she said her house was in Yasothon in the vast region in the northeast called Isaan. Yasothon is the small capital city of the remote state of the same name, and a quick Google search showed a few cafes and restaurants in the city of 62,000 people. I was working remotely at the time, so I imagined going to a café in the morning, sipping a latte, and using the wifi to answer some emails. I thought if we needed a break from the family we could explore the town or walk to some markets or parks.

After an hours drive we arrived at Yasothon…and kept on going. When she said they lived in Yasothon, she evidently meant the state, not the city. About 30 miles past the city, we stopped in a busy town on the highway and bought supplies. I looked around and thought that this town wouldn’t be too bad. It had a lively market and a some places to eat on the main street. Then we got back in the car, turned town a very narrow road and headed off into the middle of nowhere.

We arrived at a sleepy village called Ban Du Laat. There were no cafes, no restaurants, no bars, and certainly no wifi for the 400 or so residents. For the first time in a year I wondered if maybe I’d made a huge mistake. We are going to be bored out of our minds, I thought.

Any concerns I had about this being a boring weekend were quickly laid to rest. After dropping our bags at Pat’s house we walked down the street to a housewarming party. The scene was totally surreal – in a large yard in front of the new, baby-blue house, was a stage with a rock band and backup dancers. They played to a crowd of mostly middle-aged people who were sheltering from the intense mid-day sun under several large tents. Under those tents were long rows of tables covered in plates of recently devoured food. The event looked more like a wedding reception for two prominent families and less like a housewarming party. 

All the women had on beautiful dresses with their hair and make-up done. Most of the men had on nice pants and the Hawaiian style button-down shirts that most Thai people wear at New Year. Everyone looked like wholesome, kindly people with good jobs, some money, healthy kids, and new cars.

And they were all drunk as fuck.

Everyone was drinking with a reckless abandon usually associated with riots after sports championships. I thought to myself, damn, these people must have started early to be this drunk by noon. And maybe they did start early, but the true source of their inebriation was the intensity and fervor with which they drank and not so much the duration.

The partiers were constantly clinking glasses while shouting out emotional proclamations, then guzzling beer and hugging. About half the people from Baan Du Laat live and work in Bangkok so this was a homecoming and everyone had the carefree air of a person on vacation.

In addition to the general heavy drinking, there was always someone walking around the party with a glass and a bottle of whiskey. We will call this person the Booze-Pusher. The Booze-Pusher would walk up to an unsuspecting friend, dump a generous amount of liquor in a cup, then shove it in their face, forcing them to drink up, you know, like frat boys.  I never saw anyone back down from a Booze-Pusher no matter how drunk and disoriented they seemed to be. 

Luckily for the Bells, we established right away that we don’t do shots. “Mai dai,” – I cannot – I’d say when a Booze-Pusher would run up to me with a sloshing glass of whisky and an evil grin on his face. I told them it hurt my stomach. One Boozer-Pusher seemed to understand that I didn’t like straight whiskey and dumped it into my beer, thus ruining two drinks. I tried to drink it, but as you can imagine it was disgusting and had to be poured out surreptitiously. Pouring out booze was probably the one faux pas that would have gotten me banished from Isaan.

It was impossible to talk to anyone at the party because the music blaring from the speakers exceeded aircraft engine decibel levels, and that was a good thing. Although Kristi and I had been studying Thai, trying to communicate with these incredibly drunk people just wasn’t happening. So instead of coherent sentences we communicated in laughter, smiles, sweaty hugs, and clinking of glasses followed by gulps of beer.

I should take a minute to remind everyone that this was Thursday the 12th at noon. Thai New Year is a three-day event that starts on the 13th. As I watched our new friends drunkenly dance in the hot sun, I knew we were in for a long weekend.

Isaan Thai New Year Party

Dancing at the housewarming concert.

Isaan Thai New Year

The housewarming party looked like a wedding reception.

Thai New Year Isaan

Many people in Baan Du Laat work in Bangkok, so Thai New Year is a reunion.

Baan Du Lat Isaan party

One of the locals giving a tip, bribing for a song request or trying to get a phone number, not sure.

 

By mid-afternoon the party faded – everyone was too drunk, dehydrated and full of food to continue, it seemed. Luckily, we went back to the house for naps. We slept on the floor atop mats, but most of the family just slept directly on the hard tile. This sleeping arrangement looked incredibly uncomfortable, and at first I thought this was due to drinking excessive amounts of alcohol in the mid-day sun, but this is just how they slept. They seemed to be torturing themselves like monks in search of enlightenment.

For dinner, they spread out a rattan mat on the floor and placed assorted vegetable, pork, chicken, insect, and fish dishes upon it. Isaan food bursts with citrusy and sour flavors and is spicy as hell. Everyone sits on the floor around the assorted bowls of food and they use their hands to dip and scoop up bites of food with sticky rice. It is a fun social event. Isaan people, I learned, eat their body weight in sticky rice every meal. 

Pat asked if I’d like some kai mot daeng and I said sure I’ll try some red pork egg. It was the strangest pork I’d ever had. It tasted and looked more like insect larvae than pork and was mixed with a citrusy, tangy medley of herbs and vegetables. The next day, while on a fishing expedition with the men, they showed me a giant red ant nest and I realized I mixed up the words “mot” and “moo” and instead of eating pork I was eating something a little more exotic.

Kristi was braver than me. When a bowl of bite-sized whole frogs was passed around, she popped one in her mouth. Everyone paused and watched with great anticipation as she chewed and chewed – and chewed some more – while trying to keep an expressionless face. You could see her jaws working overtime, trying to masticate something that evidently had the consistency of a giant, stale gummy bear.

“How was it?” I asked after she finally managed to choke it down. 

“Chewy,” she said in a high-pitched voice.

Isaan Food

Eating in Isaan is a fun social event. We sat on the floor and ate various dishes with sticky rice.

After dinner, we went to the town park for a concert. The band from the housewarming party had acquired additional backup dancers and a female co-lead singer and was rocking out on a big stage. It seemed like most of the town had turned out for the concert. Well, those who were not passed out from the morning festivities, anyway. 

Between songs the singers were talking to the crowd. We didn’t understand what they were saying, but we did hear them say “farang” and look our way. Since we were the only farang within 500 miles we were fairly certain they were talking about us.

We drank and hung out with our new friends until after midnight when, mercifully, we were allowed to stop drinking and return to the house to sleep. 

Isaan Concert

Concert at Baan Du Laat.

Isaan

Booze-Pushers attack at the concert.

Isaan Drinking2

Chasing a shot of whisky after a Booze-Pusher attack.

Booze Pushers

Pat and Kristi dancing at the concert.

Pat and Kristi dancing at the concert.

Isaan Farang Dancing


For the curious, here is a Google Map of where we were.


Stay tuned for the rest of the story

Part 2: Sanook, Road-Trip and an Epic Water Fight

Part 3: A Big Ass Parade in a Tiny Town

Photo Essay – Colorful Thai New Year in Black and White

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Currently living in Bangkok, I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~ planetbell1@gmail.com

26 thoughts on “Thai New Year in Isaan Part 1: Culture Shock, Concerts, and Booze-Pushers”

  1. This sounds like an epic adventure, Jeff! Going to an off the beaten place is always interesting for we don’t really know what to expect — we might end up getting bored or the other way around. Speaking of Isaan food James also mentioned to me how spicy the local dishes were (he was in Buriram for a work trip earlier this year).

    • We took a pretty big leap of faith, but we also couldn’t pass it up. It was a great time and they took such great care of us. Isaan food isn’t necessarily famous outside Thailand, but it is all over the country. Papaya salad (som tom) comes from Isaan, and they grill a lot of meat, chicken and fish there. The flavors were more varied than other parts of the country I’d say, which is impressive.

  2. Wow this sounds amazing! What a spectacular experience, and your photos captured some of the energy of it. I’m completely gob-smacked! I’m glad it was not me and Don who are not drinkers, or even partyers that much really. We wouldn’t have been able to take the pace. Looking forward to parts 2 and 3.
    Alison

    • We like to drink a few beer with dinner, but we aren’t accustomed to partying like that at all! I suppose most people in the village don’t party like this normally, but they were in full spring break vacation mode!

  3. Your “drunk as…” line made me blow beer out my nose. you aren’t generally that frank. You would have gotten a good laugh! Oh my, booze pushers – what a treat. Sounds like the beginning of an awesome adventure! I guess no emails were answered.

    • There was no other way to describe the drunkenness 🙂

      Luckily I told my boss I might be hard to reach so all was good.

  4. omg – your adventures just seem to get wilder and wilder!! I know for sure I wouldn’t have the stamina for a 3 day event. These are serious partiers!!!

  5. This was quite an experience, and I don’t know if I could be calm with everyone being so indulgent. I definitely don’t think I could sleep on a hard tile floor!!!

    • The mats we slept on had some padding, plus we were drunk every night so we were able to sleep. Everyone was partying like spring break in college. I suppose it is their one time a year to really cut loose.

  6. Well, that was was fun! I had no idea where we were headed at the beginning, but even after the first mention of massive drunkenness, things just kept getting better and better. I had to love the dude with wet patches (alcohol of some sort, no doubt) all over his short and pant legs. 🙂 Big props to Kristi for both popping the frog into her mouth and the impressive dance moves! What a fantastic experience you had.

    • Kristi is an adventurous eater but also a pescatarian, so I was very surprised when she popped that frog in her mouth. If you like the dude with the wet patches then stay tuned -t here are a lot more sloppy people to come in future posts!

  7. Hahaha love this! Toooo funnnyyyyy!!

    Seems at the end of that drinking and partying no one would care that they are sleeping directly on a floor hard as rock! They probably way too wasted to care, um or even notice! Impressed by Kristis frog popping and your ant nest consumption, albeit mistaken identity.

    Now that’s a good farang exerience!! Love the photos, especially of the mat in the floor with all the food laid out and the one of Kristi dancing, at the end. Terrifuc post.

    Sooo, you going back next year?

    Peta

    • We hope to go back next year! They kept asking if we wanted to return next year and we’d always say EVERY YEAR!

      I just learned that red ant eggs are a delicacy! Who knew? Thanks for reading and commenting.

  8. YAY! Things like this are why exploring the world is so amazing.

    And now I REALLY need to visit you and Kristi – because I want to give Kristi some serious shit for having the cojones to eat a whole frog!!!!! I miss you, Ms. Kristi Bell.

    • She didn’t even hesitate – she popped it right in her mouth! Agreed, it is moments like this that are special and unpredictable. We ate at the restaurant last night and they asked if we were coming again and we said of course!

      • That’s wonderful – I wish I could have seen that. New Mexico has great food (I’m addicted to New Mexico red chile sauce) but nothing that might freak people out.

  9. I am so impressed with how you guys embrace these opportunities that for most people would be non-starters and/or totally intimidating. I didn’t realize that Thai people are such party animals.

    • I had no idea they were such party animals either! I think many people from the village save it all up for one week of debauchery!

      I think it was easier to embrace since we had no idea what we were getting into. Had I known the full extent of the trip I may have been more hesitant! Thanks for your comments.

  10. This was both hilarious and genuinely crazy, Jeff! Makes my own Isaan adventure a couple months ago look tame – there was no drinking and partying since it was purely for work, and I didn’t get to try ant eggs or whole frogs. I did think that “mot” was a typo since I learned that pork was “moo”… and then I realized your mistake. You can tell just how drunk people were because none of them are looking directly at the camera; they all seem kinda spaced out. Like Lex, I too noticed the guy with the wet patches on his shirt and pants.

    Reading this reminded me of a trip I did in my college days to Spain… I had two classmates from Valencia who invited me along with 9-10 other friends for a spring festival in their hometown. It was 48 hours of nonstop partying – drinking, dancing, eating, watching fireworks, dodging firecrackers in the street – and it was totally insane. We rented an apartment but there were not enough beds so I had to sleep on the hard wooden floor. The other option would have been to share a queen bed with two guys I’d just met!!

    • I can only imagine that a spring festival in Spain would be wild. I feel like the festivals I went to in Mexico were the wildest, but this particular town in Isaan really parties hard for new year. Maybe half the town lives in Bangkok so this is a homecoming and celebration for them all.

  11. Pingback: Thai New Year in Isaan Part 2: Sanook, a Road Trip and a Massive Water Fight | Planet Bell

  12. Pingback: Thai New Year in Isaan Part 3: A Big Ass Parade In A Tiny Town | Planet Bell

  13. Pingback: Life As An Expat in Bangkok – Part 4, Travel | Planet Bell

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