Cleaning a Tuk-Tuk

We’ve had another busy week. Both Mos and I have both had a birthday, we’ve been to the cinema, twice. And, we bought a latex plantation.

After a quite and relaxed day at home, apart from a trip to the cinema, for my birthday, we started to get our stuff together to head back to Bueng Kan. Previously we’ve driven from Chiang Mai to Bueng Kan, this time we decided to avoid the 900 kilometre, 16 hour drive by flying. Unfortunately you cannot fly directly to Bueng Kan, the nearest commercial airport is Udon Thani. From here we would hire a car and drive the remaining 240 kilometres to our favourite hotel.

I have flown with many airlines over the past few years, some good, some bad. My favourite domestic airline in Thailand is Nok Air (‘nok’ is Thai for ‘bird’). They offer good prices and have always provided a matching service. Also, their planes have a smiling beak…

We headed for the airport after dropping of Khao San at Lucky Dogs (it’s like a dog hotel). It’s only a twenty-minute trip on the scooter from our house to the airport. It was nice to know that I’d only be driving for a total of 4-5 hours rather than 16 hour mission of previous trips. Anyone familiar with air travel will be used to the sign at check-in that shows all of the items that are prohibited in the cabin of the aircraft. Normally this contains; guns, knifes, aerosols, lighters, fireworks, handcuffs, flammable materials, hand grenades and nuclear weaponry. A pretty sensible list. I certainly wouldn’t want to be stuck in a plane with a disturbed person in possession of these. The Nok Air check-in desk warns against only one item that you cannot, under any circumstances, take onto the aircraft. Surely, they must be refereeing to a pretty serious piece of kit? Well… not exactly.

Major security risk.

The people in charge at Nok Air are clearly more concerned with the Durian fruit than a slab of C4 explosive or a machete. Lets investigate this further. The Durian fruit is very popular in Thailand, you’ll find it being sold all offer the place. It’s only crime as far as I can tell is that is smells like vomit once it has been cut open. It is also quite large and hard, like a spiky coconut. If you Google the Durian fruit you stumble across something it’s Wikipedia page. Which will show you its scientific name, ‘Durio’. And it’s higher classification, ‘Bombacaceae’. Maybe the Durian fruit has an explosive secret. Maybe some of the airlines in the west should take note and add it to their prohibited list.

We completed the check-in and removed all of our concealed Durian fruits at security. After a short wait we got ready to board. Mos was very happy with the plane, she’d never flown on a small propellor plane before. The plane had eleven rows of three seats and was staffed by two pilots and just one air hostess. The flight was only an hour and twenty minutes so we only got a small snack and a drink.

As we made our approach to Udon Thani we flew through storm clouds and the rain got heavier and heavier. The rain lasted, without break, for our entire trip. We picked up our rental car, this time from Lek Rental. After destroying at least one hire cars suspension this time we opted for a huge Toyota Hilux Vios 4×4. This is a pick-up truck with a double cab. Meaning that it can sit five people inside, comfortably. And a mixture of more daring people and cargo on the back. I was even more pleased with the selection of the car as the rain increased as we pulled out of the airport. We would have about 100 kilometres of dirt tracks and potholes to cross before getting to our destination. And that’s on top of the hours of motorway driving. We will definitely be getting one of these next time.

We reached out hotel in Bueng Kan at lunchtime, checked in, sent a few emails, Mos updated Facebook and then we headed off to see the family. They live in a small village called Ban Na Kap, or as I call it, Ban Na Na town. Sometimes I feel like my humour is wasted on the Thai’s. We collected the family, picked up the head of the village and headed to the neighbouring village to meet their head and the local men of power (mafia). We had to meet with the two groups because technically the land we now own is in Ban Na Kap. But some of the locals think it is in the neighbouring village. So we thought it best to have the approval of the heads of both villages to avoid any dispute. We were also joined by the land owner who bought all of the relevant documents. I sat there trying out my basic Thai on the people not busy reading the contracts and overlooking the paperwork. Which turned out to be two toddlers and a dwarf, who was clearly intoxicated. Between us we managed a sentence or two. The dogs seemed to understand.

Shortly after the contracts were signed bags of ice and crates of beer were delivered to the house we had been sat outside. This was fairly awkward as most Thai’s are Buddhist, and they take this seriously. Buddhist lent had started a few days previously, which forbids consumption of alcohol for three months. The villagers from Ban Na Kap won’t touch a bottle until the three months have passed. The neighbouring villagers however didn’t seem to care. So as my family dodged the beer and said goodbye I had a quick glass for politeness and got in the car. We had arranged to meet the land owner at the bank the following day to bank transfer the money and for him to give us the documents. He and his wife are genuinely nice people, very trustworthy. Unlike the owner of the previous farm we had considered buying.

To celebrate we took the family for a meal in Bueng Kan in a nice little restaurant looking over the river at Laos. This whole area is bordered by the Thai/Laos border which is marked by the Mekong river. Between the five of us we ordered seven different dishes, it was great. Chicken, fish, rice, soups, vegetables and spices. The cashew nuts fried with chicken was amazing. Total cost, including drinks, was ฿750 (£15).

The next morning we headed off early to the local Kasikorn bank branch to make the transfer and swap the documents. It was still raining. There was some confusion as banks in Thailand seem to be fairly upset when you try to transfer money to a different bank. But after working out that it would be much easier for the land owner to open a new account with Kasikorn, and transfer from my account to his, everything went smoothly. We now had the handful of old documents we had been waiting for. Very exciting. We ordered a load of noodle soups to take away from the food stand outside and headed off to the Land Registry Office.

One reason we liked this land owner so much was that he was from the southern Thailand, like Mos. They both spoke the same dialect. Well so did the man in charge at the registry office. He rushed through our paperwork and wanted to talk to Mos all day. He missed the sound of southern Thai. We changed all of the documents to Mos’ name. Apart from one, the Land Tax document. This, much like a car in the UK, is a tax that is paid annually. The previous owner had already paid it in July 2012 so when we renew the tax in July 2013 that document would also be changed. The tax for our land is ฿28 (£0.56) per year. It would cost us more in fuel to drive the thirty kilometres from our farm, to the office and back every year than the actual tax.

After we had done all of the paperwork we headed off to our families house. As usual, we were greeted with hugs and smiles, which we exchanged for the bags full of noodle soup we had ordered earlier. Today was Mos’ birthday, so the greetings were even more excitable than usual. The family had planned a birthday trip to see relatives that none of them had seem for over a decade. Mos’ dad, who is obsessed with chickens, made it clear that he wanted to buy some chickens whilst there. Apparently the area we were going to is renowned for its prize chicken breeds. Mos’ dad, when not working on his own latex farm of maintaining his two huge fishing ponds, enjoys making chicken cages and fish traps. So we packed a few of these onto the pick-up as gifts for the people we would be visiting.

On the way out-of-town we took the whole family back to the farm. The first time we would have been as the owners. The grandmother was excited. She walked around talking to each tree, telling them to be on best behaviour. Foamy (12-year-old brother) ran around with my iPhone shooting video of everyone, and the floor. Mos, her mum and her dad walked around the perimeter talking about the plans for the next cut (cutting the trees for latex). To access the farm we have to drive on a track, which when it rains turns into a muddy waterside. I was very happy to have the 4×4 at this point! As it was still raining we didn’t stay long and made our way back to the main road.

We had been driving for just under an hour before the grandmother started asking the dad if he knew where we were heading. He insisted that he did, and we carried on. We headed due south from Ban Na Kap. Not that we had many options, east would take up to Vietnam, north would take us into Laos and west would take us back to Bueng Kan. This was a part of Thailand that I’d never been to before. Lots of new sights, customs and people. At one point we drove past a lake. I spotted a man with a tuk-tuk. Which was strange as we had to be about ten kilometres from the closest town. Then, he forced some rubber off-cuts into his exhaust pipe and pushed the tuk-tuk into the lake. The water was about half a meter deep, coming up to just under the passenger seats. He than whipped out a sponge and started wiping down the chrome supports and bright pink and green seats. Apparently this is standard procedure for washing a tuk-tuk in this part of the world.

After a few more oddities along the route we arrived at the village we had been looking for. And eventually found the right house. We all greeted each other and exchanged gifts. We gave them two chicken cages and four fish traps and a few buckets of preserved fish. They gave us sacks of coconuts and rice. Mos’ dad had been saying he was hungry from the time we left Ban Na Kap, and now we had arrived we were about to sit down for a meal in the tin-roofed shelter in front of the house. Just as food started to emerge from the house, Mos’ dad, Foamy and the dad of the family we were visiting started talking about chickens and headed off on a scooter to find some. The rest of us tucked into a meal of various soups, pork, chicken, rice, noodles, and a local favourite, chicken feet.

Just as we were finishing up, the dads and Foamy returned on the scooter with three chickens. One impressive looking male and two smaller females. Total cost was ฿500 (£10). These chickens are a fighting breed, hence the high price tag. For the next hour we fought to put the chickens into boxes, and chase the one that Foamy accidentally let go. And instead of helping load the pick-up or chase the escapee chicken Foamy decided to shoot some more video on my iPhone. Once I got it back, I had 62 videos of chickens, four of a dog and one of himself using the phone as a mirror. We finished loading up the pick-up and headed back to Ban Na Kap.

On the way home we spotted a night market in a field. So we stopped to stock up on snacks. Between us we had chicken skewers, corn on the cob, pork skewers, rice, drinks and some sweets. After these had been eaten, everyone, apart from me (the driver), fell asleep. We dropped the family off at their house and said our goodbyes. Mos even got a quick massage from her mum to help combat a headache. Then we headed back to Udon Thani. Our flight was at 09:15 the following morning so we thought it best that we stay in Udon Thani, close to the airport, than in Bueng Kan and face a three-hour drive before our flight.

I was tired and we had no internet connection so I turned to my sat-nav for advice on hotels near the airport. The first result was ‘Udon Thani Airport Hotel’. Exactly what we wanted, so we headed there.

Once we arrived we checked in for the night, ฿650 (£13), including breakfast. The rooms were clean, the bed was comfortable. But, it was a strange place. Imagine a hotel designed and built in 1985, that was then abandoned in 1986. Left sealed from the world until 2012 when staff appeared, made the beds, dusted and cleaned the toilets. That is how it felt. Everything was original, the bedside radio, the phone, the shower unit. Very weird. Also, something that you very rarely see in any hotel anymore, a big glass ashtray. Other than the feeling of being in a bad 1980’s soap opera the stay was nice, the room service was OK. And it was close to the airport.

In the morning we dropped our pick-up off at the departures gate. Overall I was impressed with the rental company, will be using them again on future trips. We checked in and headed up to the departures lounge. Mos managed to sneak a bag of chicken skewers past three security check points and tucked into the in the lounge. Just before checking in we got a message from a friend in the UK, his wife, and our friend Jaew was in the airport too. So we sat with her as she waited for her flight to Bangkok.

Mos was equally pleased to be travelling on another small propellor plane, this time a different colour that the last. She even took a video of the walk from the terminal across the airfield to the plane.

I like Nok Air, I think they are great value for money. But the ratio of nuts to space in the inflight snacks was shocking. This picture shows the entire contents of one bag.

The flight back to Chiang Mai was nice, and now we are both back home and planning the future for our first farm. Possibly even considering a second!

Latex Plantation

This week we’ve been over in north-east Thailand. Bueng Kan to be specific. As you may have noted previously, this is where my wires family live. Mother, step-father and step-brother. But as she has grown up with her step-father from such a young age, we call him dad.

On our previous visit to Bueng Kan we talked about the possibility of investing in a latex farm. Our family are in the latex farming business, and the surrounding area is full of latex trees. We talked with the village elders, police, governors, and even some local loan sharks and mafia figures to get our head around the situation. We found one farm that was a perfect size and ticked most of our boxes. We were told it had 960 trees and was 12 Rai in size. One Rai is equivalent to 1,600 meters squared.

The farm was rectangular in shape and had a small concrete house in the corner, which the workers would live in. A farm this size would only require two workers. We had already planned this, Mos’ sister (Em) and her long-term boyfriend currently farm latex in the south of the country. Em is due to give birth in October and is planning to move closer to her family (in Bueng Kan) after she has. So it would be perfect for the three of them to live in this house with no commute and some peace and quite to bring up the baby.

We inspected the farm with our family and Mos’ dad did some digging to see if there are any issues with the land ownership, debts on the land and so on. We already knew that this land was still waiting for its title deed to be issued, so a sale was going to be largely done on trust rather than updating the official title-deed as you might expect. In addition to this we found out that the owner of the land had gambling issues and was being chased by his debtors, largely the local mafia. This is why he needed to sell. He had also borrowed money from a loan shark which he had secured on the land. All of this information was found by Mos’ dads contacts.

On this visit we spoke with the loan shark, who was surprisingly a very nice man. And a close friend of our family. He came to meet us and showed us all of the original land documents. The next day we spoke to the owner who said there are no debts on the land and that he had the original documents. We asked to see them, he showed us photocopies. We had our suspicions previously, but now we knew he was lying. We decided to walk away. Regardless of the legality of the sale, we did not want to do business with someone who we can’t trust, and is clearly dishonest.

This was fairly disappointing as we’d driven the 950 kilometres from Chiang Mai to Bueng Kan just to seal the deal. But, as I said, you can’t do business with liars. We had a nice meal with the family and got ready to head back to our hotel. As we were about to get in the car we got a phone call from a friend of Mos’ dad asking us if we were still looking for land. His friend was selling and it matched what we wanted.

We all jumped in the car and headed out to pick up this guy from the neighbouring village. Thankfully we’d hired a big 4×4 car this time, not a weedy little Honda Jazz. The roads in and around Bueng Kan are terrible, and that’s if they even exist. Sometimes you just have to drive through streams, farms, or gardens. It’s madness. And last time we very nearly crippled the Honda Jazz. I managed to get it to limp the journey back to Chiang Mai but I imagine it’s on the scrapheap by now. This time we had a Honda CVR G3. Much better.

The new farm was much closer to our families home than the previous one, only about ten minutes on a dirt bike or twenty in the 4×4. This farm does not have a house, but the close proximity to our families house would enable them all to share. We are all currently in the process of planning a new house to build as a replacement of the current very basic house. So planning for the addition of the sister, boyfriend and baby is not too difficult. Mos’ parents are also insisting on having a guest bedroom, with air-con and western style en-suite to enable my family to visit and stay with them.

The actual farm was perfect. Great location, good trees, which have already been cut, and cut well. And, it’s cheaper. It has no debts, issues or dishonest owners. In fact the owner is from southern Thailand so he spoke the same variant of Thai as Mos.

We will be heading back next week to buy the farm. We’re very excited.

Bueng Kan

Shortly after confirming my role in the new company we had started to look for places to live. We started off by looking online. Most of the property in Chiang Mai is managed by a handful of big estate agencies. I was amazed at what we could get for our money. The price I was paying in London for our two-bedroom flat could have got us a six-bedroom house, with swimming pool, aircon, tennis court and an apartment in the back of the house for a live-in maid. Slightly different to our lifestyle in the UK.

We headed out to look at a house that we found online, just east of the city, and much more modest than the one mentioned above. We pulled up to the three-bedroom house, with a huge gate, perfect garden and pristine neighbouring houses. Sadly, it was already taken. As we got back on the scooter we spotted a small sign on the railing of the house next door. We phoned the number and the owner raced to meet us. The current tenants, three TEFL teachers from South Africa needed to move out. One had split with his girlfriend, the other had lost his job and the only one remaining just wanted to go home. Within two hours we’d signed the contracts and the house was ours.

To celebrate we planned a short break away to stay with our family in Bueng Kan. Although it’s possible to fly from Chiang Mai to Udon Thani and then either bus or hire a car. We decided to take the overnight bus. It was as uncomfortable as any of the other night busses in Thailand. The aircon is always either blowing our stale, warm air or ice-cold air, so cold you need to ask for blankets. This bus was the latter. We arrived in Udon Thani nice and early, so early this small town had not woken yet. We jumped into a tuk tuk to take us to a hotel we could get some rest in until lunchtime.

Once we’d woken up we got in another tuk tuk to try and find a car rental place. And after sitting in an office (living room) with two cats, three dogs and an elderly Thai woman for nearly an hour the owner arrived with a little Mazda hatchback. Which was surprisingly new and clean considering the office (living room) we’d been waiting in. We gave her the paperwork and with a hand-drawn map headed north to Bueng Kan. From there the route would rely entirely on my wife’s memory. The last time she made this journey she was six years old. I didn’t hold much hope…

We hit Bueng Kan, and as this was the closest town to our families house, we booked into a hotel. The, got back on the road for the short drive to the village. Once in the village we asked some locals to point us in the right direction and a few hours after leaving Udon Thani we had arrived.

It was great to see them again, and to visit there small and humble home for the first time. This was also the first time I would meet my new brother-in-law, Foamy (12). He was unable to make the long trip south to Koh Tao for our wedding due to a busy schedule of exams at school. The first time he saw me he was shy. He hadn’t seen many farang (foreigners) before, let alone a 6’1″ guy that’s now married to his sister. But, by the end of the day we were playing badminton on a patch of dirt with a ripped up net and DIY rackets. He won. Convincingly.

One thing I quickly learnt about my new family was that they love to eat. Or at least loved to offer me food, all the time. Language was a barrier, food was a bridge. We sat and ate food that they’d made all day. With friends and villagers coming and going to meet me and see my wife who they’d not seen for many years. It was a great day!

The next day we drove the short distance to our latex farm. A huge expanse of latex trees, each with a small cup hanging from a peg that is hammered into the tree to collect you seeping liquid latex. Our family have 750 trees which my are cut very early every morning by my mother-in-law and father-in-law. It’s a huge amount of work for a fairly small reward. To add and extra income they’ve also got two huge fishponds, each slightly bigger than a tennis court, which provides fish to sell at the local market.

That night we drove everyone to Bueng Kan for a music festival. It was much like any festival in the UK. But this one cost ฿40 each (about £0.80) to enter. Inside they had market stalls selling everything, televisions, socks, beds, furniture, gadgets, knifes, ballons, food, drink… everything. We worked our way to the main stage and laid down a mat to sit on before the crowd got too big. We sat and drank whiskey with our family and various friends and villagers who had joined us while the children went to play on the fairground rides. It was the perfect end to a great trip.