Often, when riding through the maze of street vendors, motorbikes, and impossibly beautiful girls that make up the tapestry of evening street life here in Isaan, I find myself smiling at random people for no particular reason. They always smile back. Sometimes (often, in fact) it is they who smile first. Sometimes my smile will be for a pretty girl, sometimes for a mother or father bouncing a baby on their knee, and sometimes for the small child pointing in my direction and calling out “Farang!” as if he’s just observed the most amazing event a young mind could ever conceive of, and he must stop, point at it, and call out, for fear that this momentous happening may not be believed if not witnessed first-hand by others!
I treasure these moments. Coming, as I do, from a nation of stay-at-homes. For yea verily, mine is a land of hermits. A strange land at the edge of the world, where people will go out to sit in a crowded tavern, and proceed to talk only to the people with whom they already share a living room. They’ll look around at other people, talk about them, get drunk, and then go home again. All the while secure in the knowledge that their tightly organised, neatly stacked, dymo-labeled world has not been tainted or disturbed in any way by the meeting of ‘the others.’ Most days you could parade through the streets in full medieval armour, carrying a pink-tasseled parasol and wearing a balloon animal around your waist and nobody would notice. They’d all be inside in the air-conditioning, reading celebrity gossip magazines, playing video games and watching pay TV.
Ah, but not here! Here we go out! Every night a bustle of Uni students can be observed, loitering with intent to have fun, outside the ‘Sewen-Elewen’ and buying sticky rice and ‘moo yor’ from street vendors veiled by smoke, as they cook on their bicycle-wheeled charcoal grills. The well-heeled student will choose to park his two-tone Yamaha Fino out front and take a seat in one of the only two self-proclaimed ‘restaurants.’ Most others will gather in groups of eight or ten at the many open air Korean barbecues. An interesting phenomenon occurs at these cook-out joints: Isaan people steadfastly believe the adage that you should never eat at any place where there are no customers. So, even when there are three barbecue places in a row, one will be bursting at the seams, and the other two will be looking at stacking up their plastic chairs for the night…knowing that tomorrow night, it will probably be their turn to serve 100 black and white clad Uni students at once.
And what of the people themselves? When was the last time you went out in a western economy, err sorry, country, and had a table of strangers ‘cheers’ you, and ask your name? Or a gaggle of pretty girls send a waitress over to procure your phone number? Simply put, Isaan people are born to party. Actually, they are born to sleep. Then party. Then sleep. Then ‘sing-a-song’. But smiling! Always smiling! Sometimes I can’t help but just grin my biggest, silliest grin at a random student in class, and always they lock dark eyes with me and grin back, as if to say: “Yes! I know! It’s wonderful isn’t it? We’re living, laughing, learning, loving, meeting friends, swimming in ancient waterfalls, eating with chopsticks, riding motosais, sharing som-tam, singing karaoke, and falling asleep with (and of this there is no doubt) the Isaan spirits watching over our still-smiling faces! Somewhere, sometime, we must have done something welly, welly good!”
I wish you all that kind of happiness.