While I miss the seaside comforts and accessibility of my first home in Sriracha (an easy 1.5 hour commute from Bangkok), I've grown fond of my current residence in Ubon Ratchathani, nestled deep in the traditional region of Isaan.
Last term, my Thai co-workers shrieked in awe of my decision to move up to Isaan. "But, Bangkok is so far! There is no sea! And the food is NOT as delicious!"
It's true that Bangkok is no longer an easy weekend trip; the 10-12 hour bus ride has kept me from making more than one trip this term. And there may not be a sea nearby, but who knew the monotony of rice paddies could be so breathtaking? Just outside of Ubon city, the fresh air and well-irrigated lush green fields (thanks to monsoon season) nourish your soul in ways you didn't even know could feel so good. I'm convinced that everyone needs some natural green in their life.
Maybe I'm just smitten with Thai food, but I've also come to realize Thai people take some serious pride in two things: their cooking and their stomping grounds. Put the two together, and they shrug off the possibility that any other place has mastered the skill better than they have. To be fair, they're all talented in the kitchen, but Ubon definitely has got it going on.
Besides the obvious Isaan cultural and dialect differences, I've always felt a more profound contrast between the two places. It is something simultaneously subtly and wildly different, making it difficult to pinpoint and impossible to articulate.
A couple of weeks ago, I spent a Saturday afternoon at the Buddhist Wat Supattanaram overlooking the Mun River. Had I not promised myself to visit multiple temples that day for my research job, I could have sat there all day, infinitely absorbed by the tranquility of the riverbank and people-watching as the locals came & went to make religious merit. Friends of all ages, couples on an afternoon date, and parents with their giggling children all enjoyed the simple afternoon delight of sharing loaves of bread with hungry fish. Even the novices (child monks) took a moment from their holy existence to just be kids; inspecting and prodding a family of frogs congregated by the river. Everyone was happy, including the aquatic life.
Watching the smiles of those complete strangers, it dawned on me what separates Isaan from the rest.
The slow life: they have conquered the art of living slow.
I've heard the term "slow life" before, but I never understood what it meant until I saw it right in front of me. While Sriracha is more or less a scaled-down version of the fast track city life of Bangkok, Isaan natives live their lives with a far different mentality and pace.
Peope here are not in a rush. There actually isn't much concept of time in general. I've often felt frustrated when my tutoring session is late or cancels, but I now realize it's my rigid Western-mindset causing me to care. These people, on the other hand, understand that life sometimes gets in the way of commitments. They don't make too many plans, but just enough. They are flexible and know that going with the flow is part of life. Isaan locals know how to enjoy life's everyday surprises. They take things with a grain of salt, and don't get too worked up over anything.
They don't just say they appreciate something, but they show it. They spend time with their family and friends - not only while hunched over their smartphones. They give and take in all relationships. They keep expectations low; we are all human beings and make mistakes. They are hard-working people, but they don't complain. They enjoy the here and the now.
They are devout Buddhists, but even at the prospect of reincarnation, they understand the importance of living this life in mindful manner. They conceptualize the rules of karma, which are really just facts of life that Buddhists articulated well (isn't it obvious that we create our own future?) Their Buddhism doesn't run their lives, but serves as a guide to becoming better people.
Isaan natives can take such a simple activity of feeding weird looking fish and make it out to be the highlight of their day and the most exciting thing since the country-wide obsession "Angry Birds" was released.
They don't only look - they see. They don't just hear - they listen. Their fuel, their energy and their hope comes from an undemanding stranger's smile.
The art of living slow isn't easy, especially in a place of the opposite caliber and speed of Isaan. I can only hope that when I leave Ubon next month, I can take a piece of this admirable way of living with me wherever I go in life.