Peace Corps – Assignment to Khon Kaen
After I completed almost three months of language and cultural training, I was assigned to work in Khon Kaen, in the heart of Isaan. One of the first orders of business after arriving there, after finding my office and supervisor, was to find a place to live. For the first three months I lived in an apartment not far from my office. There were 8-10 rooms at the top of one flight of stairs, and I had one of them. They were not fancy. I had a cot, a desk, and a small wardrobe in which I could hang a few clothes. The upper part of the walls was simply a fine-mesh screen to allow air to circulate freely, but keep the bugs out. It worked well, and I enjoyed watching the geckos near the lights outside the screen. I bought myself a desk lamp, as the lights were not really adequate for reading, and a mirror, since my room didn’t have one.
The restroom was at the end of the hall, and included only Thai toilets and a cistern from which we could dip water to flush the toilets, or to pour over ourselves to bathe. There was no hot water, which was not generally a problem, although I never learned to like shaving with cold water. The toilets were in individual stalls, with doors, and although both men and women rented the rooms and shared the restroom, people there were always modest.
However, a couple of weeks after I arrived, a cold front went through, and for a few days it was very cold, at least for Thailand. The nighttime lows were probably 10-15 degrees C [50-60 degrees F], and perhaps even colder for a night or two, and while I had a decent sleeping bag in which I could sleep comfortably, the Thais who lived in the other rooms suffered.
One of the chief problems that I had was that the water also got cold, and bathing became a real challenge. I would wait until late in the afternoon, when the water was as warm as it was going to get, and then wash off as quickly as I could. Fortunately it was only a week or so before the weather warmed up again to a more comfortable level. I was later told by some American expats in Bangkok that that particular cold spell was the coldest that had been seen in Thailand for over 25 years. They said that the low temperature in Bangkok was 53 degrees F [about 12 degrees C]. Of course, a month later it was getting hot, hot, HOT.
I had no air-conditioning, either in my apartment or at my office, so I quickly became quite acclimated to the heat. When once or twice a month I needed to go to the bank to cash my checks, I found the air-conditioning to be unpleasant. At that time, banks were about the only buildings to be air-conditioned.
I had no cooking facilities, and all my meals were eaten in local restaurants. There was one on the corner just down the block from my apartment where I ate breakfast nearly every morning, and they quickly learned that every morning I wanted two scrambled eggs with rice, such that as soon as I appeared at the door they would start cooking it, and it was served within three minutes or so of when I arrived. Lunch and dinner I ate in a variety of restaurants, depending on my mood and who I was with. At that time I was provided a stipend of $125 per month, plus up to $30 per month as a housing allowance. The exchange rate was about 20 baht to the dollar, and I was able to manage fine on this budget. Meals were usually 5-15 baht, depending on where I ate and what I ordered.
As I was eating breakfast one morning, I saw something that at first outraged me, although after a minute’s reflection, I just said to myself, “That’s Thailand.” In the restaurant there was a little girl, perhaps four years old, and very cute, who helped clear tables, deliver food, and do whatever she was told to help. That morning her older brother came out dressed in his school uniform, and his mother brought out a bowl of rice soup for his breakfast. Although the bowl was right in front of him, with the spoon, he just sat there until his mother returned after a few minutes, and spooned it into his mouth! While his little sister was already working in the family business, he wouldn’t even lift a finger to feed himself.