A year like no other - part one
We'll all have tales to tell about 2021 - and 2020 before it.
It's been an unimaginable time, upending our lives and forcing us to change well-tread habits, constantly having to pinch our skin to remind ourselves it's not really a dream.
I'm obviously talking about COVID, but this sentiments apply equally to the birth of The One Tree Farm. We could never have imagined spending extended periods of time here a couple of years ago, never mind living here lock, stock, and barrel. And rather than pinching ourselves, we often just look at our surroundings ... and smile.
As its the end of the year it's a good time to take a look back and see what's happened in what has been a pretty eventful year.
In a year where many of us have been confined to our homes for the most part, somehow we've managed to get quite a lot done. So much so that this review will be a two-parter - so here we ago with the first six months.
Our plans for 2021 started sometime in July or August of 2020, but January this year saw them kick-started in style. Within the first couple of weeks of the year we finalised the design of our house, got married, and broke ground on the field we'd soon be living in. Talk about a life-changing month!
After a few months of back and forth with our architect and builder, on the January 7th we finally got to a design (and price) we were happy with. The picture above was our final drawing, and while the surrounding scenery doesn't bear much resemblance to our reality, it's quite impressive how accurate this is compared to the final house. This really was our vision of the ideal house, and despite a few ups and downs here and there, the most amazing thing was seeing this come to life.
At times, Hana said she really couldn't imagine what it was going to look like but after seeing this image I knew what we were going to end up with. Credit to the architect and builder for doing such a good job. There are things that we'd have liked done a bit differently, but in the big scheme of things we can't complain.
We think the finished building looks better than this image. Satisfyingly, there are two important things that have also been pointed out by others that make us especially happy: the house blends into the surroundings and looks like it belongs here; and that it looks like it's been 'lived in', as in not a new house. I'll take that as meaning it has character. Safe to say we are happy.
On January 16th we got married. A covid wedding. That prevented people from travelling to Isaan to join us, but as you can see there were plenty of family around to help us enjoy the day.
We've been together since 2009, so I guess this day was long overdue. There was never any doubt that we'd be together, but since we had a lot of big decisions planned for 2021, why not make another one.
Since moving family have played a huge part in helping us settle in, whether it's helping on the land, visiting to eat and drink, or the kids coming round to play in the fields, everyone has enjoyed being at our place as much as we've enjoyed living here. We're lucky to nee surrounded by so many good people.
Just before the wedding, on January 14th, we visited the land and took this photo. This is the One Tree our farm derives its name from. It's a eucalyptus tree, and at that time it was the only tree on the farm.
Behind the tree are rice fields, not long after harvest, and the piece of land we would build on had just been cleared of a sugar cane crop. It wasn't a place fit to live in, in truth, and perhaps the stark reality of getting basic utilities in place like water and electricity hadn't really hit us yet as we were too busy and excited designing houses and getting married. We certainly didn't really think it through, but to some extent we thought we should just get some basics in place, then we can fix it later.
During the week we were here in January we did manage to drill a well and connect electricity from our neighbour who lived half a kilometre away, but as expected, both of these early systems have been 'upgraded' through the year - upgraded can alternatively described as just done properly!
Now, I know I said there was only one tree on the land and now you can see a coconut palm, a banana tree and a mango tree in the distance. I wasn't lying, as that's not our land - it belongs to an aunt. Almost all of the land that surrounds us belongs to a relative of some description, and that makes a difference. We've joined an existing community that collaborates and cooperates as all of our successes are shared in some way. Fresh picked food is readily shared, tips and advice aren't hard to find, and there are plenty of willing helpers when work needs to be done.
The photo above was taken after the foundations of the house were blessed one morning. We had breakfast of fish, sticky rice, vegetables, chilli and some rice wine (lao Khao) with family and the labourers in the shade of the One Tree after placing lucky symbols in the foundation posts before concrete was poured. This was just before we returned to Bangkok, and in some ways it was frustrating to have to leave as we wanted to stay and get things moving. Our house was due to be finished mid-May, but wasn't really a long time away, but now we'd made these important bigs steps we were in a hurry to get everything done!
If you look at the background you'll get some idea of what we were building on. There was a steady slope from right to left and back to front, so the house would be raised slightly to accommodate the different ground levels. Most strikingly, it's just a dust field.
Yes, we really were doing things the hard way.
We could really have dedicated a whole post to January as so much happened, but there was a long way to go. Back to Bangkok we went to start putting in place other parts of the jigsaw.
Essential January reading from the blog
Electricity and water in a field
Selling our city car and buying a pick-up truck was undoubtedly just as important a purchase as the house. Since moving, there are times where the roads would have been impossible to pass in our car, so that alone is good reason. Filling the back with plants, 2000 litre water tanks, garden stones and a bunch of other stuff became common place during the first half of the year, and that would have been impossible without the pick-up.
Budget was an issue so we bought a spotless 12 year old second hand truck and made some money from the sale of our car. Everything happened within a weekend. The car had been on the market for a while, then we advertised it on a different online site and got a few hits. At the same time we found this truck, test drove it, and bought it on the same day. The speed at which everything happened made me nervous - car dealers don't have great reputations in Thailand either - but it seems to have worked out.
Our spotless new car remained like that for just a few weeks after we had a minor run-in with a truck at an intersection. No major harm done, and it was good to have the car a bit battle scarred :)
When you move upcountry the immediate belief is that you are a rich foreigner, and that can bring a lot of unwelcome attention. We've managed to avoid that, and in some way I'm putting that down to having a beat up old truck with us, rather than a flashy new model.
While we were in Bangkok we got updates sent on progress. Not as regular as we'd have liked and sometimes we had to chase them, but we did see progress being made. One or two times progress was made in a way that we didn't want - a risk of not being on-site and having a language difference.
We'd hoped to build on stilts and have clear space under the house, but before we knew it we were going full concrete base. We only found out after it had been laid, and the story we got was that the size and weight of the house and make up of the soil led the structural engineer to recommend a change. The problem was no-one told us. This was to be the first of quite a few communication issues, which was probably our main gripe with the builder. The other was having senior on-site management in place. Both were lacking due to the build happening a long way from home for them (and us). Neither issues really improved as time went by, which was frustrating, and this led to inevitable delays. It often amazes me how simple fixes to issues are ignored.
But all that was to come later. During February work moved on quickly and we were happy. We knew rainy season would have a role to play later on in the house build, and getting the structure in place with walls and roof before then was critical.
Essential February reading from the blog
Apart from the building progress, take a look around at the land surrounding us. Sandy soil, with a base of clay-like soil not far below it. It looked barren, and managing this was just as important as getting the house ready.
One of our main aims about living here was to farm the land. Not as a business, per se, as there is more money to be lost than made in farming in Thailand. Being able to grow enough to feed ourselves and hopefully a few people in the community was our main aim.
We realised we needed to make a start as the soil needed protected, and we also had to make sure that when rain started there was a real danger of the earth holding our house moving. And that wouldn't be good.
Bedding some roots was essential. And as the rainy season was on its way, we could plant a host of different trees that would require minimal attention. Planting early would also give the trees a head start - they'll take time to grow and the quicker we can create shade around the house the better.
Then the rain came. And when they come they fall hard, as our builders temporary shelter found out.
Another thing we learned about living in a field - it gets a lot more wind!
Late March saw us back on the land to check on progress. We had plenty to do, like find out how close were we to the May completion target? Were we expecting any issues? And how was the quality of the build looking?
On the drive up we took a detour through Nakhon Nayok to buy trees. We stacked over 120 saplings on the back of the truck - I told you it was useful - and took a long drive to Kalasin. On a good day the drive from Bangkok is about 8 hours, but going via the tree nursery added another 3 hours or so onto that. it was a long trip.
Fortunately we had quite a crew out to help us clear the land and plant. Child labour is the norm in Isaan.
Spreading our bets, we decided to plant as many different varieties of tree as possible, from teak and mahogany, to lime and mango. We still felt that as we had little idea about farming, trial and error was the best way forward. If something grows well, then we plant more. If it doesn't, we don't - or we at least think about trying it in another spot.
All the trees are native to Thailand, so we thought we'd have decent success, and to date, we have done ok.
We are surrounded by sugar cane and cassava, two crops I don't have much love for. We wanted to grow things we can eat, and in part we wanted to see if there was another way to farm the land. It's all an experiment really, and in time we'll learn what we can do best. Planting a bunch of trees seemed a small, but significant start.
Moving to the country you need to get used to new neighbours. Cows and buffalo are never far away, but since moving I've been amazed at the volume of animals and insects that are around.
We had nightly insect festivals when we turned on the first lights - I never imagined so many types could exist. Some plants have been enjoyed by many of them unfortunately.
During our first six months we've also been visited by field mice, snakes, frogs, lots of birds, dogs, lizards, the lot. You definitely have to get used to living with animals.
The honour of planting first tree went to mum. She kindly donated her land to us so we could start building, and she's delighted as she now lives here and works her own vegetable garden.
As well as being given this land we also own a similar sized patch (about 7 rai) on the other side of aunties patch next to us.
Our first aim is to get this strip working for us, and continue to grow limited cash crops like cassava on the second piece of land. We have planted about 5 rai and after 6 months or so we should be able to make roughly 40-50,000 baht from it if we are lucky. It's not a lot of money. no wonder farmers are permanently in debt, something I wrote about here.
It's been great having mum-in-law around as she's quite a character and is well-known in the area. When I meet locals when walking around the area a mention of her name is instantly recognised and seems to be respected.
One of the main projects at the start of this year is building her a little one bedroom chalet with an outside kitchen and bathroom. I think she's looking forward to it.
This visit was also when we met Dudley, who is now a big annoying part of our lives. Dudley is on the right, and his brother, Teng, still comes to play fight with him a few times a week.
Both dogs are great, and Dudley does have a little bit more of an out-going character. He's played a big part in our daily routine, mainly as he needs fed a lot. But almost without fail he's waiting at the door at 6 am, ready for a morning patrol of the area.
It's surprising to see how much pleasure we can have from seeing him run around, either chasing squirrels hopelessly or digging for crickets. He should also give some extra security, and he is quite a bit bigger than most other local dogs as he's well-fed - too well-fed. He also like chasing anything that moves, so locals have named him Ma Farang - the foreigners dog. I think it's a title that is meant to warn people of him, as most folk are generally a bit scared of him.
As a guard dog I expect he'd be pretty useless though. He just wants to play all the time. And eat.
Essential March reading from the blog
The house itself was beginning to take shape, but May completion date was going to need a supreme effort.
By early April we had some walls in place, but we were a long way off completion. We were just about to celebrate Thai New Year too, and that means long holidays. Ten days with no work being done.
Bizarrely the company owner was adamant that it would finish on time. We gave plenty of opportunities for them to say things would be delayed. We wanted to know as soon as possible, as we had to book removal guys, buy a kitchen for installation, and give notice to our apartment - we didn't mind if it was late, but if we were confirmed a date now we needed to stick to it. There were too many other things to be organised around it.
But not wishing to lose face, they stuck with the same date.
Inevitably, the house wasn't ready on that time.
When we returned to Bangkok we made our marriage official. It wasn't an easy task as most government offices were closed or had limited service. Making a booking to register our marriage was almost impossible.
We managed to do it while the office at Chatuchak was being inspected by the local head honcho. Obviously, as we were a Thai/foreign couple, one of his entourage spotted a photo op, so here we are, having our picture taken with the chief of Chatuchak.
Thailand remains a wonderful and unique experience for foreigners and I love it when these odd little things happen.
In Bangkok though, visits to government offices can be day-long drawn out affairs. After moving to Kalasin, immigration visits, driving license renewals and even house registrations have taken a fraction of the time, as often we are the only people in the queue. Another reason to like country life!
Essential April reading from the blog
So here we were, days before hand over date. No windows, no doors and no roof, never mind electricity or water.
We made an unplanned trip to the house and called for a meeting. We needed some answers.
It was as unexpected as it was unnecessary. We thought that post-Songkran there would have been a hard push to finish. They sent two tradesmen.
It would have been easy to get angry, but it wasn't going to resolve anything. We just wanted answers and action.
Overall our build had been pretty smooth, compared to some other horror stories I'd heard over the years, but it was still infuriating.
There was a lot of work to be done, and we wanted to move.
All this was going on while Thailand began to have an increasing number of Covid cases so we had to have some balance, but at the beginning of May it was hard to see when we'd finish. Commitments from the builder were becoming more and more opaque. Frustration was building.
Within a couple of weeks we started to see things moving. More people were assigned to the job and painters and tilers arrived. The place was still a mess and not ready to live in, but at least we were getting closer. More completion dates were given, and more dates passed. ]
The worry now was corners being cut and work being rushed on-site, and we were beginning to piss off our removal guys and our apartment as we couldn't confirm a date.
It didn't need to be like this.
Essential May reading from the blog
While our trees were beginning to show good signs of life, our building company was still digging a hole for itself. Another frustrating visit with less than required progress being made forced our hand.
We set a moving in date. The builder now had a target they agreed to meet, and that was our date for moving in. In retrospect I'm not really sure they believed it was a hard date, but when the removal trucks arrived they got the message.
Unfortunately, over years I've found that forcing the issue is the only way to get things done here, so we headed back in Bangkok and prepared to move everything in the next two weeks, whatever the house condition.
Perhaps not the best decision, but we just felt the whole show was never going to end.
The next couple of weeks were busy buying extra furniture and making countless visits to IKEA.
Inside the house was pretty much the same size as our Bangkok place, but we had over 50 sq m of outside space to be furnished, so we need to find some good, sturdy furniture.
The great thing about Thailand is there are tons of good local craftsmen still practising their skills. The surprising thing was they all sell on Facebook. We managed to find some great bargains. Now we just needed to move the stuff north.
We arrived ahead of the removals team after packing everything up from Bangkok.
This was going to be messy.
After this, the builders remained on site for another 3-4 weeks. So much for moving in during May.
There was an inconceivable amount of work to be done but we'd made our decision and there was no going back. Our belongings were somewhere between Bangkok and Kalasin. Whether it was ideal or not it was happening. We were moving in!
It's quite a site to see your furniture being navigated through a building site, but that's what had to be done.
We'd instructed the building team to prioritise indoors, so despite the look on the balcony, inside was looking not too bad.
As long as we had a bedroom and a bathroom working we'd be ok. We'd make do until we could get settled. Thinking back now, I don't remember it being a particular hardship. If anything, it helped us check on the last few weeks of work, and ensure the details were finished properly. What we didn't anticipate was completely relaying the floor tiles.
The bedrooms had the wrong tiles, and the living room just wasn't done that well. But at least by being there we were able to spot it.
No house move photos are complete these days without furniture building pics.
IKEA is not common in Kalasin, so this proved to be quite a challenge. It's a good way to bond with the family!
In a very makeshift manner, we were able to get things kind of organised after a few days. It was starting to feel like somewhere we could live.
We were nearing the end of a really busy six months and things were taking shape.
Mrs One Tree Farm had quit her job in anticipation of the upcountry move, but they asked her to still work from home in a reduced role for a while.
We'd moved everything we owned to the country and were ready to start a new kind of lifestyle.
We had a house we now had to make into a home.
Mission accomplished. We were ready for the next phase.
And this is what is was all about. Sitting down and eating dinner with family. This was to become a frequent and satisfying feature of the next six months.
We'll tell you about that later.
Essential June reading from the blog