Community structure tends to have retained its strength in Northeast Thailand more than in other areas of the kingdom.
The importance afforded to the local school temple and agricultural lands, as well as local marriage patterns and the fact that villagers are often small landowners (rather than non-landholders) have each played a part in maintaining the traditional social fabric.
The amount of land held by each family tends not to be dissimilar, and the involvement of each family in subsistence farming is relatively equal - although perhaps at different stages of the various farming cycles (ploughing the rice paddies, planting the rice, harvesting it and then milling it.) This social interaction has given rise to opportunities for festivals and feasts that again serve to strengthen the community.
Typically, when a man marries, he goes to live with the parents of his wife, if not in the same compound then at least in the same village. The youngest daughter of any family will, more often than not and in accordance with indigenous ways, remain with her parents, looking after them in their old age and inheriting the house when they die. It is thus not uncommon to see a household composed of aging grandparents, their youngest daughter and her husband, and the latter's children.
Of course, these historical patterns have been subjected to some change as agriculture becomes more commercialized and greater wealth may be sought in the larger industrialized cities, or even overseas in construction or other labour. Greater access to education has also permitted growing numbers of local people to seek different employment opportunities out of the farming sector, although they often remain tied to their home village and its traditions, making trips back home as regularly as possible.
The temple (or "wat") generally forms the centre of the rural community. Whilst its influence in education has been sharply reduced, the temple remains as the symbol of civilized social existence. Early in the morning, the monks will leave the temple to go on their alms round carrying their bowls, into which the villagers will place rice and food to sustain the monks during the day.
The nearest temple to Green Gecko is the forest temple on the way to Um Jaan village (Wat Pa None Khamee) and each of the surrounding villages also has a local temple.
Local Thai temples generally house quarters and facilities
reserved for monks, a separate structure for worship by
the villagers and religious ceremonies, and a community
meeting place. Both abbots and senior monks enjoy
considerable prestige and their advice is keenly sought by
villagers, especially in harder times.
The temple is essentially a centre for the study and practice of Buddhist doctrine, yet is also often a place of refuge for the poor or the ill, a place of entertainment when festivals come to the village, and the traditional location of the village crematorium. Here too rites that do not strictly belong in Buddhism and having more magical or astrological origins may be practiced.
The majority of Isaan boys or men will spend a period in the monkhood to gain a Buddhist education and make merit for their parents. Around Green Gecko, initiation ceremonies may be often be seen proceeding along the country roads, the novice-to-be sitting atop a bamboo structure with a shaven head, as family and friends dance in the procession towards the temple.
Historically, the temple served as the centre of education in a Thai village, and as such it was generally only the boys who received an education. However, the progressive monarch Rama V made schooling obligatory at the start of the 20th century, for all children.
Whilst efforts have been made to adapt teaching methods to move away from rote-learning, and to introduce fairer examination systems, it remains generally true that children from poorer rural backgrounds do not have access to the teachers, books and equipment accessible to the offspring of wealthier parents in larger cities.
You will find the children at the local schools pleased to experiment their English upon you, and generally inquisitive. Text books, notebooks, computers, games, sport equipment and other such donations are generally very much welcomed by the local village schools.
Whilst Thailand's recent history has seen an ostensible move towards democracy, in one form or another, it has also been plagued by military coups. The underlying social structure is seen by many to be, essentially, that of a "patron-client" or "modern- feudal" society.
One Isaan-born writer who has explored this social phenomenon in some depth is Pirha Sudham, in his English language books such as Shadow Country or People of Esan. They are replete with references to Dark Influences and wheels within wheels.
The average villager in Thailand may often have an understanding of the Buddhist idea of merit that can explain and justify different levels of wealth and power in society whereby the accumulation of merit leads to wealth, which would then in turn signify merit. This is often perceived to be the case, not just in the rural village but throughout society, the military and the extensive Thai bureaucracy.
An understanding of these social structures makes it easier to comprehend the political mores and the importance of extended relationships in the country.