Guest contribution by Donlawat Sunsuk
Next door to the famed rice paddies of Thung Kula Ronghai a mainly German-speaking enclave has been established. Lanee’s Residenz, a retirement home for foreigners who like the Isaan way of life, is nestled unobtrusively in the bosom of rural Buriram, some 84 kilometers away from the provincial capital.
After parking my car, I was greeted in German by a staff member of Lanee’s Residenz who pointed a contactless thermometer at my head. I fulfilled my part of this COVID-19 ritual by sanitizing my hands with the alcohol gel provided to visitors.
It was early in the afternoon, and the dining area was alive with the sound of Swiss-German chatter over the meals. The owner of this establishment, Lanee Jaeger Phaengthaisong, was busy bantering with all eight of the residents present for lunch.
After seeing the elderly residents back to their quarters, Lanee turned to welcome me and offered a tour of the premises: 13 houses, a hotel, a communal activities and dining area, a swimming pool, and a lake situated on 13 rai of land surrounded by the rice paddies of Ban Na Phaeng village in Pho Chai district.
Turning dry land into a home for foreigners
“I never thought that I would come back to this place. I was doing just fine living in Switzerland,” says Lanee. “It all started with my mother-in-law coming to visit Ban Na Phaeng. At first I was worried that she wouldn’t be able to handle staying here, but while she was here she’d go for morning walks in the village. The villagers would call out to invite her to breakfast, even though they could barely communicate. When I made breakfast for her, she’d tell me that she already had breakfast with people in the village.”
“After that, she told my husband that she could live here if there were others she could speak with in her own language,” Lanee says, recalling the origin story of her home for the elderly.
Lanee had worked as a civil servant in the health service before, and her husband was a businessman. Together they came up with the idea for Lanee’s Residenz. “We would turn this place into a village for the elderly, and we’d sell the Isaan-ness of it to farang [Westerners].”
Lanee and her husband, Hans-Jörg Jaeger, started with a website. They began to advertise Ban Na Phaeng as an ideal retirement destination, with its location in Isaan as a selling point. Many enquiries later, they were confident that the village would be a viable home for elderly European foreigners.
Two years after creating the website, their idea began to take shape. In 2011 Bangkok and its neighboring provinces were inundated by catastrophic floods. Many Ban Na Phaeng natives who were working as construction workers in the capital returned home. They had escaped the floodwaters, but they were jobless. Lanee seized upon this opportunity to transform the 13 rai of farmland that she had inherited from her parents into Lanee’s Residenz with the helping hands of these fellow villagers.
Construction began when the fields were cloaked in the glorious deep green of freshly planted rice, and continued on until the ground was cracked and dry from the heat of the summer. The first year saw six houses occupied by retirees from Europe. Now, there are 13 houses in total.
Swapping the cold West for the warm East
“We don’t accept people who are just here to find a wife, or who see Thai people as toys. This isn’t Pattaya or Chiang Mai; there’s nothing like that here. There aren’t that many conveniences or amenities, either. We’re far away from supermarkets and bars,” Lanee explains. “We interview and vet the people applying to stay here. They are welcome to come and see what it’s like to live here, to see if it would suit them. This is how we live – Can you live like this?”
From the advertising campaign that they conducted prior to construction, Lanee already had some idea of what the elderly Europeans were after. They liked the quiet life, the warm climate, and the smiling Asian casualness.
“They come from countries with strong social welfare systems. They’ve been putting money aside for their retirement since their working days. When they come to live here, they have their own money for all the expenses,” Lanee says. “It may not be much money to them, but in our country it is enough for them to live a comfortable life.”
At a rate of 38,000 baht (about $1,210 US) per month for a house and 12,000 baht for each carer, Lanee says that the fees are very affordable by European standards.
Lanee’s husband, Hans-Jörg, fell in love with the quietness of the Isaan countryside ever since he visited the first time.
“I like it here. The people, the atmosphere, the warm weather – it’s all quite suitable for old people coming from the cold climate in Europe,” he says. “It’s quiet, there’s very little pollution, and importantly, there’s the Isaan factor. The people here are charming, they smile so readily, and they’re friendly. It gives you a warm feeling. All the staff here are like that. They’re very well suited to working in a retirement home. That’s why I chose this place; I think it’s our main selling point.”
For Heidi Moeller, 81, from Switzerland, the home feels like being part of a big family. Back in her home country, she was often lonely, whereas the Isaan villagers are friendly, and there are always activities to take part in. She doesn’t feel alone here, she says.
“In Switzerland I would be all alone in a care home, but here everyone calls me “grandmother” or “auntie.” It’s very charming.” Heidi says. “And it’s not expensive. This is the kind of home I’ve been looking for.”
Overcoming the stigma of the “mia farang” label
By her own account, Lanee had an ordinary childhood in Isaan. She went to Bangkok for her studies and eventually graduated with a Master’s degree before settling into a career in the capital. There she met Hans-Jörg, and they began dating in a time when Thai society was not as accepting of intercultural relationships as it is today.
“I didn’t dare to bring him home to meet my parents. At that time, people would assume that anyone with a farang husband had to be a bargirl,” Lanee says.
“I gradually introduced him to my family, starting with bringing him with me when I went to visit relatives. Eventually, he was accepted and we got married.”
After their wedding, the couple moved to Switzerland. They had a secure livelihood from Hans-Jörg’s work in the medical field, and they were living in a canton with a robust social welfare system. Life was good, but her exposure to the way things worked in Switzerland rankled her when she thought of the ways things were back in Thailand. Since she was a child, Lanee had always wondered why it was so hard for rural folk in Thailand to make a living, and why all the opportunities seemed to be in the capital.
“The opportunities never reached us in the countryside. We were just too far out. But we have plenty of quietude, abundant nature, and most importantly, we have generous-spirited Isaan people who treat everyone as some kind of relative. That’s the charm of Isaan,” Lanee says with pride.
All 25 of her employees are from the surrounding area, because she strongly believes in creating jobs for the local community.
Suwannee Khocharoen, 36, has been working at the retirement home since 2016. With only a highschool education, her opportunities for work are relatively few. As a single parent, being able to work close to home gives her more time to be a mother to her child.
“When I went to look for work in Pho Chai, the only work being offered was manual labor, working as a porter,” Suwanee explains. “For other work I’d have to go to the city. I would have had to leave my child with my mother, because I would have had to go elsewhere for work in order to feed her. But working here was the answer to all of that.”
Success did not come easily
In the beginning, Lanee and Hans-Jörg encountered many difficulties as they were learning the ropes of running an elderly home in a rural village.
“There were a lot of problems. Changing the way people think was hard. It wasn’t easy to get people to understand what we were doing,” Lanees recalls. “It took a great deal of time, and a huge monetary investment. We literally poured everything we had into this. It wasn’t easy to get to where we are today. We learned everything through trial and error, and we fought through it all by ourselves.”
Lanee explains that running a business in the countryside is quite different to that in a big city. Even though Buriram has declared itself to be a “health and sports” province, the reality is that resources are still concentrated in the city.
“If development and jobs are to reach everywhere, resources have to be decentralized,” Lanee argues. “People used to believe that there’s nothing in Isaan but cracked earth and poverty, but they completely overlooked the fact that it’s full of Isaan people. This is what makes Isaan so livable.”
Translated and edited by The Isaan Record
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