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Building a Boat in Isaan

First published 31 January 2017

We have just finished building a boat and created a docking area to go with it, so I thought you might like to join me on this watery journey.

Now you might be asking how come a boat when we’re hundreds of km from the sea, and where did the motivation and energy come from? All will be answered if you stay with me on this nautical adventure.

It really started about 18 months ago when we added 600 fish to the family’s farm pond. They are growing nicely and while the Isaan way of fishing is with a net, which isn’t very sporting, I thought that fishing = boat and rod, so an idea was born.

We bought these at fry stage (very small) at 1 baht each (A$0.04). They are now maybe six months off being able to be caught by western standards anyway.

The timing for the build, which I wanted to do myself, had to coincide with the cool season starting December, as I am hopeless at working in the heat these days. I had seen a couple of barrel rafts locally so got online to research them and designed a decent sized one 3 x 3 meters so that a few people could enjoy the experience.

The stages of the project were:

  1. Sourcing barrels, building the framework to keep them in place and completing the decking;

  2. Building the frame for the sala (a hut);

  3. Roofing the sala;

  4. Fitting out;

  5. Landscaping the dock area;

  6. Constructing the dock and

  7. Providing power to the boat and dock.

The barrels were sourced at a farm store in Si Bun Rueang, our local town, and by Thai standards reasonably expensive at 520 baht each.

That’s what I want.

Six loaded up in Lud’s (my brother-in-law) pick-up.

In retrospect, I think the raft could have done with a couple more barrels as the sala, the hut that sits on it, ended up being a lot heavier than I thought. I may retrofit some more but getting them in place now that it is a done deal wouldn’t be easy. Update 2022: Yes I did add two more and that has made all the difference.

And delivered to the farm.

Step two was a visit to Thai Watsadu, a DIY store in Nong Bua Lamphu, a larger place 30 minutes drive from home to buy more exotic supplies in a Thai sense like timber and screws. Everything here is made from concrete and metal, neither of which float too well, and the range of items available in hardware stores reflects this. Lots of drill bits and screws for concrete and steel for example but not much for wood.

It was a joy to work with timber again. The frame was built undercover in the farmhouse. Yuan and Lud were kind enough to put up with this strange farang cluttering up their cooking space and working on a project that must be totally outside their understanding!

It has been a while since I have had a hands-on project and my back let me know that it wasn’t too happy about it. Still I look OK here. Must be early in the morning.

The base frame mainly completed.

This is the support structure for the decking, which will be bamboo both because it is cheap, and also it suits the environment.

My stepdaughter Peng makes a rare visit to the farm to inspect work. You can tell that it is cool by Thai standards.

With the deck built it then had to be transported across the rice paddies to the pond. Gaun, Lud and another brother-in-law Tham shown here. I did actually put the camera down and take a side after this photo 🙂

Barrels and deck come together on the water and Gaun (my wife) approves of progress.

For the decking I bought several rolls of bamboo matting at a cost of 160 baht each for two square meters. These are made locally from bamboo that is split and then woven together with string. They are surprisingly strong and give an interesting and natural look to the finished product. The internet has timber being used for the deck of course, but I wanted the raft to look “Isaan” rather than farang.

The decking being rolled out and nailed down. Yuan has brought me refreshments. My family always worry if I haven’t eaten something for a couple of hours. Bananas from the farm.

And the end result as the sun sets on another day. Looking good.

By the next day the raft was ready for a test voyage, and it coped with everything the pond could throw at it!

The water is not very deep, so a bamboo pole is all you need for power.

The best thing about a project is that you can reward yourself at the end of the day without guilt.

Stage two involved building a sala, an open hut structure on the deck to provide protection from the elements. In the cool season December – February it is easy to forget just how fierce the heat is during the hot season April/May where last year we had 6 weeks over 40 degrees. Come July the temperatures drop into the 30s but the rainy season arrives.

Normally a traditional sala is made with a bamboo frame like the one that sits under mango trees in our garden. However, we didn’t have any large bamboo to form the main uprights, so we used eucalyptus instead, which was a nice incorporation of Australia but heavier.

The sala in our garden at home.

The framework started.

I moved the boat from its original position at the far end of the pond to be close to the farmhouse and power and this is where it has ended up permanently. I will cover the landscaping of this “docking” area later.

All the bamboo was cut by Gaun on a neighbour's farm and transported harbour-side by Lud’s trusty pick-up. My little Mazda 2 gives up on tasks like this! Gaun got totally involved at this stage of the project as it moved into the area where Isaan skills were useful. She also has double the energy levels that I have, and I would probably still be going if I had to do it alone.

Bamboo freshly cut arrives at the farm.

Another voyage at sunset.

Stage three, the roofing, has us once again in Lud’s pick-up and at Gaun’s uncle’s place in the village next to ours. He hand weaves the reed roofing panels you see being used all over Thailand.

At 20 baht per 1.5 meter panel this is a cheap and characterful way to roof any structure if not long-lasting.

The grass is woven onto these sticks cut to size.

The reeds have sharp edges, so his hands must be like leather.

I think we ended up with 90 of these panels each one to be wired onto the bamboo roofing frame and overlapped to give a thick end result.

Gaun did most of this work.

The sides of the roof completed with the ends still to be done.

A couple of finishing touches to add interest.

Stage four involved building comfortable seating, a couple of tables and a adding a few decorating touches, but Christmas got in the way of a smooth workflow 🙂

My fourth Christmas in Thailand and they just keep getting better.

Post celebrations and hangover it was back into action:

The side-tables being added.

Yay. Peng makes another visit to celebrate the end of this phase.

With the boat, now christened 'Isaan Grace', completed except for power attention was turned to the area between the farmhouse and the dock to make it more attractive and accessible. As usual, I provided the money and Gaun did the hard work when it came to the landscaping. Seven meters of gravel was delivered to both refresh the driveway and build new paths. Lots of new plants were bought as well as sourced from cuttings and local donations.

Gaun is a true gardener and is the happiest getting her hands dirty planting things.

Looking from the dock to the farmhouse.

The final construction phase was to add steps down to the boat and a small dock over the water to provide easy access. Previously getting to the raft involved some rough dirt steps cut into the side of the bank. A bench had been built a while back, and it was now in the way too.


Everything cleared and ready for the formwork.

We mixed the concrete by hand, which was hard work.

Pebbles added to give a bit of interest.

The piers for the dock were cut on the farm and hammered into the ground.

Both Yuan and Lud helping out on their day off.

And the end result.

I suspect this is one of a kind for an Isaan farm.

The landscaping is mostly finished too.

Getting there. At the speed things grow here in six months time this will be a lush garden full of colour.

I really enjoy this part of the farm both on land and on Isaan Grace. A coffee in the morning or a drink as the sun sets is equally delightful.

AND finally the electrician arrived this week to provide power to the area. In the cool season it gets dark by 6 pm and I have had floodlights installed to light up coconut and mango trees on the shore as well as power points for lighting and fans (come the hotter periods) on the boat itself. The final result looks like this:

And just to prove that my engineering and building skills were up to the task, here's a photo of a group we had at the farm for a lunch.

Thank you for reading.



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