Friday, November 20, 2009

Isaan Rice Harvest - 14 and 15 November 2009

Undaunted by the previous, Friday 13th, day's adventures and motivated by the opportunity to spend some more time with 9 month old Peelawat, we returned to Tahsang Village on Saturday and Sunday to contribute to the harvesting of the family's rice crop.
On Saturday and Sunday the crop that was planted in July just outside of Tahsang Village was being cut. This field does not have red ants so I was looking forward to spending a great deal of time documenting and observing the activities there.

Duang splits her time between caring for Peelawat and cutting rice. Duang's daughter and Duang's mother have been sick so extra help is required to look after the nine month old baby. Saturday ended up being a "baby care" day. Duang's daughter was feeling well enough so she spent the day cutting rice. However, Duang's mother was still not feeling well. She had been to the hospital two days earlier with gastro-intestinal distress. On Saturday she was still rather weak. No problem - her youngest son came over to take care of her.

"Number 4", as he is referred to as since he is the youngest of four children arrived in Tahasang Village with an IV bottle and assorted items related to infusion. He is not a doctor. He is not a EMT. He is not a nurse. He is an entertainer. Apparently anyone with the money can buy IV materials for home personal use or on willing subjects. I was astounded. The IV bottle was made out of glass and contained a yellow liquid. I tried to read the ingredients but the writing was all in Thai. The bottle as well as contents looked identical to what I had seen being used on patients in the hospital.

A saht, a woven reed mat, was placed on the tile floor of the family market for Duang's mother to lay on. Polyethylene packaging twine was used to suspend the IV bottle from a wire that ran from a column to the exterior wall of the room. Duang's brother declined to use my belt as a tourniquet on his mother's arm to help bring up a vein (I had seen a belt used in many films where people were shooting up - wrapping around the upper arm and using their teeth to maintain tension around the arm). Instead he used several rubber bands to create an elastic band to tie around her arm. I was impressed with his knowledge and skill up to this point. He had flooded the IV tubing, installed a vent in the IV bottle, evacuated the air out of the tubing and run some liquid out of the needle. Now it was time to insert the needle into a vein. Finding the vein and inserting the needle proved to be more difficult. Eventually the process was successfully completed. Momma layed quietly on the saht for the afternoon.

Once Momma was settled in with her IV, our attention focused upon Peelawat. He had been sleeping in his hammock on the opposite side of the room and woke up as the set up of Momma's IV was completed. After he woke up completely and got accustomed to everyone, Duang decided that it was time for his bath. Since it was a hot and sunny day, Duang took a small plastic tub outside to the backyard to bathe Peelawat. She filled the tub with water from a hose and used the hose to rinse him off. Peelawat enjoyed his bath even though the water was not heated.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent working on the computer to edit photographs and playing with Peelawat.

On Sunday we spent most of our time out in the rice fields. I shot photographs in the morning and then the late afternoon to take advantage of the better light.

It was hot and humid all day long. I had left Duang back in the village to take care of Peelawat. After photographing the family at work in the fields, I took a walk towards the sun. I walked towards the sun for two reasons - I wanted the setting sun at my back to photograph the workers and there several groups of other workers in that direction. Walking over towards the other workers was rather difficult. The recessed paddies were filled with dry stalks of rice either vertical or laying almost flat. Out of respect for the farmers I did not want to trample over the unharvested rice. That left me the option of walking along the tops of the berms around the perimeters of the paddy. The raised area along the paddies are now overgrown with 4 months of unabated weeds. To make matters even more difficult, the berms are periodically cut by narrow trenches - perfect ankle twisters and ankle busters. The overgrown vegetation pretty much camouflages them. I had also watched a program the previous night about people getting bitten by cobras. I pretty much convinced myself that no snake would hang around the dry rice paddies so I cautiously plodded along.

I spent about 2 hours on this trek, stopping to photograph interesting scenes and stopping to rest as well as await the sun to get lower on the horizon. It was extremely hot and I sweated a great deal. I sweated so profusely that my fingertips became wrinkled as if I had stayed in a bath too long. Midway into my solo journey, I thought that I heard Duang's voice. I was too far to see her even if the rice had not hidden her. After deciding to return to the family, I had some good fortune - I found a piece of aged bamboo - a perfect walking stick. With the use of my walking stick, my walk back was much easier and less intimidating. When I got back to the starting point, Duang was there cutting rice. She had correctly surmised that I was going to be thirsty and had a can of Pepsi along with a glass of ice awaiting me. I have to admit that it was the best Pepsi that I have had in my life. The best Coke is a fountain drink at O Sanctuario outside the entrance to Machu Picchu but the best Pepsi is in a can out in an Isaan parched rice paddy.


  1. Did it ever occur to you to leave your camera at home and actually do a days work instead of taking pictures of other people working?

  2. Yes it had occured many times to me to do a day's work but each time I remembered that as a condition of my Long Stay Visa in Thailand, I am not allowed to work.

  3. Hi Allen,

    But really that is just an excuse. Helping out at harvest for no pay does not break visa requirements. Looking after children could also be seen as work. Im just reading your blogs and thinking of what I would be doing. Which would be getting involved mainly because I like to work, I like farming and working with machinery, but it also has the bonus of being respected by the locals. But apart from this some nice blogs have enjoyed reading a few of them

    Chris from Ireland/Australia

  4. Hi Chris: I am pleased that you have enjoyed reading the blogs. Although I would not be paid for helping in the harvest, if someone were to complain to Immigration, I would not want to rely on the defence that I was not being paid because the arguement could be made that by my working, a Thai was not hired. As a guest in a country it is always wise to be very cautious. I have excellent relations with the local people and I work, whoops I mean strive, to keep it that way. In fact we get many phone calls infoming us of events and happenings that people believe that I would like to photograph. I also suspect that they get some entertainment watching me get all excited while I take photographs. AS we say in Thailand "Good for you. Good for me" If you have any questions don't be shy to ask. I will answer as best I can.

  5. Hi Allen
    I do have a couple of questions actually.
    Did you notice many farmers using a combine harvester to harvest their rice? I know that labour is cheap but Thailand is moving fast as a newly industrialised country and some of the larger farms would use a combine. Also what is the typical size of a farm and what is the yield per acre they are getting?

  6. Chris: I have only seen the rice being harvested by hand. One reason could be is that the farmers are subsistence farmers - what they don't eat, give as offerings to the local Monks, they trade for services such a threshing, and milling. Labor is about $5 a day plus two meals, some beer, and a little whiskey for the workers when the day is done. Another reason is that the rice paddies are relatively small - about 30 meters by 30 meters (100 ft x 100 ft). Land surrounds the villages. Portions of the land are rented out to a person for a growing season or crop. My step daughter rented a small plot - about 1-1/2 acres to grow rice. She got 2,645 pounds per acre as ooposed to an average of 7,039 pounds per acre in the USA. The villagers do not have the capital to purchase mechanical equipment. Some, very few and far between, families may have a small farm tractor that they use as a business to prepare the paddies of other people. My sister-in-law cultivates 100 rai (roughly 40 acres) which is typical in this area for a "farm" They raise pigs, grow sugar cane, sweet corn, and some rice. Others raise peanuts and cassava.