Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Dock On The River

On Monday while Duang was off in the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) taking care of my passport, I spent 6-1/2 hours along the waterfront of the Mekong River in Nong Khai, Thailand. It is hard to believe that it was 6-1/2 hours but time always seems to go by quickly along bodies of water. There appears to be something interesting happening around water.

In Nong Khai there is a large market along, or rather more accurately above the Mekong River. We are into the rainy season now so the Mekong River has greatly recovered from its historic lows of three months ago. Later this year there could be flooding. As I walked past the market, I came upon a place where steps led down to the river itself. I would estimate that the river was about 45 feet below the street level. There were three permanent flood stage markers close to the street level to monitor the water as it rises significantly in the flood season. It is quite impressive at times to see evidence of the variability of Nature in a single location.

After watching the people clean outside their hotels, stalls, or hotels, I wandered down to the dock on the river. Boats from Laos and Thailand crossed the swiftly flowing Mekong carrying passengers and cargo between the two countries. I spent several hours at the Thai Customs Station watching goods being offloaded by hand from somlaws (three wheeled motorcycles), pick up trucks, and lorries. Since it was Monday, there was a great deal of activity - especially exporting of bicycles to Laos. I must have witnessed the offloading of 500 bicycles each in its own individual cardboard box.

The offloading of the cargo in Thailand is performed by stevedores. I learned from them that they make around 200 baht a day ($6.00 USD) a day. The men dress just the same as the men working out in the fields. There are no hard hats, gloves, sturdy boots, or back braces. There is no personal safety equipment at all. Down at the wharf, some 45 feet lower than the street level, there are no life vests, life rings, or rescue equipment.

From what I could see across the river to Laos, about 1/2 mile away, the same was true - offloading by hand. From the sounds coming from Laos, it appeared that the stevedores over there were having a good time. It sounded more like a party than work. On the Thai side it was not all work. During lulls in the arrival of goods to be offloaded, the men played checkers. Their board was a thin square piece of sheet metal that once had blue squares spray painted as required to produced a grid of blue and bare metal squares. Their board had been heavily used for a long period of time reducing many of the blue squares to very faint smudges of color. The game pieces were a combination of beer, soft drink, and Kao Lao (whiskey) bottle caps. One player's pieces were smooth side down and the other player's pieces were rough side down, After watching a while, the men invited me to play. I had not played since a long night in a bar in Malaysia 10 years ago and then it was against my wife of that time. These guys appeared to be a much higher level of competition. I agreed and started to play. The first game was a tie. They changed my opponent and I won the next match. During the third match, we or rather my opponent started getting "comments from the peanut gallery" and advice from several kibitzers. Since I had made sure that we weren't playing for money (gambling is not legal here in Thailand ;-) ), I pretended to be upset and told the men in Thai that it was one man against one man and not 2 men, 3 men, or 4 men against one falang (foreigner). We all had a good laugh. As the match continued, my chastisement did not deter some of the guys, they were giving advise to my opponent - they were reminded of my words by their coworkers. Again we had a good laugh. I ended up losing this match but won my next three matches. It was all good natured fun and amusement. It was an easy way to burn up some time along the river and I enjoyed the time.

Unfortunately, I had not brought my camera with me on Monday. When I met Duang at the border, I told her of my adventure and we decided to return to Nong Khai the next day before going to visit family in Tahsang Village.

Tuesday we drove back to Nong Khai so that I could photograph the activity at the dock. Even better, Duang could translate for me to ensure that I understood what was going on especially the details that were not readily apparent. I want to be reasonably sure of what I write about. Sometimes I suspect that I might understand just enough to get confused. Having Duang to confirm and verify what I believe that I understand is very assuring. We arrived around 8:00 A.M. for the start of the work day on the river. Many of the workers from the day before were in place awaiting the arrival of the day's cargo. Some were finishing their breakfast on the steps of the Custom's House. Breakfast consisted of the Isaan main staple of "sticky rice" brought to the job site in a woven bamboo container called a "gong kao" - a sort of Lao Loum workman's lunch box. We have three in our kitchen. Balls of sticky rice are dipped into a sauce or into fish or sometimes vegetables by hand. Typically plain water is consumed with their meals.

Soon after 8:00 A.M. the cargo started to arrive. Somlaws, three wheeled motorcycles, arrived stuffed with all kinds of cargo destined for Lao People's Democratic Republic. Over the two days of observing work at the wharf, I saw just about everything - well I didn't see a kitchen sink but I did see two pick up truck canopies being exported to the LPDR. Over the two days I saw LG 29 inch televisions, small refrigerators, stuffed toys, hoses, plastic baskets, baby formula, motorcycle tires, truck tires, snack food, Coca Cola, Fanta Orange soft drink, Thailand's version of Red Bull, welding machines, bicycles, candy, motorcycle parts, car parts, washing machines, feminine hygiene products, plant seeds, and canned goods off loaded by hand from pick up trucks, somlaws and 10 wheel trucks. Trucks larger than 10 wheelers are too large to access the Customs House using the narrow city streets. I found it very ironic that some goods were originally manufactured in China were being exported from Thailand into a Communist state that actually shares a border with The People's Republic of China. I suspect that a contributing factor to this situation is the distribution networks available in all three countries. Here in Thailand there are not big distributors or wholesalers of goods. In general, goods are available to you, the consumer, through a series of small distributors and wholesalers with each adding a mark up. My Mother-in-law has a small market in Tahsang Village. One of her biggest selling items is Kao Lao (whiskey). She purchases about one case a week from small ethnic Chinese markets in Kumphawapi or Udonthani. I looked into the possibility of dealing with me for a greater volume perhaps 10 case purchase to get a volume discount. There was no volume discount. I looked into dealing with a larger distributor for either a volume discount or lower unit price and found that the alternative was not available. It is the system of distribution that makes Japanese cameras more expensive in Japan than in the United States. I suspect that a similar situation exists in Laos. It is most likely easier to import Chinese goods through Thailand than to deal with China directly for the small Lao businessman.

As soon as a vehicle pulls up to the curb to be off loaded, the stevedores quickly line up and off load the cargo. The cargo is staged on the sidewalk and entry way to the Customs House. The stevedores are heavily laden with the various pieces of cargo. I saw one man carrying 5 cases of powdered baby formula. Typically one case is placed on edge upon the stevedore's shoulder with 2 more cases added flatly upon this on edge case and the stevedore's head. When a stevedore gets tired and work slows down he can go across the street and lay down on a saht placed upon the sidewalk under the shade of a large tree. Some stevedores choose to play a game or two of checkers. The workers are paid by the "Boss" (Lead Stevedore"). The Boss collects 50 baht to offload a somlaw of cargo and 50 to 100 baht to offload a pick up. The big money is earned for loading the boat. The Boss is paid 10,000 baht for a full boat of cargo. He then divides the money up amongst his crew. Each member of the crew then pays him a fee for allowing them to work. If you is satisfied with their "contribution" he invites them to work the next day. If he is not satisfied, they can not work the next day. Typically the average stevedore will take home 200 baht for the day.

An agent for the exporter verifies the weigh bills and marks up the packages with a blue magic marker - a series of Thai symbols and numbers. Once in a while a Customs Agent will walk out and look over the goods. Once all the goods in a shipment are off loaded, consolidated, verified, the stevedores haul the cargo through the doors into the Customs House, through the building, and place it on a concrete pad high above the Mekong River (about 45 feet).

A crew of stevedores on the vessel moored to the wharf awaits the cargo. A stevedore up on the Custom House concrete pad slides the cargo down a long wood chute down to the vessel. Larger cargo items and hopefully delicate items are hand carried down concrete steps and place aboard the boat. A stevedore on board the floating wharf deftly uses his foot, soccer style, to direct and stop the sliding cargo arriving fro high above. To maintain his balance and perhaps to avoid an accident he uses a rope tied off to a railing to steady himself. I am reasonably certain this is a matter of personal choice rather than compliance with any regulation.

There are two wood slides down to the wharf but on Tuesday one of the slides was being reconstructed. Three men were busy replacing some of the boards on the chute.

After watching the two truck canopies being loaded on to the boat, we left to continue our trip to Tahsang Village.

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