Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rice Planting Continues

Yesterday was a very sunny, hot (35C, 95F), and humid day. No matter the conditions, the month long rice planting, or more appropriately "rice transplanting" season continued.

Duang had gone out to the village the previous day while I remained at home refinishing rattan outdoor furniture and she had witnessed a great deal of activities out in the fields along the country roads out to Tahsang Village. I decided that we would go back out to Tahsang Village to visit family and for me to photograph the field activities.

Where just a month ago the landscape was dotted with rectangular patches of dried weeds and rice stubble, the scenery around Isaan is being transformed into patches of neat and orderly paddies of 12 to 18 inch long rice seedlings set out in a grid. The land is now magically green once again thanks to the frequent rains.

Rice cultivation here in Isaan is all about the water - the availability of water. Rice cultivation here is wet farming technique. The rice grows in flooded paddies. The water that is used to grow the rice comes from frequent local thunderstorms, local impounded water, and to a much lesser extent local streams. The key is the rain from local thunderstorms with the emphasis on L-O-C-A-L.

The local fields around Tahsang Village were either filled with thick carpets of rice sprouts, filled with transplanted rice seedlings in organized grids or were in the process of being transformed from flat flooded mud bogs into the neat grids of transplanted seedlings.

Further down the road from Tahsang Village, the fields around Nong Daeng Village, no more than 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) distant were a stark contrast. Those fields showed a distinct lack of rain and closely resembled the Tahsang fields of last month. In Pattaya, I had witnessed rain falling heavily on one side of the road and completely dry on the other side of the road - 7 meters (21 feet) away. In a metropolitan tourist center such as Pattaya, this micro climate condition is interesting. But in rural and agrarian Isaan, such differences in micro climates is a serious concern and can adversely impact the local inhabitants.

One might expect that one day of rice planting is just like any other day of planting with each season being just like all the previous seasons. I resist that temptation to generalize and bring my camera gear along anticipating the unexpected. I am often rewarded with surprising opportunities to document as well as to share unique events and aspects of Isaan life. Just as the old adage states 'If you go looking for trouble you will find it", my philosophy is "If you are prepared and go looking for something interesting, you will find it."

When we arrived at the first planting site, the farmers had just started a break. They had retreated from the open exposed paddies to the relative shade of a single short tree amongst the paddies. The tree provided about 10 feet by 10 feet of shade where the workers could get a drink of water, smoke a cigarette, remove their head coverings, get their bare feet out of the mud, and most importantly socialize. True to form here in Isaan, people were engaged in loud and animated conversation which Duang all too willingly joined. After about 5 minutes a couple of women became very excited (more so than typical conversation) and started pointing out to one of the flooded paddies. In a flash, two other women rushed across the paddy to where a fish net had been placed. They took the net and walked towards a specific area as loudly directed by others from the shaded area. The carefully stalked their prey and deftly threw the net over it. They triumphantly removed a medium sized mud covered fish to the cheers of their colleagues and placed it into a large plastic bucket along with some muddy water from the paddy. They returned to the shade and continued with their break. I noticed that several people were always keeping an eye on the flooded prepared paddies. A couple minutes later, a shout went out to one of the men still out in the paddy. He grabbed the fish net and in a short time another mud covered fish was added to the plastic bucket. I did not go out to further inspect the catch - I don't relish trudging out in the flooded paddy carrying expensive camera gear and I try to minimize walking along the weed covered muddy slippery dikes bordering the paddies. There are two types of fish that the local farmers are able to harvest from the flooded paddies. The first type of fish hibernates in the ground as the paddies dry up at the end of the rainy season in October. The second type of fish actually migrates over the land from one body of water to the another body of water. The Thai Walking Catfish (Pla Duk Dam) uses its fins to travel over land. The species has invaded parts of the USA due to irresponsible importing and subsequent accidental as well as intentional releases into the environment.

With some one's dinner safely secured in the bucket, the farmers returned to their primary task at hand - transplanting the rice seedlings. The farmers were covered from head to ankle for protection from the strong sun. I was wearing light cotton slacks, a polyester tee shirt, and running shoes. I lasted only 35 minutes in the heat before I was forced to stop photographing. The farmers would work on for an additional 6 hours - six more hours bent over shoving seedlings into the mud, body wet from stagnant water and perspiration wearing regular clothing, tee shirts wrapped around their face with large hats hiding their face, six more hours of doing what is necessary to survive.

We drove to Tahsang Village where I quickly sucked down two cans of Pepsi. Duang asked me if I wanted "Kaoput". "Kaoput" is corn on the cob and readily available much of the year in Isaan. It is boiled typically over either a wood or charcoal fire. The boiled corn is eaten "au natural" without salt or butter or even sugar and shredded coconut as I had experienced in Pattaya. I was very hot and definitely not in the mood to eat corn on the cob. I said "No" but Duang started to convince me that it would be good for me, and that it would cool me off. I noticed that she was at the ice cream freezer in her mother's market and had an ice cream ("i sah kheem") scoop in her hand. I was about to be introduced to another unique Thai experience - Corn Ice Cream. Duang gave me a cone of yellow corn flavored ice cream which had kernels of corn dispersed in it. Many desserts in Thailand are corn based concoctions. Somehow the possibility of corn flavored ice cream had eluded me up to this time. I had always had "mango" ice cream at the market and never realized that there was also a "corn" option. The ice cream was refreshing and the coolness was very welcomed. Although I would not go out of my way to find corn ice cream again, I would eat it again especially if no other flavor other than Durian was available.

We left Tahsang in the late afternoon. We drove the back roads rather than taking the main highway. The main highway has a great deal of on going construction as well as a great deal of heavy truck traffic. The back road took us by many more fields being worked as well as better glimpses into Isaan rural living. Our route selection gave us another opportunity to witness rice planting but under somewhat cooler conditions.

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