Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Making Charcoal In Isaan - The Way It Is For Some

The Kumphawapi Charcoal Maker
I am constantly on the look out for interesting people, places, events, and things to photograph as well as to write about as I drive around Isaan.  For a few months now I have had my eye on an interesting process taking place outside of Kumphawapi, across from the Kumphawapi Sugar Company.  At first, I was unable to take photographs because my cameras were in Bangkok for repair.  Once I had the first camera back I could have taken photographs but I was usually not with Duang.  Although I am not concerned about stopping and photographing on my own, this was a process that I had not witnessed before  and I knew that I would have a great deal of questions regarding what I would be photographing.  Duang is a great translator and is just as interested in what we are witnessing as I am.

Sometimes when I am returning to our home in Udonthani from Duang's home village of Baan Tahsang, I take a left on to a dirt road that allows me to bypass the congestion of "downtown" Kumphawapi.  About one block's distance down the road, there is large piece of land where lump charcoal is produced.

Dirt Covered Mounds of Burning Wood Fill the Air With Acrid Smoke
Here in Isaan, out in the countryside, a majority of the people cook out doors over an open charcoal fire.  The charcoal fire is contained is refractory lined metal can - very similar to a a two gallon sized paint can lined with cement to create a one gallon sized pot with an opening at the bottom side for charcoal.  If you live or have lived in the United States,you are most likely familiar with brand names like Kingsford or Royal Oak for charcoal briquettes for cooking.  However here in Isaan, the people use locally produced lump charcoal. Lump charcoal is made by burning wood in a limited oxygen environment.

Charcoal briquettes are manufactured from wood byproducts with additives that help them light easier and burn consistently. Besides wood charcoal, briquettes typically also contain coal, limestone, starch, sawdust, Sodium Nitrate, Borax, and wax.

Interestingly the charcoal briquette for cooking was invented by auto giant, Henry Ford.  He had been looking for a way to get rid of or more likely profit from the sawdust and scrap wood waste produced by his automotive factories,  For years people were able to buy BBQ grills as well as "Ford Briquettes" from Ford dealerships.

Late Saturday afternoon on our way back home from Thasang Village with our Grandson, Peelawat, the three requirements to do this blog came together - I had my camera, Duang was with me, and the man was making charcoal.  As it turned out, we arrived just in time, the collier (charcoal maker) had loaded his soemlaw (three wheeled motorcycle) with bags of charcoal and was preparing to take them to his patron.

It was an interesting time to take photographs, the sun was getting low, the mounds where the charcoal was being created where profusely emitting billows of acrid white smoke.  The collier, his young niece, and his mother were also interesting subjects to photograph.

The Collier's Niece and His Mother
Duang immediately hit it off with the Grandmother.  In no time and, as is so common here in Isaan, they were involved in a loud and quite animated conversation.  Peelawat kept to my side as if he were my Photographer's Assistant or interested in learning to be ... a photographer.  The collier's little niece, at first was somewhat shy but after seeing some of the photographs, soon was following Peelawat and me around.  She also wanted to see the results of each photograph that I took.

It was very apparent that these people were very poor even more so than the subsistence farmers that I am familiar with.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Duang give the grandmother and then the little girl some money.  She gave them 90 Baht ($3 USD).   I was not surprised for I have often seen acts of generosity and compassion by Duang.  She is very religious and lives her religion every day.

Peelawat and the little girl got along very well.  Besides "helping" me, they would stop and play in the dirt with a small toy that he had brought with him.  He seemed completely oblivious and definitely not judgemental of the little girl's poor clothing or her body as well as clothes covered with black soot. It is one of my observations of life that young children are not born with prejudices or intolerance - they must be taught.  Unfortunately, those are lessons too easily learned.
From Duang's conversation with the Grandmother, I learned much about the life of the charcoal maker.  he, himself, did not speak all that much - he had a throat condition which given his occupation does not surprise me but does cause me concern for his future.  He is 52 years old and has been making charcoal for the past four years.  Previously he had worked at pulling plastic out of garbage.

The land where he makes the charcoal is owned by a wealthy man who lives close by.  The wealthy man allows the collier to make charcoal on the land and buys the collier's production.  The charcoal maker stays on the land in a ramshackle hut to protect the charcoal and to tend the fires all day and night.  His three year old niece and his mother live nearby in a small house.  They come out to the site to help fill the recycled fertilizer or rice sacks with charcoal.

The charcoal maker put 5,000 Baht down on his soemlaw 15 months ago and makes 2,500 Baht a month payments on it. besides transporting the bags of charcoal to his patron, the man uses the three wheeled motorcycle to transport wood to the site.  People contact him to clear their property of trees.  He cuts the trees and brings them back in the soemlaw to turn them into charcoal.  He produces a batch of charcoal every 5 days.  He sells the charcoal for 120 Baht ($4 USD) a bag with a bag being a 55 kg fertilizer or rice bag.  The price is based on volume rather than weight.

His mother is 73 years old and is not in good health.  She is concerned about who will care for her granddaughter when she is gone.  The little girls parents disappeared three years ago and there has been no contact with them since then.  The grandmother believes that they have died.  I had noticed an ulcer on the woman's foot when I was photographing her.  Today when I was speaking to Duang about the woman I told her that I suspected that the grandmother had diabetes.  After I explained what diabetes was to Duang, she confirmed that the old woman had "too much sugar in blood",  It is surprising how many people in Isaan are afflicted with diabetes.

Three Years Old and Confident
The grandmother asked Duang if we would like to take care of the little girl.  This is not the first time that we have been offered a baby or a small child to raise.  I have always shrugged it off as people being polite - sort of like "Oh you like children very much.  You are very nice people.  Would you like to raise this child?"  I never wanted to consider the alternative that the people were serious.  It is a reality that I would not like to acknowledge.

Giving children to be raised by others is not all that uncommon here in Isaan and it does not necessarily always have "human trafficking" or "sex trade" connotations.  Duang's older sister was given to and raised by one of Duang's uncles because the family ,was not able to support two children.  No money was involved in the matter of Duang's sister and apparently no money was asked for in the offer that Duang received on Saturday. It appears to have been motivated by a desire to find a better and more stable life for a child when you realize that you will not be able to.   It is sad and heart wrenching to know the suffering that many people, especially children go through in this world.  Suffering with a face is much more difficult to ignore than descriptions on a computer screen or printed page.

Work Is Done, Ready to go Home
The little girl had not eaten the day before because her uncle had left early in the soemlaw to harvest some wood.  The grandmother was unable to walk to the Wat due to her hurt foot to receive the food that the Monks did not eat that morning.  Duang had learned this after she had given the money to them. She was pleased to hear the grandmother say that they would be able to eat the next day because of Duang's offering.  The grandmother had complimented Duang for taking the time and interest in them unlike many women, married to foreigners, who are embarrassed by others who are not as fortunate.  It is not in Duang's nature to be that way and having "been there, and done that" she would never allow herself to be that way.

The little girl does not go to school because the grandmother does not have money for clothes or books let alone the tuition for the girl to attend school. Free school in Thailand starts with the first grade (age 6).  Duang feels very sad for the little girl and tomorrow she will make some clothes for her.  She also has contacted a young childless Lao Loum couple who are interested in taking care of a small child - especially a well behaved and intelligent as this little girl appears to be.  They are interested and will meet her later this month.  Maybe, as Duang often says "Buddha will take care".

On the way home, Duang spoke with Peelawat about the little girl and her family.  She used it as an opportunity to teach him compassion for others and to teach him to appreciate the opportunities that he has in his life.  The greatest appreciation that we can have is to take full advantage of the opportunities that we have available to us.  Duang is teaching Peelawat that.  I often tell my wife that she makes me a better person.  It appears that she intends to teach our grandson to be a better person to.

Just as with death, sheltering children from reality protects them from nothing and prevents them from learning to cope with the realities of this world.

I doubt that we can change the world for everyone, but by changing it for one person it is a start - a start worth taking.


  1. Wonderful post. I hope it works out for the little girl. Such a beautiful child!

  2. The "rest of the story" has been published today, 29 December 2012.