Saturday, July 27, 2013

Rubber Plantation

Rubber Plantation In Isaan
On our recent quest and journey along the "road of opportunity", we encountered some rubber plantations.

Tapped Rubber Tree In Malaysia
I had first encountered rubber plantations when I lived in Malaysia 1999-2000.  They were large plots of land rivaling the palm oil plantations in size.  Although we were working six days a week, we were able to get out and about the countryside on our day off - Friday.  A small group of us would take a company vehicle for the day to explore our environs.  On journey brought us into contact with a large rubber plantation.  We initially stopped for me to photograph the tapped rubber trees - pretty much photographs taken all the time.  Shortly after getting back into the car while still within the plantation, we crossed paths with a couple workers driving motorbikes overladen with ball like globs of latex gathered from the tapped rubber trees.  This was an invitation to adventure.  We followed the workers to their destination.

Malaysian Latex Gathering Station
After a while the workers, followed closely by us, arrived at a centralized collection terminal for the latex collected from around the plantation. The workers offloaded their bikes and the globs of raw latex were weighed.  There were machines that would later compress the globs into more compact  and dense shapes for loading onto lorries for transport to a location for further processing.  I remember thinking at the time that these rubber plantation workers were amongst the world's hardest working people.  They were drenched - with their sweat from the oppressive Malaysian climate, sporadic rain showers and from the liquid latex.  An earthy smell from their sweat, the odor of the raw latex, and the smell of decay from the rain forest vegetation contributed to the ambiance of this isolated location.

When Duang and I visited Luang Namtha Province in the Lao People's Democratic  Republic, we saw huge fires on our way to the market in Muang Sing.  I thought that the fires were associated with Hill Tribe people's "slash and burn" technique of agriculture.  We questioned our driver and he informed us that the mountain sides were being cleared by large Chinese companies in order to create rubber plantations.  Later in the day I noticed many areas of skinny tall trees aligned in perfect straight rows covering the hills.  Later when we flew out of Luang Namtha to return to Vientiane, I was shocked at the number of hill sides denuded of native rain forest and supplanted by immature rubber plantations.  Laos offers cheap land as well as cheap labor for Chinese companies. The profits of Chinese international trade are now being used to exploit the natural resources of Laos.

In Isaan, the rubber plantations are not large enterprises.  Just as with rice production, rubber cultivation consists of small family owned plots.  Like all cultivation, rubber production is a large gamble.  Unlike rice, you can not eat your harvest or consume what you are unable or unwilling to sell.  It takes around seven years from planting the trees before you can commence to harvest the latex from the trees, seven years of fertilizing, weeding the plantation, and pruning the trees.  Seven years of carrying the costs of the land, preparing the land, the costs of the trees and the costs of planting the trees without a return on your investment is an additional financial burden as well as worry. Once the trees mature, they can be harvested for latex for about 25 years with older trees being more productive.

Tapped Rubber Trees In An Isaan Plantation
Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia produce the vast majority of natural rubber (gum rubber) in the world.  Asia produces over 90% of the world's gum rubber.  Surprisingly the rubber tree, Herva brasiliensis, is not native to Asia.  The scientific name of the Para rubber tree is a tip off as to its origin - Brasil!  Originally the plant only grew in the Amazon Rain Forest.  The discovery of the vulcanization process increased world demand for raw rubber in 1839 leading to the development of rubber plantations in Brasil.  The British were largely responsible for the spread of rubber tree cultivation in the late 1800's.  Once the British were able to cultivate the trees in their botanical gardens, they sent seeds and seedlings throughout their empire to establish a reliable source and economic source of raw rubber.  Singapore, Ceylon, Malaya, Indonesia, and India became sources of latex for the British Empire.  Ironically, efforts to make South America, its original home, a source of natural rubber production have been hampered by a leaf blight native to the area.

Tapped Rubber Tree in Thailand
The latex is extracted from the rubber tree by cutting the bark on an angle, inserting a galvanized steel spout, and allowing the latex to drip into a small collection cup or bowl.  The latex is tubes inside of the bark that grow in a right handed spiral at an angle of 30 degrees up the tree.  Men cut the trees carefully to not injure the tree's growth.  I have read that because the trees have a right handed helix the incisions are made up and to the left to optimize collection of the latex.  The trees that we observed in Thailand conformed to that theory.  However, the trees that I photographed in Malaysia were tapped "up and to the right".  I have no explanation.  I had a theory that perhaps the spiral helix was dependent upon the location of the trees - trees north of the equator spiraling to the right and trees south of the equator spiraling to the left - sort of like water draining from a sink north or south of the equator.  I just about had myself convinced of the validity of that theory until I checked the map.  The rubber trees in Malaysia although very close to the equator, were still north of the equator just as the rubber trees in Thailand.

The trees are tapped in the early morning when the internal pressure is the highest.  This was confirmed by the rice farmers that we talked with near the rubber plantation in Isaan.  They told us that the trees were tapped at night.  Working at night helped to explain why we say several huts scattered about the rubber plantation.  The huts were obvious locations for the workers to sleep or rest before and after work for the tappers.  Once the tree is tapped, latex will ooze out for four hours when the latex coagulates in the tubes blocking off flow.  When the flow stops the workers collect the latex from the collection cups. The tree is given a rest of a day or two and then tapped once again.  The repetitive tapping of a tree uses up about 1 inch (25 cm) of bark a year.  On older trees you can see a wide scar along the face of the tree where the bark has been cut and healed over many years.

The rubber plantation that we explored in Thailand was vacant for the most part.  On one side of the road the trees had been tapped and were collecting latex.  On the other side of the road, the latex collection cups had been placed in a vertical "storage" position rather than the horizontal "collection" orientation.  The trees across the road had not been tapped recently and appeared to be in a "resting" state or perhaps the costs of harvesting the latex was not economically justified due to fluctuating market prices.

When I first got out of the truck I was somewhat challenged by a couple of field dogs from down the road.  They walked up to within 30 meters of me barking as if to let me know they were around rather ti threaten me. I ignored them and shortly they returned to where they had come.  A while later, while I was relieving myself, I heard the anxious sounds of things headed my way.  I was relieved to determine to see that the things headed my way were not ghosts (phii) or any other creature to fear but just a small herd of cattle.  Four cows and two calves quickly passed by me, crossed the road, and disappeared into the rubber plantation on the other side.  A little while later, an old and bent over cattle herder approached from the direction the cattle had come from.  The cows were no longer in sight, so I pointed in the direction that they had disappeared and told him in Thai "cows".  he acknowledged my assistance and shuffled off in search of his free ranch herd.

In Search of the Free Range Cattle Herd
I did not get to photograph the workers tapping the rubber trees or collecting the latex ... this time.  However now that I know a little more about the process and more importantly the timing, it is only a matter of time before we return to document the "rest of the story"  as Paul Harvey used to say.  One thing for certain though;  it will not be before we quit having these daily rains!  We are truly in our rainy season and this season seems to be much more rainy than others that I have experienced here in Isaan.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Road of Opportunity, Plenty of Opportunity

Three Lao Loum Farmers Heading To the Fields
Back in March, I wrote of a very interesting road, "A Road Less Traveled, A Path Often Not Taken" that we discovered on one of our excursions out to the Ban Chiang area.  When we drove along the dusty red road in March, the surrounding countryside was parched and largely abandoned.  Even then the photographic opportunities of the area were very evident.  We decided then that we would return to the area later this year during rice planting season.

Rice planting season is now in full force here in Isaan.  The rains returned in May and now we typically have some rain just about everyday.  Thundershowers often bring up to 30 minutes of intense localised precipitation.  The rains in May allowed the rice seeds to be broadcast over prepared flooded paddies.  The continuing rains kept the paddies flooded and allowed the seeds to germinate to create a rich bright yellow-green carpet over the Isaan countryside.  Now that it is July, the thick green carpets are being separated and the plants transplanted into other prepared flooded rice paddies.  The continuing monsoonal rains will nourish the developing rice until October when it will be time to harvest the new crop.

Yesterday was a good day to head back out to drive along that road less traveled and the path often not taken.  Although it was not a bright and sunny morning, it was a morning that seemed to promise no immediate possibility of precipitation let alone heavy rains. The overcast sky would also allow me to take the type of photographs of the planting activities that I had photographed previously.  The heavy overcast and cloudy sky created the soft light that clear, bright and sunny skies do not - especially late morning and at mid-day.  The growing rice plants and flooded fields are extremely reflective so soft light, in my opinion, is desirable. We set off around 8:00 A.M. for Ban Nong Han where we knew that the road ended.

We got to Ban Nong Han without any difficulty but quickly became confused - some would say lost.  We stopped several times and got directions.  Duang was responsible for getting directions because the people that we encountered or would encounter did not speak English.  After a while, Duang was hungry because she had not eaten breakfast back at our home.  We stopped at a very small village alongside one of the country roads that we had managed to get confused on.  We found a small market where the elderly woman also cooked noodle soup (Queteao).  I sat at the small concrete picnic table drinking an ice tea while Duang ate her bowl of noodle soup.  Very shortly I heard young voices saying words along the line of "There is a falang (foreigner) here"  Shortly afterwards, 6 young children arrived to look at me.  It was amusing to see them checking me out.  From an elderly man, we learned that the children had never seen a foreigner before.  I guess we were more than confused - we had to be LOST if we were somewhere were children had never seen a falang before!  I spoke with the children but they were very shy.  Unlike the children in the film, "ET", I was not offered any Reese's Bits or any Isaan equivalent treat.  While Duang continued to eat her meal, I saw several children come from the interior of the village to drive past me on their bicycles, eyes transfixed upon me the entire time.  This did not bother me in the least for they were just interested in someone they had never seen before - pretty much what I do so often with my camera.  They were just taking advantage of an opportunity to expand their world just a little bit.

With a new set of directions, we set off to find the road less traveled.  Perhaps it is less traveled because no one can find it?  We found a interesting narrow red dirt road that was headed off in what we believed was the right direction.  For quite awhile it appeared to be the road that we were looking for.  However, this road did not have any mango orchards that the road back in March had.  It turned out to be a different road but not a bad road.  The new road was very interesting.  There was no traffic on it.  It had no signs.  It was partially eroded by heavy rains, in fact in some places water from the higher land alongside of the road was pouring onto the road creating large puddles.

We found people planting rice in the paddies along the roadside.  I would get out of the truck and say hello to the people as I started to take photographs.  I was always closely followed by Duang who would explain to the people what I was up to.  She would then start talking to the people - finding out just as much about them as she was telling them about us.  That is the way it is out here in Isaan - people are very friendly and you are one of their own, you are like family.  As I walked about, bent down, and sometimes even squatted to photograph the planting activities, the air was filled with the sounds of Duang and the farmers talking.

After we had been there awhile a family of the farmers headed back to their home to eat.  Their home was like many of the homes that we see along the back roads of Isaan amongst the rice paddies.  These are not the primary homes of the people.  Unlike the rich American people of the early 20th century who had "summer homes" in exclusive communities along the beaches or in the mountains or even many Americans today who have a vacation home, hunting camp or fishing camp. the people of Isaan have a primitive home for work.  The small raised one room structures are where the family stays during the intense work periods associated with cultivating rice - planting and harvesting seasons.

Lao Loum Family Eating A Meal In Their "Work" Home

We stopped at the family's work home and socialized with them while they ate their meal.  Naturally we were offered to join them but we respectively declined having only recently eaten ourselves. I learned quite a bit from this family thanks to Duang's efforts.  I thought that the two older adults were the parents of two young children, three and four year old sisters.  I was wrong.  The two adults were actually the grandparents of the two girls.  It turned out that the young woman that I thought was the 18 year old sister of the young children was actually their mother.  The husband and father was away working.  He was far away working - working in Israel.  This is not all that uncommon.  Many Thai men and some Thai women go off to work in Israel, Taiwan, or Korea.  They can make two to three times their Thai earnings a month in those far away lands.  An aunt of the little girls was a widow.  She asked me to find her a foreign husband.  This is also not uncommon here in Isaan.  I have been asked by at least 95 Thai women to find or better yet bring them a falang husband.

The family had been staying in the partially sided house for four weeks and expect to stay there another two weeks until the planting is completed.  They will return in October for the labor intensive manual harvest of the rice crop.

Three Year Old and Four Year Old Sisters Ready to Return to the Rice Paddies
As they prepared to return to the paddies, Duang and I drove ahead back to where we first encountered them.  Duang recommenced her conversations with the workers - I suspect right from where they had left off.  Feeling more comfortable with the location, I set off to be more adventuresome in my photography efforts.  I left the relative comfort and safety of the roadside to walk atop the rice paddy berms, raised dirt mounds that create the containment for the paddy water.  These dirt mounds offer some challenges as well as opportunities.  They are either covered with a thick mat of weeds or are freshly created with a clumps of what was recently moist dirt.  There are opportunities to slip and slide off into the water on either side of the raised berm.  I know that I could personally cope with falling into the mud but I am fearful of the problems that would be created for the camera gear that I carry.  The heavy weed mat also provides opportunities to twist an ankle or perhaps to break a leg.  The weeds often camouflage holes or uneven surfaces of the berm.  I also am very attentive when walking along the weed covered dikes to ensure that I do not have an opportunity to be bitten by a snake.  There are Cobras and other poisonous snakes in Isaan.  Fortunately either due to my diligence, luck, or the actual scarcity of snakes, I have not seen a live snake other than in a show.

Worker's Quarters In Rubber Plantation
After taking some more photos, we continued along the red dirt road.  We came upon a rubber plantation - another opportunity to take some landscape photographs.  I got out of the truck to explore a lit bit of the plantation.  Further down the road a couple of dogs came partly up the road to my location, barking and let me know that they had their eyes on me.  For some reason I do not find the dogs in Thailand anyway as threatening or intimidating than American dogs.  I ignored the dogs and soon they ignored me, returning to their original locations.

The rubber plantation was an interesting combination of textures, shadows, and colors.  I first encountered rubber plantation 13 years ago in Malaysia.  This plantation was much smaller and younger but just as fascinating.

After a while I was joined by a small herd of what originally believed to be "guard cattle".  Several cows and calves approached me and the crossed the road.  About five minutes later an old hunched over man approached from the original direction of the cattle.  He was the herd tender.  I pointed to the direction where the cattle headed and told him "cattle" in Thai.  He nodded and headed off in the same direction.

Follow Those Cows!
Eventually and after several false turns we found the dirt road that we were seeking.  The road split a market area in two.  The road appeared to be a path to a parking area for the various stalls rather than a way back to Ban Nong Han.  I was very pleased and Duang, my reluctant navigator and guide, was very much relieved to be once again on the right path.

The road was more damaged from water than the road that we had discovered that morning.  Along the road we saw plots of corn, rice paddies, mango orchards, rubber plantations, cassava plots, and banana trees.  Although there was no traffic on the road, there was plenty of opportunities for work along its sides.

Where we had seen a parched and rather desolate countryside in March, yesterday the worker's huts were now all occupied and in many instances repaired.  The countryside was a brilliant and vibrant green.  We no longer left a large and long red dust cloud as we drove along the road.

There were several locations where people were busy planting rice.  At one of the locations I pulled over to the side of the road as much as I could without getting the truck stuck in either a ditch or in the mud.  A man and a women were planting rice in separate enjoining rice paddies.

Water Spews from Farmer's Hands As He Plants Rice

I walked out and along a set of berms to where the woman was planting rice.  A fairly large tree grew out of the berm so I walked up to it in order to lean against it to further steady my camera.  As my hand approached the tree, I noticed the the bark was a busy highway, heavy in both directions, with large red ants some that were carrying large pieces of vegetation.  In a flash I realized what they were - weaver ants.  Weaver ants are the creators of "kie mot si daeng" (red ant eggs) that many Lao Loum people enjoy eating.  I had encountered them before and it was not pleasant - I had stepped on one of their trails and my feet were instantly swarmed with biting ants.  The bite of the weaver ant is initially similar to that of a fire ant but does not contain the enzymes of the fire ant that dissolves proteins, causes welts, causes burning, causes scars and can cause death.  The weaver ant bite is just a mechanical bite.  I looked at my feet and just like before they were getting swarmed by red ants.  I hastily got away from the tree and commenced to frantically brush the ants off of my shoes along with the few that had started to climb up my trouser legs.  I had no difficulty brushing them off and despite my fears none had bitten me.  After several repetitions of inspecting and brushing off of ants, I seemed to have gotten rid of the ants.  Then I started getting a tingle up my leg.  Since I am not a President Obama I knew that tingle could only mean a red ant.  I rushed across the berms and across the road to get to the far side of our pickup truck. After hearing me shout to her as I hustled across the berms. Duang arrived at the far side of the truck just as I arrived as I ... dropped my pants to the ground.   She quickly found and destroyed the two ants who were climbing up my legs.  We all enjoyed the opportunity to have a good laugh!

Women Planting Rice with the Infamous Tree in the Background
Further down the road we encountered a woman harvesting rice plants for transplantation in another paddy.  It was too good of a photo opportunity to pass up.  Besides it was also a great opportunity for Duang to pass some time speaking Lao to a farmer!  I am truly fortunate to have a wife who indulges my passion so well.

A Farmer Harvests Rice Plants for Transplantation

Excess Water Drains from Bunch of Rice Plants

Farmer Shakes Water from Rice Plants

After photographing the woman, we drove down the road further where we found a newly constructed rice mill operating.  This was not a mill were 18 wheelers delivered raw rice and transported finished sacks of rice away.  This mill was a village mill run by one man with help from his assistant.  It was at this plant that neighbors delivered sacks of rice from their small holdings to have the husks removed from the grain so that it could be consumed by the family.  The rice was transported to and from the mill on the back of motorbikes, on hand carts, or hand carts attached to motorbikes.

Fellow Travelers On the Road of Opportunity
Our excursion along the dirt back roads of Isaan ended as we got back to Ban Nong Han.  It had been a rewarding and entertaining day along the roads of opportunity.  There had been many opportunities to take photographs but more importantly we had seen many opportunities for the residents; opportunities to make a living. opportunities for work - plenty of opportunitis to work.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Different Type of Weaving

Tahsang Villager and His Weaving Works
Living here in Isaan, Southeast Asia in general, I am continually impressed with the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the people.  The vast majority of the people that I encounter, photograph, and interact with are not materially wealthy people. They are common people with, from a US perspective, people without many options for government assistance.  They are subsistence farmers, entertainers, unskilled labor workers, Monks, small shop owners, and craftsmen.

What the people have is a strong sense of family and community.  They are survivors; people who know how and have the skills to take advantage of what is available to them.  The people are capable of doing many things for themselves and for their families.

I have documented men and women making knives from recycled leaf springs from trucks.  Women weaving cotton as well as silk fabric.  I have on several occasions documented women weaving reeds to create colorful mats that are used for sleeping on, worshipping on, sitting on as well as eating on.  I suspect other activities are done upon the mats, but modesty has prevented me from witnessing them or photographing the activity.  I have photographed men weaving fine fishing nets under the shade of a large tree in their yard.

To feed themselves and their families, the people grow rice, garlic, corn, peanuts, sugar cane, cassava, and vegetables.  If they do not have land or money to rent land, the people hire out their labor to others.  Men as well as women harvest various plants from along the roadside for feeding themselves.  People fish the rivers, floodplains, and rivers.

There always is something going on in the villages and along the roadsides.

Lao Loum Man Making a Kong Kao
A few months ago during a visit to Tahsang Village, I had the opportunity to watch one of Duang's uncles weave special containers (kong kao) for storing cooked stick rice.  As much as the khene is associated with Lao ethnic music, the kong kao exemplifies Lao Loum domestic life.  Every Lao Loum home has at least one kong kao for storing cooked sticky rice.  Our home has 6 albeit small individual sized kong kao.  Some kong kao can be quite large - as large as a 27 quart stock pot. Quite often you will see men pushing carts filled with brooms, kong kao, and assorted other woven kitchen items for sale.

Duang's uncle like many Lao Loum men is very versitile.  He is always busy and is always interesting to follow.  On our visit to the village he was occupied weaving kong kao.  He had cut some hardwood limbs previously and dried them outside his home.  Now that the wood was properly aged and dry, he had split it into many thin as well as narrow strips.

From memory and experience, the bottom pattern is created
Underneath the thatched roof of a lean-to type addition to his home, he was seated before a rough hand made table to make some kong kao for family use.  Besides his raw materials, the table included his tools - heavy scissors, a pencil, and a heavy cane knife. Completed kong kao and a intricate fishing creel were stored on the table.

When Lao Loum people go fishing, often with had thrown nets or just with their hands, they place their catch in floating woven fishing creels to keep their catch fresh.  The creels are intricately woven objects that are kept afloat by emptied drinking water bottles that are attached on each side.

As I watched the kong kao being woven, I was impressed once again on how the design is in the head of the crafts person.  I had marveled at this before with the saht weavers as well as the fabric weavers.  The needlepoint and embroidery of the Hill Tribe peoples of Southeast Asia are also from the mind of the crafts person and are not from a blueprint or written specification.  We who live in more urban and industrialized societies often lose the sense of how creative the individual mind can be.  In the more urban and industrialized societies, our interface with creativity is often limited to an occasional exposure with art however in less "sophisticated" societies creativity is part of everyday life.

Time for a smoke break - rolling his own
After a while, Duang's uncle decided to take a smoke break.  Prior to taking a smoke, he had to roll his own cigarette.  He brought out a small plastic bag containing his loose tobacco and his cigarette papers.  With a skill that I had not witnessed since my university days, he quickly had a cigarette to enjoy.

Enjoying a few puffs

After a couple of relaxing puffs, he recommenced his work as he continued to smoke.

One of these days, I will have to learn how to do this.  I am sure that he will be pleased to try and teach me. No, not the rolling of your own cigarettes, for I have no need for that.  I would like to try to weave a kong kao and perhaps a fishing creel.  Most people are willing and happy to pass on knowledge as well as teach a skill.  Teaching others adds and strengthens our sense of community. 

Teaching others creates a lasting legacy.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Oldies But Goodies

White Model 706 Passenger Bus - 1930s Vintage

We are back home in Isaan now for about a week from our trip back to America.  We are caught up now to the point that I can consider writing blog entries after over a month's absence.

It was a great trip highlighted by a one week long visit to Yellowstone National Park, a visit with my cousin in Downeast Maine, and visiting with one of my best friends from high school and his wife after 40 years.

I wanted to share a different part of America with Duang on this trip to the United States.  I can not think of a better place to share with someone from outside of the US than Yellowstone National Park.  The landscapes as well as wildlife are unique and are national treasures.

Duang absolutely loved the area and animals.  I was surprised at how adept she was at spotting wildlife at great distances.  The only problem that we encountered was in the early days of our visit.  She did not know the names of animals so when she spotted something she said that she saw  "big black dog" - this term applied to buffalo, black bears, and in the case of mammals that were not black such as deer, pronghorn, big horn sheep, grizzly bears and elk "big dog, same color my hat".  Needless to say it all made my trip that more entertaining!

Some of our unanticipated pleasures were several encounters with links to a long gone by age in Yellowstone National Park - the canvas topped 1930s era White touring buses,  Eight of the original 98 bright yellow 14 passenger buses were restored in 2007 and returned to service.

The White Motor Company was a predominate maker of trucks in 20th century America.  Unfortunately, like so much of America's heavy industry, the company did not make it out of the century.

The White Model 706 buses in Yellowstone are bright yellow and the 33 of the buses used in Glacier National Park are a deep rich red.

"Red Jammers", White Model 706 Buses, In Glacier National Park
The White buses hearken back to a time when industrial design embraced many artistic elements.  Even today the artistic beauty of the front chrome grills are testaments to the taste and skill of their Russian immigrant designer so many years ago.  Seeing the old buses was a welcomed relief from the countless utilitarian vehicles that ply the Yellowstone roadways today.

Duang was fascinated by the grand touring vehicles - there is nothing comparable to them in Isaan or the whole of Thailand.  These buses were another unique experience for her, another unique memory of America for her.

Yellowstone Panorama and Me Reflected in Model 706 Bus


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