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The Backbone of Thailand

Today, the major cities of Thailand have bustling cities, with all the traffic, skyscrapers, and myriad entertainments of urban life anywhere in the world. Nevertheless, it's in the villages that the Thailand of old lives on, and it's there that one can best appreciate the unique spirit of the Thai people. A Thai poet once had this to say about returning to live in his ancestral village after a long period spent a wat in cites:

no presents to give anyone,
no melody and clamorous symphonies,
no beautiful color, lights, and concrete roads,
no noisy sounds of confusion or heaps of noise from engines,
no cries for freedom or honor and rank,
no talk of systems and technology,
no textbooks or classroom

only quietude, life, love and work
only goodwill, warmth, and kindness,
which, together, mean "village."

Each northern Thai village is surrounded by paddy fields (in the lowlands) or (in the uplands) by field crops, by streams, swamps, and grazing lands. The roads or paths to a village are not superhighways or other asphalt roads, but only dirt trails that turn to mud when it rains. Many village houses are bamboo, in front of which a ladder leans, and whose roofs are grass or leaves. Large families-grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, and children-live together, and also have buffalo or cattle underneath the raised floor of the house.

When dawn awakens, smoke drifts overhead, as aged ladies prepare food. Then everybody wakes up and goes to the fields to plow the land, to grow food and harvest it. When twilight comes, they wend the way home, and sit down to dinner and the latest village news, or men may visit the homes of their favorite ladies, to help her and her family do some special task, or simply to talk or to play traditional songs.

In Thailand, rice cultivation and harvesting continues, almost unchanged, as it has done for centuries. Nowadays the water supply is much more organized and dependable (thanks to H.M.King Bhumibol's Royal Project Irrigation Schemes - the massive Mae Guang and Mae Ngud Dams are local examples) and the traditional, plowing pulling water buffalo has given way to the "mechanical buffalo" (a small, hand guided tractor with wide "paddle" wheels). But much else remains the same. The paddy fields are flooded (each paddy is surrounded by a low, mud dike and there are intricate, interconnecting irrigation channels), fertilizer is added, and the farmer, behind his chugging "mechanical buffalo",plows the mud into a smooth, soupy mixture. Rice seedling (which have been growing in a concentrated seedbed) are lifted, tied to small bundles and tossed, in an approximate pattern, into the waiting paddy. Now the really hard, back-bending work begins. Neighbors will help neighbors as perhaps a score or more farmers work together to plant a large area of small, individual paddies. The bundles of seedlings will be separated and each seedling planted in formation about 30 cms apart. It is muddy, hard, physical work, from early morning until dusk, but invariably accompanied by much chatter and exchange of gossip (especially from the ladies). A short lunch break in the day's toil. And the work goes on, for days, until the final paddy is planted. Depending upon the variety planted, the rice will grow to maturity over the next few months - and the farmer will constantly monitor his paddy and control the flow of irrigation water. A most beautiful, dancing carpet of dazzling, strong green will cover the paddies and give visual pleasure to anyone who travels the highways and byways of rural Thailand.

Thai farmers cultivate a variety of rice strains (as the market demands) while Thai housewives and restaurants present the rice in a choice of cooking styles. Unpolished, brown rice is the most nutritious but markets seem to prefer white, polished rice so that's what most people are accustomed to (the whiteness of rice is associated to the purity of Buddhism). In Thailand, it is usually steamed, boiled or steamed, is the centre-piece of a meal which will feature an array of accompanying spicy or mild, sweet and sour Thai dishes. Sticky rice, which rapidly fills a hungry stomach, is usually served from a bamboo steamer. It is picked up in one's fingers, kneaded into a small ball, dipped into a flavoring or sauce and popped into the mouth. Sweetened sticky rice is also served as a rich, yummy dessert when it is presented with ripe, golden mango and a topping of coconut cream. Long grain rice is usually used for savoury dishes and short grain rice for sweet puddings.

Back to the field, the Thai have a special fondness for the water buffalo and Thai folklore is filled with stories and says about these animals. Considering what an important role they play in the agricultural cultivation of Thailand it is not surprising that the Thais also have a special nickname for the water buffalo. They call it "jao-tooy", while the literal word for the animal is "quai". It is believed that Thailand's gentle water buffalos were also once wild creatures. When and where they were first domesticated is unknown but probably they were first tamed by people in order to be used as food.

The water buffalo, unlike most other varieties of buffalo, are believed to have originally been native to the deep jungles and mountainous regions of East and Southeast Asia. Today the are found throughout Southeast Asia, and in China and India. They are generally smaller than buffalo found in other pats of the world and they are much less excitable. There are, however, different types of water buffalo. They may vary in height, length, skin-type, horns, hair and ears. Those in India, for example, are larger than those in Thailand, with larger hooves and hairier tails but with smaller ears and shorter legs. The general size seen in Thailand is what is seen in most of Asia.

The Thai water buffalo are wide with long bodies and protruding bellies. They are big-boned animals with long legs and a relatively long neck. The head is small and the horns gave flat surfaces and curve out and upward. When fully grown they weigh from 400 to 600 kilograms.

During the plowing season they are forced to toil long hard days while their owners' plow with strength and patience. The buffalo are helped in their work by their strong flat hooves which allow them to walk through the sticky mud of rice fields for long periods. Once plowing season is over, they may be used to pull carts or, on special occasions, for sports. For festivals, farming communities often organize water buffalo running races or ‘bullfighting', when two buffalo are brought out and goaded into fighting one another.

Long days in the sun, plowing fields and pulling carts are what these animals do best and without them many of Thailand's farmers could never harvest a crop.

Rice harvest time falls in the months of November, December and January. So during these months farmers make their work more enjoyable by helping one another. When it is time to harvest one man's field, his neighbors will be invited to help and then, later, to enjoy the meals of that day together. In this way harvesting is not all work and no play. Most rural people are genuinely friendly, helpful and kind.

When the rainy season is over, rice and other crops are ready for harvest. On the rain fed agricultural land, the fields lie fallow during the dry season, so village people go to the mountains or the forests in search of wild game, brushwood, herb, or fish from streams.

Young people may go to town to hire out as laborers, waiters, or drivers, for a little extra temporary income, before they return home again when the next year's rain begins to fall.

Any visitor serious about seeing the extraordinary beauty and color of village life must make a point of leaving the main roads that lead from city to city and travel down less- frequented byways. Seeing village life in its natural state requires some commitment. Entering a village on a tour bus full of tourists, for instance, will only disrupt life as it is normally lived. The best way is to go alone or with only a couple friends; travelling with a Thai would be even better. And if you are a photographer, use tact. Ask permission before taking any close-up phone; usually the answer will be affirmative, even if it is just a shy giggle.

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