Monday, 24 September 2007

A Cambodian Border Market

We got up early at six this morning and drove to the market just this side of the Cambodian border at Chong Jom. There were only eight of us this time including two old ladies and two small children but it was to be a pleasant family outing.

Every Saturday the market opens far too early on a site in the middle of nowhere surrounded by jungle in the hills on the border. There’s acres of vegetables on rough stalls, sold out in the open and off the back of pickups, and hundreds more permanent stalls selling second hand clothes and fabrics, tools, electrics, bicycles, curios, tigers’ teeth and just about anything you can think of. It’s a typical Asian market but a bit different for us because it has a distinctly Cambodian flavour.

Many of the stall holders are Cambodian and the crowds thronging the market stalls looked poorer than usual. Most of them are Cambodians who come into Thailand on day passes. It’s a kilometer or two to the border crossing and the tiny road through the jungle is a race track on which small motorcycles pull rough wooden trailers at high speed, carrying the market goers and all sorts of produce that’s been brought in from Cambodia to sell.

Much of the stuff in the market is Thai, such as fruit from the south and cheap manufactured good, while the rest is inexpensive Cambodian stuff for the Thais to buy. Whenever we go, our folks always buy wai for example, the rough rattan shoots that they put in delicious soups to make them taste bitter and disgusting. This is a forest product that’s no longer readily available in Thailand so it’s highly prized by them.

I was also pleased to see many beautiful mats, baskets and bamboo fish traps for sale, items which no doubt are less more expensive in Thailand where such skills must be getting scarcer and the cost of labour is relatively high.

It was hot and crowded and dirty but I always love it and I have my favourite stalls where the ladies always welcome me as a good customer. I’ve bought a number of ancient Khmer burial pots there, some beautifully turned hardwood banister posts and today I needed a new pedal for the bicycle I bought when we were at the market last time.

A problem with a big party at markets such as this is that you all lose each other and as nobody has a watch to agree a time to meet up, you risk never seeing each other again. Thank goodness for mobile phones though and while mine was mysteriously almost out of money, at least there was a signal, just! We did manage to meet up but as soon as I’d spotted one of our party, they’d disappear again and, as always, it took ages to load up and move on.

With the pickup laden and with eight on board, we headed off before ten to go to the lake and eat. Not far away from the market is a reservoir set in the border hills where tucked under the trees by the dam is a mass of grass roofed huts that look just like a village in the South Seas. This time the water was very high and many of the floors of the huts were flooded, but as we were the first to arrive to eat, there was no problem finding one.

We all settled down on the floor of our hut and the lady arrived selling quail eggs, prawns, fried insects and silkworm grubs, and much else besides. We took four or five of these for starters and crunched happily, the water only a few inches below us to clean greasy fingers. I had no worries about the tiny translucent prawns from the lake not being fresh. Mixed in with a chopped salad of herbs and chili, they were still flipping around and trying to jump off the plate.

Apart from the children, I was the only one to have a swim. Cruising along the tree-lined bank, gazing across to the hills towards the border as I lay in an old rubber tyre, it was a pleasant escape from all the stresses and unremitting pressures of village life. Well anyway, you know what I mean!

We paid the bill and drove slowly back, the ladies asking me to stop at a quiet spot so they could disappear behind a bush. The three baht demanded for the purpose back at the lake was too extortionate, they said, and should not be countenanced.

Now it’s early afternoon and the house is strangely quiet. Cat has gone off to buy some more frogs for the fish pond as they’d sold out at the market and everyone else seems to have disappeared, perhaps to the wooden house down the garden. I, needless to say, am at my computer, also working on a hand of bananas that’ll go off overnight unless I make a monkey of myself. Can you get banana poisoning? I think I’m going to find out.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Whither Country Crafts?

Sometime in the late seventies in Phuket in the South of Thailand I bought a bamboo fishtrap. It was made of tiny strips of bamboo superbly crafted and shaped a bit like an air ship. I thought this fine handicraft skill would not last long in a modern world, so I took great pains to carry it home to Hong Kong and later to Singapore and England as a possible rare survivor of a traditional type of artefact.

Now decades later I am thrilled that this craft has not yet in fact died out. In Sangkha, our small town in Surin in the North East, there is still an old-fashioned shop displaying fish traps and all sorts of fine basketware on the pavement. All of my neighbours have these fish traps and they're used daily to catch small fish in the flooded rice fields.

In Cambodia around Ankor Wat, precisely the same baskets and fish traps are still used that you can see carved in stone on the low reliefs that run round the great temple. This fishing technique and the skills to make the baskets are thus a thousand years old and more and their loss would be sad indeed. I'm sure my neighbours have no sense of how they are participating in an extraordinary example of cultural continuity as they lay their fish traps. They just need to catch the fish, though they'll stop this hot and dirty work as soon as they have the means to open the freezer cabinet in a new supermarket. Life has to be lived and nobody can afford to be sentimental except me.

There's a nice collection of traps and basket ware at the Cambodian border market at Chong Jom and while I'd like to buy them all and take them home, this time I have to be satisfied with photographs. Nonetheless in a fast changing world in which country crafts are withering and dying so very fast, it's encouraging that this one's alive and well and looks like lasting for some time yet.

The Magic Lottery Tree

We’ve just visited a village temple near Sangkha to see its amazing magic tree.

A little while ago, as I understand the garbled story from several unreliable sources, a local man had a dream that there was a spirit trapped in the mud of a nearby swamp and that it was begging to be rescued. Somebody went and waded into the swamp and discovered that hidden from the eyes and memory of the oldest villagers was a huge object several tens of metres long. They had no idea what it was.

Truly a sprit was there though and must be rescued as soon as possible. Excavators and diggers were hired, but the powerful forces of the swamp were evil and were reluctant to give up the captive spirit. The machinery suffered damage and the rescue attempt at first was frustrated,

Eventually a huge tree trunk a thousand years old was pulled out of the swamp and then taken to the village temple where a month or so ago it was installed in state under a pavilion of wood and corrugated iron, clothed in a long silken shroud. This is now a place of pilgrimage and when we went today there were probably more than a hundred people there paying homage to the spirit of the tree.

In the temple are food sellers and a stall selling joss sticks, yellow candles and lotus buds for five baht; a veritable industry has sprung up around the new magic tree. It’s a big thing in every way and the visitors, mainly women and children are huddled reverentially, touching, examining, even hugging the massive, hoary old tree trunk.

In front of it there are mats on the ground for people to pay their devotions before altars covered in offerings that pilgrims have brought. Half way along there’s a hole in the trunk which is full of water that drips down into a large pot and the old women are collecting it in containers and rubbing it on their skin. At one end there’s a root that forms an arch and an old lady who looks blind and can hardly walk is repeatedly and painfully going down on all fours and crawling through the hole. It’s obviously the thing to do for a miracle cure.

Most strange of all is that many of the women have talcum powder with them and are rubbing it painstakingly on the smoother parts of the tree and peering closely at the whitened surface. Cat explains to me that tomorrow is lottery day and this is why so many people have come to consult the magic lottery tree. They’re looking for impressions of Thai numbers, using the talcum as a sort of finger print dust to highlight them.

Cat always explains this sort of thing to me with a detached objectivity, giving few hints of her own opinions. This time though she added that Naam’s Mama had visited and found some numbers, winning six hundred baht the very next day. Perhaps this was proof of the power of the spirit of the log!

I’m pretty sure Cat thinks it’s all a load of nonsense but then when you’ve been brought up with some strident beliefs it’s hard to cast them away without even a backward glance. Anyway, it could be worth giving it a try, just as traditionalists in England who buy life insurance and go to church as well.

My own thought is that maybe the spirit of the tree is powerful and the folks asking it for favours are not entirely wasting their time and talcum powder. Frankly though, I’m not sure I’d bother with a spirit that can manage only a lottery win of six hundred baht!

Saturday, 15 September 2007

The Idyll of a Thai Childhood

Publishing my first novel, “Thai Girl” was a great experience and I looked forward to reviews in the media anxiously. I needn’t have worried as the reviews were favourable but with one notable exception.

This one was to appear in one of Bangkok’s leading glossy magazines and I was looking forward to it most of all. The journalist in question had invited me to a Bangkok hotel and arrived with a photographer who took a series of pictures of me. We had a stimulating discussion of the book and while he made some searching comments, he said the book was far better than anything similar published locally. This review at least was in the bag, or so I thought.

But when it came out, the review was a general rant about ‘orientalism’ and various other tangential issues and concluded that the book was ‘far too late’, having been pre-empted as a portrait of backpackers in Thailand by Alex Garland’s “The Beach”.

Shortly after I was asked to lunch by the publisher of the magazine and he as good as apologized for an unfair review. He invited me to write a letter to the editor refuting the Alex Garland point, and having himself already read the book, planted a further ‘letter to the editor’ which slated the review and made some complimentary points about “Thai Girl”. It was all a very strange experience.

I’m telling you all this because one point the reviewer made sticks in my mind. In the book, Fon the ‘Thai girl’ tells her admirer, young British backpacker Ben all about her short but idyllic childhood in the rice fields of Buriram. My negative reviewer sneered at the possibility that a childhood in Isaan could ever be as idyllic as she made out to Ben.

No, of course it was never quite as idyllic as remembered by an exile like Fon who has migrated away to find work and is missing home and family. But idyllic an Isaan childhood nonetheless is, despite the doubts of my reviewer.

I see the children here around me in my Surin village and they enjoy a very happy childhood. Down the back sois of the village there are no cars and they’re free to wander out and play as they wish. It’s never cold and they can do what they like twelve months of the year. They can ride their bicycles, they can fall out of trees, play with the dogs, roll around in the dirt and do whatever they like and nobody ever says no. There’s always hosts of other kids to play with and they seem to be much nicer to each other than in the tough western playground.

There are no worries about paedophiles behind every tree, about being sued for every possible thing, about dirt and hygiene, or not playing with the rough children from the council estate. There are no formal meal times, no oppressive piano or ballet lessons, no nice clothes that might get spoiled, in fact no formalities or strictures whatsoever. True to the Thai principle of ‘sanuk’, kids are there to have fun.

Even our local school seems a pleasant haven for the slowest and sleepiest of all children. There are only ninety five children in all and the classes of about ten children are cozy and comfortable. The teachers are delightful and seem genuinely concerned that their charges should be happy, though there seems to be very little pressure on them to actually achieve. To push the children to do better would be unfair and might introduce stresses that could make them unhappy. Avoiding conflict, learning to be a part of the group and to be a responsible member of the school is far more important than academic achievement. Basic literacy and numeracy is enough if you are to spend your life in and around the village.

The countryside is beautiful and bountiful to live in too. After school the boys go out with their catapaults to catch birds to eat, the girls go and dig up crabs and rats from the rice fields in the dry season and during the rains, collect fish and shell fish from the flooded paddy fields.

There are lots of festivals to be enjoyed… weddings, house opening parties, public events such as the King’s birthday and the several days set aside for sports in competition with the school in the next village. Football, running, sack races and a tug of war are all good excuses to suspend lessons for a few days and to do something that’s much more fun. However small you are, there are prizes to be won and in the gold medal you’re given on the rostrum, there’s a twenty baht note.

It’s a wonderful village atmosphere of a kind that has disappeared in the industrialized West. Your family has been here for several generations, granny is here living with you and aunts and uncles are next door. Somehow you’re related to almost everyone and while there are some vicious feuds rumbling on, generally everyone pulls together if somebody hits hard times.

Life on the land is everyone’s shared experience and the pressures of planting the rice and of bringing it home create an annual and reassuring cycle of life that comes to a climax with celebration of the harvest. It’s tough out there in the rice fields but there’s always a big gang of people and there’s good food, flirting and fun to be had, while the children play around in their own innocence.

It’ll be tough when all too soon they have to grow up, so childhood seems to have been and truly was a rural idyll. Free of all the worries of adult life, of having no money, of the rains being late, of paying the interest on the debt incurred to buy fertilizer and seeds, free of the problems of gambling and drink, of philandering and feckless husbands, childhood in Isaan is truly an idyll of the fields.

There are many problems too the adults. Agriculture is in crisis, Mama Papa have gone away to work so the family is broken up, but still the money trickles back and there’s always Grannie and uncle as reliable stalwarts who are always there. Life goes on and the children are always spared the strain.

If only there was a sustainable living to be had. If only there was some small industry in the local town to provide jobs locally so that Mama could live at home. If so, childhood in Isaan would not only seem to be an idyll; it truly could be near perfect.

For Fon, the ‘Thai girl’ who was sent to work in Bangkok aged ten when her father was killed and the family made destitute, what she told Ben was right. Looking back, it must indeed have seemed an idyllic childhood. My one negative reviewer please take note if you’re still around!

Friday, 7 September 2007

The Joys of Rubber

I’ve just bought a full suspension bike at Chong Jom, the Cambodian border market… not new but imported second hand from Japan.

With the current excessive heat, it’s impossible to do anything except sit around and wilt, so getting enough exercise is a real problem. The bike’s a partial solution as most evenings I now head off into tracks through the rice fields for an hour or so and get my heart pumping and, needless to say, work up a sweat.

Yesterday as I was cycling back past some rubber plantations I saw several people in the trees picking things off the ground. I didn’t think too much about it, but shortly afterwards I heard a loud cracking sound from the plantation, followed by something falling through the foliage to the ground. I then noticed that the track was littered with hard seed cases; the dry seed pods were bursting with a loud report and casting their seeds onto the ground.

I stopped and put some in my pocket. Very like castor oil seeds, they’re hard and rather beautiful, a bit like a conker, though much smaller. It’ll be interesting trying to germinate some of them and to see how easy it is to grow the trees.

The rubber tree, hevea braziliensis is a native of Brazil and was introduced to the Far East in 1877 via Kew Gardens and Sri Lanka to the Botanic Gardens in Singapore. Imagine the sense of excitement to be the custodian of those first seeds that were to create a huge rubber industry throughout Malaysia and further afield and that would bring the motor car and, further down the road, condoms.

In colonial Malaya, the production of latex was based on large plantations owned by publicly listed companies and was very big business indeed. The development of the pneumatic tyre soon assured the economic and strategic importance of rubber. Smallholders throughout the region then saw the opportunity and took up rubber cultivation and now it’s even taking off in my own village in the North East of Thailand.

I’d always assumed that the rubber tree needed a wet climate and that this part of Thailand with its long dry season wouldn’t be suitable. It seems that the trees can thrive nonetheless, though the production of latex is less good than further south in the peninsula where it rains all the year round.

With rice cultivation now yielding minimal profits and rubber prices high, local villagers have been planting rubber on marginal land and even on their precious rice fields. I’m not sure how they finance the project as they’ll have to wait about seven years before the trees become productive and during that time there’s a considerable cost keeping the ground clear of undergrowth to allow the trees to thrive.

The previous Thaksin government had a major scheme that offered farmers free saplings, but inevitably this led to distortions, with trees being planted on unsuitable land and massive corruption in the contracts for production of the trees. This may be one of the reasons for all the new rubber you see around here.

The other problem for small farmers is that by the time their trees become productive, the price may have collapsed. When crude oil prices are high, demand for natural rubber increases as synthetic petro-rubber becomes more expensive, as it does when the world economy is booming. Recently however factors have coincided to bring about a fall in the price of latex from US$100 per ton to US$60, a slippage that will have a big impact on small producers who are always at the mercy of international prices. With the Thai currency, the baht very strong, the export price is also hit, so the joys of rubber can be very volatile.

As with rice cultivation, rubber tapping is labour intensive and I can foresee problems as more rubber comes into production. With so many young people migrating to the towns to find work, there’s going to be a big labour shortage in the countryside.

Being a rubber tapper is the pits. In Malaysia, this work’s often done by immigrants from Indonesia, sometimes illegals, who squat in their desperate little bamboo huts built amongst the trees. Tapping, in which a diagonal cut is made in the bark and the sap bleeds into a cup attached to the tree, has to be done very early in the morning when the mosquitos are rampant. It’s unpleasant work, but around here I guess smallholders will often do the tapping themselves. Otherwise the practice is that the owner shares the proceeds of sale of the latex with the tapper on a fifty fifty basis.

The latex is collected in a bucket later in the day and is then rolled out into sheets of a standard size using a machine that looks rather like an old fashioned mangle for drying clothes. As the sheets are unsaleable if they have more than the required water content, they are then spread out to dry in the sun. In the villages round here, you often see them hanging on lines around the farm houses, like an excess of babies’ nappies out to dry.

Rice farming is in crisis here, especially with this year’s rainy season drought, and more and more alternative cash cops are now being grown. Within a hundred yards of our house there’s rubber, sugar cane and eucalyptus for scaffolding poles and paper production. All of these make the land barren, so there’ll be negative long term consequences arising from all these changes in agricultural practice.

In the new market by the bus station in Sangkha, they’ve built a new factory for making brassieres and underware. It’s labour intensive work and employs large numbers of ladies, bringing money into the local economy and offering modest wages for women who otherwise would have to migrate away to feed their families.

Thailand has a massive problem of urban drift and Bangkok is growing at a crazy rate, an urban nightmare writ large. Massive mega-projects are needed to improve the transport infrastructure, but if a tiny fraction of this investment could be spent providing incentives for industry to move upcountry, the problem at both ends could be reduced. Maintaining rural communities with new job opportunities would take the pressure off the cities.

Having said that, it’s never an easy goal to achieve. Huge sums of public money can be thrown at regional development and still be unsuccessful in establishing new industries. Nonetheless, towns like Surin are growing and are ready to take on new opportunities. With the divide between urban and rural society growing so fast, this must be one of Thailand’s biggest problems that simply cannot be ignored.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Shadows on the Wall

Why do we put plants in little pots, water them, watch them progress from day to day? You can’t eat them. They’re not useful.

And why do we take photographs? To capture a moment that’s lost?

Seduced by the new and digital, we keep clicking more and more, mediocrity clogging our hard drive that we’ll never look at. Take enough shots and you’ll soon get some good ones though. You don’t even have to compose on location as you can crop your images at the keyboard and Photoshop and subvert them at will.

Now they can't be sure if my spectacular rainbow across Ayer’s Rock is real or a fake. Nor will they ever experience that spine-chilling moment when in the African twilight an eagle flew across the face of the moon.

Then I ask myself why do I write things like this? Why and for whom? Trying perhaps to capture a moment or a passing thought before it’s lost? Will anyone read it or deign to comment?

I enjoy writing even though you can’t eat it, though it has no possible utility. It’s what it is, just fleeting shadows, creatures of the day, playing momentarily across a sunlit wall.