Saturday, 15 December 2007

Doing It At Night!

There’s an ocean of rice to be harvested and threshed and it all ripens at much the same time. The day thus isn’t long enough for the threshing machines to get round everyone and thresh it all so the rice farmers of Thailand also do it at night. They have to as the machines are heavily booked and also because it’s fun and a great excuse for a party, something the Thais never ever miss.

This is the day everyone’s been waiting for. Granny is sweeping up the grain that’s fallen on the ground by the neat pile of rice stooks waiting to be threshed. She tells me the thresher should come today but she’s no idea when. A pig’s been killed and they’re all busy preparing a big meal for all comers, chopping and pounding and firing up the charcoal.

These neighbours have chosen to bring the rice in to be threshed at the back of the house rather than out in the fields. This way they’ll have the straw handy for the buffaloes and not scattered far away. It’s also better as it’s not too far when you’ve got yourself tanked up on the lao khao as you work so you can still stagger back for the party.

I walk a couple of houses along the soi from ours and wander in the pitch darkness down to the back, following the steady thump of the thresher, my camera at the ready, and come across a timeless scene. The old truck with the blue thresher mounted on it is there, the big diesel engine and machinery in full throat, perhaps twenty people taking turns to throw the bundles of rice into its gullet, before it spits out the straw in powerful spurts high into the air.

It’s a magical microcosm. We’re all cradled together in the pool of light created by the truck’s spot lights, a circular world of flying straw, dark faceless figures moving relentlessly, filled with noise and dust and smells and framed by tall, shadowy palm trees, beyond them the all-enveloping blackness of the night.

I move around taking photos but nobody stops work for a moment, despite the flashes. Theirs is serious stuff though it’s always fun. They’re shouting and laughing and cracking comments about the long-nosed alien among them who’s at play, taking pretty pictures of an exotic scene. Most of them I’m sure I know well but I hardly recognize anyone as they’re all swathed up in clothes to keep out the dust and straw, only their eyes showing through narrow slits.

The rice is filling the huge brown sacks that take two strong men to drag them away. The number of sacks is now growing fast and the bulk of the stooks is getting smaller, the hay pile half way up the palm trees.

At last the thresher falls silent. Now they’re loading the rice sacks onto the trailers and hauling them away, most to be put in the rice barn for use over the coming year.

The work done, they can remove their masks and talk to me and I can see who they are. Some of the men want a photo and I’m happy to oblige. The whole scene is blurry, softened by the night and the warm glow of rice alcohol. They’re hot and tired but elated. There’s plenty of food to be had and more bottles of lao khao. It’s going to be a long and rowdy night!

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