Thursday, 6 December 2007
The Essential Thailand?
It’s November and the rice is maturing in the fields. The rains are faltering, the fields are drying out and from a rich emerald green the standing rice has taken on a hint of gold. When it’s ripe and when labour’s available it will then be painstakingly cut.
Cat tells me that in past years when there were fewer people in the village it took much longer to harvest the rice and it might still be in the fields late in December. Bringing it in was a long process.
Now it seems to be cut over a few weeks as each field ripens according to the variety of rice and when it was sown. Even so I hear grumbles about shortages of labour. Cat’s sister-in-law says that it’s increasingly difficult to find people to do a day’s work for 120 baht. Last year she and Mungorn were the first to harvest and they had about eighty people in their fields and it was all done in a day. Today I saw Mali out in the fields cutting rice and she was totally alone.
Cultivating rice is unbelievably labour intensive. I wrote earlier about the back breaking task of planting out the rice seedlings in the flooded fields one at a time. Similarly the rice is cut with small sickles a handful at a time.
You see the workers, mostly women, in their broad brimmed hats advancing slowly together across a field cutting the rice. Then the heads are gathered into small bundles and tied with a rice stalk and left on the ground to dry. The rice growing region of South East Asia is an unforgiving ocean of toil.
Cutting is arduous work though it’s not as bad as planting. It’s dryer now and less hot than earlier in the year and as they cut only the top six inches or so of the stalk, they don’t have to bend down low. Even so despite the fun they seem to make of everything, this is not work anyone really wants to do and change is in the air.
It costs about 500 baht a rai to hire a big harvesting machine and these have to be the thing of the future. As the younger generation goes to the towns and into the wage economy, mechanization will rapidly advance. You need to have reasonably large fields accessible from the road but the cost of using a harvester is about the same as manual labour, though the wastage of rice is greater. As labour inevitably becomes more scarce and expensive, there will be more and more harvesters and the old ways will slowly die.
Somebody asked me the other day if we use sickles to cut the wheat in Europe. I guess we never did but used scythes. That was a long time back, remembering that steam traction engines ruled supreme for many years before the advent of tractors and the combine harvester.
Harvesting in the West is thus now a clinical process with a handful of men managing massive machines that bestride the broad acres of wheat. The romance has all gone but here in Thailand, despite the hard and unremitting work, it’s still very much alive. The big parties of workers are old friends and they enjoy good food, fiery spirits, flirtation and fun together out there in the rice fields.
The collective effort of bringing in the rice is something that everyone here shares, that brings the community together, that binds and defines the place, even though there’s little money to be made. It symbolizes the seasons and fertility and is survival itself. There’s a definite satisfaction in producing your own food, far more so than opening the freezer cabinet in the supermarket.
Last night we sat down to eat fish gathered from the rice fields with locally produced rice and our own vegetables. Okay there were some sauces in bottles but I found it special that we were almost self-sufficient, even though I hadn’t raised a finger to produce any of it.
My own life has been very far from the soil and for that I have some regrets. Now of course I have the special privilege of enjoying an urban standard of living but with all the pleasures of being in the countryside. I shall have to control my rose tinted romanticism though as it’s still a hard life here and those who work in the fields get very little in return.