Sunday, 27 September 2009

Her Papa's A Hunter Gatherer!

In the West there's food aplenty and Pooh Bear and Tigger can get fat on sweet cup cakes. Here in Isaan, the poor North East of Thailand, they have plastic plates but little to put on them. Tiny crabs, shrimps and shell fish are gathered from the flooded rice fields and add flavour to the rice. There's a long tradition of hunting and gathering though it's not possible now to make a living from the forests.

Fish caught in the outfall from our pond.

A bucket of bamboo shoots cut from around the pond.

Cat spent hours chopping and boiling to make them edible.

This crab just walked into our garage...

... so did this frog and ended up getting eaten.

A vicious spear for fish and frogs and whatever gets in the way.

... and this is the bucket of protein Cat brought back one night.

But it's not enough. The young have to work in Bangkok and grandmama gets left holding the baby.

I’ve written before about how the forest in the Surin countryside where my wife, Cat and I now live used to be bountiful and how it abundantly yielded birds and animals to eat, roots, leaves, nuts and fruits. Her childhood was spent gathering food in the countryside and her memories of that time seem to be happy ones.

The trouble is now that every available scrap of land has been made productive and almost all the forest has gone. With increasing population, farming cannot support the population and this unlimited resource of free food for the landless is no longer there. Thus the young and fit have to move away to the cities to find low paid work, often leaving their small children with Mama Papa in the village.

I’d never before thought of Thais as hunter gatherers but rather as prosperous growers of rice, so this is a new insight for me. Farmers and pastoralists wandering the world with their cows are the wealthy ones and the hunter gatherers are all but gone. One thinks only of the pygmies in the Congo, of the Punan in Borneo and the Orang Asli or Sakai in the mountainous jungles down the spine of Malaysia.

I’ve seen people in West Africa who wore nothing but leaves but even they grew crops. I’ve stayed with Dyaks several days up the Skrang river in Sarawak, sleeping under the huge bundles of human skulls tied up with rattan. They lived off the jungle and just before we went out hunting orang utan, they showed me the paws of a bear they’d killed a few days before. They also grew a few vegetables and kept pigs that ran wild in the forest around the long houses. This was fine by me but in the absence of a WC, when I headed off into the jungle to hide behind a bush, the pigs would come running. They were so keen to get up close and personal as I squatted down that they almost knocked me flying.

The only pure hunter gatherers I’ve ever met though were the Sakai in the Taman Negara national park in Malaysia. In the vastness of the jungle we were lucky to come across them sitting in low temporary shelters of palm and leaves. They were very hospitable as they showed us how they whittled the darts for the blow pipes with which they killed monkeys and showed us the roots and the honey they’d recently collected from the jungle. They were delightful people to meet, their most precious possession being the fire that they kept glowing in one of their shelters.

I now realize to my surprise that my Thai wife too is a hunter gatherer. There’s nothing she loves doing more in the village than collecting food and despite the loss of the forests, it’s still out there if you know how to find it.

And it also comes into the house too without being asked! The garage is a cool, quiet place where we’ve caught intruding crabs and frogs, rats and even a scorpion, and all of them have gone into the pot.

Then when it rains heavily at night, the frogs cry out noisily and Cat gets up and goes out in the dark and the wet hunting them. She takes a powerful head torch and a vicious looking spear and returns with several kilos of frogs and fish in a bucket.

We’ve had heavy rain recently and the fish pond overflowed and she made a fish trap of fine netting where the water runs out. This produced quantities of beautiful small fish of the kind that are used to make plaa raa, the foul smelling fermented fish that Isaan people so love.

Then Cat takes the bamboo shoots from around the fish pond and spends ages cutting it into tiny slices and boiling it up to soften it. One dish she made recently was to mix it with rice, chopped pork, various spices and a liberal quantity of plaa raa and fiery chilli to render it totally uneatable by any farang. Then it was wrapped in parcels of banana leaf to make a local delicacy that was truly a labour of love.

She also collects pak ah chet, a leaf that grows on the surface of the pond. And she gathers kee lek from behind the house which is pounded to make a bitter green paste or soup, and at a certain time of the year we go out to the rice fields and climb the sadao trees to collect the young shoots that again are cooked up to make a decent curry as bitter as bile.

Then there was the trap with a blue light that accumulates a huge quantity of insects overnight that are fried up and eaten as a snack. The rice fields are full of fish and crabs, shell fish and prawns, all there for the taking, just like at the seaside, so in some ways the countryside is still nothing less than bountiful.

Nonetheless, you have to have land as there is no longer enough to sustain the whole population of rural Isaan. And that’s why the middle generation has gone off to the towns to find menial and badly paid work.

A few days ago one of Cat’s aunties came in to show off a new grandchild that had just been left with her by her daughter who works in Bangkok. This woman had eight children of her own but with only one of them now still with her in the village, all the others having gone away to the south. She already has two small grandsons living with her, their unmarried mothers gone far away so a third is a real burden, not to mention the cost of milk formula. From time to time her family send back small sums of money her and Papa and the children but for them it’s a poor life, living in what an only be described as a shack. They have absolutely no other income.

The new child is of course a joy, but the burden for an old woman of raising yet another baby is hard. But that’s just the way it is in rural Thailand.

The comfortable middle classes in Bangkok benefit from a vast pool of cheap labour while Isaan is a totally different world.

The village is a real community, though under threat, but it’s sad if more of the benefits of the modern economy cannot be brought to the countryside. That tension is of course what the current political turmoil in Thailand has been all about.

Meanwhile Cat has her farang and a comfortable life, but I respect her passion for living off the land and for not running a mile from the toughness of her upbringing. That’s what makes living in the village more rewarding for me as Cat’s enthusiasm for country life brings me a little closer to what remains of ‘the real Thailand’.

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog September 2009


Malcolm and CieJay Burgess said...

Andrew , I want you to know that I really love this post , it's a great story and I just wish everyone of my family and friends in the good ole USA could read it ,I'm sending your blog link to as many as I have adresses for and hope to stir up some more readers for My Thai Girl , your stories are always so well written and you always cover several subjects at one sitting . great job,I always am looking for a new post from you , and by the way give Cat a big hello for Ciejay and Me and like Cat Ciejay is find it eat it person to and I try to at least sample it all . Malcolm

Carl Parkes said...

Andrew, that was one of the most interesting and unusual posts about Thailand I've read in a very long time. Congrats! I've got you on my Bloglines RSS Reader, so I read all your posts.

P.S. Hope you're feeling better after that frightening fall in Bangkok.


Thai Girl said...

Dear Malcolm and Carl,

Like Cat and her food collecting, writing a blog is a labour of love. I do really enjoy it as it makes me continue my interest in what's going on around me in the village, but sometimes when I post it on the blog it's like dropping a coin soundlessly down a deep, deep well.

Thanks so much for your generous comments which make it all worthwhile.

They are the echoing splash at the bottom of the well that I always long for.

And Malcolm I do appreciate you sending details to friends. Actually I do think our blogs are a wonderful way of telling friends far away about our lives here.

'Find it... eat it!!'

I love it!


SiamRick said...

What a wonderful, informative story, Andrew. It made me do some research and I found a fascinating Thai-American study of what Isaan people hunt and gather. I just had to blog on it, featuring your blog and a link to it. Hope you don't mind :-)

Thai Girl said...

Thanks Rick for linking to my blog.

I found the research paper you mention very interesting and the list of plants in it includes some of the ones Cat collects.

The comment that people like the wild foods better than market food is true as well. Red ants eggs in Bangkok are priced more like caviare which in fact they resemble.

Another source more than worth mentioning is a book called "Extreme Cuisine" by Jerry Hopkins (the famous biograper of Elvis and Jim Morrison). See

Jerry has a home in Lam Duan not so far from us and we see im from time to time.


Stefan said...

Very interesting article. I wonder how this works on a national level though. In principle poor rural people moving to the city shouldn't help to alleviate the problem - after all, they still need to eat in the city, and they are not growing food there.

Is Thailand importing food, or is it a distribution problem - i.e. is enough food being produced, but by an ever smaller segment of the population?

Thai Girl said...

Thanks for some interesting thoughts, Stefan.

Thailand is the world's biggest exporter of rice but of course it also imports large quantities of specialist or luxury foods.

It is a middle income country and there should be enough for all. The problem is a poor distribution of wealth which means some do not have the money to buy the market foods that are available.

As for efficiency, much of agriculture here is based on small holdings and the difficluty is making these more productive. Almost inevitably a social revolution in the countryside will bring a social revolution and consolidation of small holdings into larger industrialised farms. This will be more productive but the danger is that the rich get richer and the poor poorer.

The key therefore is supporting small holders to help them become more efficient.

But that isn't easy!


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Anonymous said...

Have you considered the fact that this might work another way? I am wondering if anyone else has come across something
similar in the past? Let me know your thoughts...