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The Heart of Thailand

In which I go "upcountry" to live the rural life and to get bit by yet another small creature.

I was lying in a dry rice paddy, elbow deep in the narrow hole I had just finished digging when I learned that there are, in fact, crabs that live on dry land and that they bite. My hand shot out of the hole as if from a cannon, crab firmly attached to my thumb. My technique was unorthodox and riotously funny to my companions, but I had made my first succesful catch.

The occasion of this trip was an invitation from Ajan Suwannarat (a monk from the wat in Centereach) to spend some time in his family's village (Paste 16.925152,104.591764 into Google Maps to see it.) After breakfast one day I had been invited to join some of the cousins foraging, and we headed out to the fields in search of the things we would eat that day. With long handled spades and a wicker basket, we were nominally hunting crabs, but as we searched for the crabs' telltale holes we gathered all kinds of other things as well, including snails, tamarind pods, coconuts and mushrooms. I had already seen two snakes and and imagined about fifty more. One of the snakes came very close to me, but someone casually beheaded it with a stroke of their spade.

Clustered in a compound around his parents' home are the homes of his sister, aunts, uncles and other relations. There is one main outdoor kitchen where meals are cooked communally, in and out of which animals wander continually, including chickens, dogs, their pet pig and a cow. As you can imagine it's a lively place, although it's not passing any County health inspections. There are other small outbuildings including the rice storage shed, outhouses and other structures whose purpose I never learned.

The domestic accomodations are spartan. Most homes have simple concrete floors if they are built on the ground, although the home I am staying in is tiled. About half the homes are on stilts and have wooden floors. The only item of furniture found in most homes is an armoire in which they store reed mats, blankets and pillows. Instead of things like kitchen tables, chairs, sofas or beds they only use reed mats, so furnishing a home is a pretty straightforward affair. In addition, kitchens and bathrooms are generally located outside, so there is little need for complicated plumbing systems. For people with an indoor washroom, there will be one tap in a small tiled room for that purpose. The houses are not climate controlled and usually do not have glass windows, so in the mornings it is cold enough to see your breath in front of you when you wake up (and bathe.)

People here live in astonishing harmony both with each other and the land, and the degree to which the villagers derive their sustenance from the land is incredible. Almost all their needs are provided for by the fields and other people in the village. From the fields come rice, roots, fruit, mushrooms, insects, birds, small animals and rubber, a cash crop which provides hard currency with which they can purchase other items. One woman in the village weaves fabric on a foot powered loom. Another makes the ubiquitous reed mats with her purple and green stripes. Most people make their own pillows and stuff them with fiber from a tree. Language barriers prevent me from understanding some of the technical aspects of the village clan structure, but my understanding is that almost everyone in the village has the same last name.

Socially, the hive mentality is in full operation here. I am absolutely amazed at how well they work together, and to the extent of their cooperation and sharing. The days start early, and even the youngest kids set to their duties well before school. There is one girl who brings a cow out to the pasture every morning and goes to retrieve it after school every afternoon. Men, women and children share in food preparation and clean up, although dish washing is really just dish rinsing so it's quick. Preparation for lunch starts a couple of hours after the completion of breakfast. Everything is very labor intensive, but as it is done in groups, there is a cheerful camaraderie that seems to lighten the load quite a bit.

One thing that really struck me was the harmonious relations between people of different ages. I spent over a week living in close quarters with this clan, and never did I see any sign of friction or tension between anyone. There were kids of every age, and I never saw any of them cry, whine, complain or misbehave in any way. In the evenings they played badminton or soccer together out in the street, or sometimes we played dominoes. Social gatherings, which are continuous, are characterized by noisy laughter and cheer. There is a spirit here which is so peaceful and happy that it is a wonder to me that sometimes young people leave for the city in search of greater material wealth, but I understand it can be a powerful lure to those who have never known such things. I don't have much of interest with me, but my iPod is a source of wonderment to them and they love holding it. That being said, many of the young people are on Facebook, which suits them well and which they occasionally access using cell phones. Other than that, there's little internet access or much technology in general.

After the crab hunt, as we crossed the fields towards home and threaded our way single file through the dry rice paddies, I contemplated the progress of my travels so far. I had first seen fields like these from the plane as I entered Thailand from the air; orderly rectangles in brown and green.  When I made my trip in the coach bus we drove by them and through the window I occasionally caught glimpses of solitary farmers picking their way through the fields. On a later trip I traveled by pickup truck to a village and met the men and women who farmed them, but now after spending few days living with them I was headed out to the fields with them and learning those paths with my own feet. I had begun my trip as a farang outsider, and thanks to the patient and often silent tutelage of the monks and other friends I felt like I was starting to really understand the true spirit of Thailand. Bangkok seems a million miles away and a hundred years in the future.

I've had so many interesting experiences here in the village I can barely record them. There was one time I was handed a big machete and headed out with a similarly armed group of relatives. One of them carried a length of rope. We set out across the fields and then into the trackless forests beyond, investigating the undergrowth surrounding the many small ponds that dot the landscape. I have no idea what we were hunting for out there, but whatever it was I'm glad we didn't find it.

Another time I got on the back of a scooter and set off along a red clay track with one of the cousins. I was taken to an isolated mountain temple called Temple of the Well of the Monk Ine. We went to greet the abbot, and then made our way to the well, from which it is customary to drink. I was handed a cup of water drawn from the well and eyed the liquid with dismay. There were dodgy bits on the surface and floating around, but in one of those suspensions of good judgment referred to in my first post, I raised the metal cup to my lips and drank the cold, turbid water. Here in one of the remotest parts of northern Thailand, my skin dusted with the red earth of the rice paddy and my stomach full of potentially lethal holy water, I felt I had arrived to a place as close as I could come to the heart of the country.


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