Lek's Village in Northern Thailand
The name of Lek's village is Baan Suay, which means 'Beautiful Village'. Nobody speaks English in Baan Suay
except Lek and Craig, although most of the inhabitants under the age of fifty have had lessons in it at school.
However, Baan Suay is well off the tourist route so very few of them have ever met a foreigner or had the chance
to speak English since then. It is an isolated farming village where almost everyone is involved in the production
of rice and fruit.
The village is probably several hundred years old, but no-one really knows. The oldest resident is a spritely
chap of 97 who often walks about carrying a short sword. Lek's grandmother is 92 and can remember when the village
stood in a clearing in a forest. The oldest building is the Buddhist Temple or Wat.
She tells of a time when it was prudent for village children to be locked up as it got dark because tigers
hunted at night and so did raiders from over the border with Laos. There were also giant snakes that could carry
off children, dogs and even young cattle.
This was why village houses were traditionally built on stilts - so that the family could go upstairs at
night and pull up the trap door, literally locking themselves in, out of harm's way. Gradually the forest was
cleared to make way for rice fields and an expanding village.
The ground was fertile after thousands of years of leaf mould, but it could only produce one crop a year because
of a shortage of water. This situation lasted until well into the 1980's, but over logging in the north caused
rainwater to run off the mountains and into rivers that flowed through the area around Baan Suay.
The extra water and improved strains of rice allowed clever farmers to produce three crops a year and the region
flourished. If agricultural scientists ever produce a faster-growing variety of rice, the farmers will be able to
grow four crops a year as the water and conditions are there.
From anywhere on the outskirts of Baan Suay there are fields of lush green rice for as far as the eye can see.
Land in Thailand is sold by the 'rai' which is 400 x 400 metres, so this vista of rice is sectioned off into small
plots delineated by narrow, raised strips of earth that serve as retaining walls for flooding the field and
walkways for the farmer to inspect his crop.
Tigers, large snakes and crocodiles were eliminated from the area in the 60's. Apart from very rare large
snakes, the biggest wild animal these days is a heron. Although Reticulated pythons can grow up to 33 feet in
length, it is very unusual to see one over 15 feet any more.
Elephants and buffaloes were used extensively on village farms to pull the ploughs and carry the crops but
no longer. Farmers have tractors and combine harvesters now, although when the price of rice reaches a peak, some
farmers revert to the old method of planting and harvesting by hand to get the maximum yield from the land.
Contrary to popular belief, rice fields are not flooded all the time - rice does not grow like reeds, or at
least rice around Baan Suay does not. When a crop has been harvested, the farmer sets light to the stubble, some of
which catches. When it is burnt out, he pumps water into the field to a depth of about 4-6 inches and lets it stand
a day or two.
At this point, large snails and insects, especially mosquitoes come to the water. The farmer puts a chemical in
the water to kill the snails and then ploughs all the dead snails and rotting rice stalks back into the soil. This
produces a slurry, several inches deep. A farmer may then top up the water level to six inches or more again, but
each has his favourite techniques and it may vary with the season (if monsoons are near).
Rice seed may be scattered into this mulch, but increasingly, farmers are using 6-8 inch plants grown elsewhere
and sowing them by hand or by machine in order to get an early start. If a patch is barren for some reason, the
farmer will use these young plants to keep the crop at maximum density.
The snails and mosquitoes come back and the farmer sprays routinely to kill insects and snails that would
otherwise eat his crop. Many farmers try to reduce the need for expensive chemicals by introducing small fish into
the field to eat the mosquito larvae. Frogs come for the fish and snakes come for the frogs. Herons come for the
frogs and snails.
If the water level rises too much because of heavy rainfall, the farmer pumps some off and strains the fish out
of the water. Shrimps grow in it too. These whitebait and shrimps make a tasty omelet. The locals also eat the
frogs and snakes and the rats that steal the rice, all of which are more expensive than chicken.
Rats are a particular delicacy. There are no sewers in the countryside, so no sewer rats. Rats around the
village only eat clean, fresh rice and fruit, so are not considered dirty animals. Nobody would eat a town
rat. Religious Thais will only eat poisonous snakes, because it was a python that kept the Buddha out of the water
when he sought enlightenment. (It coiled up like a cushion and Buddha sat on it).
The village of Baan Suay is situated in a region that easily grows mangoes, longon, bananas, lemons, jackfruit,
custard apples, chillis, peanuts and pumpkins so there is always a varied supply of food to go with the ubiquitous
rice. It is in fact the richest farming land in Thailand.
by Owen Jones