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A Little Off The Beaten Track



A recent report in the Bangkok Post: Thaksin’s government have a rubber plantation scheme to plant one million rai of rubber in the North and the Northeast by the end of 2006.

I‘ve always wanted to see a rubber plantation, it’s just that until now I haven’t had the time, nor have I been in the right place at the right time.

I’ve finally got a free day during the week, and I’m not going to let it go to waste.

I give Lek a call.

There’s a cheery ‘Hello’ on the other end. I tell Lek that I have a free weekday, is it possible to arrange that I’ll be able to see a typical rubber estate? ‘No problem, I have to be at my relative’s place anyway. I’ll give you directions on how to get there, and will meet up with you there’.

The directions were just to get to a certain point on the road between Rayong and Chantaburi. Lots of rubber estates there. They’ll meet me on a motorcycle, and will lead the way. Great. It’s on.

‘Just drive along, it’s about ten junctions down the road. There’s a pedestrian overpass just after the junction, and a petrol station on the right. You can’t miss it.’ Think again. It took almost an hour to meet up at what I thought was the correct junction, and them walking around a different junction several kilometres further down the road, looking for me. A simple ‘Highway 3, kilometre marker 170 to Bangkok’ would have been the easiest, but sometimes it's the simplest things that seem to defy logic. Aaargh!!

We finally meet up. It’s already late morning; for me this is a day trip and I’ve had a light breakfast. But with the Thais, food is always uppermost in their minds, so we get a quick meal of the local noodles. Nice, because everything includes seafood, and it’s really cheap compared to Bangkok.

I’m introduced to Li, Lek’s sister-in-law. It’s her place we’re going to. After the meal, Lek comes to sit with me in the car, in case I miss the way. Li leads with the motorcycle, and she’s going fast. Gosh, it’s almost forty kilometres off the beaten track. One of these days, I’m going to invest in a proper GPS receiver.

Li and her husband have had a difficult life. They had inherited land, but the elder brother wanted a pickup truck, and managed to convince his grandmother to take out a loan using this land as part of the collateral for a bank loan. He never paid it back, and the land was appropriated by the bank. So now, Li and her husband tap rubber for other people’s estates. They explained their trade.

‘The rubber flows best at night. We start our rounds around eleven at night, and don’t finish till eight in the morning, for the eight hundred trees we have to tap.’ From conversations with them, I begin to understand that the area we’re in is considered as ‘degraded forest’, so they are able to actually purchase the land with a form of title deed, but the bank will not provide you with a loan if you need one. The title deed can only be upgraded if the land is re-classified. ‘Some people further in plant cassava, but they run away when the elephants come. The elephants damage the crop and eat their profits’. I soon learn that it is near a nature preserve, and that the elephants in the area are not wild elephants, but are those that have been ‘rescued’ from roaming the streets of Bangkok. A Royal Project buys the elephants and releases them in this nature preserve. Some elephants stray out of the area, and find much easier pickings in the cultivated areas.

It’s a nocturnal life. Their standard equipment includes a rechargeable head lantern, and a blade mounted on a stick. Li tells me of the days before they had electricity; they still do use artesian water, though. ‘We had kerosene lanterns in the house, it was not easy. Also, the main roads were not paved over, so it took a long time to go to the market. We used carbide lanterns when we tapped the rubber.’

After they’ve finished the tapping, they have to go back and put in a coagulant to make the sap harden in the collection cup. This solidifies the sap and makes it easier to handle.

They do not tap in the rain, as the rainwater flowing down the tree can wash the latex sap out of the cup. They can also sell the raw sap at a better profit to some people who process the sap into sheets. Li says, ’It takes more time to put the coagulant in, but it’s less of a problem to handle and we can still sell the coagulated rubber for a good price.’ The people who come to collect the raw sap do not come every day, so this makes more sense, though less profit. She shows me a plastic bottle that used to contain water. It now holds the coagulant solution. We cannot buy this in its concentrated form any more; it’s comes pre-prepared. ‘Why?’ I ask. She replies, ‘It can melt your face’. ‘Oh.’

Their income is based on the weight of the tapped rubber. They tap the rubber three days in a row before taking a rest on the fourth. The estate owner gets fifty percent of what they tap.

It’s really quiet here. You can actually hear the breeze in the trees, the insects, the birds; if a truck passes on the main road a kilometre away, you can hear it too. Li, her husband, and her daughter like the lifestyle. ‘It’s really comfortable; you work your own hours. I’ve got the whole day free every day if I need to do something.’ Li’s husband has managed to cut some thick rattan vines and another vine that looks similar, but is covered with a lot of thorns. It’s some kind or traditional medicine; if it’s steeped in Thai liquor, it’s reputed to cure backache. It’s fairly expensive at the traditional medicine shops, too. He’s collected enough to equal three days wages of an average factory worker.

We have lunch. (Yes!!)

We’ve spread some mats out in front of the house, and are relaxing after lunch. Li’s husband is talking about his hobby, growing orchids. There are many examples hung up around the house; some he finds in the forest, while he buys others at the market. They know a lot about the medicinal value of the plants and trees; this is an area of personal interest, as I prefer not to take the synthesised medicines available at the pharmacies unless it’s absolutely necessary.

A motorcycle passes by on the track in front of the house. The rider and pillion cast a quick glance in my direction; they’re curious, as everyone here either has a motorcycle or a pickup truck. A car sticks out like a sore thumb. They’ll find out, sooner rather than later, once I’ve left, as everyone knows everyone else around.

A little later, a pickup pulls up in front of the house. Another relative, his brother, wife and daughter, and their mother have dropped by to visit. This looks like fun. After greetings all round, their mother settles down on the mats. The kids start fussing over the cats, while the guys go round the corner to cut up the rattan and the medicinal vine. The girls go round the back to the kitchen.

Then Lek comes out in front to chat with her Aunt. In all, there are three different sets of conversation going on. She is still in the one going on behind, and even though I can’t see the girls in the kitchen, they join in on the one in front too. Multitasking conversations. Amazing. But only in the countryside; I’ve not noticed this in the capital.

When they start bringing the durians (a pungent, tropical fruit, the eating of which is an acquired taste) out the back of the pickup, I make my excuses to leave. I don’t want to be getting back to Bangkok too late, and am already thinking of a couple of cold cans waiting for me in the fridge.

The drive back gives me time to ponder the other world they live in. They’re happy there, at peace with the world. Money here means something, but not a lot. They are aware of the existence of another world outside of that. A more materialistic, driven world. They send their kids to school to understand that world in part. They co-exist on the fringes, watching our world rush past. Perhaps they’re frightened of it, of how expensive and money-centered it is. Of how their own people from the capital can drive vehicles the cost of which could buy them half the mountain.

Is that why some of you guys let yourselves get screwed because they don’t know the value of money and will ask for something totally insane, a sum which they think will keep them alive in Farangland? And you give it to them without as much as a whimper, only to whinge at it later. You’ve just given them the impression its pocket money to you, and in that respect probably brought it upon yourself.

It was a good diversion for me, I enjoyed the peaceful surroundings and some good company. The thing is, I’m too used to the world I live in. A driven world, diverse and full of opportunity. I couldn’t live long in Lek’s or Li’s world. But a return visit would be nice.

We are, after all, the masters of our own fate. Choose your world.

Stickman's thoughts:

The Thai countryside is a great place to visit, but like you, there is no way I could live there.