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The Khao Kor Highlands

  • Written by IndyUK
  • November 15th, 2005
  • 15 min read


An Arable Plateau in the Kao Khor Highlands

Curiosity finally got the better of me one stormy monsoon night. Backpack stuffed and on my back I set off for the bus station on Sukumvit Road, Pattaya. I boarded a bus bound for Saraburi and relaxed. The route followed was not the best. Snaking out way along minor roads the journey seemed endless. I’d been advised that if I wanted the shortest and most economical transit between Pattaya and The Kao Khor I should make for Saraburi, wherefrom I should board a bus for Petchibun whereat I could get a samlor to the taxi rank and get a Songathaw to Kao Khor for the small sum of sixty baht. Huh! The bumpy ride to Saraburi consumed six hours. With a soar bum and a weary heart I got off the bus at Saraburi at Midnight! At the ticket office I asked for a seat on the next, (one every ten minutes or so I’d been told), bus for Petchibun. The ticket clerk mumbled away for a while and then said, ‘seuah dtuah, mai dai’(cannot buy ticket), or something like that. As it turned out what I had to do was get on a bus if and when one showed up and pay onboard. At one am no bus had showed, at least not to Phetchibun. By now the bus station had filled up with vague rants, one per bench seat, all were sleeping soundly. I discovered courtesy a friendly taxi driver that the next bus was expected at six am. It did so. After a fur and a half hour ride, which was quite picturesque, I arrived in Phetchibun at 10:30 am. I got a Samlor to take me to the Songathaw depot. A Songathaw is a basic one ton truck with bench seats along each side of the cargo space, passengers are protected from the elements by a canvas awning. However the sides are open to the wind and rain. I found the only available Songathaw and attempted to board it. The driver appeared and informed me that it would take half an hour to load up and that I should find somewhere to eat before we set off. When I got back the Songathaw was full of people who glowered at me as if daring me to try and board the vehicle. I noted that my backpack had been moved up onto the roof along with an assortment of farmer’s forty litre baskets containing god knows what. I ignored the scowls and climbed aboard, wiggled my bum about a bit and they all squeezed up. I sat down with my legs resting on three 50 kilo coils of steel wire (no floor space) a little Thai man was jealously guarding two oil drums, and a lady was looking lovingly at the two chairs that she must have bought in the market. And so the hour journey began. We were 19 souls in all, aboard a vehicle licensed to carry twelve. As we left to the city of Phetchibun three men jumped on the tail board, so now we were twenty two, plus more than one ton of cargo. The ride up the dual carriageway North of the city was uneventful. After thirty minutes we turned off and headed up into the Kao. The road wound it was up impossible hills yet through beautiful scenery. An hour into this beautiful forbidding landscape we diverted off onto many a muddy track, bringing people right to their front doors, not that many of the homes on the Kao Khor have doors. Our load lightened with each stop as my little brown fellow passengers hurried away with their booty from the big city. By now every one was chatty, I made faces at the children and they made them back. It was hot and stuffy sat there with so many people, already I smelt just like them, of the I-san. We’d long since crested the Phetchibun range of Kao and were now in a sugar bowl, surrounded by Kao (mountains), I counted five moobaans (villages) all were strip developments along dirt tracks. Chickens free ranged everywhere. Every baan (house) was of wood construction and on stilts. Beneath each house a miscellany of possessions, everything from motor-sai (motorbikes) to push chairs prams, sacks, barrels, chickens, dogs, cats and bric-a- brac. I noted that some houses had one or two people resident in this void between the stilts. This one is vacant. You can buy it for 250,000 Baht (about $6,250). It is complete with 23 Rai of land and its water jar. Note this one is a bit special because it has a front door and a lawn. The stone jar on the right of the picture will be your water storage system, note this one has a lid so you won’t be breeding you own mosquito larvae as most homes here do (sic). The one jar puzzled me; most houses have at least three. The wattle at the front right hand corner shields the living room from the sun. This wattle wall is neither water tight nor wind tight. If you are a guest in the house you’ll likely sleep there, exposed to the cold mountain air (yes they do get frosty mornings in the Kao Khor). The other three corners of the house are given over to hawng nawn (sleeping rooms), while the cantilever behind the porch will be where you keep your cooking utensils and a primus. He has a small water jar at the foot of the stairs so I guess he grows onions on his teeding (small holding). So he’ll piss in the jar and feed the golden shower to his onions from time to time. Onions just love a golden shower. This home has no toilet, no bathroom or electricity (electricity is however available on the kao khor).

A word of warning. The Kao Khor was home to Mong tribes people over the centuries, during the twentieth century the Kao Khor was infiltrated with Thai people. Half a century ago the Thai and the Mong started killing each other, it is said that the Thai army moved in and dispatched the Mong in fierce little battles until there were few Mong left. The Thai spread out to farm the lands as the Mong had done before them. To this day many Thai hill farmers do not have their land registered against their teeding (family book or deeds). So if you buy here remember that even if the farmer has a teeding book for his home it does not necessarily mean that he has a Chanote (Title Deed) for his land. It is said that some of the hillsides in the Kao Khor have unexploded ordnance on them to this very day. I understand that the Mong people have never had the right of Thai citizenship and therefore those that remain often do not have a bart-pra-cha-chong (Identity Card). It seems that many were accepted into the United States as refugees and of those that remain many were herded into refugee camps within Thailand. Indeed Thailand is a funny old place in some respects.

We continue our journey, up and down muddy tracks offloading supplies and people until at last there was just me. With ride deeper into the hills until at last, somewhere between moo three and moo four we turn off onto and up up up a dirt track. It’s cold now. The ‘bus’ stops beside a remote farmhouse, unloads me and my backpack and drives off. A farm worker approaches me and chats away excitedly waving his arm about and pointing down the hill. I soon gather that the bus has dropped me off in the wrong place and that the house that I stand beside is not my five-hundred baht per night abode.

I trudged off down the hill in the direction to which his finger points. The scenery is beautiful. At last I come upon a hut just twelve meters square. I’m crestfallen. I go in and see that I have a bamboo bed. No mattress, no blankets and no furniture. At the back of the hut there is a door. I push it open and see a mandy (a water jar with a scoop) although the bathroom was a disappointment I was pleased to see a squat toilet in the corner. There is no cooking equipment, utensil or stove and no cupboards. (Never pay in advance in Thailand). Having sausages and beans in my backpack I went outside, lit a fire and cooked my evening meal. By seven it was dark. There being no lights outside I couldn’t see a dammed thing so I went to bed a shivered myself to sleep. For the next three days it rained cats and dogs from mid morning until dusk. So each day I got to see a beautiful sun rise over the mountain tops and a beautiful sunset too. On the left is my neighbor’s house two kilometers distant from the hut. Though whoever he was he was never home while I was there. My hut was halfway up a mountain slope looking down into a very steep valley that seemed bottomless. This valley had closed side and closed ends, a classic sugar bowl. The quite was deafening and the sense of solitude bore down upon me as if my god too had gone into a distant retirement. Sometimes in such solitude agoraphobia can creep in, it was summoning me now. I shook my head and set out to look for my first breakfast. I walked up hill, past the toglog (a sort of fruit which is both sweet and sour, like a cross between a pineapple and a lemon, except that it grows on vines) plantation. At the top of the hill I looked down the other side and saw rice growing. On the side of a hill, no paddy field? I hadn’t known that you could grow rice like this. No water! It seems that they plant it just before the monsoons start, the rainwater streams down the side of the hills washing around the young rice plants. In this way the rice gets enough water to mature. By the time the monsoons are finished it is ready to harvest. Finally I reached a metalled road and walked down hill. It is going on a thousand foot drop over a distance of perhaps a half kilometer. It was eight am. A couple of ladies passed by on a motor cycle and were waving at me furiously. The next motor cycle stopped, She said ‘maa dee pood paa-sa Thai dai mai?’ (come here, can you speak Thai?) I replied stupidly ‘nig noi, mai dai, ’ (a little bit, can not) the lady said,.’khun ah-yu tao rai?’ (How old are you). ‘Hock-sip, tao rau khun’ , with that, beaming all over her face she revved up and was gone. At the bottom of the hill I stopped to rest. Shortly a man arrived on his motor cycle and indicated that I should get on the pillion. I did so and he whisked me to the village, Moo 4.

The kind man dropped me at the village bus station which had a nice roof over it and two cows grazing on the grass around it. Well I didn’t actually want a bus but I sheltered from the rain beneath its good roof and watched village people coming to and froe to the village shop just behind the bus station. From time to time a shop car would pull in to sell its wares. One after another the just kept coming….. the pot and pan man, the brush and polish man, the mango man, the petty-aow man and so these shop car men regulated the rhythm of life, as if the pendulum of the small lives of these quiet and unassuming people. Moo 4 does have one shop of its own, it sells sweets and cigarettes and a few nic-nacs. One cannot buy alcohol in Moo 4 but across the ravine in Moo 5 they have a shop that does. Many villages cross the ravine to Moo 5 each day! Although I saw much poverty in the village I also saw relative wealth. One farmer even has a tractor, though most work their fields by hand as their forebears had done. Opposite the shopping area is a hard earth pitch for ball games and the village community centre. This day the centre was double up as a council house and whilst there I witnessed a council meeting convened. Each villager was handing money to a man behaving officiously, yet just like them in every other respect. Roughly clothed and caked in the red mud that had pestered all of us that day. The rain just wouldn’t give us any respite at all. I enquired and it turned out that any villager may attend the council meeting for the sum of 50 Baht admission. The poorer villagers stood outside of the hall, just in earshot and although they could not give voice to the issue on the floor they could hear what was being decided about their future. The big issue here today is land reform. Many villagers do not have a teeding (family) book and many farmers do not have title to their land. The Thai government’s land reform bill has really set the cat among the pigeons. They talk of how much more their properties will be worth when that have a Chenote (Full title) to their land, how much it is worth now and how much it might be worth in the year 2550! At least three villagers have the property up for sale now. They it seems do not quite trust the bill which promises a home to every poor family by the year 2550. The big issue is who gets which home, do they get the one they love in now, even though they are squatting? Most villagers can’t read. They have to rely on rumor and gossip; their own rumor’s and gossiping; the stories, fears and anxieties have been gossiped around for so long they have begun to assume the status of facts.

Across the ravine I could see the village council of Moo 5 in session. It was still raining. Although Moo 5 appears to be much more prosperous than Moo 4 they had no roof to stand under. And yet many villagers sat on the ground before the ‘chair’ and listened for at least two hours. Whereupon the rain intensified into an unremitting deluge and they all scurried away. The kids about the proximity of the council meeting had acquired some fireworks and, apparently irritated by their parents determination to sit the council meeting to its bitter end were lighting these fireworks and throwing them to ward the councilors and their audience.

Looking across the ravine to Moo 5's council meeting.

As I sit witnessing Moo 4 council meeting I can see Moo 5’s council meeting in progress. I do not know what is being debated but assume the issues are much the same as in Moo 4. As you can see they are sitting on the bare soil in the rain. The building to their left is quite the most valuable structure in these parts and is where you can buy beer, which is being consumed with enthusiasm by some of the audience. Between them and their bottle shop is the one and only mettalled road in these parts. This road runs in a loop from the Phetchibun highway, across (or through) the Phetichibun range of mountains (or rather very big hills, none higher than 4,000 feet) and looping back through the Phetchibun range to the Phetchibun highway which runs the length of the valley between the Phetchibun and Phang Hoei ranges. The road serves an arable basin or sugar bowl, blessed with rich red soil, prized by farmers and somewhat like that found in Devon, England or parts of Canterbury in New Zealand.

These three ‘mood’ shots give one an idea of the Kao Khor when the monsoons won’t quit.
In closing I make a few amusing observations. If you live in the Ban Nock (The fertile valley between the two mountain ranges) the rhythm of your life is set by the weather and the visiting shop cars. Most of your neighbors will be poor like you and you will have similar habits to them. You will likely urinate on the ground three meters from the foot of the stairs to your living room. You will defecate behind a screen at the bottom of your garden, into a hole in the ground. In company, no matter how auspicious you will pick your nose and eat the bogies, clean out your ears with a straw, fart loudly without saying a word and scratch your crutch periodically (men and women alike) in spite at the fact that your guest is looking straight at with a grin on his face.

You will likely store water in big stone jars, without a lid or mosquito net, although they are readily available. You will cook with this water, the mosquito larvae will die in the cooking and be consumed by you. You will consume the dead larvae, along with your rice and vegetables, without giving it a thought. You will eat fried insects at every opportunity and consume baby frogs whole without a second thought. You will sow or plant before the monsoons and reap and harvest when they finish. Whilst the monsoons rage for three or four months you will do little except perhaps attend the village council meeting once a month. Your children will watch TV from six am until midnight and then throw a tantrum when you send them to bed.

You will love strangers and stop for them. Your world, the Ban Nock (Arable Basin) is fives miles by four in area, it has mountains to easy, west, north and south. It is a capsule of fertility, and isolation. The nearest town is forty kilometers away over a mountain range. What happens over the mountains is of no interest to you. Or at least it wasn’t until the fiery, divisive, speculative and greed generating concept of land reform appeared on your horizon.

Stickman's thoughts:

Very nice indeed.