When travelling around the countryside in Udon Thani Province I am often amazed at how much some of the scenery resembles the country fields back home in England. You may think I’m kidding but I am deadly serious about that.
Take away the rice fields, palm trees, bamboo stalks, exotic trees and plants found in some of the rural areas and view the natural unharvested land, and you could imagine being in one of many different countries in the world. Take a look at the picture below right, which has been cropped from the top photograph and you’ll see something which was a familiar sight in the UK not too many years ago. A scarecrow. A very crudely made one but nonetheless a scarecrow.
Nowadays electronic scarecrows are used by most farmers around the globe to protect their newly laid seeds and crops from birds, but in the rural regions of Thailand the old and proven method is still employed. These scarecrows may not have the high pitched sounds of their electronic, ultrasonic and solar powered rivals but they do still give the birds one hell of a fright. Maintenance is negligible and wages nil. The perfect combination for Thailand’s farmers.
When I noticed my first scarecrow in Thailand I made a mental note to look out for others and for me they are now a fairly common sight. The scarecrow’s are not just seen in the fields as some Thai people place them near the road outside their homes as a source of humour to passer-bys. They are probably there to scare away evil spirits as well.
Having discovered Thailand’s scarecrows I started looking around for more old-time traditional things which the farmers and villagers used as a solution to employing more novel and technological ways of achieving and producing things. One such method was just a hundred yards from our village home, two mounds of earth standing a little apart. I hadn’t seen them there on my last village trip but I knew what they were used for. Charcoal production.
If you took away the charcoal kilns in the above photograph I’m once again convinced the scene could have been snapped on a very hot English summers day. It reminds me of the countryside I enjoyed during my childhood visits to my grandparents village in Gloucestershire here in the UK.
Most Thai villagers cook outside and use a bucket shape charcoal stove made from fired clay. The stove is lit by burning small twigs inside its bottom aperture and then placing charcoal on top of the burning wood. A pot or grill is placed on the crown of the stove to steam boil rice and barbecue meats or in my case on the right, to toast a sandwich. So how is charcoal made. I’ll hand you over to Wikipedia for a very basic overview:
‘ Charcoal is a carbon containing substance made from wood, naturally black and powdery. Charcoal is made from wood by heating it in airless space in high temperature. The wood will not burn, but instead turn into charcoal.’
The process of turning wood into charcoal using this method is called pyrolysis (transformation of a compound caused by heat).
The charcoal kilns are made from a mixture of clay and a small amount of rice husk which is leftover in the fields after each rice harvest. Wood is stacked inside the kiln and a small fire is lit under it and the opening is then closed off to leave the wood burning for a few days. The wood to charcoal conversion yield is quite high, just imagine the slight reduction in size of wood charred on an open fire.
Charcoal kilns are just one of many types of small ‘businesses’ operated by individuals and families in Thailand’s villages which help keep the community economy ticking over.
Cash earned from selling charcoal to friends and locals is fed back amongst the populace by servicing the small village shops and food stalls. Whether it’s selling fish caught in the local rivers or growing mushrooms in blacked out tents, the Thai villagers are very adept at seeing an opportunity to not necessarily make a fortune but keep their heads bobbing above water. When Thailand’s economy hits a recession the rural villages ride the smallest waves.
You may have your hopes invested in bricks, bonds and shares but Thai rural villagers have theirs in knowledge and know how passed down from generation to generation. Black Monday to some is looking into a darkened hole and seeing the fruits of their labour, mushrooms and charcoal.
© 2010 – 2011, Martyn. All rights reserved.