Road Trip: Sa Kaeo

On Saturday, Theresa and I joined about 16 other people for a road trip to the province of Sa Kaeo in Eastern Thailand. We left Bangkok just after 7 a.m. for a journey that covered 600 km and that spanned 14 hours. Connecting-Asia, a local travel company, organized this well-planned day trip. If you ever need help arranging an adventure in South East Asia, I’d recommend contacting the people at Connecting-Asia, particularly if you are interested in visiting sites that are off the beaten track.

Kasornkasivit

Water Buffalo Training School

Three hours and 200 km after leaving Bangkok, our small (25 passenger) but comfortable and air-conditioned bus pulled in to the Kasornkasivit Buffalo Training School in Sa Kaeo (point B on map above.) In Thai, Kasorn means “buffalo” and Kasivit means “knowledge for farmer”, hence Kasornkasivit. This school was formed three years ago under the sponsorship of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn to instruct farmers how to use buffaloes in their rice fields. The school occupies 44 acres of land, and the lessons, food, and basic accommodations — clay mud huts with thatched roofs — are provided to the students at no-charge.

Teaching farmers how to use water buffaloes may seem anachronistic in an age where so many farmers have tractors. However, many farmers apparently are finding that the costs of the modern machinery — the capital investment, the fuel, and the maintenance — are financial burdens that they cannot bear and that the mechanical plowing can damage their land. Keep in mind, too, that tractors in rural Thailand are not the large and highly mechanized John Deeres, Kubotas, etc. that are used on the large, industrialized farms in the U.S., but rather they are more along the line of small, hand-steered devices similar to those that you might use to roto-till a garden (see picture on right below.) With a large rural population and low wages, farming in Thailand remains a highly labor intensive process.

Old fashioned plows and yokes

Farmer using a tractor to prepare a field

As many farmers desire to return to using water buffaloes in the rice paddies, many, particularly the younger ones, find that they do not have the skills and know-how to use this traditional method effectively. The school offers one 10 day session each month with up to ten teams of student farmers and their buffaloes. The water buffalo and farmer work together as a team, and the student team follows an experienced team from the school so that both the farmer and the animal learn together.

The water buffalo is connected to a single-bladed plow by a yoke and there is a single rein from the yoke that the farmer holds in his left hand. To direct the buffalo, the farmer uses a combination of verbal commands and rope signals. To go forward, the farmer yells “huei, huei” while moving the rein in a large up-and-down motion. To get the animal to stop, the farmer shouts “yor yud” while pulling the rein back. To go left, the farmer commands “hong” and pulls the rein to the left. To go right, the farmer says “pat” while quickly flicking the rein up-and-down. While I have never driven a Deere, I have to believe that it is easier than this, i.e., it has a steering wheel, accelerator and brake!

I have neither plans nor desire to give up my current position to become a rice farmer!

The students and their water buffaloes practice plowing from 7 to 10 in the morning and then again from 3 to 5 in the afternoon. Between 10 and 3, the hottest time of the day, the animals rest in the shade while the farmers attend lessons on how to take care of the animals, how to use organic fertilizers (the waste from the water buffaloes, of course), how to keep records and manage finances, etc. By the time that the training is finished, a well-trained team should be able to plow about 1 acre in a day.

After the fields are prepared, the back-breaking work of planting the rice seedlings takes place. The seedlings are planted by hand about six inches apart in a muddy, water-filled field. While rice is grown in flooded fields, the flooding is not required for the rice per se; the water, however, helps control weeds, pests, and vermin. The rice plants multiply as they grow and in about three months the crop is ready to be harvested. The harvest is another back-breaking task in which the farmer uses a sickle to cut the stalks that contain the rice. Each rice plant appears to have about 100 grains of rice.

Planting the seedlings

Harvesting the crop

Two water buffalo yoked to a cart

Rice about one month from harvest

Wooden cart that water buffaloes would pull

Woven baskets used during the rice harvest

Talat Rong Kluea

From Kasornkasivit, we went into the city of Sa Kaeo for a hearty Thai lunch. After lunch, we boarded our bus for a one hour ride to Talat Rong Kluea, or the Cambodian Border Market (point C on the map above.) Rong Kluea is situated on about 45 acres of land in the town of Aranyaprathet right across from Poipet, Cambodia. This border crossing is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, and several thousand Cambodians trek into Thailand daily to sell at the market. Anyone traveling overland from Bangkok to visit Angkor Wat would also use the Aranyaprathet-Poipet border crossing on the way to Siem Reap, Cambodia (on the far right edge of the map above.)

Shoes anyone?

The border market specializes in second-hand goods — clothing, shoes, jeans, leather products, blankets, etc. that has been cleaned, repaired and restored so expertly that most products look as good as new. As is often the case in these type of markets, there are many brand name goods that sell at ridiculously low prices. While we only had 30 minutes or so to wander around the market, we were able to buy, after Theresa’s shrewd bargaining, three brand new, brand name polo shirts for under $5 each.

Gambling is illegal in Thailand but legal in Cambodia, so not surprisingly there is a casino right across the border. Bus companies provide frequent service from Bangkok for the gamblers, and many merchants also take these buses to get to the Border Market. They buy goods here that they then resell back in Bangkok at the local markets.

Brand name denim jeans

Umbrellas

Women's shirts, sweaters and blouses

Colorful pants

Never too young!

Porter with cart to haul goods across the border

Lalu

From Aranyaprathet, we took the bus for about 75 minutes to go to Ta Phraya in the northern part of Sa Kaeo province. On our way north, we stopped at a street-side vendor to purchase local cantaloupes that, according to our guide, are noted for their sweetness and crispness.

Our final destination of the day was Lalu (point D on the map), an area of about 800 acres with interesting natural earth formations. In Khmer, Lalu means “pierced earth” and that is a pretty good description of what we saw. Erosion from rain and wind coupled with soil collapse have produced hard earthen pillars and canyon-like walls throughout this area. The formations are not real tall — none looked more than maybe 15 feet high — but they are very beautiful.

From the visitor center, we rode on carts that were pulled by small tractors to get to the earthen formations. The  drivers use hand cranks to get the tractor engines started. Since the tractors were initially designed for a man to walk behind for plowing, the handles that guide the tractor are long and the front wheels are far from where the driver sits. When the modified tractor is driven, the driver needs to stretch out his hands to grasp the opposite handle when he wants to turn. For example, to turn left, he holds the left handle with his right hand as far out as he can reach.

Our tractor and trailer to and from Lalu

Cranking the engine

Lalu

More Lalu

Theresa at Lalu

Kurt at Lalu

Formation at Lalu

Wall at Lalu

We left Lalu just before 5 p.m. and we arrived back in Bangkok just after 9 p.m. We were met by our driver who had watched Calliope — he even took her swimming — during our day trip to the east.

Kop Khun Krab.

© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.

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