Day 0 (8 Jun) - Arriving at the Tigerland Rice Farm
Kitt met us at Chiang Rai International Airport. He looked the same except without his characteristic Indiana Jone’s hat. His good old devil-red jeep was as sturdy as ever and we soon arrived at his parents’ house in the Ban Huay Khom (Karen) village, 25km from the airport.
We addressed Kitt's parents respectfully as Father Gun and Mother Tomei. Father Gun is friendly, jovial and chatty. At 50, he has a well-tanned and muscled body, developed from years of laborious work at his farm. We were pleasantly surprised that his rather well spoken English was actually self-taught from just a year ago. Every morning, he would spend an hour practising the English language from a book. Amazing!
Mother Tomei is a demure and quiet lady. She seems genuinely happy and contented from within, often humming a tune while cooking and doing housework. Well, I can see why. She is 50 and has been happily married for 28 years. Father Gun calls her his Honey, and he expresses in no uncertain terms how much he loves her. They had Kitt one year after their marriage, and their second son, Noy, who looks after the farm, is 23 now, and their youngest son, Da, is 17. She must be very proud to be the only lady in the house who cares for 4 beloved men of her life.
We would stay at their family farm, which we christened during this trip as the Tigerland Rice Farm. Enroute, we stopped by Kitt’s aunt’s provision shop to stock up some snacks and biscuits. I imagined it would be really nice to enjoy some corn crackers while looking out at the farm country. We found everyone in the village to be warm, friendly and cheerful.
The tar road from the village, laid 2 years before, soon ended and we began negotiating undulating track road on 4-wheel drive. Father Gun skillfully followed closely on his motorbike with Mother Tomei as pillion. We drove pass paddies and corn fields, and finally stopped by a stream to begin a short trek to the Tigerland farm bungalow, which is situated on a hill with a commanding view of the surrounding rice paddies.
When we got to the bungalow, we immediately fell in love with it. The airy balcony offers a majestic view of the paddies below, the surrounding hills and a generous amount of the heavenly blue sky. The bungalow has 2 rooms - one for us and the other was Noy's bedroom. A kitchen shed was built adjacent to the main building; another shed used as shower and toilet.
Father Gun built the bungalow with Noy only a few months before in Jan 2008, using mainly local materials such as bamboo and wood. It was amazing to learn how Noy and friends walked 1.5 hours into the forest to cut and carry back logs to use as columns and beams for the roofing. As he described the construction process, we imagined the house building scenes from one of Robyn's favorite story book, “The Little House on the Prairie”, coming to live.
We sat with Father Gun at the airy balcony and enjoyed his never-ending tales of his farm, family and the culture of his Karen tribe. Robyn was roped in as Kitt’s little helper in the kitchen. It was wonderful to see Robyn getting accustomed rather well to the farm situation. Mother Tomei and Kitt quickly whipped up a wonderful dinner. It was thoughtful of Kitt to remember our preference for vegetarian meals.
A pitch black curtain overlaid the picturesque green surrounding after sun down. Robyn was so excited to spot fireflies dotting the darkness. It was amazing to see how the tiny insect was able to light up its butt. With Father Gun’s help, Robyn managed to trap a firefly in a translucent plastic bag for a close-up study and play. She later decided to release the firefly so it could return to its mummy.
Father Gun and Mother Tomei returned to their home in the village on motorbike while Kitt stayed with us at the bungalow. It was amazing that despite his age, Father Gun was so comfortable to motorbike in the dark of the night, along wet, slippery and undulating tracks, and with Mother Tomei as pillion. So many things that would have been deemed as 'dangerous' by city folks are lived out as everyday tasks here.
We particularly enjoyed our refreshing cold shower with the ever flowing mountain water. The night was cool and we all had a restful sleep, in the spacious enclosure of the huge mozzie net erected by Mother Tomei.
Day 1 (9 Jun) - Preparing the Paddy Field
We woke up to a pristine natural farm environment of fresh air and the sounds of birds, insects, cows and dogs. Kitt made fried rice for breakfast. We reckoned it was a good idea to carbo-load sufficiently for this morning's laborious work.
Kitt was our farming coach for the morning. Handing us a hoe (we called it a changkul) each, we walked merrily down to the Singapore Paddy Plot to begin preparing the 30m by 8m plot for plowing.
The first task was to trim off the grass and weed that lined the bund surrounding the paddy. Kitt explained the steps systematically. We took off our shoes and stepped in the muddy field. I was pleased to see Robyn getting gamely into action without any hesitation. Swinging our hoes clumsily, we began clearing the bund edges of grass. Soon we got used to using the hoes skillfully and our productivity increased. Noy was very skilful and he seemed to work so effortlessly.
After preparing all the edges, we returned to the bungalow for lunch and rest. We were rather spent but happy to have successfully prepared our Singapore Paddy for plowing in the afternoon. After a good lunch, I laid down for a renewal nap. Despite being in the rainy season, it was a sunny and hot afternoon.
Father Gun arrived after lunch to join us in the paddy. Our next task was to plow the field with a tractor to loosen up the soil and to level the field. It is important to level the soil so that the rice seedlings can be planted at the right water depth.
Kitt showed us how to operate the tractor and I tried my hands at working it. It was a simple machine with a gear-engagement lever, a pull lever for speed adjustment, a clutch for turning right on the right handle and another for turning left on the left handle. The machine is quite powerful and controlling it well took some getting used to. Kitt was good at it, Noy was even better at it. Master coach Father Gun also operated it effortlessly. Jin tried but could not tame the machine. I managed to drive it after many runs of practice, and with Kitt coaching me by my side.
Robyn's favorite spot was an underground fresh water inlet by the edge in the middle of the paddy. With the sun beating down mercilessly on us, she enjoyed playing with the cool clear water and let it run onto a little crab that Father Gun caught for her.
After a few hours of plowing, we were proud to see the paddy finally leveled out. It was a pretty sight to see the rectangular paddy appearing like a lake with a mirror-like body of water. Tomorrow, we would proceed to transplant the rice seedlings.
From the paddy, Father Gun led us to a nearby river for a dip and rest. The river was swift flowing and alive with many edible fishes. We stopped by a rocky spot for a refreshing dip. The water was surprisingly rather warm,considering it was mountain water. Father Gun shared that the river used to be very deep and much wider 3 decades ago. Due to the deforestation practices of the nearby hill tribes, there had been ecological implications and this river is now shallower and the volume of water has been greatly reduced. Fortunately, the state authority had taken the necessary action to regulate the activities of the hill tribes to safeguard the natural environment.
After the river fun, we returned to the bungalow for showers and a good rest. A sumptuous dinner soon followed. Tomorrow, we would start planting the rice seedlings into the paddy.
Day 2 (10 Jun) - Planting the Rice Seedlings
Father Gun woke up at 5am to make his hunting round and brought back some mushroom for lunch and bamboo to be used for tonight’s bamboo weaving.
Breakfast was porridge with omelet but Jin and Robyn preferred the all familiar white bread with pineapple jam.
Father Gun took us on an orientation walk around the farm. We saw Mother Tomei feed clumps of rock salt to the cows and goats. Feeding salt to the animals will ensure that they would return at the end of each day for they would not be able to find salt anywhere else.
We passed by a jackfruit tree and Father Gun easily climbed up to pick a ripe jackfruit for lunch. We also learnt that termites are used to feed the fishes in the river. One only needs to chop away at the nest to reveal wiggling termites and then toss the pieces of nest into the water to feed the fish. Everything here is organically grown, fed and recycled, working like a self-sustaining mini eco-system.
Father Gun then taught us about irrigation of the paddy fields. He showed us the source of the mountain water and explained how the drainage was dug weeks before to channel the water into the paddy. As we walked, he pointed out many types of plant and picked a bundle of edible fern known locally as 'pak kud' for lunch.
Finally we came to the rice seedling nursery and started work at bundling the rice seedlings to get them ready for transplanting to the paddy. Father Gun showed us how to carefully uproot a bundle of seedlings, shake away the mud entrapped by the roots, and bundle them together with bamboo stripes. Working with bent backs, we quickly understood why they sang, “planting rice is never fun…”
We managed to clear only a small patch, bundling up enough rice seedlings to commence the planting process in the afternoon. My, the hour long of work at the nursery was enough to literally kill my poor back. I promise myself to appreciate the back-breaking effort of the farmers behind every grain of rice henceforth. Robyn bundled the seedlings really well. We all enjoyed a wonderful morning of farming lessons.
Father Gun took out some bamboo poles to hang the bundled rice seedlings. We carried them happily over our shoulders to the paddy. After leaving the rice seedlings at a shady spot, we returned to the bungalow for lunch and rest.
Lunch was delicious with the 'pak kud' (edible fern) as one of the dishes. Mother Tomei also cooked the fresh mushrooms that Father Gun picked this morning. We also enjoyed the freshly picked jackfruit. It was so wonderful to experience 'living off the land'.
After a good rest, which included a short nap, and a short delay due to rain, we decided to head down to the paddy to begin planting the seedlings at about 3pm.
Father Gun expertly showed us the steps. He first cut off the top part of all the seedlings. The idea was not to have too much of the plants sticking out of the water to prevent it from being destroyed by strong winds. He then scattered all the seedling bundles around the paddy. Next, he showed us how to plant small bundles of rice seedling into the soil, finger length apart.
Bending forward and working in rows, we began planting a beautiful matrix of seedlings into the paddy. Even the heaven opened up to welcome the young seedlings taking their places. We literately heard the rain approaching. Then it poured rather heavily but we didn’t stop work. Jin carried an umbrella to allow Robyn to continue planting. I also continued planting while holding onto an umbrella. It had to have been quite a sight from afar - our 2 umbrellas in the middle of a paddy field. It might just start a trend that henceforth the spotting of umbrella in the field would mean Singapore farmers are at work.
We continued working after the rain reduced to a drizzle. It was rather cold. Father Gun showed us 2 different ways of inserting the seedlings. With practice, we got better and swifter at planting the seedlings. Eventually at about 6pm, we were so happy to have planted all the rice seedlings and stepped back to appreciate all the young and happy rice seedlings smiling back at us. In 3 months' time, they would yield many grains of rice that would feed Father Gun's family for many months.
It rained the entire night and we enjoyed a cool night of sleep, with aching backs!
Day 3 (11 Jun) - More Planting of Rice Seedlings
Shortly after breakfast, Kitt arrived with Kop, a student of tourism study who was currently attached to his company. We went down to the nursery to bundle another batch of rice seedlings. With yesterday’s experience, we worked a lot faster. The weather was cool and the sun took mercy on us.
Kop came from a farming family background so she was familiar with the procedure. Robyn was completely at home with the farm surrounding by now. With ease, she walked about in the muddy nursery and skillfully bundled the seedlings.
We were surprised to learn from Kitt that Noy was fishing at a nearby pond with a gun. The pond was deep so shooting the fishes was the best way to catch them. We heard 2 gun shots and allowed our imagination to picture the hugeness of the catch.
When we had bundled enough rice seedlings, we carried them to the paddy for planting. Our Singapore Paddy now had a team of working farmers - Jin, Robyn, Kitt, Noy, Kop and I. Jin and Robyn sang merrily as they went about the work. By the time we had planted all the seedlings, we had half the plot covered with young rice seedlings. It felt so good seeing this wonderful sight and I imagined the paddy growing happily over the next 4 months to yield countless rice grains to feed aplenty.
Back breakingly exhausted and famished, we returned to the bungalow. Kitt had already been hard at work in the kitchen shed for the past 20 minutes. We enjoyed a sumptuous lunch and had fish soup. Yes, the fish was shot by Noy in the morning.
Father Gun came after lunch and spent a while coaching Jin and Robyn to weave bamboo baskets. We spent a restful afternoon at the bungalow leisurely chatting while weaving away. Jin and Robyn weaved a small bamboo basket. I edited the photos and started designing the coloursoflife.info website.
Father Gun explained that we had completed our learning of the rice planting process. Instead of continuing to work in the paddy, he had planned for us to experience the paddy by night when we could catch frogs, snakes, fishes and eels. He also suggested that we trek to a nearby Lahu village tomorrow to learn about the local culture and enjoy the sight and fauna in the farm country.
After dinner, Kitt returned from the city to lead us in the paddy-by-night walkabout. Armed with a LED headlamp each, we wandered off into the darkness towards the paddy. It was amazing how Kitt was able to spot frogs, insects and snakes from a far distance. It seemed so easy for him to just reach out and catch the frogs using his bare hands. Noy was out in the field too and he caught a snake to show us. Robyn was afraid of the leeches but she managed to move about quite confidently in the dark.
The solar battery for the bungalow went dried on us in the night as it had been cloudy the entire day with little sunshine to power it up sufficiently. We were pleased to learn that every house here is powered by solar cell. Tapping on clean solar energy is low cost, ensures sustainability and avoids pollution.
Kitt and I talked into the night under kerosene light about our future plans to introduce rice farming to more city folks from Singapore. He spent the night translating into English the step-by-step guide on rice planting written out by Father Gun.
Transformation of the Singapore Paddy...
9 Jun, 12 noon - Before plowing
10 Jun, 6 pm - After plowing
11 Jun, 2pm - After sowing
Day 4 (12 Jun) - Trekking to Lahu Village
After breakfast, Father Gun came with Mother Tomei to lead us on a short trek to a nearby Lahu village. Kitt stayed behind to complete the translation work.
It was a cool morning and perfect for walking. Along the way, Father Gun pointed out different plants and herbs to us – wild egg plant, guava, pamelo, wild lychee, a tree whose bark is used for making gun powder, tamarind, lemon, and different kinds of bamboo. Mother Tomei dug out a bamboo shoot for cooking. Baby bamboo shoots that are just sprouting from underground are the most delicious.
At the Lahu village, we saw a man tying dried grass to make roof thatches. Most of the adults were out working in the paddy fields so we saw only children in the village. We were pleased to learn that every home here is also powered by solar cell. Solar energy is certainly the best and cleanest form of energy to tap in farm country.
Father Gun pointed out that the Lahu farmers use agri-chemicals for farming. We were glad that he dislikes using any form of agri-chemical for they introduce toxins into the rice crops. He sticks strictly to using only natural fertilizers, like cow dung, instead.
Mother Tomei discovered a leech in her shoe and the sight of blood oozing out of her toe probably added to Robyn’s fear of leeches. On the return leg, Robyn was hysterical of the leech threat. At one point, Mother Tomei even piggy-backed Robyn over the paddies.
We returned to the bungalow for lunch. Kitt made fried noodles for us. Every meal here had been an over-eat for me. Jin and Robyn never failed to each pass a portion of their food over. Secretly, I wish to discover some weight gain by the time I reach home.
I spent the warm afternoon writing my journal and editing the photos, while Jin and Robyn weaved and read. Jin tried to digest the translated text on rice farming from Kitt and would later type out an edited version for our website publication.
At about 4pm, we decided to make one last trip down to the paddy for one final round of appreciation and to take some family photos. We were very happy and proud to see our Singapore Paddy a third covered with neatly planted rice seedlings. The young seedlings seemed to be smiling back at us and bidding us to return in November for the harvesting.
Kitt returned at about 5pm, by which time we were all packed and ready to leave this lovely Tigerland Rice Farm for Father Gun’s house in the Ban Huay Khom (Karen) village, 3 km away. It had been such a wonderful and relaxing stay over the past few days. I especially enjoyed living here with no modernity of any kind - no TV, no mobile phone, no Internet.
The house was also built by Father Gun. We were housed in Da’s room. The youngest son of Father Gun, Da, would not be home till Saturday.
Father Gun always has stories to tell. We learnt about how his great grandfather escaped from Myanmar during the war time, about the Karen culture and language, about drug lord Khun Sa and the old days of the opium trade, about his farm and all kinds of plants. He is like a walking encyclopedia!
Kitt then brought us to visit the night bazaar in Chiang Rai city, 11 km away. We returned to the same food square we visited back in Dec 2007 for dinner and saw many familiar stores that lined the narrow roads in the night bazaar. Robyn ordered her standard favorite dish - Thai omelet.
Day 5 (13 Jun) - the Golden Triangle
Homestay is always our preferred way of accommodation in any foreign land because we get the chance to experience how the locals live. For this morning's breakfast, Mother Tomei prepared various kinds of local food - sticky rice kuay atop with a yellowish sweet paste, banana kuay, greenish kuay with some brown sugar-like paste, and mangosteens. They were all yummy good!
Father Gun wrote a short essay in English as part of his morning language practice. He attempted to express how happy he felt to have us stayed in his house and how he would miss us when we leave for Singapore the next day. Robyn had fun playing tutor and helped to correct his English essay.
Kitt and I discussed about our project to help introduce rice farming to more Singaporeans and made detailed program for the coming November trip. We christened the farm as Tigerland Rice Farm and decided that the website would be www.tigerlandricefarm.biz.
At noon, we hopped into Kitt’s jeep and headed for the Golden Triangle. It was an hour’s journey to drive 60km to the border town. The Golden Triangle is a tri-border of Thailand-Myanmar-Laos formed by the intersection of 2 rivers – Mae Sai and Mekong River. Staring out across the rivers at the mountainous terrain of Laos and the vast stretch of forests of Myanmar, I imagined what it could have been like during the height of the opium trading days of the past. I also imagined the many jungle battle scenes described in war stories of Indochina and novels by Eric Lustbader. Laos and Myanmar gave me a feel of mystics, secrecy and tribal dark magic.
We realized it is only 300km from here through Myanmar to China. It is also not far from here through Laos to Lao Cai, the border town in northern Vietnam that is only 2km from China and where we visited during our North Vietnam Travel in 2006. This region holds a magical draw on me as a die-hard traveler.
By the river side is a temple housing an impressively huge Buddha statue. We boarded a motor boat that took us across the Mekong River to catch a close quarter glimpse of a casino in Myanmar, and then to Done Xao, a Laos island along the river for tourists to hop on without need for passport to do shopping. I bought myself a handcrafted jade bowl made by a Laotian tribe from Luang Prabang, some 600km away. I learnt that it would take a craftsman about 3 months to craft the bowl and lined its edges with pure silverware. The reddish jade has a beautiful pattern.
The viewpoint up at the ancient temple offered a great view of the river confluence. The temple was, however, quite a ruin. Our next visit to the Opium House was most educational. It was a museum dedicated to telling the opium story. We learnt how the opium plant was grown and harvested, prepared and smoked. We saw on display a vast array of opium weights, scales, pipes, and even jade pillows used by opium smokers. The accessories were all very exquisitely designed and handcrafted. There was also information about the life of Khun Sa, the opium warlord, and how he traded opium for money and gold to fund his army to fight for Shan independence. We also learnt that morphine and heroin are actually derived from opium. Robyn wrote in the museum's opinion book: “I don’t like drugs.”
Mother Tomei prepared a wonderful home-cooked dinner for us in the evening. As usual, there were plenty of vegetables harvested from their backyard, including a type of edible morning glory! Robyn christened the 3 kittens Midnight, Moonlight and Tigerlight. It was a hearty chat with our host family till late.
Day 6 (14 Jun) - Back to Modernity
After another morning of wonderful breakfast and lots of photo taking with Father Gun's family, we bided farewell and headed with Kitt to his office in the city. I helped Kitt register the www.tigerlandricefarm.biz domain and hosted it on my web server, while Jin went shopping. Shortly after a phad thai lunch, Kitt sent us to the Chiang Rai International Airport. By 11pm, we touched down in Singapore.
The past week has been another experiential learning journey for Robyn, Jin and I. All thanks to Kitt, Father Gun, Mother Tomei and Noy, we gained first hand experience of rice planting and look forward to completing our learning in November when we do the harvesting. It is our wish to help design and refine the experiential program on rice farming at Tigerland Rice Farm and introduce this enriching experience to more friends in Singapore. This way, more people would better appreciate the precious rice that we eat everyday, be more eco-conscious, and to live out the life lesson of "You Reap What You Sow".