We returned to experience rice harvesting during the school holiday on 16-22 Nov 2008.
||Reaping and Drying
||Reaping, Bundling and Threshing
||Bundling, Threshing and Winnowing
||Pounding and Winnowing, Fishing and Chiang Rai City
||Bamboo experience, Dam construction, Tree planting
||Depart Chiang Rai for Singapore
Day 0 (16 Nov) - Arriving at the Tigerland Rice Farm
Kitt was already waiting at the Chiang Rai International Airport when we arrived on AirAsia. It was good to see him again. He took us in his usual red Suzuki jeep to Father Gun’s home for the night. Mother Tomei had already prepared dinner for us.
It was the 'winter' season in Chiang Rai so the night air was cool and nice. We learnt that some nights could be pretty chilly. It was really good seeing Father Gun and Mother Tomei again. Robyn was thrilled to be able to curdle Longneck and the 4 cats which she christened Sunshine, Moonshine, Starshine 1 & 2.
Day 1 (17 Nov) - Reaping and Drying
We awoke to the eager alarm of the roosters on a cool morning. After having sticky rice with soya bean paste and coconut paste, Father Gun drove us to the Tigerland Rice Farm at 8.30am. It was a great feeling passing through familiar farms and most of them were already harvested. It’s been 5 months since, and the place hasn’t changed a bit except for the colours of the land – it was now numerous shades of pastel golden yellow due to the harvested and ripened paddy fields.
We enjoyed a wonderfully nostalgic feeling walking up from the river to the bungalow. Even the cow dung that lined the path gave a familiar memory. Stepping into the bungalow was like stepping once again into an old home sweet home that we were returning to after being away for years.
After a quick change, we were ready to head for the paddy to begin our reaping experience. Father Gun advised us to don long sleeve shirts as the brushing of the paddy stalks might cause our bare arms to itch. I donned a pair of cut-off sleeves provided by Father Gun.
This was nearing the end of the harvesting season. All of their paddy fields had been harvested except for 3 plots that were deliberately left for the purpose of our harvesting experience.
The first lesson was Reaping. We began by learning how to use a sickle, a farm tool with a sharpened curved edge for cutting the paddy stalk through a hooking action. The procedure is to hook off bundles of paddy stalks and stag them neatly on the remaining stubbles in the field. They are to be left there to dry for about 2 days, before they are bundled for threshing to separate the rice from its stalk.
Armed with a sickle each, we quickly got the hang of using one and within a short time, the first rice plot was completely reaped. Robyn picked up the reaping skill quickly too. We all enjoyed the reaping experience thoroughly, and it was particularly satisfying to look at the reaped field filled with horizontal lines of paddy stalks when all was done.
Although it was supposed to be the cool season, working in the day under the sun was scorching. However, when under the shade, the air was rather cool and refreshing.
It was lunch time and everyone was famished. As before, I enjoyed a huge portion of Mother Tomei’s delicious cooking. Kitt’s 2 industrial attachment tourism student trainees arrived during lunch time – Fang and Ree. I took a nap after that while Kitt constructed a campfire place just outside the bungalow. We would be enjoying a warm campfire tonight.
At mid afternoon, once again we headed to the paddy field and tackled the second plot. This plot was smaller than the one we worked at in the morning so we completed the reaping in even quicker time, especially with our reinforcement in Fang and Ree. Our first day of field work was done.
We reserved the third and final plot for Ron and Brenda to experience reaping tomorrow.
Before the cold of the night descended upon us, we opted to take cold showers instead of troubling Mother Tomei to heat up water for us. The mountain water was absolutely refreshing for our body, mind and soul. Robyn and I had so much fun 'yelling away' the chill as we down buckets of freezing water over our bodies.
After dinner, we waited by the campfire to welcome Ron and Brenda. The warmth from the burning logs was pleasant in the midst of the cold night. Jin commented that the fire and the glowing ashes were magical to watch. After quite a wait, we decided to hit the blankets for the night and trusted that Kitt would bring Ron and Brenda safely to the bungalow eventually.
It was probably past 11pm when we heard Brenda yelling Robyn’s name as she walked up to the bungalow with Ron, led by Kitt. Jin and I woke up to welcome them while Robyn remained soundly asleep. They took Noy’s room, which was next to ours.
Day 2 (18 Nov) – Reaping, Bundling and Threshing
The night was not as freezing as expected. The morning was beautiful with a blanket of mist hanging amongst the hills. It was particularly magical to see the mist rose from amidst the hills as the sun softly warmed the earth with its morning rays. Brenda was up early and seemed to be excited to experience her first day in Tigerland rice farm.
We had a double breakfast this morning – the first round being toasted mini-bread with coffee, and the second and main round was rice with vegetables and fried eggs. Father Gun said that we’d better had rice for breakfast as we would need the strength and endurance for the fieldwork later. I found it to be so true, as least for my own case.
At 9.30am, we left the bungalow for the last plot of paddy to complete the reaping. We were pleasantly surprised that Kitt has bought us straw hats with wide rim and we all donned the uniform hats. Ron and Brenda quickly picked up the reaping skill and we all had plenty of fun working away under the bright morning sun.
After the reaping, we ventured to the water source to pick pat-kut fern for lunch. The kids had plenty of fun picking fern. We waded in shin-deep water upstream and enjoyed the natural tranquility. Brenda followed and carefully treaded on the rocks in her attempt to be with Robyn. Unlike Robyn, who was wearing a pair of sandals, Brenda had her shoes on so she wasn’t ready to wade through the shallow stream. We encouraged her along as it was probably her first adventurous trek along a stream in the forest. It was nice seeing the 2 girls helping each other to negotiate the rocks. At some points, Robyn even placed rocks to facilitate Brenda’s stepping on without wetting her shoes.
Lunch was superb with freshly picked pat-kut ferns as a fried vege dish and a soup dish. As we were finishing our lunch, Kitt came with a couple – Australian Patrick Stapleton with his newly wedded Thai wife, Sunisa. Kitt was bringing them on a tour to the hot spring opposite the Elephant Camp. Patrick was an interesting chap working as a user experience specialist with Oracle based in Melbourne. We spoke about a new web user interface he invented called Datafall and he promised to email me his paper.
After a short rest, we returned to the first plot to learn how to bundle the reaped stalks with bamboo stripes. As the plot was a small one, we completed the bundling quickly. Even Robyn and Brenda were able to bundle fairly well. Father Gun then instructed us to carry the bundles to a nearby prepared area for the threshing A large sheet of nylon sack material was lined on the ground, cushioned with crisp dried straw. In the middle was placed a wooden plank. We placed all the rice bundles around the edges of the nylon sheet.
Threshing was a simple process when we hit the grain end of the bundle onto the wooden plank to separate the grains from the stalks. After a dozen times of hitting it, the bundle emptied of grains would be discarded to the side. Mother Tomei also used a pair of poles to secure 2-3 bundles together for a more productive and massive threshing Robyn and Brenda had fun with this high energy activity. After all the grains had been collected in the middle of the nylon sheet and all the emptied stalks discarded, Father Gun used a straw fan to blow away the remaining stalks, husks and other lightweight unwanted parts of the rice plants. He then carefully wrapped the rice grains with the nylon sheet to allow them to dry in the open for a day. Our work for the day was done.
We decided to trek to the nearby stream and waterfall for a dip. Father Gun’s youngest son, Da, served as our guide. Fang and Ree came along too. It was the same waterfall we visited in June. Ron, Robyn and Brenda enjoyed the slide down the rock into the shallow pool. But the children soon discovered that an army of disgusting little baby leeches clung to their shorts when they emerged from the water. They thought they were little worms. Brenda was a little frantic over seeing the wiggling little creatures. I was pleased that Robyn was steady as a rock.
We returned to the bungalow in time for cold shower before the cold of the evening descended upon us. Father Gun and company prepared the campfire for cooking bamboo rice. He put sticky rice and coconut water in the freshly cut bamboo, and covered the opening with banana leaves before placing it in the fire. In a much bigger bamboo pole, he cooked a fish with water.
Dinner was another feast that we thoroughly enjoyed. The bamboo sticky rice was fragrant and delicious. The vegetables and soup were great. We even had some boboh chacha taste-alike dessert with sweet potato in coconut milk.
After dinner, we gathered around the campfire and discovered Ron’s talent in singing Thai songs. As I wrote my journal with my MacBook, Jin enjoyed a wonderful sister-brother time with Ron at the campfire. Robyn and Brenda christened the kitten, Curry.
It wasn’t until rather late before Kitt arrived with 2 of his tour guides. They would be bringing Ron and Brenda for a day around Chiang Rai tomorrow after breakfast.
Day 3 (19 Nov) – Bundling, Threshing and Winnowing
Having gone missing for over a week, the mother cat to Curry finally returned this morning. It was good that Curry reunited with her mummy and the kids christened the mummy cat, Furry.
There would only be one round of breakfast this morning comprising bread, jam and condensed milk. So I ate plentiful to ensure I would sustain till lunch.
At about 8.30am, Ron and Brenda got ready to leave for their tour to the Golden Triangle and the Elephant Camp. Just before they departed, Kitt popped a defining question, “If Robyn would like to go along with Brenda, she may come along.” In a matter of just one minute, Robyn jetted off with them. Jin and I would spend a day without the company of our dearest angel. But it was good to let her have the free will to make her own choices.
At 9.30am, we headed down to the second and third paddy plots, which were adjacent to each other, to complete the bundling of the reaped stalks. Mother Tomei led us in this morning’s activity while Father Gun left for a nearby village to collect the Karen costumes that he ordered for Jin, Robyn and I.
After yesterday’s experience, we worked expertly an independently, and completed the bundling process rather swiftly. Jin and I rested on the surrounding dried straw, enjoying prawn crackers. Mother Tomei laid out a nylon sheet in an upper plot onto which we brought all the bundles neatly around its circumstance before returning to the bungalow for lunch.
We enjoyed a quiet lunch with Fang and Ree due to language difficulty. We had pat-kut once again. Mother Tomei also brought us tangerines and freshly picked bananas. Soon, Father Gun returned with the beautiful costumes. We would be donning them alongside Father Gun and Mother Tomei when we visit the Chiang Rai Night Market on Thursday evening to promote the Karen tribal fashion.
We enjoyed a leisure afternoon rest and nap before returning to the rice plot to complete the last of the threshing. It was another swift round of job with Father Gun, Mother Tomei, Jin and I doing the threshing while Ree helped us with the photo taking and videoing.
Next was the Pounding and Winnowing experience. Mother Tomei brought a bucket of grains to the mortar and we went to work at pounding the grains to separate the rice from the husk. It was hard work and it took a quite a bit of pounding to do the work. When the grains were sufficiently pounded upon, Mother Tomei placed them onto a pan sieve and skillfully sieved the husk from the rice through winnowing, delicate throwing and side-shifting actions. We tried our hands at the winnowing and found it to be a skill that would require much practice and experience to perfect. Even Father Gun said he wasn’t good at it and it was a skill that few among the younger generation were able to master. Mother Tomei was the only one good at winnowing in the family.
We learnt that the brownish looking rice obtained from the winnowing process was apparently what we know as the ‘brown rice’. Seeing the clean brown rice grains made us feel a great sense of accomplishment. From the planting of the rice seedlings to reaping, bundling, threshing and now completing the winnowing process, the only remaining step was the cooking and eating of the rice! We would indeed be cooking part of the brown rice this evening and we would bring the rest of it back to Singapore.
Father Gun explained that the precious vitamin found in the rice bran would be retained only through such traditional manual pounding process. Sending the grain to the commercial millers that use milling machines to do the job would produce the usual polished white grain rice devoid of the outer bran. Traditional manual pounding is however, seldom practiced today because it was time and effort consuming. A commercial miller charges 35 baht for 45 kg (3 tins) of white rice.
We waited for Ron, Brenda and Robyn before we began the dinner feast. They returned at about 8pm and apparently did not bring any torchlight. Guide Juan used his lighter and Ron, his mobile phone, to lead the way up to the bungalow from the river where he stopped his jeep. It was quite an adventure of darkness for Ron and the kids.
The dinner BBQ/hotplate feast soon began. They set up 2 charcoal stoves in the middle of the bungalow lounge, atop an elongated wooden plank. On each stove was placed an aluminum convex steamboat-like hotplate. An array of vegetables, pork, liver, kidney and vermicelli were placed around the hotplates for DIY BBQ. There was a mushroom dish, fried fish (caught by Da from the pond) and a new type of bamboo rice, in addition to brown rice. Everyone then sat around and enjoyed a wonderful feast together. Kitt arrived in time to catch the tail end of the dinner.
The bungalow was full this night – Kitt and Juan, Fang and Ree, Father Gun and Mother Tomei, Ron and Brenda, Jin, Robyn and I – 11 in all. The night was not as cold as the past few nights.
Day 4 (20 Nov) – Pounding and Winnowing, Fishing and Chiang Rai
Most of us woke up early at about 7am. Robyn and Brenda were thrilled to have fried eggs and omelets with bread for breakfast.
At 9am, we went down to the mortar to begin another round of pounding so that Ron, Brenda and Robyn would get to experience it. Having more hands at the milling made the job easier and quicker. Robyn and Brenda had fun working the mortar together. Mother Tomei provided me with some good shots when she did her professional winnowing in her Karen costume. We were impressed with Juan for he could winnow quite well. Kitt reckoned the reason could be that Juan is the only male in his family.
Midway through the winnowing, Kitt brought Ron, Brenda and Robyn to dig for worms as bail for fishing at the hole. It must be thrilling for Ron to see Brenda bravely allowing the worms to wiggle in her palm. The kids were so excited to head for the pond with Ron and Kitt, while I stayed with Jin at the mortar for a while longer. But when I caught up with them later at the pond, the kids were hysterical over leeches and noisily scrambled out of the bushes that lined the edge of the pond. Such noise was certainly not quite in line with fishing activity, no wonder that they did not manage to catch any fish from that pond. However, that was where Da caught all the big fishes for last evening’s dinner. After a short patient wait by Kitt and Juan at the fishing rod, they decided to move to the upper pond to try for better luck.
Kitt managed to catch a little fish at the upper pond. Robyn tried her luck and even moved to the bigger pond by the mortar but no fish. Ron was persistent enough to stake it out at the pond and eventually caught 7 little fishes by lunch time.
We witnessed the superior tree climbing skill of Kitt in the morning. He climbed up the tamarind tree like a monkey to get high enough to use a long pole with a knife tied at the end to cut coconuts from the adjacent coconut tree. He climbed really high with his bare hands and legs as the coconuts were hanging at about 7-storey high. He managed to fell about 6 king-sized coconuts for us. Oh, the coconut juice was so deliciously sweet and the coconut meat was fresh and nice.
Brenda was sad to have to leave the farm after lunch. Robyn was sad to remain without the companion of her best cousin, Brenda. We took some nice shots on the way out through the paddies to the jeeps by the riverside. Jin, Robyn and I donned the Karen costumes that Father Gun gave us. Father Gun and Mother Tomei changed into their costumes back at their home before we headed out to Chiang Rai city. Robyn and Brenda were busy playing with Longneck, Sunshine, Moonshine and Starshine 1 and 2 at the house.
At the Chiang Rai Bus Station, Ron bought the 4.30pm coach tickets to Chiang Mai. They would stay the night there before taking Silkair back to Singapore the following morning. Juan brought Ron, Jin and I for a walkabout while the kids played PC games at Kitt’s office. This place didn't seem to have changed much since our last visit in June. There was not much to shop till the night bazaar sprang to life at 6pm. We sent off Ron and Brenda at 4.30pm.
We had dinner with Kitt, Father Gun and Mother Tomei at the night bazaar. Kitt ordered cockles, a huge fried fish, some boneless smallish fried fishes, tomyam soup, fried beef and rice. After which we went shopping about the night bazaar for the birthday gifts for Li Lyn and Jia Lyn. We also bought a swirling bamboo decoration piece for Anthony’s new home, and a new leather wallet for myself.
Father Gun drove us back to the farm in Kitt’s red Suzuki jeep for the night. Unlike the previous night, this was to be a quiet night as there were only Father Gun, Mother Tomei and the 3 of us.
Day 5 (21 Nov) – Bamboo Experience, Dam Construction and Tree Planting
It was a leisure morning. Robyn and Jin sat at the bamboo table below the bungalow landing, overlooking the vast paddies down the hill. While Jin read her Conversation With God Book 1, Robyn did her Kumon homework. I captured a few nice shoots of them.
At about 9.30am, we set off for our bamboo jungle trekking to the dam construction site. We weren’t exactly sure what to expect except that we would be making a dam, plant some trees for reforestation, and we would be preparing some natural lunch in the jungle later.
We walked past the goat shed and upstream into the bamboo forest. We climbed over a hill and soon stopped by a ravine clearing by the stream, where we would be constructing the dam. We probably trekked for about 30 minutes. There were bamboos everywhere and it was simply breathtakingly beautiful. This forest was where Father Gun enjoyed a never-ending supply of bamboo for construction and cooking. Bamboo can be used for everything!
At the clearing, Mother Tomei swiftly removed all the fallen bamboo branches to one side and Father Gun set to chop bamboo to make a ‘table’ by the slope. It was simply amazing to see how he expertly chopped, measured and created a bamboo table in under 30 minutes. Bamboo poles, ropes and tabletop mats were all handmade on the spot. It was apparent that Father Gun had in mind the exact visual image of what the table would be throughout the manifestation process. A clear demonstration of the ‘ceiving’ process that I just read in Neale Donald Walsch's ‘The New Revelation’ – CONceive, PERceive, REceive.
The amazement continued after the bamboo table was constructed. Mother Tomei brought back a wild banana trunk and swiftly started a fire at one end and laid out food stuff and spices on a makeshift banana leaf kitchen atop a cluster of fell bamboo. She expertly wrapped a piece of fried fish which she bought the night before at the night bazaar in a huge banana leaf, clipped it with a bamboo pole and planted it into the ground next to the fire for BBQ. Father Gun made a cooking pot out of a good size bamboo pole, filled it with water from the stream and placed it into the fire for boiling. He then chopped up the wild banana trunk, peeled off the outer rings to get to the innermost core for its ‘meat’. He sliced up the inner core and placed the pieces into the boiling water in the bamboo, along with spices, herbs and some ajinomoto.
Next, Father Gun made a little bamboo mortar and started pounding out homemade chilli mix from chilli, spices, belacan and salt. They then went about laying banana leaves on our bamboo dinning table. Mother Tomei brought out two cakes of white rice wrapped in banana leaves and cutlery. Lastly, Father Gun poured out the wild banana broil into a bamboo bowl and we were ready for a feast in the jungle.
This was probably the best lunch for the entire week. The banana stem soup was absolutely delicious, the fried fish was superb and the entire bamboo cooking and dining experience was just so magical within the bamboo forest setting. To top it all up, when we finished the main course, we had coffee made by Robyn, served in freshly made bamboo cups.
After lunch, we started on the dam project, located just 10m from where we enjoyed our lunch. Mother Tomei cleared the stream of fallen bamboo and debris while Father Gun prepared the necessary bamboo poles for the dam construction.
They started by lining the width of the stream with bamboo mat, held in place with bamboo poles driven into the riverbed. They then lined the dam with banana and bamboo leaves and held them in place with rocks and soil. We carried more rocks from the surrounding to reinforce the dam construction. Within 30 minutes, the dam project was proudly completed.
After the dam was completed, it was time for us to plant trees as part of the conservation project. We planted 5 young tree seedlings just 10m from the dam and carved each of our names onto the protective bamboo poles that we erected around each seedling.
Father Gun and Mother Tomei worked so beautifully well as a couple throughout the afternoon. They didn’t seem to need any elaborate planning or constant communication. Each seemed to understand what the other was doing and was about to do so mutually well. Each went about performing his/her tasks swiftly and silently, yet coming together and supporting one another at just the right timing. What a perfect couple!
We returned to the bungalow via a different route, a longer one that meddled through the forest. We arrived at the bungalow at 3.30pm. Jin and Robyn did some reading while I went down to the paddy fields with my Fuji FinePix S9500 to capture egrets in flight. But the birds stayed well clear of my sight while I enjoyed my rest at the Singapore plot.
I enjoyed my last cold shower with mountain water with Robyn. We shall miss this kind of natural cold shower for a while. After dinner, Robyn invited Father Gun and Mother Tomei to join her at the movie – we played the Mama Mia DVD using my MacBook.
Kitt arrived at about 7.30pm and we had a good discussion about possible experiential farm nature experiences besides rice farming at the Tigerland Rice Farm. I was impressed by Kitt’s ideas to work with the National Park to do tree planting as part of all his trekking trips around Chiang Rai. I also suggested the Bamboo Experience and the Farm By Night Experience at the farm for them during seasons outside of rice planting (Jun-Jul) and harvesting (Oct-Nov). I offered to architect the various experiential programs and help them through the www.tgerlandricefarm.biz website.
Day 6 (22 Nov) – Departing Chiang Rai
Jin and I woke up at 7.15am to enjoy the morning cool air of the farm. We especially cherished being in such a natural farm environment in the hills and wonder when would be our next visit here. While I'll be promoting this rice farming experience to Singapore families, students and teachers in 2009 and beyond, we are not certain whether we would personally lead the trips here in 2009, given the many destinations around the world that we aspire to visit. But I’m certain this would not be the last of our visit here. Well, we shall let fate unfolds naturally.
At 10.30am, Father Gun and Mother Tomei drove us to Kitt’s office in Chiang Rai city. There, Father Gun signed the certificates as the Dean of our rice farming project and we had a simple certificate presentation ceremony outside Kitt’s office. Yes, we're now certified rice farmers!
We enjoyed a good Pad Thai lunch with Father Gun and Mother Tomei at the same stall where we had the last meal with Kitt back in June. At 12noon, Kitt, Father Gun and Mother Tomei sent us to the Chiang Rai International Airport. Father Gun was sad to see us leave.
But we shall be back, soon.
The Yongs at the Singapore rice paddy at Tigerland Rice Farm