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Thailand’s ‘Rubber Triangle’

When I was informed I was going to be going on a “field trip” to Chiang Rai to research the current farming practices and trends of Rubber Trees, my parent’s joked that I should “cut them some tread.” I thought the trip would be an adventure less journey up through the northern farming communities looking at tall, skinny, seedlings, void of producing any rubber liquid for many years to come – but what I got was an in-depth look at the lives of farmers, fisherman, and villagers who reside in the Mekong River Basin. It was much more than a research project on rubber trees; it became a sociological display of the people who nourish the country with an abundance of crops and fish. A look at those who have spent their lives learning to live off their land only now to make a transition to farming that will sustain neighboring countries via trade. What I expected to be bland and boring soon became an experience difficult to describe with words other than “so cool!”

On day one we, being P’Gay of the Northern Development Foundation and FTA Watch Group, Por a PNN reporter, and Becky, a Scottish woman who works with Land Reform Rights in Bangkok, ventured north 200 km out of Chiang Mai through the hills towards Chiang Rai. I was told this was our destination, but much to my pleasing we continued through the city further west to Mae Sai, which is the northernmost point in Thailand, passing the Laying Lady mountain range along the way. Named due to its topographical shape, being that of a lady lying down, complete with face, breasts, impregnated belly, and legs, the group of mountains span northern Thailand leading toward the border with Myanmar. After a brief stop in Mae Sai, we continued 35km east toward the Golden Triangle, which is where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos all meet along the mighty Mekong River. I was thrilled at this sight and my response again, was summed up in the words of “so cool!” At one point just a distant land in my thoughts, I was actually standing on the golden triangle marveling at the landscape of three exotic countries, all rolled into one; Myanmar to my left, Laos to my right, my two feet on Thailand, eyes fixed on this triangle of historical wonder. I was told that my “excitement” at these sights by those I was traveling who now found them boring and commonplace was “refreshing” in the least.

After stopping in Chiang Saen to eat Chinese food in Thailand while glancing at Laos on the other side of the river, we continued further east, about 60km along the Mekong to Chiang Khong, where we’d be stationed for the week. I sat that night drinking beers at the Tam-mil-la guesthouse while enjoying music coming from a bar in Houayxay, Laos, again in awe by the fact that I was so close to Laos that I could swim there in a matter of minutes. Once the buzz of my geographical location settled in, it came time to get to work.

Work for me, is well again summed up in the words of “so cool!” For me to be at a loss of words is almost comical, seeing as I am a writer, and the fact that my response to these new sights was limited to “so cool!” became a laughing matter among my colleagues.

Day two began with a meeting at the Mekong-Lanna Natural Resources and Cultural Conservation Network. Given my minimal Thai language experience, I mainly just observed the meeting and its people. In front of me was one man with innocent eyes, who spoke no English but wore a t-shirt that proclaimed, “No Dams” a movement by the International Rivers Network, with a cigarette falling out of his mouth and cup of joe in his hand. Then there was Tuni, who became the object of my interest. A middle-aged male documentary film maker from Laos, whose ears were adorned with thick silver hoop earrings, his lengthy frame covered in a pale pink t-shirt with the words, “The Magnificent Mekong River” inscribed on it, and a grandiose smile across his face as he spoke about his love for the Mekong River and its caves.

The Mekong River is the 12th largest river in the world. It would take two days of driving 24 hours at 100km to cover the length of the river, which is estimated at about 4800km. All inclusive, it surpasses the size of France and Germany combined; from its headwaters in the Tibetan mountains, it runs through the Yunnan province of China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The Mekong is second to that of the Amazon River, in its diversity of plant and animal life.

Tuni explained that there is a movement by the Chinese to blast rapids so that large commercial carriers can pass for trade purposes. I was told that China has already established 3 dams along the river, controlling its flow, and displacing thousands. Tuni took us down to the banks of the river to meet his friends at the River Rapids Protection Outpost, which was merely three thatched roofs, an open fire with jasmine tea boiling, a dug-out boat for fishing, plenty of tobacco for rolling, and fresh rice Whisky for drinking. We sat along the river experiencing what I can best describe as living a Discovery Channel television episode while watching the river flow by, drinking whisky, and observing dancing water snakes, kittens cuddling with mice and wrestling with snakes.

The experience is best left to the inner thoughts of the 76-year old fisherman who has lived off this river his entire life and has spent the majority of his time living where I was sitting observing with amazement. The look in his eyes penetrated the air as he gazed at the river and the wrinkles on his forehead crinkled as he puffed his hand rolled cigarette. His frail, weathered body had become a product of a life of extreme exposure to the surrounding landscape. He became the object of my camera lenses affection as he was the perfect aged man to add to my photo collection of the elder man’s experience throughout the world. When I asked if I could snap shots of him, his reply was, “so long as you make me look handsome,” which was loosely translated from Thai.

Regrettably, we left the outpost, and hiked back up the soft red terrain of the hillside onto the road, where we continued our journey further into the farmlands. Amongst new generations of rubber tree crops we passed such crops as corn, eggplants, passion fruit, bamboo, rice paddies, peanuts, lumyai and oranges along the way. We stopped to photograph the farmers and to interview them on how they felt about the influx of the rubber tree crop.

We continued to Had Bai Village where we viewed a sustainable women’s development project where they were hand weaving intricately designed cloths. While in this village I set out to capture, as best I could, the lifestyle of those living there. I came across children enjoying a sweet treat and riding bicycles, free range chickens as we know them, and those sitting idly on the river side talking with friends. The sun was about to set and a thunder and lighting storm rolled in with an impressive presence, so we left and headed back to our base camp in Chiang Khong.

Day three was committed to learning more about the rubber trees around the area. We drove south on highway 1020 through Thoeng and Wiang Chiang Rung, among others. We traveled on this day with P’Tua, a female with a buzz cut who wore spectacles over her one functioning eye (the other seemed to be missing), and a pin on the lapel of her plaid Camel Cigarette button-down to show her adoration of His Majesty the King.  We drove east with P’Tua to Chiang Kham to stop for a lunch of butchered chicken and masochistically spicy Thai fruit salad before heading deeper into the farm lands.  Passing funeral processions (which is said to be good luck in the Northern culture) and diving further into the rubber tree culture of the area.

That evening, P’Tua invited us all into her home for an authentic northern Thai meal, which consisted of rice, cucumber salad, animal innards, and some other unrecognizable stringy meat substance. My mother once told me to never eat anything up off the floor, but that rule is apparently not enforced in Thailand. We dined eating on the floor in a friendly circle, next to the family’s cherished television set, rice cooker and motorbikes. What appeared to be the basement of the family’s home also doubled as the living room, dining room and motorbike storage area. It was very special to be invited into their home to share a meal with this family, as they offered what little they had, and as a side dish, the mother, aged beyond her years, hair wrapped up, wearing mismatching cloth for clothing, belched her way through the meal. Burping aside, it was a truly wonderful experience and I felt very fortunate to have been part of it.

Day four, brought us back to Chiang Sen but without Becky, she had fallen ill. Our first meeting of the day was with the Thailand Research Foundation, which had two female employees working from there home. Sweet as ice cream they asked if I could go out on the town looking for “farang.”  Farnag, is the Thai word for Westerners, or anyone for that matter who is not from Thailand. They wanted me to go out in search of farang to ask them why exactly it is that they had come to Chiang Sen. I walked over to the Sa Nae Charn guesthouse and met with the owner, Andrew Cheng. 

His Singaporean English was perfect, his eyeglasses all to large for this face, putting those of Nicole Richie’s to shame, his front center tooth missing and his left foot void of a second toe. When I told him I was a journalist, his first question was, “Do you know Joe Cummings?” Joe is the bloke who wrote the supposed ‘Bible’ to traveling through Thailand via means of Lonely Planet. He seemed more interested in a good write up for his guesthouse than friendly banter on tourism in the area. He was proud to boast about his three dogs and four cats, and his long term guests at his “clean and reasonably priced guesthouse.” Over beers Andrew and I chatted about how Chang Sen is coming up; “you know we have a 24-hour 7-11 here in town now” he hesitantly shared, though there was a hint of excitement in his voice.

From the Rubber Triangle to the Golden Triangle, I valued each present moment (like a good Buddhist monk would) in recognition that this sure as hell beats any desk job – “so cool!”

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