The Bud of Ten Years After


Thailand has many superstitions. One concerns rice.

Never joke while eating or else a ghost will steal your rice.

The ghosts will have to wait, for this is the beginning of the rainy season and throughout the Kingdom aging farmers are planting rice. The current price for jasmine rice per tonne from the wholesalers is between 15,000-20,000 baht, which has been guaranteed by the government since last year. Mothers and fathers call their children for help with the crop, but fewer and fewer Thai young work the fields. Manual labor is beneath them. As one old farmer said, “The only thing my son knows how to carry is a mobile phone.”

Several years ago at dawn in Bannok my wife’s father asked, if I wanted to plant rice.

“Plant rice. Know life Thai.”

“I don’t know.”

I had seen rice planting all across South East Asia. It never looked like an easy job.

Not in Bali.

Not in Java.

And not in Thailand.

Maybe you not man. Maybe you ladyboy,” joked Den.

“Ladyboys make more money.”

Not you. You ugly ladyboy.”

My mother-in-law, wife, and daughter laughed at the thought of me as a kathoey.

“Okay I’ll give it a try.”

Finish eat. Go field.”

Nu begged off going. She had had her share of the rice fields as a child. Angie, my daughter came with me, carrying cold beers. She knew my weaknesses better than most.

We arrived at the rice paddies with the sun creeping over the palm trees.

Ten migrant Burmese were already hard at work.

To the west mountains marked the frontier.

The air was gentle, but the first rays of the sun promised a hot one by mid-morning.

“Paw-ter, not do rice,” my daughter begged and pulled me from the path.

Angie was worried about my health.

I was not a young man, but neither was Den, who handed me a shoulder bag crammed with baby rice shots.

See me do.”

He stepped off the path into the brown water and began the traditional repetition of planting rice without ever standing up straight.

Now farang.” Den motioned for me to join him.

I stepped off the path. My bare feet sunk into the soft mud and the water lapped at my thighs. Old stalks poked at my tender soles. My technique of stick the rice shoots into the field were met with harsh criticism from the old farmer in Ban Nok.

“A pig shit rice better than you.” Den was joking, but only half-joking about my effort. He was 65 and his fatless body resembled the starving Buddha.

“I never work rice.”

“I see you never work rice.” Den was planting twenty times faster than me and my daughter laughed from dry ground as did several of the Burmese migrants whom Den had hired to assist with the crop. They got paid about $5 a day with a meal.

I got nothing.

“Farang no work rice.”

I had picked apples as a young boy on the South Shore, but couldn’t recall working on a farm since then. Only ten minutes had passed and I was ready to call it quits. I headed for my daughter, who wore a wide-brimmed hat and long-sleeved shirt to protect her skin from the sun. She grabbed cold beer from the cooler.

“You stop work?” Den nodded with satisfaction.

He had bet his wife that I wouldn’t last more than fifteen minutes.

“Yes, I stop work.” I sat on the dirt and drank a Leo beer in one go.

“You same all farangs.”

“Same all Thais too. Where young Thai?” I waved my hand across the fields.

“Your daughter lazy.”

“Not lazy. Not stupid same kwaii,” Angie disrespectfully muttered under her breath and stormed back to the shaded rice shack.

“I last Thai. After me no Thai grow rice. Then they eat air,” Den shouted after me. “Thailand old now. Not young. No one have baby. Only farang.”

He was right, for Thais have been abandoning the rice fields for work in hotels, factories, and bars. Thai families have been shrinking too. Once Den’s generation is gone, the communal rice tradition of long kek will disappear into the abandoned paddies.

Back at the shack I asked Angie, “If I am old and have no money, will you work rice so I can eat?”

“Mai.” Her refusal was quick. “Growing rice for stupid people.”

“Farmers aren’t stupid.”

“Then why they not rich?”

“Money isn’t everything.” Most rice farmers are hopelessly in debt to the banks and one in Asia worked harder.

“You want work rice?”

“No.”

She brought another beer and hugged me.

“Same me.”

My beer was very cold and I was glad she was my daughter.

Smart and loving.

Always.

Den came over to join me.

Angie gave him a beer.

We gave them together.

A Thai and a farang.

He shouted for the Burmese to get back to work.

“They drink lao later. We too.”

He is the most real Thai I know.

Chai-yo.

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