GRAINS of LIFE
A SMALL KAREN VILLAGE IN THE CHIANG MAI HILLS SETS OUT TO DRAW VISITORS WITH ITS NEW FARMER-BASED TOURISM INITIATIVE
FOR MOST of us, especially in Asia, rice is an integral part of our culinary traditions and our diet. It’s a staple too for the Pga K’nyau residents of Ban Pha Mon but to these ethnic Karen people, the grain itself means so much more.
Located in Chiang Mai’s Doi Inthanon National Park, seven kilometres off the main highway, the small rural community of Ban Pha Mon is home to Pga K’nyau Karen who migrated from China and Myanmar and settled down in this village in Chom Thong District more than 130 years ago.
A breathtaking sea of terraced rice fields and the mountains in the background have turned Pha Mon into something of a tourist attraction since it became part of a community-based tourism initiative more than 10 years ago.
More recently, the villagers have been conducting further research into ways they can use their strongest point – the stunning rice terraces– to draw more tourists to their home.
“We have a bond with rice. Rice is our life, spirit, and soul. Rice is more valuable than money. If you don’t eat rice you will die,” says Boonta Pharueksachimpli, one of the village leaders.
“Every seed [of rice] has its life. It dies three times a year to feed humans,” he adds.
According to Pga K’nyau beliefs, the rice dies the first time when it is sown in the field, a second time when it is harvested and a third time when it is cooked, Boonta explains.
Legend has it that a millionaire and a widow argued over whether rice or money was the most important thing in life. The millionaire gave priority to money while the widow believed rice was more important.
One day, the son of the millionaire cried so hard that the father soaked some money in water and had his son drink the water. But still the boy cried. The father later saw rice immersed in water and brought the rice for his son to eat. And the son stopped crying.
The Karen have been planting rice ever since and have always given priority to the crop.
With a population of 645, Pha Mon village currently has around 264 rai of rice fields. The community produce some 10,000 tons a year, most of it for local consumption, with the balance sold to the Hmong people, another ethnic group living in north of Thailand.
Here, perhaps more than elsewhere, the farmers pay attention to every step of the crop cycle from the preparation of the earth, to sowing and growth, Boonta says.
Before they even start, the farmers conduct more than 30 elaborate procedures along with spiritual rites, he adds.
For example, they will select one member, who they believe will be able to get a good yield, as the leader to take charge of all the processes that year.
Then they must choose the most auspicious day of the week to start planting.
That choice is based on the day that delivered the best-growing rice seedling during the experimental planting they organise ahead of the season.
In Thailand’s central and northeast regions, two to three crops are usually planted during the year but here too the Karen are an exception, planting rice just once in the 12-month cycle.
“Our rice grows for six months. We start to plant from end of May and harvest in October to early November,” says Boonta, who last year led a group of villagers to conduct research into using rice to promote tourism under the farmer-based tourism scheme. Under this initiative, villagers will organise tour programmes that focus on the farmer’s way of life.
The research for the farmer-based tourism project, which was launched last year, is supported by the Thailand Research Fund [TRF]’s community-based research division and is aimed at empowering and strengthening villagers and farmers through research as well as through using tourism to generate extra income to elevate their quality of life.
Ban Pha Mon is one of 10 communities in the pilot project and TRF anticipates that villagers and farmers could earn between Bt500,000 to Bt700,000 per year from tourism, with each household benefiting from no less than Bt35,000 annually.
After a year of studying and collecting information, Boonta and his team could see that their village has the potential for farmer-based tourism.
They can trace back their rice history through eight species, showcase some ancient farming tools as well as the rituals and local wisdom used in the planting of rice terraces and demonstrate the evolution in the way of rice planting.
The researchers are now in the process of finalising the design of route trips and rice walking tours and expect to launch the tour programme for tourists next year before the next planting starts.
The tentative walking route will start from the rice terrace where tourists will learn how the farmers plant and harvest the rice and even have a go at it themselves.
Visitors will also witness the spiritual rites conducted before and during planting, as well as after harvesting to protect the crop from dangers caused by nature and humans.
Along the route, tourists will be able to learn about the ecology as well as about the herbs and plants the villagers use to cure certain ailments.
Demonstrations of how the rice is processed into other products, including desserts, will also be included.
Tourists can choose to stay overnight in a villager’s home to fully immerse themselves in community life. Numbers will however be limited to no more than 20 visitors a day.
Revenue sharing will use the same model as the community-based tourism scheme, with those earning income for the tourism services allocating some five to 10 per cent to the commune for public interest spending, including scholarships for students, healthcare for the elderly and building firebreaks.
“The Karen have a unique way of planting and thinking about their rice. To them, rice is like God. They believe people eat the ‘virtue’ or ‘value’ of rice,” says Somkid Kaewtip, dean of the School of Administrative Studies at Maejo University and an adviser to the TRF’s research division.
The research findings will also change the way others perceive rice, he adds.
“Their ‘ways of rice’ are closely linked to their way of life. So understanding their way of planting rice will help outsiders enjoy a better understanding of the Karen,” Somkid says.
A tourist enjoys the scenery of Ban Pha Mon’s beautiful rice terraces.
Karen women demonstrate how to make “Khao Mud”, a local rice-based dessert.
A sign reading “Ban Pha Mon, a model village for farmer-based tourism” at the entrance to the village
Boonta Pharueksachimpli, second left, and Pha Mon’s research team.
Farmers harvest rice as the sun bathes the fields in gold
After harvesting, farmers thrash the rice to separate the paddy from the plant.
A friendly Pga K’nyau grandma in traditional dress laughs as she watches the visitors
“Bue Pha Doh” rice is the most popular rice species among the Karen.