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.

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