- By Stephen Shrubsall,
Whilst rice paddies are farmed for human benefit, a wide selection of wildlife can also reap the dividends.vBeing the world’s largest exporter of rice, the majority of Thailand’s rural areas are a lush, green quilt of paddy fields. These are almost hypnotic in their format, with row upon row of meticulously placed plants stretching as far as the horizon. Typically, rice in Thailand is planted in the more recumbent regions of the country so, unlike in nearby China and Vietnam, terracing is not so common.
So it was in the central plains of Thailand, in a province known as Saraburi that I took an evening stroll through the dramatic setting that makes up the Thai countryside.
Because paddy fields are essentially flooded parcels of land, they require nigh-on constant irrigation. In a country where the wet season lasts an average of four months, the rice farmers or chao naa, literally ‘person rice’, of Thailand need a contingency plan for when Mother Nature ceases to assist with the dousing of the vast expanse of dusty croplands.
This is where man and nature combine their brains and indeed brawn; a series of small canals or klongs have been constructed by local farm workers. These run parallel to the rice plots at regular intervals and are perpetually replenished by a nearby river, a water pump stoically laboring through the remorseless tropical humidity.
Efficiency isn’t the word; these folk have without doubt mastered their land, which has been passed down through generations, each doing their bit to perfect the process.
Helping Hands (and Mouths)
Being a semi-aquatic crop, you would expect the rice fields to be rich in semi-aquatic wildlife in turn, and you’d be most correct in that assumption.
A wealth of frogs, toads, newts, fish, various species of rodents and even turtles can be seen but more predominantly heard (the frogs could do you permanent cochlear damage should you forget your ear defenders), so these provide a rather apt soundtrack as you slowly ramble your way down the klong or canal paths. These small reptiles’ and rodents’ integration with the rice plantations is very beneficial to the farmers in helping rid the crops of snails and parasites. However, there’s no such thing as a free lunch and the threat of predators such as snakes, monitor lizards and the Asian Open Bill Stork is very real indeed.
Stealthily gliding in amongst the fields are vipers, pythons, kraits, cobras and king cobras as well as many other species of non-venomous snake. The most common visitors to the rice paddies are pythons, be it the aggressive reticulated variety or the comparatively sedate Burmese python. Although these snakes are not venomous they are still a force to be reckoned within the rural tropics, using their body mass to constrict their victims.
The monitor lizard can grow up to an impressive 8 feet in length and has two efficient forms of attack. Its bite is teeming with bacteria so infections can be caused during and after administering the wound. Secondly, for larger prey, the monitor will use its tail to ‘whip’ its designated enemy. Although the lizard’s gait is comparable to that of John Wayne on Valium, they are surprisingly quick and offer unseen knock-out blows to their unsuspecting targets.
I once had the fortune to witness a standoff between a large python and a monitor lizard which ended quite dramatically. Who do you think won?
When I arrived at the scene of the battle, some 20 metres from where I was standing, jaw on the floor, the monitor lizard had scuttled into a nearby thicket and the python was missing its head, the remainder of its body still twitching from the assault.
The storks decorate the skies over the rice paddies from dawn till dusk, where they can be seen making regular swooping sorties, beak first, into the water-filled fields.
They often nest within very close proximity to their intended prey and can be seen heading home in a neat stream come sunset after a hard day circling the flourishing greenery.
The Harvesting Process
Once the work of the various rodents and reptiles is complete and the irrigation channels have successfully nutured a healthy crop, it is time for the harvesting process to begin. Traditionally, this is a most hands-on approach; tractors and mechanical harvesters often being a too great reach from a humble rice farmer’s price range. Never deterred by the blistering heat, buffaloes donned in ploughs patiently stride the length and width of every field their owners farm and a gang of labourers carry baskets of rice which they will supplement with pickings from the land (papaya trees grow with gusto in the tropics) or a speared rodent or snake if they should cross paths.
Sickles are then branded and the painstaking process of harvesting the rice paddies commences. Cut at the bottom-most point, the plant is then vigorously shaken to rid the rice grains of their temporary housing. This process is repeated until the whole crop is gathered.
From paddy to plate it’s a rather hot and sweaty business but the farmers are respected and rewarded with the Thai notion that every grain of rice on the plate should be eaten and absolutely none wasted.
Indeed, with so many involved in the process, who’d have the heart to scrape their leftovers into the bin?
Get Back to Nature
I would thoroughly recommend to anyone who has plans to visit Thailand to take some time out of their hectic schedule of beaches, bars and beer and stroll amongst the plentiful rice plantations on offer here, firstly, to experience the sights and sounds and secondly to witness a definitive food chain.