Watching An Isaan Rice Harvest

Fact: Thailand is the worlds leading rice exporter. In contrast the rest of this Blog may be not as factual or reliable. After traveling for many years to Thailand I have had a growing (no pun intended) interest in how rural Thais in Isaan relate to the ever-important rice harvest.

Each trip back to Thailand, my wife Mali and I spend a fair chunk of each trip in her home village of Ban Phutsa in Isaan. We generally return each year from Australia around the end of October. As such we tend to be there from the beginning to the end of the rice harvest in and around the village.

rice harvest

When we arrive, it is generally just the lull before the storm. Moving around the village you can see people getting ready by sharpening rice sickles, stacking and repairing rice sacks but in the main just relaxing before the maximum physical effort that will be demanded in the coming weeks.

As the landscape begins to lose the last of the green and slowly turns to brown the rice is ready to be picked. Due to Isaan having the most marginal land and fickle weather in the Kingdom, no mistakes can be made. Unlike the lush rice fields in central Thailand which can manage at least two harvests a year, in contrast Isaan farmers basically only get one harvest per year. They have to get it right each year or suffer the consequence.

For about a month there is constant frenetic action in all the districts of rural Isaan. One of the initial headaches is organising labour. This seems to be done in a variety of ways. Many farmers simply do it themselves with their families or sometimes they engage friends and neighbours to help. Once they have harvested their fields, they in turn go and help the neighbours harvest their crop. But in the main most farmers have to employ day labour to clear their fields which often means having to borrow the money to pay their wages.

returning from the fields

Early, on each day of the harvest you will see groups of villagers, their bodies covered head to toe ( including their heads with scarves and balaclavas) to ward off the sun climbing into utilities and trucks to begin the journey out to the rice fields and a day of heavy labour. Nothing stops this process. Last November we attended a village wedding – after the wedding breakfast in the morning, I noticed several of the guests quietly climbing into trucks to go back out and continue the harvest.

Once out in the fields, the farmers begin the harvest. Moving slowly and methodically through the fields, the rice stalks are cut with sickles and then tied in sheaves and dropped behind each worker. All the time the farmers keep an eye on the weather – a sudden downpour can often mean days of trying to dry out the rice. Sometimes there are other problems – last year, the rice fields around the village of Banphutsa still had so much water in the fields, that many farmers literally had to paddle boats out to cut the rice.

The farmers tend to break at midday to have lunch and rest for an hour or so. Many farmers will have a shot or two of rotgut whiskey sisip to take the ache out of their shoulders and backs. On several occasions over the years I have been riding my motorbike out along a rural road and been hailed over by complete strangers in the fields to have a drink or share their midday meal. I never cease to be humbled by the hospitality of Isaan people.

After lunch and more hours of work, the farmers pile back into their trucks and in long convoys motor back to their villages. As you pass them late in the afternoon, the people are visibly tired but nothing seems to subdue the laughter or take the smile off their faces.

drying rice

Of course during the weeks of the harvest not all the activity is out in the fields. Traveling out on the roads you constantly come across trucks loaded with rice or people moving from one destination to another. The roads themselves are often used for a secondary purpose. Farmers quite often lay tarpaulins on the flat sealed roads and dry their rice on them. Local drivers just shrug and detour around the tarps on the road. In local towns during the harvest, the streets are clogged with farm trucks and their owners doing business.

It has always amused me to be standing in a Bank queue when a farmer walks in with his face still covered with a balaclava and nobody pays any attention. If that happened in Australia I would probably involuntarily raise my arms or spread-eagle on the floor.

And then finally, the harvest is complete and the farmers then need to assess gains and losses.

In the final analysis, the harvest is in practical terms economic activity. Farmers are tested by the vagaries of rice prices, debt payment and the basic need to provide food and shelter for their families. One of the traps has always been debt with the end result that much of the sweat of their labour is passed onto others.

threshing rice

But there is some light at the end of the tunnel. The bigger money from my observation is the value adding to the harvest such as the husking and milling of the rice and its final transportation to market. Once the province of Chinese families, their role is now being challenged by a growing number of village entrepreneurs like my good friend Khun Bong and his wife Nid in the village of BanPhutsa. By means of hard work and savvy borrowing, Bong has moved on to buy both a tractor and a rice thresher. He now makes more money from ploughing other farmers land and threshing their rice after the harvest than he did by simply being a farmer. More power to him and people like him.

Likewise many farming families are now scrimping and saving to send their children to the growing Technical colleges in the towns and cities so that they have a more prosperous future than simply working in the fields.

But for the time being once the harvest is complete, its time to relax for a while and then get ready to replant and start all over again.

Back in Australia when we stop off at an Asian supermarket to buy our Thai Jasmine rice I can now appreciate the effort it takes to create that product. I now devote my previous indifference to the meat and potatoes that I buy at Woolworths.


13 responses to “Watching An Isaan Rice Harvest

  1. A fascinating insight into the life of the backbone of Thai society -the farmer.
    Great stuff (as usual) Bill. Keep ’em coming !

  2. great piece.

  3. Bill, I’ve been traveling in SE Asia for a fair number of years, and have long wondered about what exactly was going on with the rice harvests, and you’ve just answered many of my questions, and so I thank you. but I’ve still got more. What about the rice planting?

  4. Carl asked about the planting of the rice. Currently as a commuter tourist to Thailand I only get to see the harvest but not the planting due to the time of the year we visit.

    An ambition of mine is once closer to retirement to spend say six months at a time in Thailand especially in Isaan and be able to take in the full cycle of both planting and harvesting the rice.

    One thing I have both observed but mainly been told about is the absentee planting and harvesting of the rice by a significant number of Isaan villagers. As is well documented large numbers of Isaan people migrate to jobs outside of Isaan. Quite a number of these people apparently beg or borrow time off from work to both plant and later harvest their rice crop. In between family and friends keep an eye out whilst the rice is growing.

    By the way Carl I read your Web Blog, in particular your blog on Asian Street Food. I’m afraid I disagree with you but its refreshing to read another point of view on this subject. Most comment on Asian street food tends to lean towards the “wow” side.


  5. Just too bad they get paid so little the midleman get double in price almost 100% profit event with the GOV. controled price because the farmer needs the money so they accept money lower than the suggested price.

  6. It’s a pleasure to read your Isaan stories! Fascinating and well written.

  7. The planting is well worth your intended visit also. Similar in that family members and large groups get together to first plough and prepare the fields and then the long hours of bending over planting rice. Similar lunch time breaks, where people sit together and laugh and chat.

    Hmmm, it concerns me that so many people get away from farming, although I can understand it is hard work and poorly paid. But in the end Thai culture (and much of human culture) is a farming culture and although human life can exist without shopping malls, lawyers, salesmen, etc; farmers are reasonably important. It is a shame they are not properly financially rewarded. Thanks to His Majesty, The King for his efforts to make farmers’ lives a little easier.

  8. There seems to be a strong duality between rural-urban divide in Thailand. I know many people in Krungthep who don’t even know what it means to be a paddy farmer. That’s real sad. There can never be two Thailand, in the end Thailand is still a largely agricultural economy.

    As Prajao Yuhua says so strongly, Thailand should have a sustainable economy…..

  9. Jasmine rice! The stuff dreams are made of…and now Bill, you’ve given us a detailed inside-the-job of harvesting the white gold of Siam.

    I’ve heard that there are many kinds of rice in the Kingdom, wonder if anyone know exactly how many type of rice are grown.

    In USA, the various Asian markets sell mainly Thai Jasmine rice & India Basmati rice, both are good, but the Jasmine rice is our favorite!

    Bill, thanks again for such a great blog, the pictures will bring back fond memories, seeing the rice laid out on the side of the road, the workers bundled up,etc…excellent!

  10. According to this article, 3,500 varieties of rice are grown in Thailand.

  11. Oops! Correction: that should be 3500 varieties of rice grow in Thailand (some grow wild)

  12. A great article. We run a vacation villa in the middle of the rice paddies near Udon Thani, and often guests will ask specifics of how rice is planted etc, and want to get involved in the fields (at least for a short time!) Your account will be interesting for them to read!

  13. Jimminy falsename

    Someone said that bankers, sales people are not necessary whilst also saying that they should get more for their products, which is facilitate by bankers and sales people, the world has evolved to what it is, a atural process, if someone didn’t have a need for it it wouldn’t be there.

    Thailand is such a confuing place, how can they on the one hand be weloming lovely people etc. and thy are in some way and they are, but then at the same time do such terrible things to us when we are there, and have a society that basically just doesn’t care, and they do

    also some of the welcoming people in one instance are also the bad people in another, as I escaped to safety I just thought, what the hell man? I still don’t understand it either