04 September 2015

A Thai Holiday and Oil Palms

Welcome back. It took three years, but I finally got John Lukens to encore his earlier guest posts on food in Thailand (Thai Food Travels - Part 1, Thai Food Travels - Part 2). John and his wife Thitiya still split the year between New England and Thailand. Instead of food this time, he’ll take us along as he’s introduced to Thai agricultural practices.

The first day of Songkran, the traditional Thai New Year, fell on Monday, April 13 this year. Water plays a major role in the celebration, perhaps in hopeful anticipation of mid-May’s monsoon rains. At one time, young Thais would respectfully greet their elders by gently pouring perfumed water onto their cupped hands. Today the younger set gathers on the streets and exuberantly douses passers-by, cars, buses and themselves with water, using buckets, water cannon and the occasional fire hose. Almost anything goes.

To avoid the splash and dash this year, we accepted an invitation to visit friends in Ranong, some 350 miles (570 km) south of Bangkok.

Map of Thailand with enlarged section showing cities mentioned.
 (Modified from www.travelblog.org/Photos/6547487)
The train ride took us along the coast, with views of limestone mountains on our right and glimpses of the sea across sugar-palm studded rice paddies on our left.  
Train #41 at Lang Suan Station, Chumpon.
We left the train in Chumpon, where we were met by Aew, my wife Thi’s friend from school, and her husband Tiew, a retired general contractor, now in the business of growing oil palms--among other ventures.
A sample of Tiew's oil palms.
The intense rain of the previous three days had cleared just in time for our visit. After breakfast the next morning, Tiew asked his foreman to give us a tour of the plantation, which covers 500 rai or about 200 acres. We were joined by his caretaker. Both men were in their 70s, pleasant, knowledgeable and in excellent physical condition. 
The author’s wife Thi with the plantation foreman and caretaker.
The foreman had planted the palms about five years ago. They bear fruit after three years and were laden at the time of our visit. With water and fertilizer, good quality fruit can be harvested twice a month. Tiew had installed spray irrigation as a precaution against drought, distributing water from a tiny dam high up in the watershed via a 4 inch (10 centimeter) pipe to a network of plastic pipes and hoses.

Walking to the dam, we encountered a harvesting party on the way. One of the young men demonstrated how he used a long, steel, sharp, chisel-like tool, to remove the fruit, cutting at the base of the stem.

Sharpening the tool used to cut the fruit from the oil palm.
Cutting the fruit from the oil palm.
The fruit looked like huge strawberries. It was judged ready for picking when the seed covering (exocarp) color was deep ruby red.
Oil palm fruit.
Ripe oil palm seeds.
Each palm yielded two or three fruits. These were piled by the plantation's dirt tracks to be collected in a few days and trucked to a store yard, sorted by quality and finally trucked to a mill where the fruit is cleaned, steam-sterilized and fed into huge steel rollers.

The oil is extracted from the seed, filtering out impurities and using centrifuges to separate the oil from residual water. Eventually the refined oil finds its way into cooking oils, shortenings, butter substitutes, nondairy creamers and even ice cream as well as soaps.

Oil palm seed sliced open.
We left the plantation after an hour, following old laterite logging roads up the hill and passing stately lines of Areca palms, a small waterfall and several varieties of orchids, both on the trees and in the ground.
Plantation caretaker with orchids.
Author at rest stop on the way to the dam.
As it turned out, we were a convenient (and willing) excuse for the caretaker to examine the water supply. The intake was protected by netting, but a mass of leaves had to be fished out to clear it.

That task accomplished, we bushwhacked back downhill until we found another old logging road, which led to a rubber plantation, the caretaker’s house and the short distance back to our hosts’ house for our next holiday adventure.

Thi on the way down through the rubber plantation.

John's account of their holiday vacation adventures continues next Tuesday, when he shares the ins and outs of enlisting a monkey to harvest coconut. You won’t want to miss it. Thanks for stopping by.

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