The fauna of Thailand are large and bad tempered. Giant ants will hitch a ride on your sandals and sting you even when they are not in any danger of being crushed; the spiders are covered in devil symbols and can grow to the size of your face; and bees build their giant drop-like nests right by the passionfruit you had otherwise wanted to pick.
Life in the Karen village you are living in is self-sufficient by necessity; the only income available to them is through seasonal work on the garlic and strawberry farms in Samoeng, and most of the money goes to buy petrol and replacement tools. Rice is an integral part of the Thai diet (the Karen greeting is Oh-mu-lah: ‘have you eaten rice?’) and a condition of your stay is that you help with the harvest. All of the rice will feed the village for a year, and you found yourself working in fields owned by people you hadn’t met before.
In the paddies you are knee-deep in cold, thick mud cutting and tying the rice into neat bundles. The razor-edged leaves slice painlessly through the soft flesh on your face and wrists, and it’s not until you start sweating (and feel the accompanying stinging) that you realise you’ve been cut at all. Your calves get carved up by the root-end of the rice stalks, and the churning action of your feet bring up the leeches who are without a doubt the world’s worst kissers.
While fending off the fierce attention of the sun, you must also battle with the ants and the large arachnids that skate across the surface of the mud flaunting their hairy fangs. The spiders are generally polite and will only bite when stepped on. The ants on the other hand are uneducated savages who injudiciously sting (en masse) the leg that saves them from drowning. You have very little patience for that sort of thuggish behaviour and therefore had no qualms about flicking them all to their death. Bon voyage and good riddance.
After the rice has been cut, bundled, and dried by the sun, it is gathered together and beaten in order to separate the grains from the stalks. In the weeks you stayed with the village you processed several hundred kilos of rice. It took thousands of hours to plant, tend and harvest the rice, and then a few hundred more to remove the husks from the grains to make it ready to eat. Originally that last step was done by hand, by hammering the grains and sweeping away the indigestible husks, but recently one of the villagers bought a machine that speeds up the process so everyone shares that.
The almighty effort required is easily overlooked when the final product comes with a low price and neat plastic packaging. Never again will you eat it with such carelessness: the rice fields have emotionally and physically changed you (physically, because your legs still look funny almost a month after the rash went down).
Coming up: How and Why Rice is Making Everyone in Thailand Upset.