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Slithering North, 20 years on Part 2
By Steve Van Beek

Twenty years ago, Steve Van Beek, paddled a small teak boat from the headwaters of the Ping River on a 58-day journey to the sea. He recently revisited the area. This is Part 2 of his impressions. The italicised text is from Slithering South where the original journey was chronicled.

I rode Highway 107 south through Chiang Dao, searching for Baan Ba Jee. Since I’d approached it in 1988 by river, I had no idea where it lay. There were no road signs directing me to it but at a likely junction, I turned down a side road. Luck was with me and a few km. on, I stumbled on the village. At a small store, I asked for Mun Kiankham and was direct down a road I did not recognize, so much had changed.

Nai Mun, now 73, was the taciturn farmer on whose porch we’d tipped our chairs back against the wall, cowboy-style, and compared farming techniques in the U.S. and Thailand: questions about planting in the snow, the use of tractors, seeding rice fields by airplane. This time, however, he seemed confused about who I was. When I reminded him of my previous visit, he brightened. “Of course I remember you,” and proceeded to recount everything that had transpired during my brief stay in his village. “I wondered what had happened to you,” he said. He seemed as eager to find out about my life as I was to learn of the village’s progress. I fondly recalled the evening spent at his home:

After dinner, I laid my map on the floor to check my progress for the day. A dozen small bodies flopped down to peer excitedly at it. Tracing my route on the map, I calculated the distance by bending a twist-tie to the contours of the winding river, then straightening it and measuring it against the scale in the map’s margin. Boys and girls watched me intently, wondering in loud whispers what I was doing. Before I had a chance to answer, one little girl had sounded out the name, written in Thai, of a village near the river. The others immediately leapt to that section. Another village name was deciphered. They began moving rapidly across the map towards the village at the end of my red twist-tie. Finally, one child pounced on Baan Ba Jee and the whispers erupted into cries of delight as a dozen more children crowded in. Suddenly, this odd piece of paper had relevance to their lives. Their excited shouts attracted the older men who knelt down to confirm their discovery.

Ban Ba Jee had prospered. The land was good and the water was plentiful although he also noted, as Chutam had, that the Ping had shrunk because a lot of water was being pumped out to irrigate crops. As I had heard earlier, village populations were ageing as younger people sought better lives elsewhere, although retaining their familial ties. The elders were resigned to the exodus of their children. “At least it takes pressure off the land,” he said. With sons leaving for the cities, fathers no longer had to divide their inheritances into smaller and smaller parcels for their children to till. Still, Mun missed the tight-knit structure and the sense of continuity that nuclear families had provided.

My next stop was south of Chiang Mai. I’d had a particular fondness for a pig farmer named Yen Sancharoen, the headman of Hua Kuang. Like most of the villages I’d visited, it wasn’t on the map but I knew it was somewhere near Sanpatong. A road now skirted the river so to ensure I wouldn’t miss the village, I drove south of Sanpatong to Chom Thong, turned east until I hit the Ping, then turned again and headed upriver.

The 2008 Ping was a bit of a shock. In 1988, two dams, at Saraphi and farther downstream, had blocked it. Now, I found three more and would encounter more the following day as I rode north. These big dams impounded so much water that the areas below them were virtually dry. More alarming was that river dredging was now a major operation. I recalled that…

…Rounding a bend, I nearly collided with a group of men digging gravel from the river bottom for urban construction projects, the water silting where their jop (hodags) had cut.

Now, power shovels dug deep into the river bed to load lines of articulated trucks with gravel. As I watched from the bank, I was joined by two farmers who complained that the dredging was causing their land to fall into the river. Officials, they claimed, turned a deaf ear to their pleas. Land loss was nowhere more evident than further up the road where an entire lane had fallen into the Ping. From the degree of undercutting, it seemed clear that more road sections would soon follow.

As I entered yet another non-descript village, I glanced at a road sign—a modern addition—and saw “Hua Kuang, Soi 5”. At a roadside stand, I asked where Yen Sancharoen’s house was, since I recognized nothing. “Right there”, they said, and pointed across the road. Again, fortune had smiled!

Yen was another man whose smile radiated sunshine. And when he saw me, that’s exactly what he did. Of course, he remembered me, he said. He was now 75 and had been frail since he’d lost 30 cm. of his colon in a cancer operation five years previously. The availability of surgical facilities at a nearby hospital suggested a radical improvement in the village’s quality of life.

But much had changed. Down the street had been his pig farm.

Hua Kuang’s human population was outnumbered three-fold by the pigs it raised. These were not the black, nasty-tempered, sway-backed wild boar that snuffled through most villages but pink giants bred from superior stock and raised by farmers to marketable weight. I had arrived at swine supper time and we could barely hear ourselves above the squeals and grunts of pigs jostling for position at the feed troughs.

The barn was now a vacant lot, the farm having been re-located to the edge of the village; silence now reigned. Yen’s family house was bigger but it was the altered setting that struck me. I recalled a village road shaded by trees, a park-like setting. Nearly all the trees had been chopped down.

After a dinner, not of pork, but of fish, we went for a stroll and I discovered that the village had acquired a new agro-industry to supplement the pig farms. At the riverbank, I gaped at fish farms with pens filled with Ruby fish (Tubtim). This was not a modest enterprise but a major endeavor. Fish farms stretched virtually bank to bank, up and down river for as far as I could see.

Knowing how the farms pollute the water with the chemical feed used to fatten the fish and the excrement they produce, I was taken aback. This water, also tainted by insecticide-saturated run-off from the fields eventually ends up in Klong Prapha above Bangkok where it is processed into household drinking water. The mere thought was revolting.

That evening, we talked until late and then I bedded down on a wooden platform softened with a thick mattress, and slept peacefully.

Several times during the night, I was jolted to wakefulness certain that someone was being stabbed. It took me a moment to realize it was only a pig having a nightmare.

The following day, I continued upriver to Chiang Mai, passing more dams, dredging, fish farms (they increased in number the further I went), and bigger pumps pulling water from the river. It also brought a disturbing new element: water hyacinth. Formerly, a river pest in the lower river, it has now invaded the Ping, blanketing the river’s surface. Near Chiang Mai, foamy pollution flows into the river from side canals.

While traditional uses of the river—fishermen net, cast, and dip in its waters from wooden boats growing old; and kids and water buffalo still swim in it—are still evident, the river more and more resembles a mundane canal, stripped of the trees which formerly shaded it. Perhaps it is only a romantic conceit, perhaps a river is really only an exploitable natural resource, a carrier of garbage and effluvia, a handy view for condo developers who continue to erect buildings at its edge in violation of zoning laws, but it seemed to me that something was being lost. The Ping I recalled and loved is still there but it is hanging on for dear life.

Did the journey reaffirm my love of the river? Yes…but. I relished meeting old friends who had shared the adventure, but the river itself did not elicit the same emotions because I was too distressed by what was being done to it. It was not being treated with the awe and mystery that the nation’s lifeline deserves. What is its fate in another 20 years? It’s risky to predict but if it continues on its present path, its future seems imperiled.

Could I paddle down it again? With a lot more time and determination, yes. I’d have to plough through water hyacinth, haul my boat over dam crests (plus dozens of small irrigation dams), drag it through the shallows below dams, and navigate between the fish farm pens ducking the guy wires, a tougher, more time-consuming journey.

Would I want to? I don’t yet have an answer. Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, wrote “You cannot step twice into the same river.” Little did he know how appropriate his words were.

For more on the 1988 trip, see www.steveanbeek.com

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