River Of Life – northern Pak Yam village has written its own destiny with the help of a local delicacy – fermented fish, or plaa raa. Nithinand Yorsaengrat reports
It’s one of the most idyllic, peaceful and self-sufficient villages in the Kingdom. Located at the confluence of two rivers, its 4,500-rai hinterland comprises rice paddy and marshland which is flooded during the annual rains. Home to nearly 1,000 people, the average annual income of the 132 households here is a respectable Bt50,000 a year; and some bring in as much as Bt100,000.
Welcome to Pak Yam, a charming settlement about one’s hours drive west of the provincial capital, Nakhon Phanom. Somehow it escaped the worst excesses of government-initiated development projects and is today a shining example of how people can be happy if they treat their environment with respect and learn to live in harmony with nature instead of trying to conquer it.
The Yam river flows down from the Phu Phan mountain range to join the Songkhram River at Pak Yam (hence its name) in Si Songkhram district near the border with Sakhon Nakhon province. It’s hard to believe but this village is in Isaan, the Northeast, a region associated in the minds of most city folk with low rainfall, a dry season which is longer and hotter than the rest of the country, subsistence farming and poverty. Shallow sandy loams cover a large part of the Korat Plateau, the region’s main topographical feature. Their generally low fertility partly explains the lower economic level of the region.
Delineated by the Dong Phaya Yen and Petchabun mountain ranges to the west, the slopes of Phanom Dongrak to the south and the east and the Mekong River to the east and north, this roughly square-shaped plateau was an inland basin engulfed by the sea some 50 million years ago. About 6,000 years back, Isaan was became one of the first areas in the country to be tilled. The fertile alluvial loams found along the main rivers were exploited, and large settlements sprang up along tributaries of the Mekong Rivers particularly in the Sakhon Nakhon Basin (Songkhram, Huay Luang and Mong rivers) and the Korat Basin (Chi and Mool rivers).
The way of life was to remain relatively unaltered for thousands of years. Political control rested at various times with Khmer, Laotian and Siamese rulers but these changes had little effect on ordinary village folk. They led a contented existence, casting their nets in the unpolluted rivers for fish, gathering firewood, fruit, greens, culinary and medicinal herbs from freshwater swamps which the locals call paa bung paa thaam. A bountiful Mother Nature amply provided for all their simple needs.
Since there were no all-weather roads, and water levels made travelling by boat difficult during the dry and rainy seasons, villages were relatively isolated for most of the year. But life was good. Every year in villages like Pak Yam all over Isaan, a flurry of activity greeted the first rains in July; crops and vegetation flourished; wildlife became more active; the Mekong overflowed its banks, depositing fertile silt on the land, and hundreds of species of fish swam up tributary rivers to breed.
The catch was so abundant that fish had to be preserved by drying, salting or fermenting (using large earthenware jars called hai hin or hai saen to make plaa raa). Rice seedlings were transplanted into the paddy fields. When the floods subsided in September, wild plants were gathered and small mammals hunted in the forests, roofs repaired, stocks of food stored to last until the next rainy season.
During the dry and hot seasons, which can last for up to nine months, pools of saline water were evaporated in the sun to produce kluea sinthao, rice and crops like corn and tapioca were cultivated in the fertile wetlands, bamboo was collected for fuel and to make tools and handicrafts, clay gathered to make pottery and earthenware containers.
Then came the 1960s and dramatic changes. The first five-year National Economic and Social Development Plan was issued in 1961. The following year, the prime minister, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, came out with an Isaan development project. World Bank loans were secured to construct large dams, forests were logged, factories built. There was minimal consultation with local people and as a result many of these projects were poorly thought out.
By 1973, half the remaining forest cover in Isaan had been cleared. The destruction of watershed area causing flooding and drought. More wells were dug to meet the demand for water causing a drop in the water table, an increasing problem with soil salination and a drop in crops yields.
Completed in 1989, the Pak Mool Dam was hailed as a major achievement. But soon local people noticed that fish were less plentiful in the Chi and Mool rivers and that marshland was drying up. Thousands of Isaan fishermen lost their livelihood and had to leave to seek work in urban areas.
While eking out a living in the Korat Basin became increasingly difficult because of the dam, people further north in the Sakhon Nakhon Basin were relatively less affected. During the course of a 10-year study of the Songkhram River, Chavalit Vidthayanon, a biologist with the Natural Aquatic Resources Museum at the Department of Fisheries, counted 172 kinds of fish. Inhabitants included plaa nuanchan (Cirrhinas microlepis), a type of carp which is now apparently extinct in Central Thailand, and plaa siew khrae (dwarf rasbora; Boraras micros), the third smallest fish in the world whose only habitat is the wetlands of the upper Northeast.
So abundant was the catch that villagers at Pak Yam had a surplus and began making plaa raa, dried fish and fish sauce for sale.
”From about 1957 onward, the villagers began perfecting their fish-catching techniques,” said Sopsan Petckham, a graduate of Mahasarakham University who wrote his master’s degree thesis in 1997 on economic and societal changes at Pak Yam (”Pak Yam: Moo Baan Pramong Nai Lum Maenam Songkhram Kub Karn Plianpleang Thang Sethakit Lae Sangkhom”). ”They made many new specialised tools to catch fish including tong [long nets which were laid across the upper reaches of the river].
”Now the village is one of the main centres in the country for the production of fermented fish. Buyers come from far and near. Since the villagers can sell jars of plaa raa for Bt600 apiece, a typical family there earns between Bt50,000 and Bt60,000 a year and some households take in as much as Bt100,000.”
The fish is caught in the river and in marshland pools in October and November and the villagers spend the next four or five months making fermented fish products. And Sopsan is convinced that Pak Yam has prospered simply because the Songkhram River has not been dammed and the area has so far managed to escape the attentions of well-meaning but short-sighted development projects.
”That’s why the people there lead such happy lives.”
A proposal made in 1995 to dam the Songkhram river has since been shelved by the government for lack of finance.
”If they do go ahead and build a dam at some point,” said Sopsan, ”it will destroy not only the livelihood of the Pak Yam villagers but also the ecological system of its hinterland.
”I’m really hoping that this, the last surviving virgin river basin in Isaan, will be left alone as long as possible. Pak Yam is a very good example of how a community, left to its own devices, can take care of itself. Government officials should pay more attention to what has happened here. Isaan people need the full support of the government but they don’t need outsiders to make decisions for them.”