Published on September 22, 2007
There are several shrines and offerings in Nong Khao - the white swamp - village in Kanchanaburi that dates back more than 250 years.
To find the crux of life at Baan Nong Khao in Kanchanburi province, look way up high. When the time is right, a tapper scales a towering bamboo ladder to the crown of a fan palm tree. Twenty metres up, he slices off the tip of the flower stalk and lets the juice drip into a bamboo cup.
As you continue watching in amazement he suddenly chops off the cluster of palm fruit, sending it plummeting into the paddy field.
One of the village women, a local guide, steps forward to teach us how to identify and eat the fruit and show us what else it's good for. There are male and female palms, and some of the women here gleefully point out that the male is, well, almost useless.
"The female palm can produce a lot of fruit," says one, "but the male palm is fruitless. Its long, circular tubes distinguish it from the female."
Our guide has a cynical way of relating her tale of uselessness. I see a fleeting poignant look in the faces of some of my fellow male punters. It's like a botany class, but in fact we're just a dozen carefree weekenders trooping along the rice paddy dikes.
Nong Khao - the white swamp - is a large village that dates back more than 250 years, to when Siamese and Burmese were chasing each other on elephant back.
The village's appeal today lies in its surroundings - countryside you want to escape to and spend a week or two on a farm. With Thailand's agricultural decline, urbanites are now doing precisely that.
Here, in a village surrounded by vast stretches of paddy fields dotted with fan palms, you can rub shoulders with toothless Uncle La-or and Uncle Samran the tapper and toddy maker. There's Ma Kob the folk singer and master of rituals, and Auntie Chuab, who makes cakes from parts of palm trees.
They all welcome city-dwellers with big smiles and open arms.
Our trip starts at Wat Indraram, also known as Wat Nong Khao. After a few words of wisdom from the abbot, we're further advised to change our mode of transport. Take the e-taen!
This home-made truck - a single-cylinder engine and wooden flatbed attached - is in the capable hands of La-or, who chauffeurs us around the village, introducing us to every person and even every soi dog.
We stop at several shrines and then head to the tapper's house for a snack of young palm seed and sweet nectar.
"Fan palms, once you start to take notice of them, have remarkable benefits," says Jumbo, the local tour operator. "The leaves are good for weaving baskets and the nectar - the sap from the flower's stump - can be made into an alcoholic toddy.
"Then you have the palm fruit, which is edible at every stage, ranging from the soft seeds to the white buds inside the hard shell, from young and white to a ripening yellow texture."
Having grown up in the Suphan Buri countryside, I shouldn't have asked Jumbo to confirm my memory of what the fruit tastes like. Thirty years ago it was this poor boy's apple. Now, after 15 years in the city, eating one right where it's grown feels more like a privilege.
Just before we leave Samran and his palm plantation, farmer Ma Kob squats on a dike to perform an indemnifying rite. Spreading a mat and decorating it with a bowl of rice, yellow curry, banana and sweets, and stringing items of colourful clothing from a tree branch, he sets out to impress Pho Sop, the Goddess of Rice.
Especially when the rice crop is "pregnant" - about to produce its small flowers for the wind to pollinate - it's a good idea to get Pho Sop on your side. She'll guard the plants against insects and fungi.
"Rice and women are alike when they're pregnant," she says. "They love eating and putting on colourful dresses. That's why we offer these clothes to the goddess. If she's happy she'll protect the crop."
This ritual has become steadily rarer ever since the farmers first started using pesticides.
We backtrack to our e-taen and the village beneath an overhead sun announcing lunchtime. At a traditional house we gather around an old-fashioned stove where Auntie Jom is grilling the flat, round and near-forgotten snack known as paeng ji.
In the days before pizza, this smoky round bread was popular with country kids. It's just a handful of sticky flour dough flattened out and tossed on the fire. You count to 10 and flip it over.
I'm astonished at bumping into this old friend after decades apart. Auntie Jom declares that we should eat 'em while they're hot and I'm first in line.
Next there is cake to munch on. Auntie Chuab greets us with pieces of yellow puffy cake made from ripened palm fruit. Every morning she awakes at 5 and pedals her bicycle through the paddies to gather the fruit. Her treats are regarded as the best of their kind in Nong Khao.
Well fed, we're ready for some shopping, and the village is famous for its unique, multi-coloured pha khao ma - as useful a piece of cloth as was ever devised. You can wrap yourself up in it in happy times or hang yourself with it if things go terribly wrong.
"This may be the last pha khao ma you ever buy because it will last forever," brags one of the locals, Manoo Amnuay.
Nong Khao's tourism promoters have earned the village several awards, but of course the peaceful environs and the fun-loving villagers with their folk culture practically promote themselves.
Plenty of Westerners have come to see Thailand "beyond the guidebook", and the area appeals to city-dwellers who fancy the sublime bliss of breakfast in the gentle breeze of a silent balcony overlooking tranquil fields of rice.
"Most Thais book for a two-night homestay, usually Friday and Saturday, and spend the weekend exploring the village or just doing nothing," says Jumbo.
"Westerners tend to stay longer and try different things, like growing the rice or even harvesting it."
I wanted a little more: I yearned to try the "top job" and brave the ladder, all the way to the crown of a fan palm. But I just couldn't be sure I'd make it back to Bangkok in one piece.