Last Saturday Tawn and I made a trip up to Kanchanaburi province to attend an agricultural fair. Kanchanaburi is about 150 km northwest of Khrungthep – roughly a two and a half hour drive if you include a stop to stretch your legs.
Kanchanaburi is one of the largest provinces in the kingdom. Nestled along the border with Myanmar, the province is mountainous and is home to the famous “bridge over the River Kwai“, part of a 400 km railway built by the Japanese Empire during World War II using POWs and conscripted Asian laborers at the cost of more than a hundred thousand of lives.
Two interesting notes about the bridge over the River Kwai:
First, the movie starring Alec Guinness was an awful bastardization of history. A much more accurate telling of the story and glimpse of the person played by Guinness can be had by reading Peter Davies’ 1991 book The Man Behind The Bridge: Colonel Toosey and the River Kwai.
Second, the Anglicization of the name of the river (“Kwai”) is terrible, too. The Thai name rhymes with “way” not “why”. Make note of that next time you’re talking with friends about this topic. You’ll be certain to come across as a know-it-all.
Trivial tidbits aside, we arrived at the Chia Tai test gardens just outside Kanchanaburi town in marvelous time, among the first few hundred people to carve parking spaces out of the dirt shoulders of the two lane highway 323.
Sponsored by Chia Tai, the largest producer of seeds in Thailand and a part of the CP Foods conglomerate, the fair is a biennial opportunity to open the test gardens’ gates and let the public explore many of the four hundred different types of fruits, vegetables and flowers that Chia Tai sells seeds for.
With the still cool (relatively) winter weather, some twenty thousand visitors come each weekend day to explore the vast gardens, pavilions and greenhouses, taking pictures, admiring many unfamiliar varieties, seeing demonstrations, signing up for “harvest your own” tours of the gardens, and buying seeds and fresh produce for their own consumption.
There were plenty of families enjoying the fair and a good number of students running around with workbooks, completing homework assignments. These two boys (left) were charged with writing down as many different types of fruits and vegetables as they could find.
By the time we found them, they looked to have already found more than two dozen different varieties, all of which seemed to have grown to gargantuan size. Maybe this was just a matter of the rich volcanic soil of the province, maybe they had been allowed to grow past the normal point of maturity, or maybe there was just a lot of nitrogen-rich fertilizer in the soil – who knows? But the gardens will certainly lush.
Above, Tawn tries his hat on one of the head-sized hanging gourds. Above that, an homage to the River Kwai railroad, replete with a cargo of fresh vegetables.
A row of greenhouses was open for inspection. Unlike most greenhouses I’m familiar with, which are designed to keep temperatures warmer, these had the opposite purpose: to cool the vegetables. A huge radiator was built into one end of the buildings with water circulating down corrugated metal fins. At the other end of the greenhouses were large fans, sucking air from the north side of the building, through the radiator and then out the south side.
Needless to say, the greenhouses were quite popular with the crowd as even though it was winter, standing out in the midday sun was still pretty warm. Left, two children pose with some of the “wart” covered gourds.
The greenhouses were each dedicated to a different type of vegetable or fruit: melons in one, gourds in a another, pumpkins in a third. The pumpkin greenhouse had an interesting range of colors and shapes.
In the watermelon greenhouse, there was a large display educating visitors about the development cycle of watermelons. In addition to a half-dozen different varieties of watermelon, we were told in no uncertain terms:
“Please read this… read then have understanding. We do not use GMO [genetically modified organisms]. We do not have anything dangerous.”
They read my mind. I’m inherently suspicious of food conglomerates (and pretty much any other sort of conglomerate) as I think their mission is more about profits, efficiency and productivity over biodiversity and food safety. But who can argue with such a frank statement as the one printed above?
In one of the educational halls, though, I found this exhibit about the different types of fertilizers Chia Tai sells. It seemed to confirm my fears: grow monocultures on your farms and slowly deplete the natural health of your soil, ensuring you grow dependent on the use of our fertilizers.
The general public, home gardeners, were not the target audience for the agricultural fair. We saw busloads and busloads of people arriving from around the Kingdom: farmers, agricultural cooperatives, students studying land management and agriculture from various technical schools and universities, and development organizations such as the Population and Community Development Association, for which Tawn’s father has worked for many years.
The buses are worth mentioning. They are decked out in all sorts of wild paint schemes, blaring with music, lacking proper air conditioning – karaoke parlors on wheels. And they arrived, one after the other, from all corners of the country.
It is easy to be skeptical about Chia Tai’s intentions. But as I looked around the test gardens, I saw many varieties of vegetables and fruits that are not normally available at the corner market. Certainly, no heirloom tomatoes to be found, but enough varieties of other fruits and vegetables to encourage farmers to expand the diversity of what they grow, to develop new markets and pique the Thai consumers’ interest in new and different fresh foods.
This being Thailand, there was plenty of fun to be had. Not only nonstop blaring announcements and music, but raffles, games of skills and chance, picture taking opportunities, heart-shaped watermelons (grown in a box) and vegetable carving galore.
Vegetable carving is actually a traditional Thai craft. Here it was taken in some unusual directions. Funny note about the penguin playing football, below. A mother brought her toddler over to see the carvings and said, in Thai, “Look, a football.” The toddler then promptly kicked the “ball” and it rolled away. The shocked mother promptly scolded her child, “No, no, it isn’t a real football!” Poor child – probably wishes mum would make up her mind.
And, since this is Thailand, of course we had the requisite “We Love the King” carving:
We had seen all we needed to see by lunchtime and after having some food – more on that in another entry – we bought some souvenir melons and then turned the car’s nose back towards the City of Angels.
Here’s a 4-minute story about the trip. I hope you enjoy it.