Friday, February 6, 2009

About Banpao - Thai Esaan Village Life

Wendy Grace Allen was invited by Director Dr Apichart Pholprasert to be Artist in Residence for 3 months 2008-2009 at Banpao Rural Art Centre. Below is an excerpt relating to Banpao village from Dr Pholprasert's doctoral thesis on rural nostalgia in art.

Banpao is situated in the Kasetsombun District, Chaiyaphum Province. The first settlement of Banpao community is believed to have been during the Ayudhaya period (1350-1767), (Religion Department of Thai Government, 1982)1. Two important characteristics must immediately be discussed: Banpao is agricultural and Buddhist. Most accounts of the history of Thailand stress the centrality of a way of rural life that has developed in relation to the practice of Theravada Buddhism2. In a Thai village, Buddhism combines the requirement of liberating the mind from human delusion with the necessity of living in harmony with nature. In the same way that the agricultural environment is seen to be the product of generations of labour, it is also clear that a single life span is not enough time to achieve true liberation. The Buddhist concept of reincarnation has a strong environmental resonance for villagers. It is easy for a Thai farmer to understand that he must strive to achieve ‘merit’ (in Thai, called Boon) in the present in order to contribute to a shared, accumulating ‘good’. Agricultural people can relate to the idea of environmental and spiritual inheritance in the same terms.The next section will illustrate and describe the village ceremonies that have evolved over centuries in support of the agricultural/spiritual well-being of the community. These are continued even though the traditional way of life is changing.

In the context of this thesis, the retention of ritual within an increasingly nontraditional social context could be seen as an example of therapeutic nostalgia provoked by an increasingly uncertain national identity. The next section will illustrate and describe the village ceremonies that have evolved over centuries in support of the agricultural/spiritual well-being of the community. These are continued even though the traditional way of life is changing.


There are two recent transformations to the agricultural aspects of Banpao life that need to be discussed before proceeding further: 1) the introduction of ‘iron buffalo’ tractors to replace the animals that drew ploughs and carts and 2) the influx of Chinese middlemen who buy and sell rice and offer loans to farmers to help them mechanise their work (Walker, 1992: 77).

When I recall Banpao before the advent of tractors and rice merchants I do not find it difficult to link the way of life to the most ancient traditions. The families amongst whom I grew up farmed only enough land to provide for their needs. Apart from rice they grew fruit and vegetables, which were shared out within their extended family and amongst neighbours. Pigs, ducks and chicken were kept for meat. In addition, fish were readily available in local ponds and flooded paddy fields.

There is a well-known verse that describes the wealth of food resources in rural Thailand: ‘Nai Nam Mee Pla Nai Na Me Kaow’ (In the river, there is fish, in the field,there is rice). Banpao farmers never lacked food. The richness of natural resources has been one of the main characteristics of Banpao village. Rice and fish are not only the most common meal for farmers, they have become a symbol of ‘food’ itself. This can be noticed from the villagers’ friendly greetings when they walk pass each other: “Have you had rice yet?” or “What do you have with your rice today?” The spontaneous answer is “I have rice with fish”; no matter what they had for a meal that day.

In recent years the government has encouraged farmers to increase rice production. There have been nationwide missions to encourage the adoption of modern technology and chemical fertilisers and countless local schemes to improve irrigation systems. As a result, Thailand has become one of the biggest exporters of rice in the world and, whilst remaining a land of farmers (about sixty per cent of a population of sixty-three million (Poonyarat, 2003: 8A), has transformed a traditional way of life into a very competitive agricultural industry focused on international markets.

The use of machinery in farming

With this change of status, the religious and cultural importance of rice has also undergone modification. The festivals that blessed each stage of the rice-growing process were once an entirely local matter, a common sight in villages across the land. Now there is an all encompassing Royal Ploughing Ceremony that is televised nationwide to mark the beginning of the rice-growing season. Just as the ancient balance between productivity and conservation was once marked by countless small ceremonies that celebrated the spiritual strength of each village community:now the commercial production of rice generates this lavish TV spectacle that is said to promote the spiritual strength of the entire population (Chadchaidee, 1994). This correlation of village and national identity has some resonance in my later discussion of rural themes in contemporary Thai painting. For example, the many farming rituals that offer thanks to Mae Posop (the Rice Mother) have been popularised in tourist-oriented imagery that apparently represents Thailand both to itself and to the outside world. As we shall see, Bangkok artists (nearly always with rural upbringings) have been in good part responsible for this transformation.

Above all else, it is the impact of returning migrant workers that has changed the fabric of village life. Those who have lived and worked in cities import urban values to the midst of farming communities. Rural families now expect to own television sets and stereo equipment and use electronic public address systems within traditional ceremonies (Walker, 1992: 77). Alongside this trend, the government has also sought to update rural society through initiatives that have encouraged the spread of digital telecommunication technology throughout rural areas.

Extract from Dr Apichart Pholprasert's doctoral thesis on rural nostalgia in art.

1. The age of the village has been estimated using archaeological evidence from the village’s main temple.

2. As Buddhism expanded across Asia from its origins in India, it evolved into two main forms: Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada is the original form of Buddhism. (Robinson, B.A. “Buddhism” [access 10 May 2005]). See also, Gillett, R.(2001) The Essence of Buddhism. London: Caxton Publishing Group.

The Earth's waters are both boundaries and pathways for peoples, objects and ideas.
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