May 20, 2007

A Traveler's Thailand: Digging for Mollusks
Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand

Getting dirty with locals, digging for mollusks in the muck.

Insightful Encounters

This installment of A Traveler's Thailand is the first of what I hope will become an ongoing series on this site. In a country filled with hurried travelers and tourists on holiday following the same path to the same cities, temples, beaches, and dive-sites, these recountings will be of those wildly uncommon encounters few will experience.

As I do with most countries I'm in, I strive daily to absorb and understand Thailand while I'm here, and not just use it. To me, A Traveler's Thailand means making efforts of curiosity that to go beyond the norm, and sharing the rewards of doing so with others.

Another Sunny Day In Prachuap Bay

Not wanting to squander the third blue-skied miracle in the row, but also not wanting to walk back to either of the bays I had visited, I set off towards the town waterfront, content with the sun smiling down on my exposed back.

Low tide has been a problem (for swimming and sunbathing) along this stretch of coastline. The bays are so shallow that when the tide recedes, it can exposes several hundred meters of muddy sand. Prachuap's bay is the worst; with the tide out you can walk past a fleet of beached boats and actually access the small islands in the bay by foot—which is what I had originally set out to do.

I got sidetracked though, as the sight of dozens of people working in the muck, several football fields in distance off shore, peaked my curiosity too much to resist.

Walking through the sludge is not a glamorous thing. If you wear sandals to protect your feet against the sharp shells and other nasty things, they just get stuck (and slow you down). I opted for the barefoot approach, as I soon discovered some locals practiced, but the majority had on shin-high galoshes instead.

I approached rather timidly at first, not sure if my presence would be too intrusive, but eventually found myself squatting right next to the townspeople, laughing and learning about their harvesting techniques.

The diversity of shelled mollusks being collected is almost as great as the different ways people were doing the collecting. Several men were walking like cranes through the mud, using a speared pole to occasionally prod into the muck. They were selective with their harvesting, and seemed to only be collecting enough for the evening's meal.

A larger portion of the group was digging with trowels, collecting baskets full—probably for sale or to be used at family food stalls later that night.

In a different section, another hundred meters away, young women were chipping away at mollusks stuck to the exposed rocks. Men were nearby, fishing shells out of ankle-deep water.

In a drier section, I noticed an aging woman using a most peculiar collection technique. She was dragging a wooden pole through the sand with a gapped, metal fixture at the end—sort of like a cheese slicer. When a mollusk is hit, she collects it. It's a very slow and unproductive process.

I sat with her while she caught her breath, listening to her tell me (in Thai) about the small netted bag containing the fruits of her day's labor. She was exhausted; her mouth bleeding, probably from some type of gum disease.

Later, I was sitting in the common area back at my simple hotel, reviewing photos, when I looked around and thought Lord, what is that stench? …Then I gave myself a whiff—oh, that's me.

Let me tell you, dried muck from the bottom of Prachuap Bay is not what you want to smell like. I quickly made off for the shower, giving my clothes, footwear, and body a good scrub.

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