5 Days 3 Women – Planting Season

The Rice planting season on a small farm in rural Nakhon Nayok Thailand.

Background:
Siri is a Thai woman, the matriarch of a large family. She is the mother of nine children and many grandchildren. She lives in a traditional family home in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand.
As I document Siri and family in rural Thailand, a question I’m often asked is “Where are the men?”. The answer can be complicated, as each family has its own situation, but generally speaking, men and women of working age often leave the rural areas of Thailand to find work in the larger cities, in most cases Bangkok. Farmers are poor, it is a tough way of life, and it is nearly impossible to make a living wage as a small farmer or laborer, so most children leave the rural areas as soon as they can to try and make a living. Siri’s husband lives in Bangkok and works as a truck driver. He comes home on holidays when he has time off. Two of her other children are also truck drivers in Bangkok. All of her children now have their own families, however, one daughter lives at home with three children, which Siri helps raise along with another daughters two children, which Grandma Siri raises so the mother can work in Bangkok.

Siri in the rice fields of rural Thailand

I have been documenting Siri and her family for nine years. I call the project “A Bowl of Rice”. In those years Siri has lost a daughter and brother to cancer and seen five grandchildren born. She has planted and harvested rice in each of those nine years. I have been there with my camera to record and document the happy times, the sad times, and everything in between.

Siri’s brother Nein plows the rice fields with a hand tractor in 2014

Much has changed in the nine years I have been documenting rice farming. Hand tractors have given way to modern machinery. Four days to plow the fields with a hand tractor has become just a few hours with modern machinery. Two weeks of hand harvesting is now a half day with a large machine harvester.

Plowing the fields in 2020

The one constant in nine years is how the rice is planted on Siri’s leased land. When the rice is harvested, large machine harvesters will be brought in to do much of the work, but to plant the rice in the best possible way, it is hand planted. Each plant is placed in the soil by hand and given enough space to grow into strong healthy plants.

Hand planting rice, August 2020

Hand planting is hard work. Eight hours or more bent over, calf deep in water and mud, is hard on the back and hands. It’s hot in Thailand, and in the fields the temperatures reach 80+ degrees even in the rainy season, which is planting season. The three women I’m documenting in this photo essay, Mee, Lut, and Siri, are all in their mid 60’s. It is nothing short of amazing to realize older women, all grandmothers, will work in these fields for 6 long days and the paid laborers will earn a little over 400 baht a day, (about $13.00 U.S.) a little more than the standard Thai minimum wage for their hard day’s work.

Rice planting in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand

The process:
Growing rice by hand in rural Thailand starts with growing rice from seed in starter fields. In past years Siri has planted seed in her leased fields, but this year she opted not to grow plants from seed, and instead brought rice in from a neighbors field.

Siri unloading rice plants brought in by truck

The plants are placed in a flooded field and then hand carried to the fields where they will be planted. Plants are placed on a long pole and transported to the fields as needed.

Lut is preparing to take rice plants to a field where they will be planted
Transporting rice plants

This process continues for the next five days through sun and rain. Rice plants are carried to the fields as needed and planted by hand. All told, three pickup truckloads of rice were needed to plant five fields of rice.

Siri forced to take a break from planting during a sudden rainstorm
Hand planting rice in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand
Hand planting rice in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand
Mee placing rice bundles in a field
Mee bringing rice bundles to a field
Siri planting rice
Siri planting rice
Siri, Mee, and Lut, planting rice
Siri’s Grandson Pump playing in the fields
Tonelock and Pump learning from Grandma Siri
learning to plant rice — or — playing in the fields
The women rest in the shade after finishing today’s work. Siri, Mee, and Lut planted 5 large fields by hand in 5+ days. Now it’s time to rest.
Rice fields, Nakhon Nayok, Thailand

Looking out over the rice fields as I did on the last day of work in the above photo, I realized how beautiful the rice fields can be, and also, what a task it had been. I have witnessed this process for the last nine years, and yet, I’m still filled with awe. Three older women, friends and neighbors, laughing, sweating, working and planting enough rice to feed many people for several months. It’s easy to take some things for granted that you witness over and over, however today I made myself a promise, I will never take this work for granted, I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to photograph these wonderful women and this Thai way of life.


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Thank You so very much!

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