Exploring a Thai Isaan Dairy Farm
I have been making chocolate for a while now and although I’ve been sourcing cocoa beans from Thailand, I now wanted to find some locally produced milk products. Fortunately, a teacher and friend of mine, Ice, has a family that owns a dairy farm. He invited me to take a trip to visit, and of course, I jumped at the chance.
We set off on a sunny Saturday afternoon with only a short 50 min car drive away to a village called ‘Si-That’ in the Udon Thani region of Thailand. It’s a typical farming village in Isaan where everyone is pretty close or at least knows each other. We arrived around 13:30 at Ice’s parents’ house, welcomed by his family and immediately offered some food. His mum, his sisters and a couple of friends were sitting on a mat on the floor eating and so I sat down to join them. We introduced ourselves, ate a little bit and attempted to have a chat, in the basic amount of Thai I know, before we left to go see the farm.
We travelled in an old style farming truck known in the local dialect as a “rod-ee-tan” which was driven by his father Khamton. The family dog Tono immediately ran over as we were about to leave but had to be lifted in due to his age and him being overweight. Standing in the back of the open topped truck was a bumpy but exciting drive, especially through the winding muddy lanes of the farm. Tono was barking at the other dogs as we drove past but was thrilled to meet his friend as we arrived at a rubber plantation.
We stopped in what looked like a mini woodland with what must have been a good few hundred rubber trees. Although I have driven past some rubber plantations before, I was very interested to see how the rubber was actually extracted from the trees. Khamton, Ice’s dad, first demonstrated how to cut off a small channel of bark to cause a slow stream of liquid rubber sap to drip into a small bowl tied to the tree. He told us that this was done every two days and that it takes four days to fill up one of the bowls. It seemed simple enough and so I asked if I could have a go myself. I used the tool to peel about a 1cm passage in the tree to release the rubber. As the rubber sap was pouring into the bowl, Khamton poured some chemical to harden the rubber and form a protective layer against rain and dirt. After trying this on a few trees, we headed off towards the dairy part of the farm.
We left the wooded area and walked down some muddy lanes, passing by a few houses that were all lived in by relatives of Ice. I was told that they had just expanded their dairy farm which now consisted of two sections. As we approached the first section, you could start to notice a different whiff in the air, the same smell I’ve experienced many times driving through the countryside in England. A smell you can imagine when there are so many cows about. About 6 or 7 cows were already being milked as we arrived. The cows seemed completely relaxed and contented as they were eating and as their milk was being pumped.
Just behind them were about a dozen baby cows or calves. We were told that we were allowed to go in their pen and feed them some hay. They were understandably nervous and kept their distance from us in the beginning. We crouched down holding some hay, hoping they would start to trust us. Sure enough, after a couple of minutes one of the braver calves approached me to eat some hay. He gave the others confidence and they came up to us also, except one particularly nervous one. I stayed in the pen after the others left and after a few minutes, the nervous calf came up to me and started licking my hand. I went to stroke his head but that was too much for him and he jumped back and hid behind his friends.
Following on from this, we continued around the corner to the rest of the cows. It was here that we were allowed to hand milk a cow ourselves. Something I always wanted to try. First my friend tried but struggled for a bit until Ice showed us the correct technique again. Apparently, you grasp around the top of the teat using your thumb and forefinger and then squeeze progressively using the rest of your fingers. Then it was my turn. I watched my friend before me and so I was confident I could do it. I grasped one of the teats and sure enough, as I was squeezing, the milk started squirting out.
As I have been drinking milk my whole life, it was an exciting experience to be able to actually milk a cow for myself. Of course, I had to try some of the milk straight from the cow and although it was warm and a bit thick, tasted surprisingly good. But we were warned to drink only a sip, as it needed to be boiled first to avoid an upset stomach. Khamton took away some of the milk, boiled it up and added some cocoa powder for us to drink. It was a thick hot chocolate drink and tasted delicious.
Now it was time for us to do a bit of work and help out a little or what really happened, just got in their way. We filled some buckets with a mix of mashed cassava, rice husk and grass to feed to the cows. The calves were fed a bucket of milk whereas the older ones received the mix. We had to hold the buckets tightly as the young cows were feeding to prevent them knocking them over in their excitement. It was amazing how quickly the calves consumed the bucket of food which was scooped up in what seemed like under a minute. The cows made sure to lick up every last drop of milk or food and it was a small battle to actually pull the buckets away from them. In the background, one particular young cow was mooing like there was no tomorrow. She was either hungry or just hated being the last to be fed. I’d guess the latter. She was chasing around every bucket that was being brought forward and trying to steal the food from her friends. She finally calmed down as her food was delivered and then only had one thing on her mind, eating.
Some of the workers were walking towards the lake with some fishing nets and so we decided to follow them. Apparently, they were fishing for our dinner that night. By the time we arrived they were already emptying a net full of small fish and placing them into a bucket. It looked like they had about 30 fish and the lady had a pile of tiny shrimps wrapped in her t-shirt around her stomach. The man and the lady re-entered the lake to try and hunt down a larger fish. After throwing the net in a couple of times, it didn’t take long to finally catch one. He was clearly a little excited, as well as we were, when he climbed up the bank to find a large sized tilapia in his net. He untangled the fish and threw it on the ground only for the fish to attempt to make its escape and bounce back down into the water. His lady accomplice charged over to take control. She grabbed the fish and secured it using string made from coconut leaves. My friend was screeching in the drama of it all and was elated when the fish was secured, knowing we would have a nice feast that night.
After all these activities, we had a chance to relax for a while, whilst Ice’s family began preparing dinner. The women were upstairs in the house chopping vegetables and cooking certain meals while his nephew was barbecuing the meat. During this, we climbed on top of the reasonably high haystack to take in the view and to watch the sunset. It was a peaceful moment as we laid back, relaxed and took in the enjoyable day we just had. The view was pretty incredible, although we missed the moment the sun travelled over the horizon as it was blocked by a row of trees. We continued relaxing until the sun had disappeared and darkness formed revealing a sky full of stars.
We could smell the food and realised it was time to re-join the others for dinner. They laid out a wide spread of different meals for everyone to share, in typical Isaan style. The food was spread out on what’s locally known as a ‘krae’, a kind of large low lying table made of bamboo that everyone sits on to eat. We had grilled fish, barbecued pork and chicken, spicy pork salad, sticky rice and a range of herbs and vegetables. There was more but I have no idea what some of it was or how to describe it. Actually, I made the ‘laab’ meal as it’s one of my favourite Thai dishes and I think the Thai people wanted to see the novelty factor of a foreigner making their local food. They said ‘aroi mak – very delicious’ although they may have just said that to be polite. The food along with a few glasses of Thai whiskey and a lot of laughs made for a wonderful end to our day.
We slept the night in the family house and left to drive home in the morning. Not before being given a bunch of bananas, red onions and most importantly, a few milk products to try with my chocolate.