Ayutthaya has been flooded again, but that is hardly news. The inundations have been taking place throughout recorded history. The thing that has made recent floods unusual has been their severity and violence, caused by environmental change and, in part, by the increased population. With more land being developed, the rivers and canals can no longer handle the amount of water flowing into them.
People in Thailand's central valley have been dealing with floods for many centuries, and a body of traditional knowledge has grown up around the phenomenon that is still used today. One especially important aspect of the seasonal flooding is had to do with obtaining food when the waters rose. The answer is rooted in a way of thinking that is still useful for today's lifestyles.
It is known that people in flood-affected areas have long had methods of preparing themselves for the encroaching water. Farmers in the Central region have always planned for the floods in advance and and taken measures to prevent problems. First, they raised the level of a piece of land near the house to form what is called a khoke in Thai, a space where the water buffalo and cattle are able to stay and keep dry. There was usually also a permanent raised place of this kind under the house (traditional Thai houses are raised on stilts) where agricultural equipment could be kept and where the chickens could roam. Then there was the yoong khao, a rice silo up on the same level as the house.
Rice straw was put on the khoke for the animals to eat, and a kitchen garden with herbs and vegetables for family use was usually planted on it, with the manure from the cattle and buffalo providing natural fertiliser. The plants cultivated in the garden, primarily small ones, were grown on a rotation basis. When one of them died or was used up, a new one was put in in its place. The standard plants included chillies, lemongrass, basil, spring onions and mint. Bigger plants such as lime and kaffir lime trees that could tolerate the water for a short time were grown further from the house. Some herbs, cha-om, for example, grew next to the fence that surrounded the property.
Bottles of home-made nam pla were set out in the sun on the house's wide porch to mature, together with pots containing plants, some of them, including chillies, lemongrass and basil for use in the kitchen, while other, ornamental types like roses and rose of Sharon for their flowers. The edible plants were grown as a back-up in case the ones in the garden died, and were also conveniently close at hand.
In the past, Thai meals were made from ingredients that were close at hand. The fish, shrimp and frogs that could be caught nearby could be made into dishes that were chosen automatically based on the other ingredients available. For example, if some fish were caught under the pak boong (an edible water-loving, morning glory-like vine) growing along the banks of a canal in front of the house, both ingredients could be made into the sweet, sour and spicy soup called kaeng som pak boong. Shrimp could be made into the sour-spicy soup called tom yam; carp could be deep-fried; the local fish called pla maw could be steamed and eaten with the fiery chilli paste called nam prik ta daeng or a another sauce made from dried chillies.
The annual flooding was taken fully into account in the lifestyles of the past. People were not greatly concerned by the rising waters because in those times the flooding did not last for long. The natural system of flow delivered it to the sea efficiently and the water receded.
It was not only farmers who adapted to the environment's natural cycles. People who work and spend most of their time on boats, now as in the past, also have their ways of dealing with floods. On rivers, most of them work about rice barges, large wooden vessels that move in caravans pulled by a strong motor in a lead boat. Since they travel very slowly over considerable distances, there is the question of what the people on board can eat.
The answer is, food made from plants cultivated on board in pots set at the back of the boat. Herbs grown include the usual chillies, lemongrass, basil and spring onions, although many boats even grow lime trees. These ingredients are usually enough. As for meats and vegetable ingredients not grown on board, they can be bought from vendors on the small boats that come out when the caravan stops temporarily to rest. Sometimes little paddle boats selling food will travel along beside the moving barges to offer their goods. Although the era of rice barges is fading and the boats are far less numerous than they once were, the metal barges that carry sand for construction also have small gardens on board.
People who live in today's townhouses and condominiums can also have gardens to supply some basic kitchen ingredients by growing food items in flower pots and tubs. They set the plants in their pots out on the balcony or in an empty spot in the yard. These days there are many places where the plants can be bought at a low price, and there are websites that explain how to grow them.
There are many advantages to growing your own herbs and vegetables. For one thing, it is economical. Buying them in the market or supermarket can be pricey and the entire amount bought will not always be used. The ones left over clutter the refrigerator and often end up being thrown out. Also, the vegetables available in the market may not be the ones you want. You may want to buy the small, super-hot chillies called prik ki nu suan or prik ki nu hawm, but can find only the larger, less potent ones.
Another advantage is that there are no worries about chemical residues on home-grown vegetables. Grown properly, they require no insecticides or artificial fertilisers. A third point is that there is something personally satisfying about tending a garden and watching it grow and produce food to be eaten by the family.
People of the past who lived near water, with its seasonal changes, developed techniques for adapting to it that are still useful for people accustomed to today's modern lifestyle. The kitchen garden grown in pots on the balcony of a 27th-floor condo may not be planted to ensure a supply of food when the waters rise, but it does provide a touch of farm-style satisfaction along with fresh, clean vegetables for the kitchen.