Roughly three kilometers outside of Thailand's fifth largest city, Nakhon Sawan, there is a small and unique primordial village. Village number five of Nakhon Sawan Awk district or Ban Mai as it is known locally, was built adjacent to the Bangkok-Chiang Mai rail route a long time ago.
Located on the fringe of Thailand's largest swamp area (Beung Boraphet), and in the heart of the mighty Chao Phraya river basin (where the Nan and Ping rivers combine to form the Chao Phraya---Pak Nam Po), the dirt roads that swerve through the forest into the village become flooded by the various ponds and swamps in the area.
Since there is no temple, school, or market in Ban Mai, villagers must commute daily to and from the more-developed/populated Pak Nam Po district. During the Monsoons, the only way to get in/out of Ban Mai is the rail tracks. The three kilometer distance to Pak Nam Po can be hazardous for the young and old to walk, particularly crossing two 80 year old rail bridges over a few swamps. These high bridges are in tact with steel, rusted nails, and rotting wood. In fact, hundreds of villagers have met their fate or been seriously injured over the decades falling off while crossing.
Instead of walking the tracks, most villagers use a simple and handy little rail cart they call a 'rot tor', with a long bamboo pole to paddle down the tracks with speed. The loud trains coming in both directions give enough warning for the villagers to get off the tracks until the train can pass.
Ban Mai is home to a dozen or so families mostly living in either traditional raised-wooden houses, or make-to-do shack housing. With no modern plumbing, and the only concrete foundation in the whole village being for the manual water pump in the village center, Ban Mai is typical of the 'ban nork' village usually associated with Thailand's rural Isan and the Northern region. Alcoholism is perhaps the biggest downside of such poverty.
Unfortunately, most village elders become alcoholics and use what little money they earn to purchase rice whiskey. Goh, the former village headman was retired early after an accident last year. Intoxicated, he decided to take a journey in the middle of the night and fell off the rail bridge. Luckily he landed on his legs on the incline and was found the next morning passed out drunk. He was paralyzed however. Had he fell a few more meters and landed in the water, he would have surely drowned.
There are some bright sides to living in a poor rural village. The children never run out of things to do: When they're not in school, they climb trees, swim, fish, and catch frogs among the many activities to keep the young healthy and active. Without the convenience of shopping malls, toy stores, and wealth, kids must use their creativity and imagination to keep from being bored.
Despite being so close to a modern and thriving city, Ban Mai is outside of any electrical power grids. However, most of Ban Mai's villagers haven't been left out from the modern comforts of electricity, thanks to car batteries. For several years, villagers would have to take their batteries into the city often to charge at an outlet inside the power grid. This system was not only inconvenient, but inefficient. Villagers could light their houses for a few hours a night, and perhaps watch a TV program every other day.
Only this year, mass electricity finally reached Ban Mai. Thanks to the Provincial Electricity Authority (PEA)'s nationwide project to power all rural villages outside power grids, each family in Ban Mai received a free solar panel to connect directly to their home. The Solar Cells store energy in a 12 volt car battery (charge system). A transformer turns the battery's 12 volt Direct Current (DC) into 220 volt Alternating Current (AC), which is the standard for home appliances. In other words, the electric capacity has increased to allow villagers to run a wider variety of electrical appliances for longer periods of time. The main benefits are villagers will never have to pay an electric bill, not to mention solar electricity is environmentally friendly.
Now, villagers can use fans, basic cooking appliances, and keep up with news and the latest soap operas and news on a regular basis. One major drawback about the project, however, is that the panels were distributed and set up on a 'everyone to their own' basis instead of one community charging station like other successful solar villages in Chiang Mai, for example. This means the electric capacity of one home isn't enough to run certain essential appliances such as a refrigerator, where combined solar cells store energy much more efficiently.
Regarding this fact, Nop, a village leader expresses his regret. "We should have done it right from the beginning. Most villagers were excited to get their own solar panel, and didn't realize that one central system would be more efficient."
(alternative energies in Thailand)
(Provincial Electricity Authority of Thailand)
(Ministry of Energy)
Nakhon Sawan - Baan Mai Picture Gallery
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