Thailand’s Scarecrows and Black Holes

When travelling around the countryside in Udon Thani Province I am often amazed at how much some of the scenery resembles the country fields back home in England. You may think I’m kidding but I am deadly serious about that.

Take away the rice fields, palm trees, bamboo stalks, exotic trees and plants found in some of the rural areas and view the natural unharvested land, and you could imagine being in one of many different countries in the world. Take a look at the picture below right, which has been cropped from the top photograph and you’ll see something which was a familiar sight in the UK not too many years ago. A scarecrow. A very crudely made one but nonetheless a scarecrow.

Nowadays electronic scarecrows are used by most farmers around the globe to protect their newly laid seeds and crops from birds, but in the rural regions of Thailand the old and proven method is still employed. These scarecrows may not have the high pitched sounds of their electronic, ultrasonic and solar powered rivals but they do still give the birds one hell of a fright. Maintenance is negligible and wages nil. The perfect combination for Thailand’s farmers.

When I noticed my first scarecrow in Thailand I made a mental note to look out for others and for me they are now a fairly common sight. The scarecrow’s are not just seen in the fields as some Thai people place them near the road outside their homes as a source of humour to passer-bys. They are probably there to scare away evil spirits as well.

Having discovered Thailand’s scarecrows I started looking around for more old-time traditional things which the farmers and villagers used as a solution to employing more novel and technological ways of achieving and producing things. One such method was just a hundred yards from our village home, two mounds of earth standing a little apart. I hadn’t seen them there on my last village trip but I knew what they were used for. Charcoal production.

If you took away the charcoal kilns in the above photograph I’m once again convinced the scene could have been snapped on a very hot English summers day. It reminds me of the countryside I enjoyed during my childhood visits to my grandparents village in Gloucestershire here in the UK.

Most Thai villagers cook outside and use a bucket shape charcoal stove made from fired clay. The stove is lit by burning small twigs inside its bottom aperture and then placing charcoal on top of the burning wood. A pot or grill is placed on the crown of the stove to steam boil rice and barbecue meats or in my case on the right, to toast a sandwich. So how is charcoal made. I’ll hand you over to Wikipedia for a very basic overview:

‘ Charcoal is a carbon containing substance made from wood, naturally black and powdery. Charcoal is made from wood by heating it in airless space in high temperature. The wood will not burn, but instead turn into charcoal.’

The process of turning wood into charcoal using this method is called pyrolysis (transformation of a compound caused by heat).

The charcoal kilns are made from a mixture of clay and a small amount of rice husk which is leftover in the fields after each rice harvest. Wood is stacked inside the kiln and a small fire is lit under it and the opening is then closed off to leave the wood burning for a few days. The wood to charcoal conversion yield is quite high, just imagine the slight reduction in size of wood charred on an open fire.

Charcoal kilns are just one of many types of small ‘businesses’ operated by individuals and families in Thailand’s villages which help keep the community economy ticking over.

Cash earned from selling charcoal to friends and locals is fed back amongst the populace by servicing the small village shops and food stalls. Whether it’s selling fish caught in the local rivers or growing mushrooms in blacked out tents, the Thai villagers are very adept at seeing an opportunity to not necessarily make a fortune but keep their heads bobbing above water. When Thailand’s economy hits a recession the rural villages ride the smallest waves.

You may have your hopes invested in bricks, bonds and shares but Thai rural villagers have theirs in knowledge and know how passed down from generation to generation. Black Monday to some is looking into a darkened hole and seeing the fruits of their labour, mushrooms and charcoal.


I'm a sixty-year-old Englishman living in the town of Swindon in rural Wiltshire and I have a real deep desire to retire in Thailand one day. If you don't have a dream then you won't have a dream come true.

22 Responses

  1. Mike says:

    Martyn, a good read and nice comparison, although the field at the back of my home doesn’t really remind me of our green and pleasant land at the moment 🙂

    I have seen charcoal oven in the UK, slightly different process-same result.

    Nice toasted sandwich! Smokey bacon?
    .-= Mike´s last blog ..Wat Ko Lak(วัดเกาะหลัก) Prachuap Khiri Khan =-.

  2. Hoo Don says:

    Mike – Smokey cheese and very tasty. You have to slice the cheese a little thin otherwise it doesn’t melt before the bread gets burnt. I’m always thinking to myself as we drive through Udon’s countryside, snapshot this and that and it could easily be a scene from back home. Then a snake slithers across the road to bring me back to my senses.

  3. martin in bulgaria says:

    Hi Martyn,
    Give me old fashion scarecrows any day, far better than the hi-tech but more efficient ones. Charcoal making is long drawn and messy business. They have to be continually watched over a few days to moderate and adjust the heat. A guy here doesn’t sleep for three days when he makes his own on his land. Charcoal is pretty expensive even with low labour costs.
    I agree sumnmer day in the UK are similar with the sandy grasses yo have seen.
    Hope you are keeping well.
    .-= martin in bulgaria´s last blog ..Kukeri To Come In Yambol =-.

  4. Talen says:

    I haven’t seen many scarecrows in Thailand, the ones I have seen are usually guarding the small corn fields…but the small scraggly corn doesn’t have much to fear from the birds I suspect.

    I have seen loads of charcoal mounds. The family usually keeps 3 going at a time but they don’t sell any they just stock up for their own kitchen.

    Some great photo’s Martyn…definitely making me miss Thailand at the moment.
    .-= Talen´s last blog ..Thailand’s Hidden Gem =-.

  5. Hoo Don says:

    Hello Martin nice to hear from you. I’m not too sure about the in’s and out’s of the process only that the wood is kept burning for a few days. On my next trip I intend trying to have a chat to the chap and finding out a bit more. A big bag of charcoal lasts Wi and her mama about one month and costs 120 baht (£2.40p). Thanks and best wishes to you and Galia.

  6. Hoo Don says:

    Talen I noticed my first scarecrows on the bus from Suvarnabhumi to Udon Thani as we got near Udon. They lined the side of the road every couple of hundred metres for a couple of clicks, I don’t know what for. After that I noticed a couple when we were out and about and Wilai pointed one out as well.

    When I was doing my research on charcoal mounds I came across your post on the subject. The kilns really are a clever and traditional way of earning money in a village, everybody uses charcoal.

  7. Tina says:

    When I saw the pics it reminds me of my childhood days. When I saw a scare crow when I was a kid am so scared even a clown I cried because I don’t wanna see them both.When I grow older now I know the importance of scarecrow. The importance of scarecrow is to protect our rice field from the birds and crows. Thanks for reminding me of my younger days. More power to your site! G_d bless 😉
    .-= Tina´s last blog ..Free Laptops With Mobile Phones =-.

  8. Catherine says:

    Martyn, I don’t believe I’ve seen scarecrows (I’d love to though, so I’ll keep my eye out).

    I have seen loads of charcoal kilns.

    I saw a big one just this weekend on a mangrove walk. The King built a beautiful mangrove park for the people, his daughter took it over. Locals moved in and built a kiln… so the mangroves are covering less area now.

    There is more to the story so I’ll wait until I research it properly (or as proper as I can).
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..Traditional Thai Puppet Theater: Joe Louis =-.

  9. Joramae says:

    Perhaps you could give scarecrow building lessons on your return to the UK!

    Its funny but you do not really see them in the UK these days. One thing I did see recently was a load of old CD’s on lengths of string over an allotment, obviously to keep birds off his strawberries, thought that was a pretty good idea, and seemed to work well.
    .-= Joramae´s last blog ..Blackberry Storm 9520 =-.

  10. Hoo Don says:

    Tina – Scarecrows must be frightening to some kids but fascinating to others, I could imagine plenty would get hours of fun making one. Perhaps the singing in Wizard of Oz did it to you (joking). The clown is a more common fear as they have featured in many horror movies.

  11. Hoo Don says:

    Catherine the scarecrows are a fairly common sight in Isaan but you need to search them out. I’ve never noticed them elsewhere in Thailand but I’m sure they are there protecting the fields. On my next trip I will keep a lookout for them, it’s surprising what you see when you are aware it might be around.

    I’ll look forward to your story on the kiln amongst the mangroves.

  12. Hoo Don says:

    Joramae – That’s an unusual name. Are you a scarecrow?

    I don’t get out into the countryside hardly at all in the UK nowadays and I’d guess the technology is now sprays and electronic devices. The CD’s on string are obviously a working man’s upgrade on the scarecrow which probably works very well unless there’s no wind. Here in Wiltshire there’s normally wind blowing most days.

  13. expatudon08 says:

    with the big hats and covered up head to toe its hard to tell a scarecrow from a local out in the boonies and what beauty some of these balaclavas hide
    village life is great isent it outdoor cooking clay ovens
    when we cleared some land a few years ago we amassed dozens of bags of charcoal
    it wasn’t my choice to cut down scruffy but healthy trees but needs must know we have 10 rai of rubber and a pond
    its hard work to keep the land clear some say the Thais are lazy but i think they work smart putting the right amount of effort in for return of crop
    .-= expatudon08´s last blog Thai biometric passport in london =-.

  14. Hoo Don says:

    John I love your quote

    ‘with the big hats and covered up head to toe its hard to tell a scarecrow from a local out in the boonies’

    So very true but if it wasn’t so wouldn’t it strip away everything which we love about country life.

    Owning ten rai of land gives you a little bit of income for future years and that can only be a good thing. Land and growing rubber trees is something I’m seriously considering but the poor exchange rate has put my thinking on the back burner for a good while yet.

  15. Lawrence says:

    Hi Martyn, a very interesting post, and a keen appreciation of the traditional village wisdom. There is lots of charcoal production at the moment because it is the dry season, the wood is well dried out, and there is little to do in the fields (actually coming to the end of that ’empty’ period now). Near Khong Chiam on the Mekong where the soil is very unfertile or non-existent they produce charcoal all year round.

    I love the scarecrows too and they are getting more common. One village near here has them on the house fences, so I think they scare away more than crows.
    .-= Lawrence´s last blog ..Boun Pravet: Procession to the Wat =-.

  16. Catherine says:

    Martyn, the post about the mangroves will take awhile as I’m soooooooooooooo behind on things.

    But I will keep the scarecrows in mind as they’d make fabulous photo studies!
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..The Red Shirts are in Bangkok. Again. =-.

  17. Siam.Rick says:

    Martyn, I’ve seen scarecrows sitting on bar stools in Bangkok! I’ve even seen some of them walking the aisles of Fortune Town. Must have been the off-season because they weren’t wearing their straw hats!

    Nice story on making charcoal. You have a good eye for country life.
    .-= Siam.Rick´s last blog ..Canadian boys need to toughen up =-.

  18. Hoo Don says:

    Lawrence I didn’t think there might be a good time to make charcoal, the dry season makes sense. The scarecrows on the house fences baffle me a bit. I think they might be there to amuse people and to possibly ward off ghosts and evil spirits. I must find out.

  19. Hoo Don says:

    Catherine I’m a little behind at the moment, lots of emails to catch up on and a post to write. I’m finishing a run of night shifts in the morning which will give me more time. If your scarecrow post makes it I’ll be there to read it.

  20. Hoo Don says:

    Rick I love the reference to scarecrows on bar stools ( see John’s comment ). The country life of Thailand has so many stories but with some you’d have to get out into the fields to get them and with what’s wriggling about in them I’m not over keen. Still there’s plenty of stories about on safer land.

  21. Catherine says:

    ‘you’d have to get out into the fields to get them and with what’s wriggling about in them I’m not over keen’

    I often wonder what it’d be like to strike out cross country in Thailand. Snakes are a worry, but what else? Ok, rabid monkeys (or any monkeys).
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..The Red Shirts: Thai Reading and Listening =-.

  22. Hoo Don says:

    Catherine the thought of it scares the hell out of me. Snakes, monitor lizards and monkeys would put the fear into me. When driving in the car we’ve seen loads of snakes, a couple of them were big buggers as well. You would have to hope you bumped into one of the locals because they would insist on getting you back to the beaten track. There’s no way I’d strike out cross country unless I had a pair of thigh length thick Wellington boots on.

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