Where the rubber meet the road- Rubber Trees of Thailand

Sap being gathered

The rubber has to dry for up to a year

My newest motorcycle-- died in floods of 2011

A few years ago I made a trek on my motorcycle. At the time I had a ‘big’ bike. A 850 TDM Yamaha. Over here that is a big bike. The Thais called it a buffalo because of its size and look.

I travel to the eastern part of Thailand where the borders of Cambodia, Laos and Thailand meet. It’s rural and a poor area but as always the people are wonderful and happy. I stopped at a small village and asked if there was a place to stay for the night and a pretty young woman offered her family’s house as a stopover. I wasn’t sure what to think but her house was close so I went for a look. I was relieved to find her sister, husband, three kids and father also lived there and they all insisted I stay for as long as I like. Of course the kids took to me right away.

These nice people opened their house to me, fed and entertained me. They made their living extracting rubber, latex, from their grove of trees. I was excited because I wanted to see what rubber trees really looked like. I picture the thick leaf, bulbous trunk trees just waiting to pour out their essence to a passerby. Guess what? I was wrong again.

We walked at least a mile to their land and as we walked I looked at all the maple looking trees grown in orderly rows along the way. I wonder what they used these trees for and even asked the young husband. He gave me a very odd look and simply said, “Yang”. Thai is a tonal language where every word can have up to 5 meanings by the way it is said. ‘Yang’ to me meant ‘no’ or the rubber tires on a vehicles. It also means rubber from trees—who knew. I figured this out when we arrived at his grove. The trees do look like maple trees and each had a small cup attached to it and a number of very neat cuttings in the bark. The sap from the trees is pure white and sticky. The man asked if I would like to help and of course I agreed. We then turned around and went back to the house—I didn’t understand.

At around 10:30 pm he handed me a flash light with a head strap and said it was time. We went to the grove of around 1000 trees and with a special half-mooned shaped blade he started making very neat cuts at the bottom of the area that had other strips cut. He watched as I made a few cuts and then took the knife away. He said I was cutting too deep and it would harm the tree. I held the light after that. After an hour and a half he had completed his task and we headed home. I thought, “This isn’t so hard.”

Well at around 3:00 am he woke me and handed me the light—I knew there was more to it than making a simple cut. At the grove we emptied every little cup into a large can until it was full and then he allowed me to carry that big can all the way back. I was asleep in moments after my head hit the mat.

At 6:00am I was up and helping him pour the liquid into rectangle containers and adding an acid to the mix. I asked, “Are we through yet?” He just smiled.

I went off to enjoy the family and kids. It was like show and tell as they took me to each house in the village to introduce their guest to everyone. I was a star! Then around 3:oo pm the young man said it was time to finish—do what?

The sap had congealed to a thick sheet and had to be handled carefully. He had a thing that looked like the rollers of a very old washing machine- but much bigger. I got to provide the power to turn the rollers and we flattened out the sheets to about ½ inch thick. We made 20 18×24 sheets and then we hung them to dry. It takes almost a year to dry completely and be ready to sale.

He went through this process every other day for two months and then let the trees rest for a month. It takes five or six years for the trees to mature and then they produce for thirty more years.

I stayed for a week but only helped that one night. The village had parties- not on my account- and everyone visited everyone else. These were happy people and they took me in as one of their own.

The next time you put on rubber gloves, see a car rolling down the road, wear a rain coat or see anything made of rubber you might think of these hard working people who get very little for all their effort. I know I do.

I hope you enjoyed this small tale of a writer living in Thailand.  Thank you for reading and I hope you’ll comment!