Coconuts in Thailand: more than just an adornment for a beach
The coconut is one of the symbols of Thailand. People often think of tall coconut trees on the fringe of white sand beaches when they imagine Thailand. This idyllic picture is a reality on many of the beaches of Koh Phangan, Koh Samui, Koh Tao, Koh Chang, Phuket and other tourist destinations in Thailand. Coconut cultivation is very important for many communities (especially those not blessed with a lively tourist trade). Not only do coconut trees provide an income for the locals but also the coconut fruit can be harvested for its milk, meat and water. The hard shell can be carved into many household items and the rough coir can be used for gardening, mats, making rope and stuffing for mattresses, furniture upholstery etc.
Coconuts in Thailand grow best in the hot and humid south. Places like Koh Samui and Koh Phangan were known as coconut islands before the value of their gorgeous beaches was fully appreciated. In the old days it was the land in the interior of the islands that was most valuable as this was best for cultivating coconuts. Beach land was given as an inferior inheritance to daughters and second sons. How those daughters and second sons are laughing now!
Growing coconuts in Thailand
In Thailand coconut is called maprao. Coconut plantations have irrigation canals and the coconuts are grown on raised beds. The fruit from coconut is a drupe and a new coconut sprouts when it finds land. The new coconut receives nutrients from the juice and meat in the coconut. It acts as its own fertilizer. Moreover, the lauric acid in the coconut oil also helps to protect the young plant from disease. Thus, coconuts in Thailand need no expensive inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to flourish. Water and sunshine is all that is needed; and the tropical rainforests in the south supply these two things in abundance.
Coconuts in Thailand take only 7 to 10 years to become productive. In some areas people shin up the trunks to harvest the coconuts. In other areas trained monkeys on leashes are used. These macaque monkeys are called ling gaeng. I’ve often seen men on motorbikes with their monkeys riding on the back.
The Use of Coconuts in Thailand
Every part of coconuts in Thailand is used. The juice, milk and oil is extracted and used in cooking. Coconut milk (‘nam kofee’) is particular popular as an ingredient in curries, desserts and drinks.
The dried shells are used to make numerous useful things including musical instruments. From a recent visit to Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok I noticed coconut bracelets, souvenir coconuts filled with virgin coconut oil and coconut water scoops. The speckled color of the coconut can take a high polish and makes good decoration. Although not strictly a wood, coconut is hard enough to use like wood.
The leaves from the coconut were traditionally used for making beach bungalows and coconut ‘timber’ used for making the floor of the bungalows. Sadly, nowadays many bungalows are made out of concrete.
Coconut coir is dry and fibrous. As mentioned, the coir from coconuts in Thailand makes good stuffing and insulating material. In Thailand it is often used as kindling to get a fire going.
Health and Beauty
Coconut oil is an important commodity in Thailand. It is used as a standard cooking oil. Perhaps many Thais are unaware of how much good their high coconut oil diet is doing them. It is one of the reasons why Thai people have good metabolisms and stay slim. Although the new found wealth of many urban Thais has changed diets, and the propensity for smoking and drinking among Thai men has changed the figures Thailand still has a heart disease rate of 2.6% (see note 1) much lower than other countries that have rates of 4.9% of the population.
Thai women use coconut oil to condition hair and keep it smooth and silky. Coconut oil is also commonly used as a moisturizer to replace lost oils and repair hands damaged by working in the fields.
Sugar can be made from the seed pods of coconuts. The seeds are cut and they ooze a liquid that is collected in bamboo poles. About 1 litre of liquid can be collected a day. This liquid or sap is boiled down into crystal form and then allowed to set. The resulting sugar is a delicacy called palm sugar.
Coconut Harvest in Thailand
The Food and Agriculture Organization for the United Nations (FAO) estimate that Thailand is the sixth largest producer of coconuts in the world. The annual harvest for 2009 was thought to be 1,721,640 tones (see note 2). That is an incredible amount of coconuts. Koh Samui alone is said to produce 2 million coconuts a month. Indeed the locals warn tourists about the dangers of falling coconuts.
Coconuts in Thailand: Cultural Conclusion
In short, coconuts in Thailand are far more than just the perfect adornment to perfect beaches. The coconut is an integral part of Thai culture.