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Flora Baker: Thailand

The winner of our Travel Writing Competition 2015, Flora Baker, describes a poignant meeting with a family in a small village in Thailand

Flora Baker: Thailand
Thailand. Image: Getty

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Mama watches the hole for red ants, chewing on a betel nut. She bends down to lift the upright log buried deep in the hole’s centre. She’s 67, worn to the colour of mahogany.

The log is an old buffalo’s yoke. She and Papa first worked their rice fields with water buffalo 40 years ago; half their equipment is still scattered around the farm in the small Thai village of Nong Weang, waiting for harvest to begin.

Nong, their daughter, has five brothers; two older, two younger, one lost to the army in his 20s. His photo is framed on the cement wall, beside the obligatory images of the Thai king and queen. Papa named his daughter after their village.

Now in her 30s, Nong laughs to remember that he almost gave her up for dead. “I was always a sick baby. One time my daddy buried me because I wasn’t moving. Two days and my heart goes ‘jump!’ He feel the rhythm in the earth, and dig me up!”

We sit like mermaids on the tiled patio, toes pointing daintily away from our bodies, as Nong tidies up the last of the fragrant curries and sticky rice, waiting for her father to finish eating. Papa, sitting cross-legged like Thai men are allowed to do, chews rice absent-mindedly.

I rearrange my aching feet as Nong speaks about the Khmer Rouge invasion. Their village, close to the Cambodian border, was first in line for attack, but Papa didn’t leave when his neighbours fled, pleading with him to follow. Instead, he dug a hole. Nong gestures to where Mama stands, surveying the upright log. The hole is broad and deep.

“We were hidden there, lying under branches.” Papa never hid in the hole. He stayed on the patio with a machete, guarding his livelihood against an unseen enemy, while his children lay buried in the dark, wet earth. Nong doesn’t remember how long she stayed hidden.

The air is close and thick. Despite an earlier soaking in the rain, the earth still radiates heat. It’s the middle of the Thai summer, almost time for the monsoon. My palms are clammy with sweat. We listen to damp leaves falling loudly onto the patio’s tin roof. As I watch Mama, she spits, the red stream hitting a column of red ants emerging from the hole’s centre. Dead straight.

The judges’ verdict

Pat Riddell, Editor, National Geographic Traveller (UK), said: “The standard of entries in this year’s competition was exceptional but, although it took a while to whittle them down to a shortlist, it was a unanimous decision. Flora offers us a snapshot of a fleeting moment, but it’s one that gives us a vivid sense of place, time and culture.

“Although a difficult subject to tackle — war, fatalities, a family under threat — it’s done subtly and carefully with a light touch that still manages to convey a tangible sense of atmosphere. The compact, dense sentences draw the reader on with a confident tone and, importantly, the circular narrative has a clever final line. A worthy winner.”

The prize

Flora’s prize is a nine-day Arctic expedition, courtesy of our sponsor Quark Expeditions. She’ll set out in an ice-strengthened ship with the best expedition team in the polar regions. Each day will bring a new highlight in a land where there are more polar bears than people. This is the Arctic of Viking legend — a world of icy fjords, fiery volcanoes and glittering, ice-bound seas. quarkexpeditions.com