Thai pearl farmer still loves his job despite tsunami and Covid-19 setbacks

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Although you can’t see them as you approach, the pearl farm’s cattle rest in long, tidy rows on the sandy bed of the warm, shallow sea that surrounds Thailand’s largest island, Phuket.

These workhorses can do their job at an icy pace, slowly forming pearls in colors ranging from white and cream to silver and champagne, but the harvest easily makes up for that.

Plastic buoys floating in the water mark the location of the mollusks, the only other clue to their existence being a small boat crammed into all kinds of equipment, buckets, nets and ropes.

This simple craft is owned by Kriangsak Ung, who uses it to care for his 10,000 or so seashells “to check if they are okay and then later in the year to bring them back and harvest the pearls,” he explains. 70 years. .

For 46 years, this delicate framed man worked as a pearl farmer in Phuket, and despite many setbacks during that time, he still enjoys his job.

Ao Yon Bay, where Ung grows pearls on his seaside farm not far from the beach.

Ung breeds two species of pearl oysters: Pinctada Maxima, the largest of the six species of oysters used for pearl culture, and the Pteria penguin, commonly known as the penguin wing oyster.

A pearl emerges after about two years, although in the case of particularly large specimens it can take up to four years, Ung explains. “A happy young oyster that we can use up to three times.”

Ung’s gaze wanders proudly from his workshop to the adjoining jewelry store where his wife Nuanpit has been designing and crafting necklaces, pendants, bracelets and earrings from pearls for several years.

With smaller stud earrings selling for as low as 500 baht (RM62), Nuanpit caters to all budgets. The largest pearl in the store, with a diameter of 16.2 mm, costs 120,000 baht (14,974 RM).

Pearls are probably the oldest form of jewelry on earth and got their first known mention in the Chinese Shujing or Book of Documents: “In 2206 BC, King Yu received pearls from the Huai River as a tribute,” says -he.

Pearls cultivated in Ung's farm.  The thickest bead in the store is 16.2mm in diameter. Pearls cultivated in Ung’s farm. The thickest bead in the store is 16.2mm in diameter.

Pearls are praised in the Old Testament, Quran, and Talmud for their purity, which is actually quite ironic given that they emerge from worms or parasites that manage to infiltrate mollusk shells to be coated with mother-of-pearl. as part of the shell’s defense mechanism.

Japanese pearl farming pioneer Kokichi Mikimoto first successfully cultivated pearls in 1893, although it still took many years for him to develop his technique to the point of achieving perfectly rounded results.

The principle has remained more or less the same since: the farmer places a small piece of material, often a bead or sometimes, to start the process, a small piece of bead, in the shells, then simply waits.

Ung uses tweezers to insert round pieces of shell into an oyster in his workshop.  The seashells then coat the intruder in mother-of-pearl. Ung uses tweezers to insert round pieces of shell into an oyster in his workshop. The seashells then coat the intruder in mother-of-pearl.Almost all of the genuine pearls available on the market today are cultured – and therefore generally a little more affordable than the much rarer natural variety.

To achieve flawless pearls, Ung uses circular pieces of conch. He sits at a small table in the workshop with all kinds of fine equipment next to him, and fixes one of the seashells in a stand in front of him.

With an experienced hand and tweezers, Ung inserts the foreign body into the shell. Behind him, tanks are lined up. Baby mussels are growing here, the next generation.

Ung is a self-taught pearl girl. “The technique is not difficult, it is simple and quite ‘low tech’ – all you really need for pearl farming is time.”

But there were also setbacks. The most important of these was the tsunami of December 26, 2004, which devastated Phuket.

“It was a Sunday,” Ung recalls. The store was closed, he was upstairs with his wife and four children in their apartment on the first floor. “We were lucky. But the water came over and over and destroyed everything. Only the house itself remained.”

All of their oysters were lost. “We had to start all over again. After a lot of hard work, things finally got back on track. That is to say until the arrival of the coronavirus.

The shells of the two species of mussels reared by Ung - Pinctada Maxima and the black penguin Pteria - which are also sold as decoration.The shells of the two species of mussels reared by Ung – Pinctada Maxima and the black penguin Pteria – which are also sold as decoration.

“These are tough times again. And the business had just picked up.”

Ung’s smile gives way to lines of worry. “We have hardly had any income since the start of Covid.” Yet he opens the store every morning. But tourists rarely visit Ao Yon these days.

As of July, fully vaccinated people have been allowed to return to Phuket without needing to self-quarantine. But the number of tourists is strictly capped and the bureaucracy and strict rules are onerous.

Despite these challenges, Ung never considered giving up. So what does he love so much about his job? He thinks for a moment.

“I love being able to be outdoors, in close contact with nature,” he finally says, adding that he also appreciates the solitude that his job brings, something he found particularly important at first.

“Before I moved into this house, I lived in a remote place, a cabin on stilts, right above the sea,” he said, smiling happily. Ung’s work has even been appreciated by the revered Thai royal family.

Nuanpit proudly displays a golden plaque and a photo of Ung honored on National Agriculture Day in 1995 by the then Crown Prince and now King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

The sun slowly begins to set over the bay, marking the passage of another day in which no guest reached Ao Yon.

But the next morning Ung will reopen the store, arrange the jewelry, and hope it will be a different story. After all, someone like him doesn’t give up after almost 50 years of pearl farming. – dpa


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