BANG SAPHAN, Thailand – Nature regularly taunts the farmers of Thailand by flooding their fields, but this time she's tossed some of them a potential safety net: the chance to pan for gold.
Crops in Bang Saphan district, a rural community 240 kilometers (150 miles) south of Bangkok, were decimated by heavy flooding that affected much of southern Thailand in the week after New Year's. Villagers' opportunity to eke out a meager living diminished further when the waters destroyed a local market.
Over generations, however, the villagers have learned to turn adversity into opportunity.
More than two dozen people were searching for gold Thursday morning along the local canal, called Klong Thong, or "Golden Canal." Many brought food and family along, as well as pans for sifting and small glass bottles to hold whatever they might be lucky enough to find.
"It is local knowledge that has been passed down through generations that whenever there is a flood and the waters have receded, locals will go searching for gold," said Boonyarit Daengraksa, deputy chief of Ron Thong sub-district, through which the canal runs. He said that this month, floodwaters destroyed the sides of the canal, exposing potential deposits.
This is not a typical gold rush. Few if any of these part-time prospectors are counting on getting rich.
"We have nothing else to lose," said Nusra Tubtang, a 72-year-old pineapple farmer whose crop was mostly wiped out by the flood. "I come here to relieve stress."
Nusra said that over the past three days she was able to gather small particles of gold that she could sell for the equivalent of $35.
Villagers commonly find small flakes of gold, and a few fortunate ones have come across nuggets. In an exceptional case, a villager found a big nugget a few days ago and made a $1,000 sale to the chief of the subdistrict's administration.
"With a pan or a sieve, a shovel and a can, and four to five hours, you probably could find some gold here that you can sell and earn at least 300 to 500 baht (about $10 to $15). Villagers can use this money to support themselves during this time of crisis," said Kritsada Muadnoi, a gold buyer and adviser to the local government. "We are lucky here that nature has compensated us for the disaster."
Pineapple farmer Samruay Kamlin, 59, said just the prospect of finding gold thrilled her. So far, she has only uncovered a few flakes, but she obsesses over the hunt day and night.
"It is like a magic drug for me," she said. "I wake up at 3 a.m. thinking that I have to go look over here or there for gold."
Some, inevitably, are disappointed.
Local villager Yuang Padthong, 67, said that she earned around 2,000 baht ($57) a month cultivating coconuts, but since her crop and the local market had been destroyed, she was trying her hand in gold panning. She left empty-handed.
"There were more people here a few days ago and they were able to find a lot. There is a lot less to be found now," she said.
Still, community leaders want to trade on the area's golden reputation to develop it as a tourist site. Some small efforts were made in that direction, but lights and bamboo shelters that were erected before the recent storms were swept away in the floods.
Boonyarit said the local government will try to rebuild.
"It is important that we preserve this tradition that dates back generations," he said.