Planting trees in the mangroves along Khlong Khon in Samut Songkhram is an ideal way of spending a dirty weekend with the entire family.
"Help! I'm sinking, I'm sinking fast," squeals a woman she steps out of the small boat into the slippery mud and sees her feet then ankles quickly disappear.
This is not a thrilling adventure a la Indiana Jones but a mangrove forest in Tambon Khlong Khon in Samut Songkhram, just two hour's drive from Bangkok. We're not here to find lost treasures either but rather to bring them back to where they belong. We've come to Khlong Khon to plant mangrove trees.
Half a century ago, the Mae Klong River estuary, where the freshwater from the river mixed with the salt water from the sea, was very rich with mangroves and marine life. The mangrove forest around the mouth of the river dominated an area of approximately 70,000 rai (28,000 acres). But starting in 1984, when shrimp farming was introduced round here, vast areas of mangrove forests were cleared to make way for these farms. The forest area shrank to just 1,000 rai.
By the time the villagers, most of them fishermen, realized that their real wealth lay not in selling their land to unscrupulous businessmen but in the diversity of the mangrove forest, it was too late: most of the mangrove had disappeared and the remainder was polluted by badly managed shrimp farms.
Since 1991, community leaders headed by village headman Phaiboon have been taking action against deforestation. Their campaign to revive the mangrove forest eventually drew the attention of both the public and private sectors and even Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn visited Khlong Khon and planted mangrove trees. Today, the mangrove forest has grown to about 6,000 rai but there is still a long way to go.
Knee-deep in mud, the girls in our group try to trudge through but the thick mud doesn't allow much movement. The more they struggle, the deeper they sink.
"Don't panic. Just walk slowly; it will be hard but it is better than standing still or fighting with the mud," says a villager, who's doubling as our boatman, smiling gently.
Looking around for the best spot to plant our saplings, the rest of us step into the mud and stick the plants into our footprints. My nephews, aged five and eight years, cheer every time somebody slips on the way back to the boat.
"Planting is a lot easier than walking," laughs one of the girls.
The mud-skippers slide away when we walk close to them while the crabs wave their oversized claws as if to chase away the invaders. The cool and creamy mud slips through our toes, enveloping our feet, giving a strangely comforting sensation.
On our way to lunch, our boatman takes us to feed wild monkeys and visit oyster farms. Though time is limited and the sun is extremely hot, everyone enjoys the ride.
Lunch is served on the krateng, a fisherman's cottage standing in the sea. When the tide is low, the krateng looks more like a tower than a cottage. We finally manage to climb up the bamboo ladder to the cottage and as the breeze cools us down, we look down at the muddy seabed carpeted with thousands of ark clams.
Some start sketching the landscape while others stretch out on the beach bed, letting the wind lull them to sleep.
"Can we play mud-sliding, please?" my two nephews plead when they spot three kids having fun on sliding boards over the muddy floor.
Peeling their shirts off, the older boy jumps on the board and slides beautifully between the makeshift piers. The younger one doubtfully touches the gooey mud but quickly perks up and follows his brother.
"The clouds are starting to thicken and the rain will be here soon. We had better go back to the shore or we might have to stay here on the krateng until the rain stops," one of the villagers says.
We slip into our life jackets and climb down to our boat. The taste of salty water is on my lips as the boat rush back to the shore.
From our tiny boat, we see a forest of gnarled trees emerging from the sea, roots anchored in brown, foul smelling mud, lush crowns arching toward the sky. Someday, I muse, our saplings will grow tall and strong, joining the verdant forest where the land and sea intertwine.
If you go
Mangrove planting is a dirty business. You're advised to bring:
Clothes that do not absorb much water (and can be chucked out after the mission).
Hat and sunscreen.
Clean clothes to change into after a shower.