I am a builder, and I always observe how things are put together. What struck me after living here in Ao Nang for a while was how many places I saw bamboo being used.  It is not only used decoratively in restaurants and such, but it is used everywhere!  I see bamboo commonly used for everyday needs such as cooking as well as in construction, housing, sign-making, transportation, furniture, food, clothing and so on.  In a world of throwaway products, bamboo is one of the most perfect renewable resources, and it’s great that Thailand utilizes it so well.

Major research on bamboo didn’t start till the 1920’s, and it was found that bamboo has been commonly utilized for over 5000 years.  What was once the symbol of the Orient, bamboo is a beautiful combination between the strength of hardwood and the sustainability of grass. There are native species of bamboo everywhere, including in the United States and Europe, where many consider it an invasive plant.  Because it grows so quickly, bamboo has the ability to take over areas of a garden, if not taken care of.  This makes it feel like an invasive plant, however it’s just that it has good propagation ability in most soils.  Bamboo grows in two styles, clumping and running.  Technically a type of grass, bamboo grows faster than any woody plant in the world.  Typically, most species of bamboo will grow between 1”- 4” (inches) a day, but some species can grow up to 98” in a day.  A bamboo forest can grow to maturity in 5 years.  The Giant bamboo, with a diameter of 6-8 feet, can grow to heights of up to 90’ in a 5-year period.

Imagine harvesting a whole forest of bamboo, only to return 5 years later to do it again.  Globally, bamboo is finding its way into home flooring and trim applications. Typical hardwood trees need 40 to 120 years to reach maturity, so a great deal of planning to maximize yield over the years must be sustained. This non-renewable aspect makes hardwood harvesting of some of our old growth forests less appealing.

Bamboo will grows in temperate zones in most places of the world.  The United States also has a native bamboo strain, which can reach a height of 15’ to 40′.  Here in Thailand you see bamboo growing everywhere, along the side of a road, or in a thicket of rubber or palm trees.  Bamboo is a natural product that can easily grow on your property with little or no effort, and has the benefit of cash crop at harvest time.

Conjuring up images of Panda bears eating their special diet of bamboo leaves, it’s easy to realize that bamboo was first used in China 5000 years ago.  Its wide variety of uses is just now coming to light as being an ecological benefit.  Bamboo’s use as a sustainable commodity began long before the term “going green” became a trend.  Its history is seen in many aspects of Chinese life and throughout Southeast Asia – in the paintings and antiques as well as the products of daily life. “The plant for the people”, as it is often referred to, there are thousands of uses for this plant.  Bamboo is used to make bows and arrows, Japanese Kempo swords, paint and tattoo brushes, musical instruments, scaffolding and it is even used to make wine.  Bamboo wine was created in Tanzania from a species of wine bamboo called Oxytenanthera Brauni.  Bamboo has a higher compression rate than wood, concrete and brick and a tensile strength that rivals steel. It was abundant bamboo planting that was used to return the landscape back in Japanese cities, after the atomic bombs were dropped there in 1945.

You can see the Thai people use it in the simplest of ways, like having a bamboo stick for holding a leg of chicken or some pork to be cooked on the grill at street vendor carts. Bamboo makes great huts and furniture, street signs, curtains, shoes and there is even bamboo clothing, which is comparable to the softness of cashmere.  Bamboo is used for fishing and as an 8′ pole with a hook to bring fighting bulls under control after a fight.

Some varieties of bamboo have medicinal properties in their roots and can also be used in many foods and soups.  The edible part of a bamboo is a low-calorie source of potassium. On the totally opposite side of the spectrum are the shoots of the giant bamboo, which contain cyanide.  It seems like the versatility of bamboo is endless.

There are over 1450 species of bamboo and each region of the world produces its own specific plant.  We often remember from a book, picture or a story, different images of bamboo.  There are several varieties of giant bamboo; one type, called Moso bamboo, which can reach 7” in diameter, and 75′ in height, grows in large forests in both China and Japan. This type of bamboo is used in flooring and construction scaffolding.  The film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was filmed in the forests of China and the bamboo backdrop in the film displayed impressive tall stands of this bamboo.

Bridge building – another interesting application – not only has to be flexible to bend to shape, but strong enough to support heavy loads of traffic. One such project is the famous Mon Bridge in Sangkhlaburi, Thailand.  This is the second longest foot bridge in the world and the longest in Thailand, at 1500′ in length and a height of 25′ over a river.  It was badly damaged in a storm in 2013.  The dedicated locals joined forces and replaced the damaged bridge by building a floating bridge in one week – out of bamboo of course.

One last application for versatility of bamboo was a bicycle first shown at Stanley Cycle Show in 1894 in London.  The developing company went out of business but was revitalized in 2005 as Calfee Design Company, builders of bamboo bicycle frames, in California.   The unique properties of bamboo rival those of a carbon fiber frame bike, in strength, weight and comfort.

The versatility of bamboo and its multitude of applications are outstanding.

So the next time you’re driving or walking around here, take a minute to see all the wonderful things bamboo does to support everyday life in Krabi and all of Southeast Asia.