When the rains come and the rivers swell, giant bones tend to wash up in this remote rice-farming corner of Thailand.
For years, farmers did not know what they were or what to do with them.
The superstitious buried them. Others brought them to Buddhist temples, where monks collected them alongside artifacts and other curios.
Now the message is out: Don’t throw away the dinosaur bones.
“It used to be a taboo — people didn’t want to bring them home,” said Varavudh Suteethorn, a paleontologist who has spent the last three decades leading dinosaur excavations. “After we worked for about 10 years in the area, people started to know more about it.”
Thailand is known for its beaches, great food and, more recently, its propensity for political protests, but not much for dinosaurs. It turns out that the creatures of prehistory, like the tourists of today, found certain parts of Thailand very hospitable.
Paleontologists say that the Khorat Plateau of northeastern Thailand was teeming with dinosaurs starting about 200 million years ago (Bangkok was under the sea at the time), and that the proof is in the frequency with which villagers find dinosaur bones and other fossils.
“Sometimes we discover three or four new sites with dinosaur bones in a single month,” said Preechit Phulanpree, an assistant geologist at a local dinosaur museum who was making a plaster cast of a recent discovery. “Usually we find the bones stuck in a riverbank.”
Paleontologists have documented five new genuses of dinosaurs and six previously unknown species since research began in the 1980s in partnership with French scientists. About 10,000 dinosaur bones have been collected nationwide in three decades, scientists say.
In terms of the breadth and scientific significance of discoveries, China remains a more important center for dinosaur research in Asia, according to Varavudh, but Thailand could contribute more if it had more trained paleontologists. He counts only 10 dinosaur experts in the country.
Varavudh and others hope that the younger generation will embrace the region’s dinosaur past more enthusiastically. The Sirindhorn Museum, a dinosaur museum named for Thailand’s crown princess, Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who has shown an interest in paleontology, opened in the area three years ago, drawing about 200,000 visitors a year, many of them schoolchildren. Large dinosaur replicas have been erected along some roads here in Kalasin Province, home to the region’s most significant dinosaur discoveries.
Among the most compelling attractions are those found here in Baan Na Kum, an eight-hour drive from Bangkok past endless rice paddies and fields of sugar cane. Shrouded by jungle and accessible only by a single-lane road that winds through the hills, it is where visitors can view the giant footprints left in a riverbed by a tyrannosaur, the fierce carnivore that roamed these parts 140 million years ago. Each claw of the footprint is about the size of an average human foot.
The footprints were discovered 14 years ago by two girls, Kanlayamart Singnaklong and Patcharee Waisean, who were picnicking with their parents and set out to catch mountain crabs, an ingredient in a homemade chili sauce.
The discovery helped to raise awareness of the rich prehistoric past of what is an otherwise obscure part of Thailand.
“We thought surely this would make us famous,” said Kanlayamart, who recently completed a university degree in geology. (She is now having second thoughts about a career studying rocks and wants to travel to the US as an au pair.)
Her father, Bai Singnaklong, a schoolteacher, says he believes the girls spotted the footprints because younger generations have had more exposure to dinosaurs in school and on television.
Indeed, some young people may be too aware of the value of the region’s dinosaur legacy.
Five years ago, the US Department of Homeland Security investigated what it considered a suspicious shipment from Thailand and found instead a prehistoric bone. The US authorities contacted their Thai counterparts, who traced the parcel to a Thai man in his 20s who had set up a business buying bones from villagers and selling them on eBay.
Thai law classifies dinosaur bones as property of the state, though those who discover them are supposed to be compensated. The police arrested the man and seized more than 100 large bones and other fossils.
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