Ratchaburi is a province that people pass through on their way to Cha-am or Hua Hin. When they take Phetkasem Road from Nakhon Pathom, they tend to just drive on without stopping there. Even those who go to Suan Phung district in Rachaburi province itself, with its valley setting, hotels and resorts, generally skip Muang district. The province and its capital city are also on the route to Kanchanaburi, although few travellers will bother to stop there. But those who do take the time to get acquainted with Ratchaburi will find that it has great charm, with a long list of interesting things to experience.
In Thailand there are major Chinese communities in Nakhon Sawan on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, and in Ratchaburi, along the Mae Klong River. Nakhon Sawan is a very active business town that is a focal point for investors. Ratchaburi is also a town with a strong economic life, but it is quiet and peaceful, preserving its old-fashioned character and identity.
Towards the beginning of the Rattanakosin period, Ratchaburi became the home of political refugees from Laos and the North who left their homes to take up residence in the province, bringing their own culture and traditions with them. They were excellent weavers, and have passed this skill down through the generations to the present day. The fabrics woven in Ratchaburi are among the things for which the province is famous.
The Chinese arrived later, towards the middle of the Rattanakosin period, most of them workers who dug the canals in Ratchaburi. A large community of them settled in Damnoen Saduak district, an area where there were many orchards, and at first the Chinese in Ratchaburi worked as farmers. But as the community grew more populous many moved to Muang district to work in commerce or as artisans making handicrafts.
Among the items these handicraft makers became known for were oang mankawn (dragon water jars), whose designs were developed from those of the jars made in China. Goods were transported for sale by boat along the Mae Klong, which flows through the city. The handicraft industry in Ratchaburi, belonging primarily to the Chinese community, grew over time and had no competition.
The Chinese community in Ratchaburi has always been well integrated with the local people there. This close harmony can be seen at Wat Khanon in Photharam district, an area where many ethnic groups happily coexist _ Lao, Mon, Thai and Chinese. This old temple is famous for the traditional Thai nang yai, or shadow play performances presented there. These productions enact episodes from the Ramakien (the Thai version of the Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana), with images cast by elaborately cut shapes representing characters projected on a white screen. This performance art is authentically Thai, but the ornamentation of the temple _ the decorative designs, doorways, windows and other features _ are in a Chinese folk art style, showing the welcome local acceptance of Chinese culture.
The food of Ratchaburi is reason enough for a visit. Some dishes the city is famous for are khao haw bai bua (a fried rice mixture wrapped in a lotus leaf and steamed) sold next to Ratchaburi railway station and the Bang Tan grilled chicken sold at Bang Tan railway station. There are also some celebrated noodle dishes, such as bamee kai _ wheat noodles and red pork with a boiled egg whose yolk is still viscous and semi-liquid, hard tofu that has been simmered in aromatic Chinese five spice powder until it turns black and the dried, salted cabbage condiment called hua chai po.
In the middle of town beside the Mae Klong is a wonderful attraction that has a lot to offer both to permanent residents of the town and tourists _ the Khoi Kee market, which is held every evening. The name in the Chinese dialect means "beside the water", and it occupies a big, clean, roomy building that contains many food stalls. All kinds of food are available there, ranging from dishes made to order to the famous noodle dishes, with vendors competing to lure customers to their bamee kai, kui tio lawt (rolled, stuffed noodle sheets with sauce) and Thai-style kanom bueang yuan (taco-like shells filled with sweet or savoury ingredients). Tourists who visit this market will fill up quickly and find plenty of reasons to return.
Another place strongly connected with Ratchaburi's special identity is the Sapsin market, a morning fresh market operated by the Crown Property Bureau (more than 10 of these markets exist nationwide). The one in Ratchaburi has been in operation for more than 70 years. It is located next to the river in a big, bright, airy structure that is clean and fastidiously organised and maintained. The shophouses around the market are beautiful examples of the architectural style of seven decades ago. Markets like this have become a rarity, and five years ago the Public Health Ministry cited it for its excellence in terms of organisation, cleanliness and safety. Last year the Crown Property Bureau further improved its walkways to protect them from sun and rain, renovated the electrical system and repainted the market.
Entering the market, you will find that almost all of the people doing business there are of Chinese origin, and that the merchandise that they offer is very much what it would have been 70 years ago. There are shops selling wooden cutting blocks, charcoal stoves and ceramic pots. Some display items for use by temples and monks, others offer seeds for vegetables, agricultural equipment, fertilisers and insecticides. One place specialises in fabrics, and another offers old-style curry pastes that will be an automatic purchase for many visitors.
One kind of shop that is very hard to find in Bangkok offers so huay, or Chinese groceries. The way that the shop is set up and decorated is like a glimpse 50 or 60 years into the past, and the items sold include tinned goods, various ingredients used in Chinese cooking, oyster sauce, tang chai (pickled cabbage), soya sauce from China, Chinese spices, fish maw and items for Chinese religious offerings. The atmosphere is very much that of the past, but the food is ready to be eaten today.
The fresh foods, such as fish and vegetables, are brought by the local people for sale, and prepared foods including curry and rice, khao mu daeng (rice with red pork and sauce) and coffee brewed the old-fashioned way using a cloth filter are there and ready to be eaten on the spot in the tranquil atmosphere of a bygone era.
All of these things are there to be seen in Muang district, and the longer you stay, the more you will discover. Take some time to stop, explore and enjoy a meal. Ratchaburi has much more to offer than you may think.
About the author
- Writer: Suthon Sukphisit