Rustic ratchaburi: Old style treats and traditions

Communities along the tranquil Mae Klong seem to have escaped the mad dash of modernity, with a natural environment and local cuisine that have managed to survive in their original forms

Modern lifestlyles depend so much on speed. Communications technology and the social media it fuels race ahead at such a pace that it seems that after a single night's sleep the world will be changed in the morning. Transport systems are opening up wide roads that go practically everywhere, and that development has had a strong effect on my subject here _ food, which often feels the impact of an incoming barrage of new ingredients and techniques.

UNSPOILED BEAUTY: A view from a stretch of road along the Mae Klong in Ban Pong.

But if a place can be found where the atmosphere is still quiet and peaceful, with old-fashioned wooden houses and a natural environment that is still intact, the local cuisine can still survive in its original form. Coming on such a place these days can feel like an incredible discovery.

But such locations do exist, even quite close to Bangkok. One is in Ratchaburi province along the Mae Klong River beginning at Ban Pong district, about 80km from Bangkok, and extending through Photharam district to Ratchaburi city.

The Mae Klong River is formed by the convergence of the Khwae Yai and Khwae Noi rivers at Kanchanaburi city. It flows on through Ratchaburi to enter the Gulf of Thailand in Samut Songkhram. The segment of the Mae Klong that flows through Kanchanaburi is one of the main selling points for the province's tourism industry. Every square metre of the riverbank is covered with hotels and resorts, all built and decorated to make them appealing to tourists.

‘Phao kriap pak maw sai phak krachat’.

But upon entering Ban Pong district the river seems to enter an earlier era in its natural history. The trees that grow on its banks are so big that they have probably been there since before any of the local residents were born, and a community of local people live all along both sides of the river. There are also little roads that take short cuts across the shoreline of the winding river, and both these and the households of the local people are hidden by the trees. Although many of these trees are cultivated and belong to farmers who grow coconuts, mangos and other fruit, they blend in perfectly with the surrounding natural environment. The area can present problems to tourists who want to explore it, however, because there is not a single hotel or resort along the river from Ban Pong to Ratchaburi city.

This stretch of the river is home to a number of ethnic communities, and a variety of businesses operate in the town of Ban Pong. Its original population was largely Chinese, and modern roads provide commercial links with Nakhon Pathom and Kanchanaburi. The riverside area, however, is occupied by a Mon ethnic community who have lived here for more than 100 years. The community extends along the river from Wat Soyfai and Wat Muang to Wat Khanon. The Mon prefer a quiet and peaceful lifestyle and are religiously strict and devout.

The population of Photharam district is also primarily Chinese, and over the years they have built four religious shrines there. Unfortunately, the old-fashioned wooden shophouses, once a prominent cultural feature of the town, have fallen victim to three big fires, so that now only a few remain.

Local people still practise their traditional occupations, including cultivating beansprouts the old-fashioned way, using rice husks as the medium and washing the sprouts in the river. They make hard, black tofu by marinating the bean curd in Chinese seasonings, and make the condiment called hua chai po. The production of hua chai po is especially prevalent in tambon Jaydee Samien, where there are several large households that make it. The quality is very good, and it is one of the tambon's most important products.

‘Mara pad kai’.

There are roads running along both banks of the river and several bridges that cross it. Some of the roads are small and very quiet. This is especially true of the one that runs from the tambon Boekphrai side past Wat Soyfai to Wat Muang. After it passes Wat Muang and goes on to Wat Khanon it is extremely quiet and peaceful but not lonely, as there are house scattered along the way.

At some points along the way it offers a view of the river in an unspoiled natural state, and it is well worth a visit.

One aspect of this area that can't be ignored is the food. There are plenty of places to get a meal in Ban Pong, but one that stands out is Ran Charoen Phochana on Saeng Chuto Road, midway between Nga Chang Circle and the Sapha Ban Khai intersection. It is an old-style khao tom, or rice soup restaurant, and although tourists don't know about it, it is well-known to the town's ethnic Chinese natives. The character of the restaurant is like that of the khao tom reataurants of the past, spacious and with cabinets along the wall filled with whiskey, beer and Chinese liquor. The case where the food is displayed is also the old-fashioned type.

The whole family help out in running the restaurant. The husband does the cooking and his wife and children serve customers. The food is authentically Chinese _ pla chon pad khuen chai (snakehead fish fried with Chinese celery), mara pad kai (bitter melon fried with egg) and boiled chicken with ginger, which was prepared in the past for Chinese women who had just given birth. Charoen Phochana is open daily for lunch and supper.

Also worth seeking out is the phao kriap pak maw sai phak krachat (sheets of steamed rice noodle filled with a crunchy herb). They are delicious, and are sold only by one vendor on Saeng Chuto Road, about 300m from Nga Chang circle. They are sold from a pushcart that sets up in front of a restaurant that sells khao moo daeng (rice with Chinese red pork in sauce). The filling is especially tasty. They are still presented to customers the old way, in a container made from banana leaves and are sold daily from 10am until 3pm. Don't miss either of these places.

On the road from Wat Khanon to Photharam district, across the river from the town of Photharam and about 400m past Wat Chalerm-at, is a private home that sells noodles. It has no name, but is easy to recognise because there are usually cars parked in front. Local people call it kui tio moo khang yu taw ruea yao (the pork noodle place next to the long-boat builder).

The noodles are sen lek nam tom yam (small-gauge noodles in sour-spicy broth), made old-style with ground pork, chopped hard tofu, Chinese radish and small dried shrimp. The restaurant also offers very good yen ta fo, either with broth or "dry". This, too, is made the old-fashioned way. The red colouring comes from nam tao hu yee (a red-coloured fermented tofu condiment), not Bangkok-style with tomato ketchup.

Although this part of Ratchaburi is not even 100km from Bangkok, its atmosphere could not be more different. Exploring it gives a feeling of having been transported back to the past. It can make for a memorable experience, a change to temporarily escape to a place where stress from rapid change and constant pressure has been kept at bay, and where there is time to appreciate good things before the passing moment snatches them away.

About the author

Writer: Suthon Sukphisit
Position: Writer