Savour the charm, Warmth and seafood of ban sakha
Just a bit over 30km from Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand is a community that until recently could only be reached by boat and still retains the special atmosphere that was nurtured by its isolation
There are places whose charm does not lie in any historical monument, gorgeous beach or other obvious tourist attraction, but rather in the local style and special atmosphere on offer. When rushing around in a big city, it is easy to forget that there are small towns nearby where people spend their days in the same traditional and unhurried way they did in the past.
SERENITY BY THE SHORE: Ban Sakha is known for its unhurried and unspoiled environment.
One such place can be found just a little over 30km from Bangkok at Ban Sakha in Samut Prakan's Phra Samut Chedi district, a small community that still retains the traditions and tranquil lifestyle of its past. Ban Sakha is set on the banks of two canals that connect another waterway called Khlong Sampasamit, a long brackish canal that extends from Samut Prakan to Samut Sakhon.
The flooding of recent years has resulted in structural changes in the houses there. The one-story wooden buildings of the past have been raised and placed atop lower stories made from concrete. The people who live in them are mostly shrimp farmers, although seafood is also dried for sale to visitors and in markets outside the community. One thing that remains unchanged at Ban Sakha is a family-based feeling of warmth and friendliness. People are always ready to help each other, and visitors are given a sincere welcome. The natural environment of this stretch along the Gulf of Thailand is peaceful and unspoiled by the modernisation in progress a short distance away on the other side of the Chao Phraya River. Along the way are green forests alternating with shrimp farms, with the water in the ponds reaching right up to the edge of the road.
When you reach Ban Sakha you will find it to be a small, very quiet village. Some households have goods for sale on display out in front. This is commerce on a very small and cordial scale. Passersby are greeted and asked to sit down and chat over a drink of water. This kind of friendly informality is typical.
In the past, much of the area around Ban Sakha was occupied by salt fields, but they've been closed down due to a combination of causes. For one, the price of salt fell below 100 baht a tonne, but that was not the main reason for their disappearance. The worst problem was natural _ the waves became so strong that they knocked down all of the earthen dykes that kept the seawater from the evaporation fields. As a result, the villagers turned to shrimp farming about 20 years ago. They dug out the evaporation ponds to make them deeper and allowed the seawater to flow in, bringing shrimp, crabs and fish. The villagers found plenty of natural food to eat, but only the shrimp were caught for sale. There were so many of these that even though the going rate was only 100 baht a kilogramme, the farmers could catch enough in a few hours to earn 50,000 baht.
But these good times did not last long. Waste from the province's many shoreline factories caused the water to become polluted, and Ban Sakha received the full brunt of it.
The shrimp in the sea all but disappeared, and production at the farms decreased sharply. The farmers had to continue with their shrimp farms, however, as they were their main source of income.
As the biggest village in the area, Ban Sakha became the central market for the shrimp farmers. They came to buy goods like rice, medicine and other items. Travel in the area was exclusively by boat, and when villagers went to Samut Prakan to buy merchandise the trip took more than half a day. Even government officials had to board boats to get to Ban Sakha when they had business there.
So the government decided that a road to the village was needed and initiated the construction. It took a long time to put in, because the route had to be filled in with stones and soil. It has only been open for about 10 years now.
Among other things, the appearance of this new road brought changes to the villagers' houses, as it allowed trucks to bring in cement, sand and stones to raise the upper stories above flood level. Previously, these materials were just too heavy to bring in.
But most of the local food still comes from the sea. A favourite is hoy phim, a type of long, soft shellfish that lives in holes in the muddy sea bottom. There are also plenty of cockles, mussels, shrimp, different kinds of crabs, saltwater catfish and local fish species.
This seafood is prepared is simple ways. Catfish can be made into kaeng som pla duk thale using the usual ingredients for a sour-sweet-spicy kaeng som but omitting vegetables. It consists only of the fish in the soup-like curry sauce. Because of the lack of vegetables, the flavour of the curry is quite intense.
Hoy phim tom kapi is also easy to make. The shellfish are simmered in water together with chillies and some kapi. That is all there is to it. This dish most likely came into existence because most households normally had some of the chilli dip sauce called nam prik kapi on hand and would want a soup-like dish to eat with it. All they had to do was to put some of the nam prik into the pot and add the shellfish, and the dish was ready.
Little effort is needed to make poo phat tao jio (crab fried with a salty fermented soybean condiment) either. When the crabs are fried they release liquid. They share the pan with some of the tao jio, or soybean condiment, and are kept on the fire until almost all of the water has boiled away, then some spring onion is added and it's done. A shrimp dish, kung yiad, is made by arranging the shrimp on the bottom of a pot and then sprinkling sugar and salt over them to cover them, then putting in another layer of shrimp and repeating the process to create several layers of seasoned shrimp. The pot is then placed on the fire to cook without any water being added. A weight is placed on top of the shrimp, however, to ensure that they remain straight and do not curl or bend. Cooking continues until all of the water released by the shrimp has evaporated, then they are taken from the pot and set out to dry. They will have a sweet and salty taste, with firm meat and crispy shells. When eaten, a little lime juice should be squeezed over them so that their taste combines sweetness, saltiness and the sour bite of the lime. Kung yiad is a ready-to-eat dish that is made only at Ban Sakha, and it is such a favourite with visitors that it has become one of the village's most successful products.
The delicious food is just one of the reasons Ban Sakha is such a pleasant place to visit.
The atmosphere and sense of unhurried, traditional living is also something to savour, and immersing yourself in it now requires only a short drive from Bangkok. To get to Ban Sakha, take the Rama IX Bridge across the Chao Phraya River, then turn left on Suksawad Road, following the route to Pom Phrajoon, where there is a base for small boats. But before reaching the base you will cross the Khlong Sapsamit Bridge. As soon as you reach the other side, turn right onto Suksawat-Nakuea Road.
The road is about seven kilometres long and terminates at Ban Sakha.
LOCAL FAVOURITES: Left to right, the seafood dishes ‘kung yiad’, ‘hoy phim phat cha’ and ‘har mok thal yang’.
About the author
- Writer: Suthon Sukphisit