One of the first sights that greeted us when we stepped off the bus in Pho Sri, a village in Suphan Buri's Bang Pla Ma district, was an elderly man with a delighted grin plastered across his face. We later discovered that his name was Charoen Nutha and that he was 67.
A market is reborn: wooden shophouses in the resurrected Talat Kao Hong are mostly open on the weekends, selling food, snacks and souvenirs.
"I'm so glad to see tourists," he told us, "because I want people to know what good things we have in our community."
Charoen couldn't seem to stop smiling as he stood there in front of a row of brightly coloured farm trucks which the locals call e-tan. These had been especially fitted out with plastic chairs so that we could tour the hamlet and its environs in comfort.
Pho Sri is home to an ethnic minority called the Thai Phuan who migrated from Phuan district in the Lao province of Xiangkhoang almost two centuries ago. They settled in Suphan Buri and several other parts of Thailand and nowadays their descendants in Pho Sri alone number more than a thousand.
Most are rice farmers who till the 4,000 rai or so of fertile paddy that has fed and supported this community for many generations.
We were introduced to the headman, Chob Thongyaem, who proudly told us that his village had won an award for its adherence to the "sufficiency economy" approach recommended by HM the King, coming first in a province-wide competition.
"Every family here lives a simple life, eating whatever food they plant," he explained.
These tiny yellow sweetmeats are a Suphan Buri delicacy and are called kanom kai pla because they look rather like fish roe. Made from a mixture of sticky-rice flour, coconut milk and the gelatinous, slightly sweet fruit of the toddy palm, they are usually served with a sprinkling of sugar and freshly grated coconut meat. The taste and texture resembles that of kanom nieo , another chewy Thai treat made from sticky rice and shredded coconut.
Looking around we could see that the fences surrounding many of the properties supported various kinds of edible climbing plants and that many households had well-tended vegetable gardens. Later we noticed that several families were also raising fish in ponds. Chob, the puyai baan, told us that most of the rice and other food crops are grown using natural fertilisers and pesticides rather than harmful agro-chemicals.
"We have a farmers' school to show our own people and interested visitors how to grow rice without using chemical products which are a lot more expensive than our own locally made natural fertilisers. We also teach farmers techniques to increase crop yields," he said, adding that some of the womenfolk were also skilled at weaving split bamboo into bags, baskets and other containers.
"Somsak Pureesrisak, the present tourism and sports minister, once spent the night in our village many years ago when he was the governor of Suphan Buri," Chob continued. "It was he who first suggested that we offer homestay-type accommodation, pointing out that our village looked very clean and tidy and that we had the added attraction of our Thai Phuan culture."
While the residents of Pho Sri speak central Thai, rather than the Laos of their distant ancestors, some of their traditional ways differ markedly from those of their neighbours. There's the annual Kam Fa Festival, for example, which they celebrate on the third day of the third lunar month (usually some time in February), preparing piles of khao larm (lengths of bamboo stuffed with sticky rice and grilled over charcoal) as a traditional welcome for the rainy season. Another distinctive celebration of theirs is a merit-making event in the ninth lunar month, called Ngan Sat, for which they prepare offerings of kayasat, a sweetmeat consisting of cooked sticky rice, peanuts and cane sugar. For very special occasions, the locals will don traditional Thai Phuan garb, the womenfolk looking particularly resplendent in their pale purple blouses worn over dark purple sarongs.
Fermented fish is a vital ingredient in Thai Phuan cuisine, Chob explained, as he invited us to sit down to a meal of tom pla duk (chunks of catfish simmered in a broth with chillies and fermented fish sauce), nam prik kapi (spicy fermented-shrimp paste) served with raw and steamed vegetables, tom yum kai ban (a complex tom yum soup made with free-range chicken meat) and a tasty, deep-fried fish called pla salid (gourami).
Afterwards we were loaned bicycles and started exploring the community at our own pace.
This delightful Thai Phuan settlement was just one of several "unseen" attractions to which Tourism and Sports Minister Somsak drew the attention of a large group of reporters and tour agents earlier this month.
We had been invited to Suphan Buri for the launch of "Kok Kak Tour", a campaign initiated by Somsak, who wants to promote places of interest throughout the Kingdom which he feels have an undeservedly low profile.
Kok, he explained, is the sound of someone knocking on the "door" of a province and kak is the creaking made when that portal, presumably a heavy, old wooden gate, is pulled open to greet visitors by the governor of the province in question.
"The campaign will help promote domestic tourism," the minister declared. "Nowadays, about 70% of the income we get from tourism is generated by international visitors, with the rest coming from domestic tourists. But we rely too much on foreign tourists and this is not sustainable. I want to encourage our people to travel more [within the country] because my aim is to boost revenue from domestic tourism until it accounts for 50% of the total."
Another goal of the scheme, he said, is to "shine a spotlight" on lesser known attractions.
Somsak explained that he had chosen Suphan Buri for the inaugural Kok Kak Tour because he was very familiar with the province, having been governor here for seven years before taking up his ministerial portfolio in April.
Our tour concentrated on points of interest in two districts: Bang Pla Ma and Muang. In the former, we also visited Kao Hong, a century-old talat (market) next to the Tha Chin (known locally as the Suphan River) which went into a long, slow decline when roads began to replace waterways as the main conduit for transporting people and goods. The market was founded by a local tycoon named Boonrod Liangpanich, son of an immigrant from China. Boonrod had started out small, opening a shop on a small raft moored next to the riverbank on which his father-in-law had built a traditional Thai house on stilts in the style known as kao hong (literally, ''nine rooms''). Business went well and Boonrod prospered, but his wealth attracted unwanted attention. One day bandits broke into his home looking for valuables to steal and killed his wife in the process. Later, when Boonrod had recovered from his loss, he bought a plot of land on the other side of the river, opposite his old shop, and set up the market which became known as Talat Kao Hong.
To protect his investment, Boonrod erected a square watch-tower, four storeys tall, which he dubbed Hor Doo Jone (doo means ''watch'' and jone is a term for ''bandit''). Two apertures, big enough to accommodate a gun barrel, were punched into each of the sturdy, concrete walls of the tower, the different levels of which were connected by iron ladders. The tower was initially manned by armed guards but since its completion, some 80 years ago, there have been no reports of crime in the area. Hor Doo Jone is now open to the public but if you decide to check out the view from the top, you'll need to exercise extreme caution; the narrow metal rungs of the ladders can be slippery and the incline is pretty steep.
In Muang district, in Suphan Buri town proper, you may want to check out a much more recent structure of which the locals are very proud: the imposing Dragon Descendants Museum.
Within a brightly painted carapace crafted to resemble this mythological creature, a series of interconnecting rooms contains exhibits and audio-visual presentations which give one an introduction to the history, culture and traditions of China.
Next to it is a typically gaudy Chinese shrine, housing Suphan Buri's lak muang (city pillar), and the newly opened Talat Lijiang, a shopping zone which seeks to recreate the atmosphere of an old town in China, complete with reproductions of two-storey shophouses built in the Chinese style.
More Kok Kak Tours will be organised on a monthly basis, according to the minister. The next one will feature a trip to Prachin Buri in July in time for the annual fruit harvest.
''A large number of tourists go to Rayong and Chanthaburi for the fruit festivals there, so we want to promote Prachin Buri as an alternative,'' he explained, adding that he also plans to expand the campaign to provinces farther afield where overnight accommodation will be part of the package. ''And we'll be travelling by train in order to promote the railway network.''
The Chinese shrine houses Suphan Buri’s lak muang (symbolic city pillar) which takes the form of a stone sculpture of Vishnu, the Hindu deity. Believed to be 1,300 years old, the statue is said to have been discovered buried in mud near a canal by a Chinese immigrant some 150 years ago and has been highly revered by the locals ever since. The second photo shows the entrance to Talat Lijiang, where you could stop for food before visiting the nearby museum or paying your respects at the city pillar shrine.
The Dragon Descendants Museum in Muang district was the brainchild of Banharn Silpa-archa, a long-time MP for Suphan Buri of ethnic-Chinese descent and a former prime minister. The dragon-shaped structure is 35m tall, 135m long and 18m wide. It is segmented into 20 exhibition rooms, each of which uses different presentation techniques — computer graphics, moving objects coupled with lights and sounds, etc — to touch on different aspects of Chinese history and culture. Some of the exhibits are genuine originals brought from China. Written information is in Thai only, but the audio aids have commentary in both Chinese and English.
Thai Phuan villagers in traditional garb carry food they have prepared to welcome visitors. During our visit to the hamlet of Pho Sri we were told that performances of local music could be arranged for groups of tourists as could a traditional welcoming ceremony called bai sri su kwan.
Rice is the main source of income for the residents of Pho Sri who make their own fertiliser by composting leftover vegetables, dead leaves and plant cuttings. A farmer I met there named Thurian Kamphaengchan told me she had stopped using agro-chemicals four years previously. ‘‘I harvest about 100 thang of rice [about 1.5 tonnes] per rai. This yield is about 30% higher than when I was using chemical fertilisers,’’ she said, adding that her health has also improved now that she is no longer exposed to agro-chemicals. Some of the local women supplement the income they make from growing rice by weaving strips of split bamboo into baskets and containers.
Reopened a couple of years ago, the century-old Talat Kao Hong is an atmospheric place to have a hot meal or a cold drink. The photo on the left shows Hor Doo Jone, a lookout tower built to guard market vendors from bandits.
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- Writer: Karnjana Karnjanatawe