A place of traditions

Located between two famous sites in Sukhothai province, the Ban Na Choeng Khiri community is a must-visit for those who want to immerse themselves in the local way of life

Tourists fly Phra Ruang kites made from the dry leaves of the Yang Phluang tree (Dipterocarpus tuberculatus) at a reservoir not far from Lam Kliao waterfall in Ramkhamhaeng National Park.

Two oxen lift their heads while munching grass in a harvested rice paddy as they hear the noise of the running engine of our rod khok mu (a modified passenger truck). Seen in the background of the rice field is the large and green Khao Luang Mountain. It stands elegantly under a partly gloomy sky in Sukhothai province.

Last week, I was in Khiri Mat district, the gateway to the famous Khao Luang Mountain in Ramkhamhaeng National Park. My destinations were Ban Na Choeng Khiri and Ban Thung Luang where I would spend one day to experience simple village life and cultural heritage.

"Our village is still new to tourism," said Khuan Khamsri, our guide in Ban Na Choeng Khiri. The villagers saw the potential to promote their home as a community-based tourist destination, especially since it is not far from the other top two attractions in the province.

Luang Pho To or the Big Buddha is the sacred principle image at Wat Choeng Khiri. Locals believe that the seated Buddha sculpture, housed in the ordination hall, was made during Sukhothai Kingdom more than 700 years ago. The temple also houses centuries-old luk nimit or sacred stone orbs buried on its grounds, one of which is located inside the prayer hall. It has a translucent cover so worshippers can easily observe the holy stone.

"Ban Na Choeng Khiri is located between Sukhothai Historical Park and Khao Luang Mountain. We want visitors who visit Sukhothai due to its historic sites and those who want to trek and camp in the mountain to come and enjoy time with us," he added.

My journey to Ban Na Choeng Khiri started at Wat Choeng Khiri. Our guide wanted us to get blessed by worshipping the revered Luang Pho To, the old seated Buddha image dating back to the Sukhothai period.

A group of women were busy preparing a snack and they served us palm juice as a welcome drink together with a small bamboo woven basket full of yummy khanom tan (toddy palm cake in banana leaf).

"The villagers grow toddy palms in their rice fields. You can spot the trees anywhere in our community," he said.

The toddy palm led us to our next stop, the house of a palm sugar maker. Our rod khok mu ran slowly on a dirt road whose road surface was not in a good condition. We hit potholes from time to time, making all the passengers sway left and right.

After about 10 minutes, we arrived at the home of Thongsuk Immu. She greeted us with a smile as we walked to her working area. She let us taste a snack made of toddy sugar mixed with coconut shreds as she heated toddy palm sap in a wok. She had boiled the sap for four hours before we arrived and we needed to quickly scoop it with a ladle while it was still hot and put it in moulds or else the sap would be dry and turn into lumps. Since we were still beginners, we were quite slow. However, it was not a problem for Thongsuk. She just smiled and told us to stop while she put the wok back to the stove to heat it again.

Visitors can tour around Ban Na Choeng Khiri by riding a modified truck with four benches at the rear for passengers. The vehicle is a common mode of public transportation in Sukhothai and accommodates up to 40 passengers.

Wat Tham Phra Mae Ya is one of the popular stops in Ban Na Choeng Khiri. The temple is located in the foothills of Khao Luang Mountain. Nearby the temple is a cave with a sculpture believed to be Nang Sueng, the first queen of the Sukhothai Kingdom and the mother of two Sukhothai kings, King Ban Muang and his younger brother King Ramkhamhaeng. People call the sculpture Phra Mae Ya and believe that worshipping it will make their wishes come true. Wat Tham Phra Mae Ya has a replica of the sculpture after the original was relocated to the Phra Mae Ya shrine in the city, about a 30-minute drive from the cave.

From Thongsuk's house, we drove for about 10km to a reservoir. Our guide wanted us to feel relaxed by sitting near the water and learning how to make a leaf kite, called Wao Phra Ruang.

The kite got the name from folklore about a boy named Phra Ruang, said Prathep Leethung, our kite-making instructor.

The young Phra Ruang was a great person with a magical gift of words. When he said his wishes out loud, they would come true even if it was about diverting the course of the river, filling bamboo-woven baskets with water or even petrifying an enemy.

According to the legend, people feared his power so the couple who found the baby boy in Khao Luang and raised him brought him back to the forest. They made the boy a leaf kite and told him to fly it every day so that they knew he was alive and knew where he was. (He later grew up and became a king.)

"Our community preserves the leaf kite tradition and flies it to honour his virtue. We believe that playing with Wao Phra Ruang during the rice farming season will bring us good yields," said Prathep.

Before leaving the village, our guide brought us to Tham Phra Mae Ya to pay respect to Phra Mae Ya, or Nang Sueng, the first queen of the Sukhothai Kingdom.

Chanchai Chomhuang, 55, grows organic rice on his 30 rai plot of land in Ban Na Choeng Khiri. He likes to welcome his visitors with steamed rice including purple rice berry, red hom mali rice and khao klong ngok rice, or unpolished germinated rice. His family also helps prepare rice soup, khanom khrok (panbaked rice-flour cup custard) and herbal tea made from green leaves of the pong fa tree (Murraya siamensis Craib). The taste is mildly sweet and has a smell like Hacks candy.

Thongsuk Immu, 58, is a member of one of the six families in Ban Na Choeng Khiri who produce namtan puek (hardened sugar) the traditional way. The sugar is made from the sap of toddy palms. She has two stoves and can produce about 10kg of hardened sugar per day. The price is 80 baht a kilo. As part of the tourist attraction, she opens her house for visitors every day so they can try the final process of making namtan puek. The fee for the activity is 100 baht per person and visitors will also receive a pack of 1kg of namtan puek.

Mo Kran Phra Ruang.

Wanchai Moratthian, the president of Ban Thung Luang Tourism Club, guides us to a local museum of Wat Lai. Those century-old clay pots were donated to the museum by locals. In the past, people used them as containers for storing food and water. The museum also has old tools for making clay pots.

Prathep Leethung hosts a workshop for us to learn how to make a leaf kite called Wao Phra Ruang. He has a stack of big dry leaves for each of us to choose. He told us to tie a dry weed leaf as the tail. The kite is easy to assemble and fly. When in the air, the kites look like flying birds.

Despite being 87, granny Hong Naengdaeng has never stopped making pottery. It is because she likes working as it keeps her active and healthy. Her house is called the Ban Chanraem Homestay. Her family members can organise a workshop for visitors who want to try making pottery.

Clay sculptures are produced by the family of Chalao Yuklad, 64. She has sculpted clay dolls since she was young. Her favourite sculpture is kinnari (a mythical creature of half-human and halfbird). Her son also works with her. He likes making animation characters and Hindu gods. She opens her house as a learning centre for making clay sculptures and also accepts made-to-order works. She calls her house Ban Pla Bu Thong. She can be reached at 096-454-7147 and 089-272-1744.

A simple lunch in Ban Thung Luang is served in clay bowls and plates. Rice is also steamed in small clay pots for a small serving. The set includes fish cake, spicy fish paste with vegetables, grilled fish, pork soup and stir-fried chicken and a traditional dessert wrapped in banana leaf. The food is tasty.

In the afternoon, we visited Ban Thung Luang. The village is about a 15-minute drive from Ban Na Choeng Khiri community.

Ban Thung Luang is known for terracotta earthenware. About 200 families are pottery makers here, said Wanchai Moratthian, the president of Ban Thung Luang Tourism Club, which was founded by the Thung Luang Tambon Administrative Organisation.

"Making pottery is a skill we have passed on for generations. The history of this tradition can be traced back to the Sukhothai era," said Wanchai.

The unique designs of Ban Thung Luang pottery are called Mo Kran Phra Ruang, a rounded vase with a stem, base and a pointed lid. The shape is a reference to prosperity and wealth.

"Mo Kran Phra Ruang is regarded as a gift of good wishes from the giver," he said.

To support the craftwork, a 5 rai plot of land has been reserved for a public pond where the villagers can dig out clay for free. There is one condition though: that they do it manually and not using an excavating machine.

Last but not least, our guide led us to three houses with unique designs of earthenware. Some of us tried making a clay bowl or painting earthenware fish.

Time passed by quite quickly, especially since we were having fun. The one-day trip seemed to be too short. Perhaps next time, I will come back and stay the night.

TRAVEL INFO

  • Ban Na Choeng Khiri in Khiri Mat district is about 16km from Sukhothai Historical Park. Ban Na Choeng Khiri Tourism Club can arrange a half- or full-day trip with choices of workshops and activities. The fee is 100 baht per DIY station per visitor.A rental fee for rod khok mu is 400 baht for up to 20 passengers.Booking is required. For more information, call 055-010-310, 091-024-6285 and 086-939-6014 or visit the tourism club's Facebook at bit.ly/35IwNmI.
  • Ban Thung Luang is about 25km from Sukhothai Historical Park. The village offers various tourism packages. Service rate for a homestay is 699 baht a night per person. The price includes breakfast, dinner, village tour and a pottery workshop. A one-day trip is priced at 450 baht per person.For visitors who only want to join a pottery workshop, the fee is 100 baht a person. Set lunch is priced at 250 baht per head.Ban Thung Luang Tourism Club can be reached at 085-973-7080 or via its Facebook at bit.ly/3mQrgRc.
  • For more information about community-based and sustainable tourism, visit the website of the Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration tis.dasta.or.th/dastatravel, dasta.or.th/en or call Dasta's Sukhothai Office at 055-610-481.