By Pattarawadee Saengmanee
The Nation Weekend
TEN YEARS AGO, the Preah Vihear dispute between Thailand and Cambodia put paid to Si Sa Ket’s tourism hopes. Now, though, it’s back on the map, offering visitors a wide range of interesting historical sites and wildlife sanctuaries plus eco-cultural activities for people of all ages to enjoy.
The province is home to four ethic groups –Kui, Lao, Khmer and Yer – as well as 300-rai of rice fields and 500,000-rai of plantations of rubber trees, durian, mango, sweet corn, shallot and garlic.
Pha Mo I Daeng is the best viewpoint from which to admire the sunrise.
“Si Sa Ket’s average income decreased significantly after the road to the controversial Preah Vihear Temple was closed in 2008 and this province was regarded as the home of Thailand’s poorest population who only survived by eating dirt,” says Governor Verasak Vichitsangsri.
“Now, we promote sustainable tourism to generate more income for the communities. Our residents are farmers and the ethnic groups co-exist happily, each happy to show off their own cultures. This is an asset for Si Sa Ket.”
Located a one-hour drive from Ubon Ratchathani Airport, Bueng Ban Bok in Non Khun district is a popular stop for visitors to admire a sea of pink lotus blooms and fields of sunflowers that stretch as far as the eye can see.
The swamp is linked by a striking 300-metre- long bamboo bridge with relaxing corners where visitors can lounge on a bamboo hammock and take in the cool breeze, a welcome relief from the 40 degrees Celsius the area reaches in the middle of the day.
At the end of the bridge is a small cafe serving Thai-style coffee and refreshing herbal drinks along with a shopping area selling handicrafts and local snacks.
Bueng Ban Bok is a new attraction in Si Sa Ket.
“This swamp was originally used for agricultural purposes and we converted it into a new tourist attraction last year. Our village took part in the Nawatwithi One Tambon, One Product (Otop) Community Tourism project and spent Bt500,000 renovating the landscapes and building the bamboo bridge. This is the best viewpoint to see the pink lotuses that are in full bloom in December and January,” says village head Kingthawee Pokaew.
“We also plan to offer rafting to a nearby horse farm, a cycling route and a homestay service.”
For now, however, , the Northeastern province is covered in fragrant white cheesewood flowers known as lamduan, which welcome visitors to Somdet Phra Srinagarindra Park in downtown Si Sa Ket, the venue for the annual floral festival.
The festival, which runs for three days, features four markets, each representing one of the ethnic groups, cultural performances, a photography exhibition and an extravagant light and sound show telling the tale of the founding of Si Sa Ket, – Kurukaset as it was originally known – by King Jayavarman VII back in 1037.
A popular venue with local families is the Si Sa Ket Aquarium, the first in the lower Northeast, that’s home to more than 100 rare species of fish and creatures both from the river and ocean. It is divided into seven zones, where kids have fun learning about different aquatic ecosystems.
Its highlight in the 24-metre-long tunnel in the centre, where visitors can get up close and cosy with giant catfish, Siamese giant carp, albino striped catfishm royal knifefish and manta rays.
Visitors are greeted with a tempting feast of Isaan specialities.
The next day, we’re up long before the roosters start crowing to greet the morning and climb up to Pha Mo I Daeng, the best vantage point to admire the sunrise over the Khao Phra Vihan National Park. The temperature is lower than 20 degrees and the astonishing views of Dangrek mountain range, which forms the natural border between Thailand and Cambodia, take my breath away.
Facing east, this sandstone cliff boasts three 1,500-year-old bas reliefs. In the centre is a man with a sandalwood flower behind his ear, who is supposed to be the Giant of Hell’s Gate or a Khmer king who performed a ritual before the construction of Preah Vihear began.
A few minutes away from Pha Mo I Daeng are the ruins of Don Tuan Sanctuary built between the 10th and 11th century. A mixture of wood, laterite and brick, it has four sandstone pillars that are shaped to resemble an arched gate, with a rectangular sandstone base of an assembly hall and a pond on the southeast side of the complex.
In addition to the Khmer-style historical sites, Kantharalak district is home to Pan Koon Garden, which is promoted as a learning centre for mixed farming.
Set up in 1987 by Phatthasat Masakul and spread over 50 rai, it boasts some 500 volcanic durian trees, more than 2,000 mangoes of different species, mangosteen, rambutan and bananas as well as a rice field. Visitors pay just Bt30 to pick and eat the fresh fruit though the durian is excluded.
Phatthasat Masakul and his wife grow durians in the rich volcanic soil of Pan Koon Garden.
“For more than two decades, I have cultivated four types of durian– Mon Thong, Chanee, Kan Yao and Long Hin – using the volcanic soil rich in minerals and peculiar to Kantharalak, Singharn and Sirattana. My durian is less sweet and has a soft but crispy texture and doesn’t smell strong,” Phatthasat says.
The garden also offers 12 comfortable guestrooms as part of a homestay programme with a night’s stay priced at just Bt500 including breakfast and fruit picking. Guests are also invited to check out a variety of products including honey baked banana, dehydrated durian and banana cake, all of them delicious.
We arrive at Trakuan village in Sirattana district just in time for lunch and are greeted with a tempting feast of Isaan specialities. We enjoy kaeng kluay (coconut curry with unripe bananas), tom yum with chicken, spicy minced catfish salad, fried morning glory and fried crickets, while the villagers, both young and old, entertain us with traditional dance.
After the meal, a Brahmin and senior residents invite us to join a Bai Sri Su Kwan – a traditional welcoming ceremony to bring guests luck, good health and success. The offerings include coconut, khao tom mad (sticky rice with banana), boiled eggs, banana and marigolds, which symbolise purity, prosperity and abundance.
The villagers also take us around their homes, some of which are used for workshops in making herbal medicine, cultivating silkworms and preparing local desserts.
In the middle of the village, Yongyuth Mettaboon proudly reveal his integrated farm. He has a big mushroom farm and organic rice paddies and also raises pigs, ducks, chickens, fish and crickets.
“Focusing on sustainable living, I started an integrated farm in 2007 and use pig manure, sawdust, husk and microbes to produce organic fertiliser. I’ve planted Yang Na trees to absorb water and serve as an underground bank for my rice field.”
On the last day of our journey, we are taken to the historical ruins of Sa Kamphaeng Yai Temple in Uthumphon Phisai district. Built in the reign of King Jayavarman I, all structures were fashioned out of laterite and adorned with mural sculptures depicting Hindu deities and auspicious animals.
The sanctuary is home to five pagodas and the main one is in the middle of complex, taking inspiration from Mount Meru. A new viharn has been built alongside and houses the sacred 1,000-year-old Buddha in meditation posture on Naga’s tail created in reign of King Javarman VII after he converted from Hinduism to Buddhism.
The spectacular architecture of Sa Kamphaeng Yai Temple
We continue to the ancient Khmer village of Ban Mueng Luang in Huai Thap district. Famous for its black traditional blouses with elaborate embroidery locally known as suea saew, the Ban Mueng Luang Silk group was formed in 1992 and weave silk in the old Isaan motif of look kaew to earn more income.
“Saew means seam stitch and each ethnic group in Si Sa Ket has different patterns. These days, we draw our inspiration from nature to develop such creative designs as a bunch of roses, water clover, candlestick and latticework,” says Chaluay Chooseesattaya.
“We dye the silk with local plants and flowers. For example, we use coconut husk for pink, bastard teak for orange, myrobalan leaves for green and lac for red.”
We are shown how the fabric is dyed with ebony tree, mud and ming aralia that make its texture more durable and fragrant. The village also offers a tailor-made service that offers customers a choice of designs and colours.
ALL ROADS HEAD NORTHEAST
>> Si Sa Ket is an hour’s drive from Ubon Ratchathani Airport. Thai Smile, Air Asia, Nok Air and Thai Lion Air offer daily flights from Bangkok to Ubon Ratchathani.
>> Ban Trakuan village is Srirattana district. Book a sightseeing tour at (091) 834 1195.
>> Ban Mueng Luang village is in Huai Tap district. Call (085) 763 4261.