By Carleton Cole
Special to The Nation Weekend
JUST A COUPLE of hours’ drive from Bangkok in Suphan Buri province, U Thong – “the Golden Cradle” – backs up the enticement of its name as one of the most enchanting repositories of classical Lao culture this side of the Mekong.
The two Lao ethnic groups that migrated here from northern Laos two centuries ago are the focus of three different “Local Alike” tours on offer.
Local Alike is a programme that gives tourists an up-close look at Thailand’s hidden charms, benefiting locales that otherwise receive few visitors.
Visitors are keen to master the expressive art of the ramwong.
Signed up recently for visits to the Tai Phuan community of Baan Wat Khao Pra and the Lao Krang villages of Baan Dong Yen and Baan Khok was a group of Thai, Western, South Asian and Japanese adventurers.
The first rewards came immediately on arrival – the refreshing and pure upcountry air and a pink drink flavoured with local herbs.
While watching a welcoming performance and getting to know the community elders, tour leader Bic translated a summary of the area’s history provided by the kindly Khun Somboon.
Tai Phuan aunties prepare a generous batch of krayasart, a confection to be shared with local monks.
Next we were shown how to make the paper jellyfish traditionally attached to Ta Ka Laew baskets full of daily essentials to be donated to monks at nearby Wat Khao Pra Si Sanphetchayaram.
Then a little time was spent helping the elder aunties of the village stir a big batch of krayasart, a tasty blend of roasted rice, sesame, peanuts and sugar. The confection’s name means “harmony”.
Travellers learn how to make paper jellyfish that will decorate baskets full of necessities for monks.
We earned more merit by donating the woven bamboo baskets of goods to the temple, and it was time to get down to some farming. At a “farmstay” in the Lao Krang village of Baan Dong Yen, the philosophy is based on happiness and sufficiency, even for the animals.
The smiling farm manager demonstrated the use of magic to grow mushrooms – actually a concentrated fertiliser blend studded with spores, rolled in plastic sheeting and given time to blossom in an airy, sunny environment.
Bicycles add to the pleasure of touring a friendly ‘farmstay’ in U Thong’s Baan Dong Yen.
Visitors to the organic Baan Dong Yen Community Farm ride bicycles between stations. At another stop, earthworms were being coaxed into providing choice fertiliser. Still another was a small-scale tofu operation that produced small amounts of beans in a slow, quality-controlled fermentation process. They taste deliciously handmade.
At the crowd-pleasing Happy Hen Station, dozens of chickens clucked as they ran to the front of a generously sized enclosure, excited because it was time to be hand-fed vegetables. The relatively liberated life – no coops and no overbearing roosters – results in yummier eggs with darker yolks, and thence to a memorable kai jeeo omelette served with freshly picked organic veggies.
Connecting luk kampat beads might be regarded as linking the present to the past.
Anyone wishing to know more about how all of these savoury offerings are made is welcome to spend the night on the farm. Longer stays can even include a clever sauna experience – steaming in a hot herbal mist while sitting in what looks like an enormous chicken coop.
Freedom of mind, body and spirit are also the focus at Baan Khok, another Lao Krang community.
The village headwoman, who doubles as the resident shaman, led us in a ramwong dance before showing us a fabulous selection of beads of various colours and patterns, each with its own meaning.
Known as Dvaravati beads and also as luk kampat, the small, shiny wonders have an equally colourful past – the Mon people traded and used them as currency.
Visitors were shown how to double up a string and thread it through a purpose-made needle, festoon it with beads, and then the shaman tied their new bracelets to their wrists with a blessing.
At a shrine with uniquely Lao spirit houses, respect is shown to the ancestors who led Lao communities to central Thailand.
More invitations to ramwong followed on a jaunt to the local market, and the day concluded with a visit to a shrine to the spirits of those who guided the Lao ancestors from the original U Thong to this lovely place in Suphan Buri.
Larger and simpler than Thai spirit houses and exuding the animistic aura of a people from a place of forested mountains criss-crossed by streams, this sacred spot is beautiful at twilight.
Local Alike offers a variety of meaningful experiences aimed at developing sustainable tourism for the benefit of harder-to-reach communities in Thailand. Visit www.LocalAlike.com.