The Village Story: Sappaya, Chai Nat
I may not be fluent in speaking Thai, but I have at least masterfully learned the skill of sleeping comfortably in a moving vehicle as if it’s my bed room. At least, that’s what I jokingly thought to myself when, on the way to Chai Nat, my Thai travel buddy Pat asked me if I slept well on the way because his back was aching. He is very friendly but I’m not sure if telling him “Come, child, and learn the ways of the master,” in the most stoic and cultivated Jedi-like voice I could manage would be the key to bringing us even closer. I don’t even know if he likes Star Wars. Even I don’t really like Star Wars that much. Instead I told him I’m used to sleeping in moving vehicles because because back home, I ride the bus for about 6 hours when going back to and from the city where my university is.
If the big smile on his face that never seemed to wane the moment we arrived at Sapphaya was any indication, I think he got over his aching back soon enough.
The Sapphaya District of Chai Nat province, about two hours away from Bangkok by car, is, borrowing the words of contemporary philosopher Katy Perry, “a hard candy with a surprise center.” At first glance, this spot in Central Thailand looks like any other place situated far from its capital city. The roads aren’t as busy and the buildings aren’t as tall and the noise isn’t as loud but it is happy with the way it is, and with good reason.
When we step out of the van we are greeted with cold sweet tea and an entourage of cuteness: young girls dressed in a sparkly blue-and-pink combination chut thai(traditional Thai clothing) and young boys holding ethnic musical instruments. Most people who already know me are aware of how I don’t really plan to have kids in the future but as those kids kept dancing and playing their instruments despite the heat that’s causing sweat to drip from their faces, I did feel my dormant motherly instincts come to life. But we did join them soon enough, and we sweat just as much, as the stagnant group turned into a parade after we paid our respects to the Buddha. We danced (Or at least they did. I think I just moved my hands up and down while walking and hoped for the best.) with the locals as music echoed within the intimate streets of Sapphaya.
My favorite part was meeting this sweet and bright lady who danced like she’s not already in her 80s. Her name is Pun, which means a thousand in Thai. I danced with her a few times and she did not hesitate to give me a show everytime I pointed the camera at her. We walked together on the way to have late breakfast and, while linking arms with each other, she said something to me but my crippled Thai vocabulary has given me no choice but to just nod and smile. But Pat, who only decides to translate for me AFTER my nodding and smiling, told me she asked if I know how to speak Thai. COME ON, PAT.
He came thru on the second half though. Apparently she told me that it’s okay if I don’t know how to speak Thai, I just have to keep smiling.
I want to meet her again before I leave the village and tell her the color yellow suits her.
Temple, Buddha, and Chao Phraya
Sapphaya has a combination of old and new temples. The new ones are shiny and imposing with its bold colors of gold and red, while the old ones are embraced with dust and cobwebs and weeds, but for some reason I seem to like the old ones more. Maybe it’s the feeling of awe in seeing something stand the test of time. These old temples and statues, although inanimate, brim with stories of people’s lives. The wear and tear of the structure is as telling as a tree’s rings. In the hundreds of years these temples have stood, how many people have performed bows and given offerings in the hopes of reaching the enlightenment they are seeking for?
The Buddha figure on the tomb was the most impactful. As the master explains Buddha’s teachings, I had a lot to think about. Life, they believe, should be lived free from wants or desires. You should simply be born, live life as it is, and die. The goal is to not be born again, as it would mean you still have to do something you weren’t able to do in this lifetime.
I have detached myself from religion a few years ago but I think they nailed this part. A never-ending cycle of life and death does seem exhausting.
Walking around Sapphaya and meeting its people, I can’t help but think they’re embodying their Buddha’s teachings very well, or are at least doing a very good job of trying to. And even if they aren’t, I still think they are very good people. I have only been here for two days but they have treated me as their own despite the language barrier. Their limited English and my practically nonexistent Thai make up for a messy conversation. But it’s a good kind of mess. I learn a new Thai word everyday, and I get fed nonstop. Thinking about how they take the time to explain what the food is or how a thing is the way it is, or how they show genuine interest in my life back in the Philippines has made me want to stay longer than I should.
We end the day with a boat ride along the Chao Phraya, Thailand’s main river that spans from Bangkok down to the Gulf of Thailand. The ride is slow and mostly quiet, which I personally thought of as a gentle reminder of the importance of having slow days amidst the fast ones. The tranquil waters disturbed only by the movement of our transportation, paired with the white noise provided by the motor, made me grateful for being there at that very moment. Beyond the boundaries of this place, after I leave a week from now, the chaos of my everyday life will inevitably demand to be lived. But it’s not so bad to forget about it for a while.
DUCKS!!!!!!!!!!! and stairs
I woke up to a cloudy and windy morning the next day.
We went to one of the farms and collected eggs from free-range ducks. I’m borderline addicted to coffee but the inexplicable excitement of seeing an army of ducks is just as strong a stimulant as the former.
The eggs are cleaned after collection, and some of them are placed inside dainty jars filled with salted water. Marking the day of its collection, the eggs can be fried after seven days and boiled after 15 days. Auntie’s eggs costs 4 baht each, which I learned was significantly cheaper than the ones in the store which costs around 7 baht each.
After cheering on the ducks for their good work, we move on to the foothill of the Sapphaya Mountain where another temple is located. This time though, you have to do a lot of climbing. The flights of stairs are steep and narrow, but the view from the top is worthwhile.
Probably getting fatter (but whatever)
A busy day ahead, we proceed to the Ban Aoi Water Hyacinth Craft Group office. Their group was founded because of, well, water hyacinth. Accordingly, the riverbank is home to a number of water hyacinths which grow at a fast rate. If not kept in check, they make the river dirty because they block out sunlight and keep oxygen from entering while trapping the carbon dioxide below. Some of the locals have found a creative solution to the problem by collecting the plant, drying them out in the sun and making key chains, bracelets, baskets, and bags out of them.
We have lunch with the group and headed out for a cooking class after a short siesta. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said I get fed here ALL. THE. TIME. I mean, not that I’m complaining or anything.
Thailand, I discover, loves snacks. You probably already know about its mango sticky rice but how about giving a floating dessert a try for a change?
To make khao kab loi nam all you need to have is flour, sugar (regular white sugar and palm sugar), sesame seeds, ground coconut, water, and salt. These ingredients are mixed together by hand (don’t forget to use gloves!) until they have a uniform consistency. A small scoop is poured in customized circular molds, and placed to float and be steamed in a cauldron of boiling water. Three minutes inside the cauldron should be enough. The now sticky dessert is removed from the mold by poking with a wooden stick at the sides. You need a lot of practice though. Or maybe it’s just my incompetence. I tried the entire process of making it and failed at the last part. Kids, a torn dessert is no longer marketable but it’s still edible so just eat it if you mess up. (But try not to mess up. But eat it either way.)
The dessert can also be left out to dry in the sun for a month and deep fried afterwards.
We end our second day in Sapphaya by once again riding off into the sunset, this time in dry land. We change out of our shirt and jeans into traditional clothes and went to yet another farm riding in converted “e-tak” tractors used by the farmers here. Sappaya is so rich in greenery, it sometimes feels like I never left Bukidnon (my home province located south of the Philippines).
We have dinner overlooking the field, and I once again weather through trying to say the names of the dishes and miraculously getting approval when I ask for confirmation if I said it right. My Thai is still subpar I wish there were subtitles in real life, but I felt as at home as a local. Despite my handicap in terms of language, I didn’t feel any less out of place. I am reminded of how your other senses get better to make up for the impairment of one of them (e.g. blind people apparently hear and smell better), and I think it’s true. I’ve probably smiled here more than I have smiled my entire life to make up for my poor Thai skills, each smile made with the hopes of conveying gratitude for the warm welcome without words. The smiles I get in return are priceless. People take the time to actually see you instead of just look at you. They don’t hesitate to greet you even if they don’t know you. This barely happens in big cities anymore, where almost everyone is in a rush to get on with their day. Here, everyone seems to be following their own pace. They don’t freak out over the set timetable which, after four years of university life in a bustling city, is a welcome change of dynamic.
Anthony Bourdain was right. Food, among other things, really does bring people together.
Warning: Don’t read on an empty stomach.
Provoking our noses at Uncle Subin’s
The day starts off with a strong, distinct smell in uncle Subin Piemkaw’s award-winning pla ra (fermented fish) learning base. Massive clay jars are arranged neatly in rows, its color practically identical to the concoction it contains. In 2016, his 30-year-old recipe won first prize during the fermented fish contest in Sapphaya.
Uncle Subin’s pla ra utilizes fish from the Chao Phraya river, rice flour (roasted rice grain pounded until it becomes powdery), and salt. The process is simple but difficult at the same time. You basically mix the ingredients together but it’s heavier than I thought it would be.
The mixture is left to ferment for four months up to a year; the longer the fermentation period, the better the flavor.
After mixing, the fish now ready to be fermented is transferred in containers to be sold off. 20 kilos is worth a 1,200 baht.
After letting us experience the hard work of mixing together ingredients for a sought-out pla ra firsthand, we move on to the other side of uncle Subin’s learning base. His wife demonstrates how to cook a local dish using fresh fish (the same one used for their pla ra, the pla ra itself, chili, shallots, lime juice, palm sugar, and homemade tamarind sauce.
The fresh fish, coated with the pla ra and flour, is deep fried for guaranteed crispiness. It is seasoned with the shallots and chili, topped off with the tamarind sauce (caramelized with palm sugar), and a bit of lime juice.
The taste of the tamarind sauce ultimately stands out, but hey, to each their own.
When we first arrived in Sapphaya we only took a picture with the elder locals outside the old police station. This time, we finally got to go inside. The simple white structure was once a police station dating back to King Rama V’s reign (about 150 years ago). Today it has been turned into a museum.
On the center hangs a tapestry of King Rama V himself. The walls are covered in both grayscale and colored photos, displaying the district’s evolution through the years. On a corner stands a glass shelf housing old documents from the former police station. Looking at the words written by long gone residents of Sapphaya, it suddenly struck me how truly beautiful Thai script is. I can’t help but feel a bit jealous. The Philippines, my home country, also has its own scripts, the most known one being the baybayin. However, aside from a brief tackling of it in Filipino class, we don’t really use it anymore. I wonder, if we were never colonized by Western powers for hundreds of years like how Thailand managed to do so, will we still be using our ancient regional scripts instead of using the Roman one for our alphabet?
I decide to not think about it for too long as we head outside the old police station where a pop up crafts station lies in wait. We were introduced to more water hyacinth products (which I know my mom will fawn over because she’s a sucker for these things), flowers made from pandan leaves, and a provincial Buddhist ornament. The jellyfish-like craft made from colored wax paper is identical to the tail of the Philippines’ parol (a star-shaped Christmas lantern). Here they use it for temple ceremonies. It can also be found hanging outside their homes. Apparently, when the district has an event of some sort, the locals gather among themselves to make it together.
My mouth is a black hole
I get fed again. A lot.
I get my hands dirty and stuff my mouth at the Ban Nom Kan Homestay, a self-sufficient paradise. Their garden has all kinds of vegetables and they let their chickens feed themselves with what’s already in the farm instead of giving them commercial feeds. The place itself is very beautiful with a touch of the whimsical, reminiscent of a Miyazaki film. Ferns from the trees reach down to you; scattered all over the homestay are the the most random knickknacks that somehow manages to look dainty instead of messy; hidden beyond a row of trees is a pond housing a full grown school of koi. But, unsurprisingly, my favorite part is the food. I’m so used to eating alone in university, I’ve forgotten how fun cooking with others can be. There were so many of us, it was like one big party. At one point I volunteered to shred the coconut, and they laughed at me because I sat on the manual shredder like it was a motorcycle while one of the ladies running the homestay sat on it with both her legs on one side. But no matter, the ends justify the means (but this doesn’t apply in the context of human rights violations, okay?).
The desserts were really something else though. Using coconut as the main ingredient, they are sweet and full of calories, but I don’t feel bad for eating so much of them. Sometimes it is nice to indulge yourself, especially when other people are doing it along with you.
Bua loi is characterized by its chewy colorful balls swimming in warm coconut milk along with diced vegetables and/or root crops, coconut fruit, and a whole piece of egg. The balls are made by mixing together the flour, salt, and natural flavors with water until it turns into dough. For Filipino readers, the taste of bua loi is slightly similar to our binignit but with a lighter consistency.
Another dessert is kanom krok, a fried pudding. It is fried on a pan with circular molds. The dessert has two components: the shell and the filling. You basically mix together the ingredients for both of them. For the shell: ground rice which is soaked in water for a day prior to grounding, rice flour, water, coconut milk, shredded coconut, palm sugar, salt. For the filling: coconut milk, sugar, rice flour, salt. This is topped with thinly sliced spring onions.
I feel kind of bittersweet thinking about how I’m leaving in a few days. Who knows when I’ll be able to come here again? And when I do, will all of the people I’ve met along the way still be here? But perhaps I should focus more on the sweet side. Though brief, my time here with them is a good one that I will be able to look back on with great fondness. Whether or not we meet again, we have this moment to keep in our archive of memories and be able to retrieve anytime when we feel like it.
Much of people’s lives here revolves around the Chao Phraya river, home to a number of fish species and, I discover today, a dam.
Chao Phraya Land, a colorful market square, sells the snake fish from the river, famous here for being dried out in the sun and being deep fried afterwards. Historically, this delicacy was developed to preserve the fish, since not all of the fresh ones will always be sold on time and there were no refrigerators back then.
Meanwhile, the dam, completed on 1957 regulates the flow of the river from the North. Sometimes, the gate is opened as a passageway to boats entering with goods to deliver. It also serves as a sanctuary for birds and fishes. Every November of the year, fishing is not allowed on the waters near the dam to protect the fish eggs that are yet to hatch.
At this point I think if you go to Thailand and not visit at least one temple, then it’s as if you never really went to Thailand at all.
We visited the Wat Thammamoon, where some kings went to to meditate in the past, and the Pak Khlong Makham, named so because the head monk is a very old man. Both temples’ land area is large and handles the influx of temple-goers with ease. Just like any other temple, an offering of candles, incense, flowers, and gold leaves to stick onto the Buddha figures can be bought upon entering. The first step is lighting a candle, followed by the incense. These are placed on designated holders right outside the temple. Upon entering, you will see the Buddha figures standing serenely in the center. You say a prayer and perform three bows before finally offering your flower and sticking the gold leaves on the Buddha figures. (A gold leaf is a thin, square foil-like material which easily adheres to the surface it makes contact with.)
One of our local guides, miss Kanphasut Kanchanavichtr, taught me how to say a prayer in Thai by letting me repeat after her. I’ve already forgotten how it goes and I don’t even know what it means, but I think having the patience to teach a foreigner one of your prayers is a beautiful thing. I may not believe in their god, or any other god for that matter, but I feel grateful for having been shared this intimate part of their culture.
We paid respects to an elder monk, where he gave us a blessing equivalent to that of using Holy Water in Christianity. Three dots of a sticky white substance that feels cool on your skin is drawn on one’s forehead.
I grew up Roman Catholic, and at some point in the past we had family friends who introduced us to Taoism as a philosophy, and when I went to college a number of my close friends are Muslim, and now I got to see Buddhism at a closer vantage point. After a while you realize that ultimately, no matter what religion, people are more less seeking for the same thing, and you become confused why some of them end up fighting with each other. I hope that others, like the locals in Chai Nat, welcome people into their lives with open hearts despite their religion or lack thereof.
The night is NOT dark and full of terrors
Before heading back to our homestay we stop by Friend Cafe, an ideal spot if you want to enjoy good food and a good view.
Outside the old police station lies a square and an old street where our homestay is located. From Mondays to Fridays it is just an ordinary path walked on by the residents of the district. But when the weekend arrives, it lights up and it looks likes a brigade of fireflies has decided to pay the place a visit. When this day comes, the road is closed to four-wheeled vehicles to make room for visitors and pop up stalls selling local cuisine (i.e. MORE SNACKS!!!).
It has become one of my favorite parts of the trip. Changing into traditional Thai clothes, watching the locals dance and sing, strolling the night market and trying a little bit of everything from the food on the stalls with people you’ve come to be fond of over the short time you’ve known each other is one of the best ways to end the night.
A big cauldron is already simmering, big fluffs of smoke floating in the air, when we pay Khun Pranom Mungmee and Khun Thongprei Mungmee and their daughter Pi Tong a visit in their palm sugar learning base. Their manual furnace made out of dried out mud hungrily eats and burns away the charcoal it receives.
After days of eating a number of Thai food with palm sugar as one of the ingredients, we finally got to see for ourselves how it’s made. The manual labor that goes into it is not as sweet as its end product.
Khun Pranom Mungmee is a thin man, but that doesn’t stop him from carrying heavy bamboo containers and his agile climb to the top of the palm tree proves it to be an advantage. He goes from one branch to another collecting nectar with ease.
Back in their workshop, the furnace still burns. The nectar collected from the palm tree is heated until it turns into a sticky syrup, which is then manually stirred until it becomes a lighter shade. The sugar is unloaded onto tiny molds and left to dry off.
I think about the many times I’ve taken farmers for granted even when all of us would be starving if it wasn’t for them. Oftentimes when we talk about progress, it’s at the expense of people like Khun Pranom Mungmee and his family; people away from the big city but who work just as hard to keep the economy running.
Before you eat your meals today, don’t forget to say a silent thank you to the farmers in your country.
Yet another example of how much we need farmers like Khun Pranom Mungmee can be found in our next stop, which also uses palm sugar as one of the ingredients for their product. Just a few minutes away from our homestay is another old road housing an old recipe, the Kui Lee sesame cake.
Originally from China and brought into Thailand during the 1930s, the Kui Lee sesame cake, named after its founder, is sweet and soft. Best served warm and paired with hot tea, the sesame cake has a roasted soybean/durian-and-egg yolk filling. It’s so rich a single piece can make you full.
We visit yet another temple before ending the day where we get a water blessing from a monk. It’s supposed to protect you from harm and if you’ve been a bad person lately, the water blessing will remind you to be good again.
Finally, dinner is served on a cruise along the Chao Phraya river. Together with some of the elders in Sapphaya, we marvel at the sunset and take in the breeze. Only then does it sink in to me that it’s our last night before going back to Bangkok. I’ve had nothing but a good time here that I’ve forgotten how fast the days could go. But instead of sulking I dance with everyone to songs in a language I don’t understand but have become very accustomed to these past few days.
The locals of Sapphaya are very good people, and their place deserves to be known. I remember how, during our first day, one of the elders said they have so much to offer but they struggle to keep up with the more popular places like Bangkok or Chiang Mai. How many beautiful places are left undiscovered because we don’t see it in our instagram feeds and we only go to the ones that we do see? How many stories are left unheard because we’d rather have the convenience of hotel rooms over preparing for your own meals with the locals?
The next time you travel to a new place, consider taking the road not taken. Move away from the bustling, industrial capital city. Have meals at small stalls. Talk to the locals. Use body language and Google Translate if you don’t speak the native tongue. Get your hands dirty with everybody else. It might turn out to be one of your best moments in life.