Features

Rural bliss

30 Jun 2006 by intern11

A successful government-sponsored programme offers farmers an alternative income source and allows visitors a glimpse of a vanishing way of life. Chris Pritchard was lucky enough to experience it

The locals carry cellular phones. Every home has electricity and piped water.  But I see human effigies propped outside houses and a resident, noticing my puzzled stare, pauses his telephone conversation to explain the scarecrow-like figures protect infants from being stolen by baby-snatching spirits. No babies have been kidnapped and this, he says, proves the efficacy of the ritual.

Despite modern technology, centuries-old beliefs remain powerful is this rural outpost of Thailand’s history-rich northeast.

Ban Prasat is a farming village with about 1,250 residents. Most commute to nearby rice fields, supplementing earnings through traditional crafts such as cloth weaving, basket making and wood carving.

Now, however, Ban Prasat is also part of a successful government-sponsored  programme to boost the homestay niche nationally. While people in other Thai villages also host homestay visitors, usually only a handful of households are involved. But 35 of Ban Prasat’s 239 homes take guests.

The two-fold aim: creating an alternative tourism-based source of earnings so people are less affected by droughts, which routinely plague provinces in Thailand’s Isan region; and, supplying a method for foreigners to sample village-style family life.

Ban Prasat households, taking part in the programme, share its total income – a clever strategy ensuring guests staying at one house feel welcome throughout the village. By chance, I find myself staying at the mayor’s house. He tells me a fortuitous peculiarity prompted the settlement’s homestay involvement: it has within its boundaries the important Ban Prasat Archaeological Site, which is also popular with visitors not staying in the village.

Before the first guests arrived seven years ago, government tourism officials lectured villagers about expected standards: efficient and friendly service delivery, fresh linen, clean bathrooms, hygienic food preparation and matching crockery and cutlery. Besides sprucing up local facilities, authorities built a small museum near a couple of simple pavilions overlooking protectively covered digs. The latter display a pair of complete skeletons and the unearthed bones of about 60 other humans – as well as the jewellery, pottery, utensils and other items from a society that flourished over 2500 years ago.

Hospitable Ban Prasat is in a part of Thailand celebrated for ruins from a succession of ancient and powerful Khmer civilisations that in their heyday cut a swathe from neighbouring Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple city. The best examples of Khmer ruins outside Cambodia itself are in northeast Thailand, though I frequently hear the criticism at immaculately maintained sites that, while impressive, restoration is a little too perfect.

Visitors commonly base themselves at Ban Prasat Village for two or three days’ exploration on easy half-day trips. Key destinations include an 11th-century complex, now called Phimai Historical Park in the centre of modern Phimai town or, a little farther away, more splendid ruins of the same era at Phanom Rung Historical Park. Also close by is the 10th-century temple sprawl of Muang Tam.

After a morning’s rambling through ruins, I spend the afternoon in Surin, a city in complete contrast with its bustling markets, shops and overall modernity. An “elephant village” in nearby Tha Klang is where pachyderms are trained to entertain tourists or, less glamorously, roll logs. Each November, a festival called the Surin Elephant Round-Up features a hundred animals in a highly commercial event luring large numbers of tourists to elephantine polo, soccer, tug-o-war and the like.

Homestays are inexpensive for Isan exploration, with villagers able to organise cars with drivers – or motorcycles for those who prefer to wander independently.  However, Ban Prasat itself proves an adequate diversion for many visitors. A guest book reveals homestay foreigners encompass shoestring backpackers, well-heeled professionals briefly immersing themselves  in another culture and  families with children on  a holiday with a difference.

Accommodation varies but guests typically lodge in a double-storey timber home.  Many have conventional beds while others come with comfy Thai-style padded mats on the floor. Most have fans but a few are air-conditioned. Some have TV. Bathrooms are clean, simple and often western-style (some even with hot water) for the benefit of farang (foreign) guests.

However, for me it’s the food that makes this home-stay so memorable. The Isan region’s spicy cuisine is famed throughout Thailand and beyond but other Thai favourites are also served. Aside from curries and larb gai (spicy chicken salad), with ubiquitous sticky rice in its customary little baskets, sai grob (home-made Isan-style pork sausages, heavy on the garlic) proves delicious.  

For brief periods several times a year almost every house has guests – usually package tours of amateur archaeologists from Europe. Mostly, however, only three or four houses have foreigners staying (there’s a strict rotation system), so travellers are likely to encounter other visitors only at community events. Homestays, though growing in popularity, remain relatively little known.

My host, elected mayor Tiem La Ongklang, manages the programme. He tells me villagers, aside from being  trained by hospitality professionals from Bangkok, must allow their dwellings to be “regularly inspected by the village council and by the regional tourist office to make sure they keep standards up.” 

The mayor and his wife Pranom take me on an orientation tour of his domain but then encourage me to soak up the atmosphere by walking solo along the village’s narrow streets, a few of them paved. I stop at the museum and archaeological site and, on my walk home, am greeted by residents who invite me into their houses, where they pursue cottage industries such as silk, cotton and reed weaving. At several houses, I watch potters, wood-carvers and silversmiths at work while their TV sets are tuned to the day’s episode of a popular Thai soap opera.

The village, I am pleased to discover, is mercifully free of pressure to buy as most output is earmarked for shipment to Bangkok’s markets. At one house, an elderly craftsman makes traditional Thai stringed musical instruments. Accurately judging my interest in his work, the old man needs no persuasion to give an impromptu recital.

Religious and other festivals are frequent in Thailand - and Ban Prasat’s school hall is at the heart of the action. Villagers and their guests sit on reed mats. Women arrive with platters of home-cooked  dishes to be shared. Their daughters perform traditional dances. Saffron-robed Buddhist monks from the local temple say a prayer. A band of elderly men plays the instruments of old. Newcomers, though welcomed with smiles and conversation, are incidental to activities, which happen whether or not outsiders are present. Several young people, school students among them, decide to chat to me. They turn out to be proficient in English and value a chance to show off in front of elders to whom the farang tongue remains a mystery.

A network of loudspeakers fixed to electricity poles plays music across the village each morning from a control room at the mayor’s house, a prelude to an off-the-cuff mayoral speech to let the locals know what events are upcoming and to spur donations to whatever fund-raising campaign is happening. Thai villages inevitably have one such campaign on the go, commonly to build or expand a temple, but at Ban Prasat the objective during my visit is to extend the local school.

A morning walk reveals numerous houses with human effigies tied to posts out the front. These are garments - some surprisingly fashionable - stuffed with rags and straw, and sporting faces made of cloth remnants.

Around their necks most effigies wear a Thai-script sign saying: “No children have been born here.” Local belief is that evil spirits lurk, poised to harm or snatch children. The idea is to fool the spirits – which reputedly have a preference for newborns – and ensure they will not linger after reading the notices. “I suppose it’s better to be safe than sorry,” explains the mayor.

“The effigies are left out for several months,” he adds. “Astrologers announce when to put  them out and when it's no longer necessary. Sometimes it happens a couple of times in a year, sometimes people don’t do it for many years - it just depends . . .”

Mayor Tiem is among a minority of villagers which doesn’t bother with the custom, but he acknowledges he does not altogether dismiss it. “Times are changing,” he says, fielding yet another call to his mobile phone.

DETAILS

  • Most nationalities are admitted visa-free for holiday visits to Thailand. IDD code for Ban Prasat is 66 44.

  •  Ban Prasat is 46km from Nakhon Ratchasima (commonly referred to by its old name of Korat), which no longer has scheduled flights – or about 80km from Buri Ram which does. Trains take five hours to cover the 255km from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima but air-conditioned long-distance express buses handle the distance in three and half hours. Alternatively, rent a self-drive car or car with driver. Or fly to Buri Ram which has three PB Air (www.pbair.com) flights a week. Arrange with the village to be met in Nakhon Ratchasima or at Buri Ram Airport by a village vehicle (200 baht/US$5 an hour). Otherwise, taxis charge roughly 1,500 baht (US$39) from Nakhon Ratchsima or 2,500 baht (US$65) from Buri Ram. Prices can be negotiated at Buri Ram Airport or at rail and bus stations in Nakhon Ratchasima. If not, head for a hotel in one of these two towns and arrange transport from there. The village is 45km from Nakhon Ratchasima and 80km from Buri Ram. All but the final few minutes is on a smooth asphalt highway. Village cars and drivers cost about 1,500 baht (US$39) a day for sightseeing to ancient sites and modern towns.

  •  Ban Prasat Home Stay, Ban Prasat Village, tel/fax 66 44 367075, no e-mail or website) costs 400 baht (US$10) per person per night, including dinner and breakfast. More homestay information: Tourism Authority of Thailand (www.tourismthailand.org).

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