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.