“Happy Holi!” you hear as a small child lobs a…
Sukhothai wasn’t originally on my list for places to visit in Thailand. When I picked it as a place to stay I had no plans to do anything there except relax and work on my blog. I was simply going there to break up the trip from Chiang Mai to Bangkok so that I didn’t have to take overnight transport (I had taken a night bus from Kanchanaburi to Chiang Mai and vowed that I would never take overnight transport again if I could avoid it). Sukhothai is almost half way between Chiang Mai and Bangkok so it seemed like the ideal spot to stop. It was once the capital of Siam and is now a UNESCO world heritage site as well.
I only had two days in the town and I used the first one to start catching up with the blog. My laptop had been in the apple shop for the prior two weeks having diagnostics done so I wasn’t able to write. I had intended to do that both days but I felt like I was wasting my chance to see the town. My guesthouse had a few signs around advertising a local family business that runs cycling tours. There were a few different options to choose from but on the advice of the guesthouse owner I chose the full day countryside tour. I could combine some cultural sightseeing with exercise. Something I was in desperate need of after a lazy couple of weeks in Chiang Mai. On the morning of the tour I was happy to learn that another backpacker from my guesthouse would be joining me. It was lucky because we were the only people on the tour and they won’t run it unless they have at least two people going.
We were picked up at our guesthouse and taken to the office where we would pick up our bikes. I was a bit shaky on mine at first. It had been about six years since I had last ridden a bike. But, like the old cliché, you never really forget. Our guide, Miaow, led the way into the Sukhothai back streets. As we cycled past we got an insight into the lives of the locals as they went about their morning routine. After about half an hour on the dusty roads we came to the local temple and stopped for a few minutes while Miaow explained a few things about the area. I learned that the canal next to us was the reason for Sukhothai’s success in old Siam. As it is a land-locked city it doesn’t seem ideal as far as trade routes go but thanks to the canal goods could be transported inland quite quickly. We also learned that locals still use the canal to irrigate crops and have the water pumped up to their houses. Miaow told us to keep and eye out for the plastic bottles in the water. They aren’t litter; they’re floats for the pumps so that it doesn’t get stuck in the mud of the river bed.
We continued on through the village to a wood works operation. Families of that village would have a station where they could build furniture for sale during the dry season or when they have nothing to do on their farms. It was an initiative to keep people from moving to the cities to look for work while their fields were empty. All of the products are made to order for a variety of clients and people can work as much or as little as they like and supplement their income. Every village in Sukhothai has some kind of community project like this. We passed though another village later that day that farms fish in the canal and one business pays the local people to help fillet the fish to get it ready to be smoked. The fish keeps for years once it has been processed like that and a lot of it is exported to countries in Africa where people have trouble meeting their protein requirements and don’t have access to refrigeration.
We cycled on and out into the rice fields. Since some farmers grow rice all year round the colours of the rice fields vary from the vidid green of young rice to the gold of rice ready for harvest. A lot of the fields are empty or used for chilli and tobacco plants because the farmer decided that it was not lucrative enough to grow rice over the dry season. Most of the green fields are close to the canal which is used for irrigation. Our path through the rice fields led us to another village where a lot of families make rice whisky. Miaow took us to see one family that has an almost completely self sufficient set up. They grow their own rice for the whisky, they make their own yeast for the fermentation process and distill and package it all themselves. It is only a small operation so the tour was quite short. We were given a cup of rice wine to try while we were there. The family hasn’t yet figured out how to package it so that it doesn’t spoil. They don’t put any preservatives in the wine and it is also bubbly so they’re having problems with that too. So it’s quite rare for tourists to taste it. I was a little bit hesitant to try it at first, it still had a few stray sticky rice grains floating in it. But, I must say, it is the best wine I have ever tasted. It’s very sweet, similar to moscato. I wish that I could buy it. Our tour guide did purchase a bottle of the whisky for each of us as a souvenir though. I’m saving it to take home and share with family and friends.
From the whisky operation we continued through the fields to a Rice Mill. People can bring in their harvested rice for processing. As long as the people only want white rice the owner will run it through the mill for free. It is only if they want brown rice that he will charge a small fee. The owner makes enough money from the bi-products to survive. Miaow was very emphatic about this concept. A lot of the people in Sukhothai don’t aspire to riches. They simply want enough to survive and they will often share between members of the village to make sure that everyone is taken care of. The owner of the mill collects the rice offcuts, the husks and the rice meal dust that comes out of the machine. The meal and husks are good for sale to livestock farmers. It is the healthiest part of the rice and makes good animal feed.
After that we had a quick snack stop at a chilli farm. We sat on a bamboo platform next to the road. Usually the grandmother of the farm owner sits there during the day but it had been quite cold that day. At least by Thai standards. We chatted a little bit more about the area and Miaow told us about her job. She has a business degree and a lot of the people that she knows from university are now working in the big cities. She told us that they always ask her why she is still in Sukhothai when she could be making a lot of money working in the city. I personally completely understand her reasons for not pursuing that career path. Though her family makes a modest living she loves her job. You can tell by the way she talks about it. She gets to be outside everyday, meet lots of interesting people from around the globe and is away from the stress of the city. Many of the people that we passed on our tour are her friends and family so she gets to see them regularly. The chilli farm we were stopped at actually belongs to her aunt and uncle. I admire people that understand that there is more to life that money.
At this point our day was only half over. We had a few more stops on the tour. A cricket farm where we learned that they feed them pumpkin just before they kill them so that they taste better. Apparently bugs are the food of the future. I’m quite happy to stick with my veggie fare, thank you! We also stopped by the local folk museum and temple which is attached to the public primary school. The local museum has a funny backstory. The monk was formerly a farmer. He sold everything he could but was unable to sell many of his farm tools so he brought them with him. The locals assumed that it was a collection and began to bring in their old tools. Suddenly the monk had a huge pile of old tools that he didn’t know what to do with. Eventually he came up with the idea of making a museum out of it and it’s now a display of farming tools and techniques that are no longer used in the machine age.
I really enjoyed the cycling tour and it was a highlight of my time in Thailand. It was the first time I felt that I was getting a look at real Thai culture. Culture that hasn’t been corrupted by tourism. The people we met are simply people going about their everyday lives. I would highly recommend a visit to Sukhothai and taking a trip with Sukhothai Bicycle Tours. It is well worth it. The tour I did was the Full-day Countryside tour. You get picked up at about 8am and get back at about 4pm. It is 45-48 kilometres so fair warning. I was feeling it for a few days afterwards. Tour includes bicycle and helmet, english speaking guide and lunch. Happy cycling!