A new project helps the city’s endangered communities to “re-appear”
When typing ‘Koh Sarn Chao’ into Google, the search results coming up are primarily, at least on the first couple of pages, related to ‘Khao San Road’. This is not what I was looking for but, strangely enough, the very absence of Koh Sarn Chao was a perfectly fitting metaphor for my search request—an unknown, forgotten place which yielded virtually no results. Quite the opposite of Khao San Road, Bangkok’s infamous backpacker mecca and party central.
What I was trying to source information about was a local community on the edge of disappearing. Why would I be interested in some neighbourhood nobody has heard of? Because the travel group HiveSters is now organising day trips to visit and explore different Bangkok communities in their quest to help locals preserve their cultural heritage.
HiveSters is a social enterprise and online hub seeking to offer authentic travel experiences, with the aim to create sustainable change in Thailand’s tourism industry and a direct positive impact on local communities and the environment. In cooperation with the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) and the Culture, Sports and Tourism Department (BMA), this public-private partnership recently launched Appear, a project that matches six urban Bangkok hotels with six local communities, to collaborate and support each other under their ‘Alliance of Good Neighbours’ agreement. By offering community visits to tourists, travellers, and locals, this project seeks to strengthen and develop certain local communities and prevent the loss of invaluable historical and cultural heritage. At the same time, it creates opportunities for hotels to offer unique travel activities and, in the long run, contribute to sustainable development in Thailand’s tourism industry.
Of the six communities—Nang Loeng, Bang Lamphu, Ban Bu, Koh Sarn Chao, Bang Kradi and Hua Takhe—each of them offers interesting and exciting activities. I chose to join the group going to Koh Sarn Chao, located to the west of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River. This community is partnered with The Sukhothai Bangkok hotel (13/3 South Sathorn Rd), and is known for its products and crafts made from natural materials. The listed workshops include banana trunk carving, visiting a Thai vintage perfumery, and learning how to make traditional banana cake. In addition, lunch and a visit to Wat Champa temple are also part of the daytrip.
Depending on which trip you choose, the meeting points, prices and durations differ. To go to Koh Sarn Chao, groups get picked up and dropped off at Bang Wa BTS station. In total, the tour takes around six hours, and the prices range from B6,700/per person for one, to B1,900/per person for a group of twelve. In addition to transport, food, and activities, an English speaking tour guide is also included in the package. After about a 10k ride, we arrived at our destination—a small village amid lush greenery, located in Taling Chan district in what is classified as the “outskirts” of Bangkok.
Literally translated, Koh Sarn Chao means “island of shrine”. However, it’s not really an island. The name derived from the fact that two canals pass through the community, making it look like a small islet surrounded by forest. The second part of its name comes from the Chao Pho Jui Shrine, a sacred site situated at the entrance of the community. Upon entering the village, visitors are immediately absorbed and calmed by the—unfamiliar to downtown Bangkok—slow pace and peaceful lifestyle that prevails. Our group was met by community activist and leader Tweesak ‘Dui’ Sawangchan, who generously invited us into his beautiful home, the Wang Chan House. This traditional Thai building was designed and built by Dui himself, and consists of three parts: a main house, a support house for guests, and a fire house (aka: the kitchen). After admiring the delicate wood carvings and beautiful interiors, we gathered around small tables where we were presented with plentiful plates of fishcakes, lhon gung (coconut shrimp stew with fresh vegetables), ho mok (steamed fish custard), spicy kua gling moo (pork with yellow curry paste), pad mee kati (pink noodles in coconut milk), and kanom buang yuan (Vietnamese crepe with Thai filling), as well as an array of local fruits such as longan and rambuttan. Full and content after our tasty lunch, we were ready to explore the community and all their local treasures.
First up, we watched a demonstration by Dui of Tang Yuak, the art of banana trunk carving. Without any previous sketching, he started to cut patterns in a piece of trunk with a chisel. After this demonstration, he showed us his finished works, which were decorated with intricately carved dragon shapes and designs. This ancient skill originated from Mon artisans who fled to this area after the second fall of Ayutthaya in 1767. Carved banana trunks are still used nowadays for religious ceremonies, such as royal cremations, as it is believed that they can keep the fire at bay and also absorb the smell of burning corpses. With both his grandfather and father being taught by royal artisans, Dui comes from a long-standing arts and crafts family and is one of the only descents of local craftsmen who still practice this disappearing skill.
Afterwards, we ventured further into the village until we reached Baan Kueang Hom, the vintage perfumery house. Here we would learn about the craft of Pang Puang, or Thai powder garlands. In the past, these were used to worship Buddha statues, but also as hairpins to decorate women’s hair, making it smell good (similar to dry shampoo nowadays). The first step involves infusing white stone powder with incense of Thai herbs and flowers before mixing it together with naam oob (Thai perfumed water) to form a paste. The paste is then put into a plastic bag and, with a steady hand, squeezed in small, even drops onto threads. When dry, the threads are bound together into beautiful decorative wreaths and garlands. After watching closely it was our turn to try, but trust me, it’s much harder than it looks to get out evenly sized drops.
The next stop on our itinerary was Baan Suan Rim Klong, the home of the Thongdee family. Before reaching our second workshop of the day, we stumbled across—or rather beneath—large, bright orange fruit covered in spiky shells, which were hanging from a tree above the porch. At first glance I thought they were made of plastic as I’ve never seen such an incredibly coloured fruit before. But they were very real, and are known as gac, or baby jackfruit (a rare sight in Bangkok). We even got to taste them, in the form of juice, which was a sweet and delicious refreshment. Following this quick lesson in local botany, we met granny Berm, who showed us how to make her traditional khanom kluay (Thai steamed banana cakes). She mixes flour, sugar, coconut, banana, and milk in a large pot, with her bare hands, and when the batter is smooth it is then placed onto small banana leaf boats, topped with shredded coconut and steamed until the dough is cooked through. It’s a tasty, gooey dessert made from mostly organic and garden-fresh ingredients.
From there, just over the canal, we could already get a peek of Wat Champa, the last stop on our daytrip. However, to reach it we had to walk all the way back to the entrance of the community and the starting point of our tour. This ancient temple was built in the Ayutthaya era, more than 200 years ago. It is most famous for its hand-made porcelain art on the gables. This architectural highlight was a perfect end to a day full of interesting workshops and demonstrations by the local artisans and craftspeople of this laid back community. Their unique skills, passed down from generation to generation, seems to exist in perfect harmony with the surrounding nature. Hopefully outreach projects like Appear will help preserve these important, but fast disappearing, aspects of Thai heritage. To book a tour of Koh Sarn Chao, or any of the other communities, visit the HiveSters website for times, prices, and more information.