With the gentlest of touches the third piece of white string is tied to my wrist. “Khaw hai chok dee na ka” the elegant Thai auntie says before adding, “khaw hai kaeng raeng na ka” as we exchange wais. Immaculately dressed in the traditional indigo-died clothing made locally, this resident of Ban Chiang village in north-east Thailand is wishing me good luck and good health as part of the ‘Baai Sri Su Kwan‘ welcome ceremony. Almost as soon as the first auntie has finished tying the white cotton bracelet, another middle-aged Thai lady follows behind her to do the same. Although I’ve been fortunate to experience similar ceremonies during my time in Thailand, the tying of white cotton (known as sai sin) is always something I find to be both moving and humbling. This simple act of kindness and hospitality is a reminder of what makes Thailand such a special destination.
I made the journey to Udon Thani to join up with travel companions from the Thailand Village Academy. The journey was a short one for me, a comfortable one hour flight direct from Chiang Mai to Udon Thani, but according to traditional Thai beliefs the spirits that protect a person can wander off during a journey like this. There are dozens of good spirits, known as ‘kwan‘ which watch over different parts of the body. The Baai Sri Su Kwan ceremony is a way of calling back any kwan that may have wandered away during the journey so that they can be reattached to the individual.
The ceremony involves a village elder holding a baai sri, a spiritual offering made from the bark of a banana tree and intricately decorated with banana leaves and flowers. Food will also be added such as rice and boiled eggs which, combined with the sweet smell of the flowers, help attract the wandering spirits back. White string is attached to the baai sri and then passed around to each person present in the room. The village elder then commences the chanting to call back the kwan. In the Isaan region of north-east Thailand where Ban Chiang is located, the graceful ram bai sri su kwan dance may often take place too as part of the ceremony.
The Baai Sri Su Kwan ceremony is just one of the many fascinating customs and old traditions that you can learn more about when you visit local communities off the main tourist trail. And it is these types of authentic local experiences that the Thailand Village Academy is encouraging with their excellent community based tourism initiatives which are primarily aimed at younger travellers.
Learning from the local heroes in Ban Chiang
The Thailand Village Academy has established what are known as local heroes or local gurus at each village they work with. These cultural ambassadors pass on their knowledge to the young travellers who visit them. In return, the travellers retell their experiences via online platforms to encourage more people to visit these communities and experience the traditional Thai way of life.
The Ban Chiang area enjoys a close association with pottery that stretches back to prehistoric times and has led to the area being granted the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage status. The fascinating story of this area is expertly told at Ban Chiang National Museum with informative displays in Thai and English. A visit to the museum is the perfect complement to time spent at the Ban Chiang Pottery and Painting Group. The group was formed by community members and offers a place for visiting tourists to try their hand at the potters wheel under the expert guidance of the local heroes. You can even get to paint and take your creation home with you. As I found out on my recent visit, pottery is not one of my skills and nor is trying to hand paint intricate designs. But watching Khun Koi, another of Ban Chiang’s local heroes, was fascinating because she made it look so easy.
Meeting the Thai Puan people
Ban Chiang and pockets of the wider Isaan region are home to the Thai Puan people. They first arrived in Ban Chiang over 200 years ago from Laos bringing with them their own language, style of dress and culture. Thai Puan are proudly Thai and equally proud of their heritage.
In addition to pottery, the Puan people and the Ban Chiang Community is also known for their production of hand-woven textiles and basket making skills. Textiles are usually died a distinctive indigo blue and sold as part of the OTOP (One Tambon One Project) scheme. In Ban Chiang you are able to see the weavers at work on the old-fashioned wooden looms and buy famous local products including the pakama, a versatile item of clothing worn by men, and the pasin tin jok, a sarong-style skirt worn by women. Unique basketry products are also available which feature the Thai Puan art style.
Attractions near Ban Chiang
Ban Chiang itself is a charming village and there a number of nearby attractions also worth seeking out if you are planning a trip to this area of Udon Thani.
Visit the Ban Chiang National Museum which has informative displays in Thai and English. The main focus is the prehistoric history and ceramics that are associated with Ban Chiang, but there is also an interesting exhibition about the Thai Puan people.
Located around 8km north of Ban Chiang is the striking lotus-shaped Wat Pa Dong Rai (also known as Santiwanaram Temple). Constructed on a lake, the appearance is of a floating white lotus. The inside features a beautiful white Buddha image and colourful murals depicting stories from the life of Buddha. And talking of lotuses, if you visit Ban Chiang during the cool season months, take a trip out to the picturesque Red Lotus Lake (Talay Bua Daeng).
Udon Thani city is the ideal base to explore Ban Chiang and other parts of the province. The city is a pleasant place to explore for a few days and is home to a number of lovely parks including Nong Prajak Park and another close to the train station, Nong Bua Park which is the location for the important Chao Pu Ya Shrine. Close by is the informative Thai-Chinese Cultural Centre which details the long history of the Thai-Chinese community in the area. Displays are in Thai and English.
How to get to Udon Thani
Udon Thani airport is a 10-15 minute drive away from the centre of town. There are frequent flights to and from Bangkok and also a direct service operated by Nok Air between Chiang Mai and Udon Thani.
Train services to Udon Thani depart from Bangkok Hualamphong with an average journey time of around 9 hours. Udon Thani train station is located a short walk away from Central Plaza and a cluster of hotels.
Frequent bus and mini-bus services connect Udon Thani with Nong Khai (for Vientiane) as well as other destinations in Isaan including Khon Kaen, Korat and Chaiyaphum. There are also regular bus services to and from Bangkok and a number of other destinations in Thailand including Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai.
How to book a trip to the Ban Chiang community
Spending a day with the Ban Chiang community proved to be a sanuk day of activities and laughter and something I can personally recommend if you are visiting Udon Thani. My visit was arranged by Thailand Village Academy and more details about how to book can be found on their website. You can also book a visit to Ban Chiang or similar communities in other areas of Thailand via tour operators who specialise in this style of community based tourism. See the links below for more details:
Thailand Village Academy
Udon Thani map
I was a guest of Thailand Village Academy for my 2 day, 1 night trip to Ban Chiang. I covered my own travel costs to and from Udon Thani. As always, views here are my own. Please note that I visited as part of a group trip and if you visit individually some of the activities/ceremonies described here may be different.