Sukhothai handicraft skills on show
SUKHOTHAI the site of an ancient Thai kingdom is rich in history where visitors can gain an insight into the prosperity of a golden era. In the case of Sukhothai history sells. It doesn’t require much promotion for visitors to see the extraordinary charm of the attractions that make up the Sukhothai Historical Park.
But adding value to the site is the top priority of the Institute of Mekong-Salween Civilisation Studies director and a lecturer at the Department of Art and Design, Naresuan University, Assoc Prof Dr Jirawat Phirasant.
His research team, with support from the Thailand Research Fund and Area-Based Collaborative Research for Development, Lower North Region are creating added value to ensure that sustainable tourism can grow and exist side-by-side with Sukhothai artifacts and culture.
Dr Jirawat’s Sukhothai Cultural Data Research Project spans 18 months, from September 2010 to February 2012. It was made possible through co-operation with local agencies such as the Sukhothai’s Office of Culture, the Muang Kao Municipality, Sukhothaithanee Municipality and Sukhothai Tourism Association.
“Previously, communities did not deal with tourism directly, as local products were sold through middle-men,” he explained. “The researchers thought that besides visiting the historical park, tourists should be able to interact with the communities that supply the handicrafts and services. So, we surveyed and designed several tourist routes all with the help of local communities.”
No formal tourist activities are organised. Essentially the work focuses on identifying and promoting 12 communities that can welcome tourists and are ready to explain the significance of what they do to visitors. For example at points of interest such as a craftsman’s house, visitors can pop in to see villagers making handicrafts including the famous Sangkalok Celadon. It allows visitors to interact with villagers to learn more about the pottery process.
Packed into the almost 100-page manual is information on the Muang Kao municipality, details of folklore, festivals, local performances, handicrafts, food as well as practical information on where to get a traditional massage, accommodation and maps.
Though it is a very handy guidebook it is limited to Thai language and applicable only to domestic visitors, which means foreign visitors are missing out on a vast amount of information that would add value to their visits.
The Thai and English map helps, but there is limited space and much of the important detail is missing.
The English-Thai Muang Kao Tourist Guide Map features a hand drawn map by Dr Jirawat that marks all households following a six-month survey mostly conducted on foot. All interesting spots such as temples, culture sites, handicraft and souvenir stores, accommodation, toilets, car parks are marked.
Dr Jirawat says the printed manual and the map are just samples, while the data is firm and was given to the Muang Kao Municipality so they can reproduce or add information in cooperation with tourism stakeholders or reprint in other languages.
What are in the communities?
Covering an area of 14 sq km including the Sukhothai Historical Park, the best way to reach each communities is on a cycle tour. The main roads are asphalted, but there are dirt roads when entering villages. Traffic is much lighter compared to the famous cycle routes around Ayutthaya. The roads pass paddy fields where visitors can see farmers at work according to seasons, or they can observe a herd of cows and buffaloes.
However, it is very important to have the map especially for independent foreign tourists because village roads have no names or signs. Otherwise, the only alternative is to ask villagers the way, difficult due to the language barrier. The experience would improve considerably if travellers could follow a GPS route or have a mobile GPS devise with them.
The project comes with volunteer guides who can lead tourists on the walking or cycle tours. Currently, there are 10 certified volunteer guides based out of the Muang Kao Municipality. They need to be booked but the service is free.
Here are some samples of what to expect.
• Khanom Dak Nga – old dessert that is made from steamed sticky rice, pounded in a rice mortar until it turns into dough. It is rolled with black sesame, or stuffed with a sweet coconut mix. This dessert is traditionally made to celebrate new harvested rice. Now Aunty Dam is the only person who sells this sweet at Trapangthong market.
• Wooden closet and other furniture in Ram Yai Community: Villagers here work in a cooperative structure. There is an assembling centre for finishing products, but members work on producing parts at home. The leftover wood is sold to members, or nearby villagers to produce other wooden products.
• Ox Cart House in Li Tai Community: Mr Sa-ard makes ox carts as a side income from rice farming. Besides he offers a tour outside of the historical park on an ox-cart at about Bt300 an hour
• Thai Traditional House Model in Li Tai Community: These traditional houses are made from wood in this small community.
• Kratong Bai Lan in Li Tai Community: Women work on the ‘Kratong’ or decorative floating tray after the harvest season. Usually Kratong rafts are made for the Loy Krathong festival on the full night of 12th Lunar month and traditionally made from banana leaves. But this product is made of palm leaves that have a longer life and can become a more permanent decorative piece in a house.
• Decorative wooden birds in Mae Ram Phan Community: Villagers make wooden birds for wall decoration. They also work in a cooperative sharing the work of carving or painting in a production line.
• Khao Tok Phra Ruang in Li Tai Community: This shop sells ornamental objects decorated with Khao Tok Phra Ruang, a sacred stone that can only been found on Phra Bat Yai Hill of Sukhothai. People believe the stone will help protect the wearers from accidents. The stone itself is supposed to offer a medicinal benefit against the venom of scorpions and centipedes by sharpening the stone to release particles over lime juice
• Sangkalok Celadon factories in Mai Tra Phang Thong Communities: Sangkalok Celadon were produced during the Sukhothai Kingdom as verified by archaeological excavations. Now the manufacturers imitate ancient and modern techniques to revive the old heritage and conserve an ancient art.