Gearing up for tourists

Prasat khao, a palace-like structure, is fully decorated with rice panicles. It was built in the ground of Wat Sawetwan Wanaram.

After harvesting season, rice farmers in the Northeast hold an annual merit-making ceremony to express gratitude to Mae Phosop (the Goddess of Rice). The farmers bring a portion of their newly harvested rice and pile it up on a temple ground for monks to bless.

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The temple ceremony is known in the local dialect as bun khun lan. It is organised on the day of the first Full Moon of February. The ceremony is simple, but can be spectacular when it is hosted at Wat Sawetwan Wanaram in tambon Nuea, Muang district of Kalasin province.

“It is the grand ceremony that attracts visitors countrywide,” said Veerawat Rodsukho, director of the Education Division of Nuea Municipality.

Located 524km northeast of Bangkok, Kalasin ranks as the fifth-poorest province in the Kingdom. The majority of people are farmers and 62% of land is used for farming. They grow rice, cassava, sugar cane and rubber trees.

The bun khun lan ceremony at Wat Sawetwan Wanaram is one of the cultural events being widely promoted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) from now on. The TAT has recently added the event to its tourism calendar, meaning the ceremony of Wat Sawetwan Wanaram will be organised annually from Feb 9-12. The fixed schedule will help TAT promote the event to wider audiences.

What makes this merit-making festival special from other places is that the farmers in tambon Nuea build a wooden hall structure and that they heavily decorated every inch with golden rice panicles. They call it prasat khao, or rice palace.

The shape looks more like a sala kanparian (sermon hall) with a three-tiered roof and topped with a seven-tiered umbrella. The structure is big enough to house four heaps of rice, about one metre tall, at its four corners and can also accommodate dozens of people.

The hall-like structure was initiated by Somnuek Banprae, an officer of the Muang Office of the Community Development Department, in the early 90s.

In the past, the farmers usually brought polished rice grains to the temple during the ceremony, said Veerawat, adding that there was a time when a few families had not yet unhusked their rice when the ceremony was about to begin. They wanted their rice to be blessed so they offered rice panicles and tied branches together, which they placed on top of a pile of rice.

When Somnuek joined the merit-making ceremony, he liked the idea of offering golden ears of rice. He had an idea to make the ceremony at Wat Sawetwan Wanaram different from other temples in the Northeast by asking locals to make a structure decorated with rice panicles.

The first hutlike structure was created in 1994, a change that excited the locals. Word-of-mouth played a powerful promotional role. More farmers joined the ceremony with larger amounts of golden rice grains and rice panicles. The structure gradually became bigger and taller year over year.

Children swim at Hat Dok Khet, a picnic area at Lam Pao dam.

In 1997, Passakorn Moonsri, who was kamnan (village head) at that time and today is the mayor of Nuea Municipality, shaped the idea of the structure to be a rectangle hall, the style that has been used until today.

The palace-like structure became a role model to other temples in the region including the bun khun lan ceremony in Surin and Amnat Charoen provinces, he said.

“We are very proud that our prasat khao was admired by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn when she presided over the opening ceremony of a fair at the Bangkok International Trade and Exhibition Centre in 2016,” he said.

Although you may have missed the ceremony that was organised last month, the prasat khao structure will not be demolished anytime soon. The work that took a couple of months to build and with million grains of rice will stand on the temple grounds perhaps until the end of March.

“We used to keep it as long as possible, sometimes until April,” he said. The temple will make a decision when to pull down the structure. It is also based on the weather conditions, like early rain. After the structure is removed, those rice will be offered to locals at low prices. Part of the proceeds will be donated to local schools.

In addition to being a pioneer in prasart khao, Kalasin is also home to the well-known Sirindhorn Museum, the dinosaur museum in Sahatsakhan district.

A local ties sai-sin (a holy white thread) around a bunch of rice panicles as part of the blessing ceremony. The structure of prasat khao is decorated with lights and it will also look outstanding at night.

Records show that the dinosaur fossil was accidentally found in the area of Phu Kum Khao hill in 1970 by Phrakhru Wijit Sahatsakhan, the abbot of Wat Sakkawan, also known as Wat Phu Khum Khao. The abbot thought that it was petrified wood. Later he found more of the fossils. He informed the district office chief, who later contacted the Department of Mineral Resources.

In 1994, the research team of the department led by the palaeontologist Varavudh Suteethorn and his French colleague Eric Buffetaut excavated the site on the hill of Phu Khum Khao. They found 650 fossils of sauropod, an herbivore with a long neck and tail. Most of the fossils belonged to seven sauropods, which later known as Phuwiangosaurus sirindhornae. The dinosaur was named after HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn to honour her because of her interest in palaeontology.

They also found fossils of two carnivores, that roamed around the Northeast 130 million years ago. They were Siamotyrannus isanensis, which was a tyrannosaurus species, and a new species that had the crocodile head, named Siamosaurus suteethorni after Varavudh.

The team also found other fossils of other species in the area such as fish, turtles, clams. Those fossils are today exhibited at Sirindhorn Museum.

According to the record the Department of Mineral Resources, Sirindhorn Museum has the largest fossil collection rooms in Southeast Asia. HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn presided over the opening ceremony of the museum on Dec 9, 2008. Sirindhorn Museum has eight exhibition zones including all types of dinosaur fossils found in the country. It also has specimen of dinosaur fossils found from other countries. An excavation site is the must-visit. It is located about 150m away from the museum.

The museum is located about 35km north of the town. Along the way, there are some worth visiting stops including Wat Udom Pracharat where you will find a small ordination hall (ubosot) that has Vietnamese-Thai style mural art on the outer wall.

After that you may proceed to Lam Pao Dam for lunch.

You may stay overnight in Sahatsakhan district and further you journey to Wat Phutthanimit (Phu Khao) to observe craftwork and pay respect to an old reclining Buddha image on the top of Phu Khao hill.

You can drive further north from the temple on Highway 227 to visit Ban Phon village in Kham Muang district.

Ban Phon is famous for its phraewa cloth, which is regarded as the queen of silk fabric. Phraewa has outstanding weaving patterns that make the woven cloth looks like embroidering.

The village has Phraewa Silk Cloth Weaving Group where you can observe how women of Ban Phon weave phraewa fabrics or shop for their woven cloth.

Before leaving the province, the last stop you can make is Phrathat Yakhu in Kamalasai district. The ancient pagoda was built since Dvaravati Period (sixth-13th century) and renovated in Ayutthaya and early Rattanakosin eras. Locals believe that the pagoda houses highly respected monks’ relics. The historical site is quiet if there is no ceremony.

Low-profile Kalasin is gearing up for tourism. Whether it can catch up with the tourism train or not, only time will tell.

Visitors can have lunch in a relaxing atmosphere at Lam Pao Dam, about 30km north of the city of Kalasin. You may have som tam and grilled chicken lunch on a mat at Hat Dok Khet. An alternative is to have the Isan-style food at a local restaurant before reaching to the entrance gate of the dam and where you can have view of Pao stream.

The ubosot (ordinational hall) of Wat Udom Pracharat, about 17km northeast of the city, was built in 1933. The building which is called sim in the local dialect has murals that depicts the story of Vessantara Jataka, one of Buddha’s past lives, and stories of local way of life such as boar hunting and funerals.

Wat Phutthanimit is about 10km further away from Sirindhorn Museum. Built in 2004, the temple has an 80m-tall pagoda to house Buddha’s relics. Visitors are allowed to go inside the building to pay respect to the relics, which are encircled with hundreds of stone sculptures of Buddha. Each of the pagoda’s doors is made of crafted wood. The temple also has an ubosot that was totally made of wood and wonderfully carved.

Phrathat Yakhu is believed to have been built more than 1,300 years ago. The pagoda is 10m tall and has an octagon base at 10m wide. Also found are large carved sema (religious demarcation) stones depicting Buddha’s life. An annual ceremony is hosted around May to celebrate the long establishment of the pagoda as well as to mark the beginning of the rainy season.

Ban Phon village is home to Phu Thai ethnic group whose ancestors migrated from Laos during the early Rattanakosin Period. The Phu Thai dress is outstanding due to a red silk-woven cloth they wear over their shoulder known as phraewa. The fine patterns of phraewa caught the eye of HM Queen Sirikit when she visited the village with the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Nov 29, 1977. The Queen asked the villagers to weave phraewa fabric for her. The Queen also sent her private secretary to work with villagers. Later, the villagers founded Phraewa Silk Cloth Weaving Group of Ban Phon, which has 350 members today. The group still keeps their promise to the Queen that they will keep their heritage alive and will pass on the knowledge to younger generation.

Locals donning Phu Thai dress perform a traditional dance to celebrate bun khun lan festival.

Story and photos: Karnjana Karnjanatawe

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