The blue sky gradually turned orange after sunset. The tender wind carried the cool night air to where we stood on the top of Khao Yai Thiang in Nakhon Ratchasima. The grass flowers and tree branches swayed in the breeze.
The colours of twilight reflected on Lam Takhong reservoir below us, making the body of water seem like a sea of fog. The busy lanes of traffic on Mittraphap Road, which leads to the Northeast and runs parallel to the dam, seemed a world away as insects of the night chorused their songs.
“I did not want to believe that Korat had such beautiful viewpoints like this. The cold weather and the picturesque view from the mountaintop made me think that we were in the North,” said one of my travel companions. I agreed with her. It was a good surprise.
Last week, I was in Nakhon Ratchasima, which is also known as Korat for short (it was referred to as “Khonrat” by locals in the past before being changed Korat). My two-day trip was organised by the Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (Dasta). The agency has launched a creative tourism campaign in the southern areas of the northeastern region covering five provinces, including Korat, Buri Ram, Surin, Si Sa Ket and Ubon Ratchathani.
“Creative tourism focuses on the engagement of tourists who choose to visit destinations because they want to have authentic experiences with locals,” said Dasta acting director-general Chuwit Mitrchob.
“These experiences will leave them lasting memories and a deep understanding of people and the places they visit. This is in line with the behaviour of a new generation of travellers who do not only want to just see, take photos and leave, but also participate in community activities.”
The concept of engagement will also encourage locals, especially the younger generation, to preserve their culture so they realise the value of what they have. Creative tourism will bring quality tourists and benefit the development of communities, he said.
Our first activity was to learn how locals made pottery in Ban Dan Kwian, located in Chok Chai district about 10km west of the downtown Korat.
In the old days, Ban Dan Kwian was a stopover for merchants who travelled between the lower parts of Isan and Cambodia. They used oxcarts or kwian for transportation. During their stays in Ban Dan Kwian, the merchants also bought earthenware from locals as the products were known for being durable and of good quality.
At present, there are many shops along national Highway 224 that leads to the village as well as in the village itself. We stopped at the house of Mien Singthale, who was honoured as a master of pottery from the Support Arts and Crafts International Centre of Thailand in 2018.
His son Ponlawat Singthale received us and shared the secret of Dan Kwian pottery. The family has made pottery for three generations using clay from the banks of the Mun River. After kneading and sculpting the clay, the items are placed in a traditional kiln at 1,200C. The ware will not be glazed or painted in colours but instead, each pot will have natural colours ranging from terracotta to a rusted brown tone. The Singthale family arranges pottery workshops for all those who are interested.
Our next stop was to learn how locals sing the Phleng Korat, or Korat song. The song can be heard every day in the area of Lan Ya Mo or in the grounds of Thao Suranari Monument and the Sala Loi temple where the ashes of Ya Mo, a local legend during the period of King Rama III, are stored. According to Bunsom Sangmeesuk, 60, the president of Phleng Korat Club, the songs are unique to the province because of the use of local dialect.
“To sing this song, you need to cover your right or left ear with your hand so that you can listen to your own ‘O’ voice. It will make you concentrate on what you are singing,” he told us.
He paired us with Lamyai Panich, 63, a master of the Phleng Korat, to teach us how they perform. They sang the songs in rhythm, which reminded me of phleng choi or traditional folk music, however, the Korat song is sung without musical instruments. Phleng Korat tells not only pastoral stories but also the current situation such as the Covid-19 pandemic and tourist attractions in Korat. The masters use their witty and improvised verses to make the songs engaging.
“Phleng Korat can be performed for any celebration or event except for wedding ceremonies,” said Lamyai. There is no specific reason, but simply because people do not do it, she added.
The Phleng Korat Club is providing anyone interested with a chance to learn how to sing Korat songs. They can also prepare traditional costumes, shirts for men and blouses for women, and chongkraben or traditional Thai pantaloon-like trousers for learners.
Our last stop was Prasat Hin Phanom Wan, the ancient Khmer ruins in Ban Makha in Korat city. We met a group of senior performers who had named their group “Ram Thon Phan Pi” due to the combined ages of its 40 members, said the group president Witthawatchai Champhapho, or Ya (granny) Pik.
Although she is just 35, she is called granny because she is a spiritual medium for the community. Ban Makha village is known for its traditional performance called ram thon, which is performed using a thon or a traditional drum to provide rhythm. Ya Pik learnt ram thon when she was a kid. Today, she has opened her home as a learning centre where visitors can try hitting the drum in either slow or fast beats and dance with the seniors in the style of ram wong or exercising movements, she added.
Although I have been to Korat several times, every time I visit, I have the chance to learn new things. I am sure this trip will not have been my last.
Prasat Hin Phanom Wan is about a 25-minute drive from Muang district of Nakhon Ratchasima. Use Road 226 and turn to a local road for the last 5km.
Din Ban Eng in Ban Dan Kwian pottery village is open daily and can hold a pottery workshop for visitors. For more information, call 083-366-6064 or 082-130-1191.
The Ram Thon Phan Pi group welcomes visitors to their village of Ban Makha daily. Visitors can book for ram thon workshops or a lunch set. For more details, contact group president Witthawatchai Champhapho at 086-256-9843.