“We’re landlocked. No beach. No waterfall,” says a sprightly woman in her 60s wearing pink lipstick. “But we have local wisdom. That’s our charm.”
Auntie Ngiem is talking about mud.
In the village of Ban Na Ton Chan in north-central Thailand, many of the locals get around by bike or scooter. Spiky red and green dragon fruit droop from trees outside homes with open ground floors, where women are often seen weaving on enormous rectangular looms. Using cotton threads dyed with mangosteen peels and jackfruit bark, they create textiles in an array of patterns.
Then they dunk it in mud.
“We ferment it overnight here,” Ngiem says, casually pulling up a soaking piece from the black murky bottom of a tall mud-filled clay jar behind the village’s community center, which serves as a co-op and gift shop. “Then we clean it, and boil it in crude salt. This makes it so soft.”
I compare fabric before and after a mud soak. No contest. Ban Na Ton Chan’s riverbank mud is a serious softener.
Backed by green mountains and rice fields, this village is about a 90-minute drive from Thailand’s first capital, Sukhothai. Most of the over 200 families here have links to Lanna Kingdom ancestors from northern Thailand who arrived a couple centuries ago.
In the past 20 years, the village has created a cottage industry of local traditions, started several homestays, and won awards for its community-based activities. The folks at Bangkok-based SiamRise Travel, who offer guided tours here, credit this village as inspiration for their business. “It’s our second home,” says Faiy, one of the founders.
After a cup of coffee at the village café, Ngiem leads me around backstreets by bike for an hour and a half before stopping. A smiling woman looks up from a loom as she works. In the space around here stand two motor scooters, a TV by a wooden bed, a couple of blue hammocks, hanging clothes, and a sink area with pots, pans, bowls, and cups stacked on a table. There are no walls.
Orathai, or “angelic fighter” as I’m told by my guide/translator Paul (or Poonsawat) from EXO Travel, works on textiles whenever there’s time, usually a few hours a day. The loom is a simple wooden box frame, with a plank seat on one end. A wide row of multicolored thread wraps around the entire length of the loom. I watch as she maneuvers her bare feet on the four bamboo pole pedals on the floor. Orathai asks if I want to try.
A paper hanging before me lists coupled numbers (“1-2,” “1-4,” “2-3,” and so on), which mark the pedal sequences to follow while weaving this pattern. I step on the pedals, then pass a wood bobbin (called a kras̄wy, or “satellite,” in Thai), between a tight window of the threads, then pull back the beater to tighten the weave before making the next pedal position. It feels therapeutic to me, like those adult coloring books.
After 10 relaxing minutes of weaving, we walk across the road, Orathai following, where a few women in another home are brewing something sweet in a giant wood-fired wok.
Paul tells me they are making khao mao, a traditional sticky rice dessert. They’re mixing hefty amounts of coconut milk, brown sugar, shredded rice, and ground nuts into a sweet, sticky snack they immediately siphon into clear bags.
Orathai jumps in to help, then plops a warm clump in my hand. “For you,” she says in English. “Free now, but you pay after we bag it.” It’s excellent. (And I do buy a big bag for less than a dollar, and snack on it for the next week.)
We bike past a Buddhist temple to a small home, where I meet a shirtless, 89-year-old man named Ta Wong (who’s proud to have been born the same year as the king). He’s known here for his wooden beam toys. He demonstrates how a toy works, gently squeezing its two flat handles that propel a central hand-painted figurine of a gymnast over the beam. Ta Wong shows me some of the 12 moves he can do.
“It’s psychological,” he says. “Thai kids used to be very short in the past. So if you’d swing like this, you’d be taller. I used to play in the temple like this from tree branches.”
I’m comforted to learn the tradition is set to outlive Ta Wong. Recently his 52-year-old son returned from Bangkok to continue the work. I purchase one for my daughter for about seven dollars.
Back at the community center, I get a quick lesson on another local specialty, khao poep, a clear broth soup made from mung bean noodle wrap, with bean sprouts, coriander, lettuce, garlic, and eggs steamed sunny-side up on a cloth spread over a clay pot of boiling water. I make my own lunch in a minute, and follow it with a bowl of kuaytiaw Sukhothai, a local, slightly sweet rice noodle soup with pork. Both are delicious, and cost about 25 baht (about U.S. $0.70).
After lunch, Ngiem’s daughter takes us for a ride in her pickup truck, with Ngiem and I standing in the back bed. Passing the river, things get greener and wilder quickly. We pass rubber and other plants as the road rises into the hills. I spot someone napping in an open hut on stilts, but we’ve passed most of the village houses.
After 20 minutes, we arrive at a new home on stilts—a new “homestay” scheduled to open soon. It’s an idyllic spot. Up the steps, there’s a hammock fronting a small room with a bed mat and a mosquito net. They face a wide open deck looking out at forested hill peaks and a lush farm of pumpkin, long bean, pomelo, longan, chili, rambutan, and eggplant. Nearby a 45-minute trail leads to the top of a mountain. But the day is waning. We only have time to munch on some fresh dragon fruit and durian, and return to Sukhothai.
It’s a fruit snack made with some regret. A day trip here is excellent. Next time I’m staying overnight.
How to Do This Trip
Trips to Ban Na Ton Chan begin in Sukhothai, which is served by bus and plane from Bangkok and is frequently a stop-off for travelers bound to Chiang Mai farther south.
Consider staying overnight. Village homestays (not including local activities) are 700 baht (about $20, including breakfast and dinner if you book directly). One homestay, Teerakan, has Wi-Fi access and is directly behind a café. Ask about adding a second night at the new “garden house” mentioned above.
Weekends are the only times you’ll see many, or any, tourists (about 80 percent of the visitors are Thai). I went midweek and saw no tourists.