Si Satchanalai is heart. It is the heart of Thailand on the map. The heart of food that feeds more than just a rumbling belly; it nourishes a hungry soul too. The heart created by generous people that truly envelope the sabai sabai lifestyle. Si Satchanalai is love and life twisted and bundled into one tight ball of yarn sitting smack dab in the middle of the country.
I arrived in late October, fresh off a plane from the humid oppressiveness of Bangkok skyscrapers and taxi cab exhaust to the Sukhothai Airport, which is unlike any airport I’ve ever seen before. Airports are supposed to be ugly gray enclosures bordered by traffic jams of honking taxis, buses, rental cars and such. Airports are supposed to be stressful, chaotic, and unpleasant. The Sukhothai Airport isn’t how an airport should be. Planes land three times a day along the single stretch of runway. When I landed the first time, I was shocked to get off the plane, greeted by fresh air and a ride to an open-air shelter next to two massive giraffes.
“What is this place?” I asked my friend. She was confused as me. This place was actually the airport. And the local zoo. Combined into one because the airport owner liked animals. Or perhaps the zoo owner liked planes. But I’ve been told it’s the former, and, either way, a combination zoo airport is unique enough that people will travel miles simply to spend an afternoon at the airport zoo combination without even having a booked flight.
My first drive from the airport to my new home, Hatsieo, Si Satchanalai, was overwhelmingly green. I’ve since decided that the roadsides around Si Satchanalai Province remind me of the Garden of Eden.
In the twelve months I have been here, Thailand has become my own Eden. And it’s grown from unfamiliar exotic to familiar comfort. The sunsets that fall over far distant mountains illuminate the sky in swooping pinks, oranges, and purples creating a cool blanket for flat swathes of baby rice fields, have now become my own cool blanket of protection. The maze of roads behind the school used to lead me off on wild bike riding adventures among cornfields, past a random house that is labeled Montana, towards the temple and the primary school, among the buffalo taking an afternoon bath in the mud hole, and through the endless rice fields. These landmarks now have become my guide home. And as I ride home, I am thankful for my bike because the best way to see Si Satchanalai is from the seat of a bicycle.
Outside of town, are the parks. Si Satchanalai National Park and the two Si Satchanalai Historical Parks. One of which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The other is a collection of temples amidst trees and greenery.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is smaller and sits directly next to the Yom River. This small site is lovely to see in the early morning or late evening, when the sun hangs low in the sky. But the real beauty of the Eden is the park down the street. This park consists of a number of old temple ruins and pathways lined by shady trees — perfect to bike or stroll around on a quiet cloudy afternoon. There are signs written in Thai and English at each of the temples explaining Si Satchanalai’s history. Si Satchanalai was the city of residence for the prince during the Sukhothai era, in the 13th-14th centuries, and served as the protectorate city to the north of the capital against Lanna invasion. After many years of successful rule, the kingdom of Sukhothai fell due to southern invasion. Sukhothai, including Si Satchanalai, was absorbed by Ayutthaya.
Unlike the Sukhothai Historical Park, the Si Satchanalai Park is often empty, and it feels magical this way. When my sister came to the park we sped our twenty baht rental bikes from temple to temple. We rode to the top of the big hill and climbed up to the highest point possible, scratching our knees along the way. It was late December, so we could see through the barren tree branches. As we looked out toward the Yom River, it felt like we were on top of the world. A world where the present and the past clashed together, but somehow made room for one another.
Anything seems possible standing in the pure beauty of this park. A challenging, scenic day hike winds through the forest and across some small streams to a secluded waterfall, and a shorter trek concludes at a swimming hole. Hiking, swimming, scenic views, what more could an outdoors connoisseur desire? While this piece of nature is perfection, it is virtually unvisited by the masses. Unlike treks in Chiang Mai, which, while lovely, often involve throwing elbows to establish dominance on the trail, the Si Satchanalai Park is often empty. Climbing through the forest, I feel like an epic explorer. Upon reaching the waterfall I feel a chilling peace.
When you are done adventuring in the jungle, be ready to taste the food of Si Satchanalai. I could write a love letter to the delicious food. When I left town for two months on our summer vacation to move to Chiang Mai, I spent endless evenings telling my friends how I missed the food.
“There’s Thai food here though,” they would say, confused.
“You don’t understand! The food in Si Satchanalai is different. It’s amazing.”
My mouth would water as I said this, but my appetite for the plate of rice laid before me in Chiang Mai would disappear. They say the Fulbright teacher always gains ten pounds in Si Satchanalai. There have been nine teachers. That’s ninety pounds, and I will attest for all of us that every ounce is worth it.
The first weekend I moved here, my American friend came to visit from the neighbouring town and we walked across the street from the school to Baan Café. She ordered coffee. I ordered green tea. And we met Bom. He’s a fearless soul, and he marched right over and started a conversation in English — his nonnative language. I was impressed with his gumption. We became fast friends and by Sunday we were in his car on the way to a “very good place for lunch.” The very good place for lunch turned out to be particularly far away and involved several confusing wrong turns. We started to worry we might never make it, but somehow we ended up at a restaurant eating traditional Sukhothai khao berb that can only be found authentically in this region.
Spontaneity, friendship, and unexpected journeys like that have been how I’ve found most of the delicious food in Si Satchanalai. Fellow teachers introduced me to my favourite, Pasong Restaurant, and my favourite food, gaeng som. A bike ride along the river led me to my Sunday lunch spot. Convenience led me to 108, a restaurant with the talent to make a simple fried egg taste like a bite of heaven. The penang gai makes my tongue melt in satisfaction. A long bus wait caused me to walk across the street to Love Smootty and order the best fusion of western and Thai food — spaghetti tom yum — to grace my palate, along with a yummy mango smoothie mixed with fresh chunks of mango.
Festivals have become my time markers. I’ve almost come to expect them once a month. Everyone always speaks about Loy Krathong in Sukhothai’s Historical Park, which is positively magical. Light shows, massive krathongs, and fireworks that surrounding the park and making one’s heart beat a little louder. It is truly spectacular affair.
Yet my favourite festival has been a local one held in December at the Si Satchanalai Historical Park with old time clothing, Thai music, and edible delicacies. The festival was slower paced, and felt homier. I went two nights of the weeklong event. The first night was with my roommate. We sat down to eat at her family’s food stand on a mat stretched out by the main path. Her mom offered me some straight whiskey in a cup, and before I really knew what I was doing, I was taking a gulp because she told me it was delicious. It wasn’t. Thankfully the regrettable taste was chased with sweet coconutty kanom.
Si Satchanalai is truly unique in its multiple cultural influences woven together and unique access to the best of Thailand’s natural scene and interesting facets of Thai history.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons Author Naparat45109