Why had we never been to Suphanburi?
It's a comfortable 90-minute drive north from Bangkok and seemed to have plenty to offer even the most demanding day-tripper. Perhaps when you are flanked by tourism heavyweights like Ayutthaya and Kanchanaburi, it's difficult to get a look in?
Suphanburi is the home town of the late Banharn Silpa-Archa, who was Thailand's Prime Minister from 1995-1996 and made his considerable fortune in the construction business. It's also the home town of Khun Ben, who doubles as my gym trainer and Thai best friend and the feisty Khun Lee, who my wife has known for many years.
If you ask Khun Ben about Suphanburi - as I have on several occasions - he normally makes reference to the fact the town boasts a Thailand Premier League football team and it's also an easy place to walk around, Easy inasmuch as people rarely walk along the footpath and disappear down potholes. Apparently Prime Minister Banharn always took great pride in making sure his hometown was kept in pristine condition.
When we asked Khun Lee if she had any recommendations on places to see in Suphanburi, she wasn't quite so complimentary. "There's nothing to do there" she said, "It's shit!"
Then she paused for a moment, "and it's always too bloody hot"
However, with Khun Lee's gushing endorsement still ringing in our ears, we decided to give Suphanburi the benefit of the doubt.
Temples and shrines
According to Trip Advisor's ‘top ten things to do in Suphanburi' the two ‘must-sees' at the top of the list are both temples. Well, one's a Thai temple and one's a Chinese shrine if we're splitting hairs. Neither sets the pulse racing when you have become as ‘temple-jaded' as I have, but after hitting town at just before nine on a Sunday morning, we decided to tick the places of worship off first.
The City Pillar Shrine or ‘Dragon Shrine' almost made me fall in love with temples again. It was wonderful. Dominated by the magnificent dragon that looks even more impressive in the flesh than on any Google image search, there was a well-stocked koi pond, a museum, an array of fierce-looking guardians and warriors carved in stone, an observation tower and even a 7-11 convenience store designed to blend in with its surroundings, complete with ornate, temple-style roof. Now there's a first!
As you enter the shrine compound from the car-park and koi pond, there is a covered walkway with an Amazon coffee shop, looking totally out of place and totally empty. The walkway is lined on both sides by snack vendors selling grilled meat balls, soft drinks and the local speciality - a bland but not unpleasant sponge cake with a solitary raisin on top. Everyone needs something to nibble when they walk around a shrine.
I engaged several of the food sellers in conversation. They seemed keen to talk to a foreigner if only because they don't get too many around these parts. I was immediately struck by how quiet and softly spoken the locals were - even more so than your average Thai. In fact, this was to be a recurring theme throughout the day. My Thai friend Ben is quiet and softly spoken. He's a lovely lad. Everyone we came into contact with in Suphanburi displayed those same characteristics. It gave the whole place a calm and relaxed atmosphere. I found it most appealing.
We moved on to the second temple just a few minutes drive away - the far busier Wat Pa Lelai Woraviharn, which offered a complete contrast to the temple before. Whereas The Dragon Shrine felt perhaps a little ‘touristy' with very few Thai-Chinese worshippers in attendance, Wat Pa Lelai Woraviharn was packing ‘em in for some serious Sunday morning merit-making. Hundreds of locals were lining up to enter the main shrine, all clutching their garlands and incense sticks. Proper temple!
As far as I could see I was the only farang there so while my wife, mother-in-law and sister-in-law disappeared into the temple I unintentionally made an awkward nuisance of myself simply by just being a farang. It's amazing how many things I can touch that shouldn't be touched when I'm left alone for five minutes. Often I feel safer just being left outside, possibly tied to a pole, but the temple's main feature is a long corridor of murals, telling wondrous stories from Suphanburi's past so I spent a very pleasant twenty minutes perusing them and avoided getting into any more bother.
In a dusty and unattractive corner of the temple compound, someone had had the foresight to set up a tourist information desk. Ah, so foreigners do come here sometimes. The young man manning the facility looked as bored as it's possible to look so I ambled up to the desk with the sole intention of giving him something to do. I asked him in English where I could buy the new Suphanburi FC football shirt (a question one often asks at temples) After asking me for clarification at least half a dozen times, we switched to speaking Thai and life became so much easier. He had no idea where to get one.
The day's itinerary had been lovingly put together by my wife, God bless her! and she had pencilled in five local attractions, culminating with a nice restaurant for an extremely late lunch. With the two temples already under our belt, it was time to move on to something educational and the excellent Farmers Learning Centre.
A farming expert
The Farmers Learning Centre (it has a much more convoluted name in Thai I believe) doesn't even make Trip Advisor's ‘list of 24 things to do in Suphanburi' and let me tell you now people, we need to put that right. I couldn't shower enough praise on it if I tried.
Everything you need to know about Thai farming and rice-growing is here in this magnificently well-run, open-air complex. It's a living, breathing glimpse into Thailand's agricultural past and present.
You can feed fresh straw to the happy-looking buffaloes. You can gen up on your rice-growing techniques from the numerous information boards. There are a couple of museums to look around, instantly making you appreciate the life of Thailand's humble farmer even more. You can climb a wooden observation tower to look out over the vast plantations. An hour just flew by. And apart from another farang and his Thai partner (the only other foreigner I saw all day in Suphanburi) we were the only visitors there. It was a crying shame.
In truth, the FLC probably lends itself best to school trips. I could picture hordes of noisy children filling in the answers to farming questions on a pre-prepared sheet and generally doing the opposite of what their teacher tells them to. But today there were no schoolchildren. There was nobody. Just us.
What few staff there were simply had nothing to do and I suspect something of an irreversible malaise had set in. Some of them, dressed in traditional farmers garb, were dozing in the shade whilst others played around on their smartphones. When I showed interest in an old wooden piece of farming equipment, an elderly lady bowled straight over to explain to me how it worked. She was entertaining and informative and she hooked me in straight away. Talking to me was the highlight of her day. She had so much knowledge to give but not enough people to share it with.
I guess most people were in shopping malls and movie theatres sucking on the air-conditioning. Who wants to walk around in the hot sun and become an expert on traditional farming methods by actually talking to experts? But I can't be the only one who finds that sad.
Get me out of here I'm melting
There isn't a duller topic to talk about than Thailand's weather but I pause to mention it here because we had possibly chosen the hottest day since records began to embark on a day trip to Suphanburi. Let's face it - Thailand is too hot for travel. You may start the day with the best intentions, dare I say it, with a spring in your step as you take in the first couple of attractions. But an hour or two into the day and you're a beaten man. Every ounce of energy and motivation drains from you and even putting one foot in front of the other becomes an ordeal. I'm constantly left wondering how many gazillion times more enjoyable travel in Thailand would be if it were twenty degrees cooler.
It's for these reasons I have a begrudging admiration for your ‘proper' Thailand traveller. Those who don't have the luxury of being able to scurry back to an air-conditioned car after each temple and farmers' centre but rely on stifling local buses and fan-cooled budget hotel rooms in which there is absolutely no escape from the heat. I for one salute you!
But away with such small talk! My wife hadn't come to The Farmers' Learning Centre to learn about which month was the best for harvesting or listen to someone prattle on about seed drills. She had read on various Thai travel forums that the FLC had one of the quirkiest coffee shops in the entire province. Not only was the interior of the shop designed to make you feel like you were in a time machine but drinks were served in glasses that resembled electric light bulbs and the selection of cakes was to die for. Or at the very least leave the establishment a kilo or two heavier. Glasses in the shape of electric light bulbs, Imagine that!
The coffee shop interior lived up to all our expectations but when our four iced lattes arrived at the table, where were the light bulb glasses? And if I'm brutally honest, the cake display cabinet was two thirds empty. Something was clearly amiss so my wife, feeling underwhelmed by the whole experience, summoned over the most senior looking member of staff.
The lady apologized for the distinct lack of cakes and fancy glasses and said "we don't do that stuff at weekends because we are too busy and the staff can't cope. You should come on a weekday"
In conclusion, if you go to Suphanburi's quirkiest coffee shop on a Saturday or Sunday (the only days that most of the working population can manage) you are not going to get the full show. This of course is the kind of thing that the clickbait travel bloggers should be telling you - but don't.
Double pricing at the buffalo village
The Farmers Learning Centre was always going to be a hard act to follow and pit stop number four - The Buffalo Village - didn't let us down. Signposts to the village were non-existent and even our sat nav advised us to ask for directions from a local. After driving down a couple of dusty roads off a highway to nowhere, we eventually found it.
This place was a little busier. I counted nine people. If the owners ever get serious about attracting day-trippers en masse, then signposts would undoubtedly be a great start. Then again, everywhere in Suphanburi has an off-the-beaten-track feel and we shouldn't really complain.
We wandered around the village for half an hour and that was probably half an hour more than it deserved. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with it, it was just the kind of commercial tourist attraction I loathe. Within thirty metres of the entrance, there was a young girl taking our photo. This would later be displayed in some hideously tacky ‘buffalo village' picture frame for us to view and hopefully purchase on our way out.
Beyond the photographer was one of those comical wooden figure set-ups where you can put your head through a hole and imagine you're a farmer leading his buffalo around the paddy fields. Just past that was a souvenir stall with an endless display of buffalo paraphernalia that no one could ever possibly want or need. If you've ever fancied decorating your home with a buffalo fashioned out of sea-shells, then this was the place to pick one up.
Then an old lady approached and asked if I fancied riding one of the animals. "You be same John Wayne" she said.
I think you get the picture. I don't need to go on.
But let's give some credit where it's due. The Buffalo Village had a double pricing system, something that angers long-term expats like nothing else in Thailand. The admission fees were clearly displayed in English on the ticket office wall. 30 baht for Thais. 150 baht for foreigners. There was no attempt whatsoever to cover things up by using Thai script or any other kind of evil trickery.
Do I like paying five times more than my wife to look at essentially the same things? Of course not. But I'm not one of those foreigners who waves his arms about, pisses in his pants, causes a scene and threatens to write angry letters to The Bangkok Post. And for one main reason. I'm enjoying a day out with my Thai family. The last thing I want to do is spoil the day and darken the mood by acting like a twat.
However, I did tell the nice lady in the ticket office that I had lived here for 27 years, paid taxes, put a decent amount of money into the Thai economy and had a Thai wife to take care of. I delivered my rousing speech with a smile on my face whilst all the time clutching the 150 baht in my hand - a fee I fully expected to pay.
The nice lady in the ticket office said "you same Thai person. 30 baht for you"
It's fair to say that I left with very charitable thoughts towards the establishment and as for the name of that film where John Wayne rides around on a buffalo - it's still on the tip of my tongue.
My mother-in-law, who accompanied us on the day out, is now well into her seventies. She enjoyed a very successful career as a nursing sister at a large government hospital before retiring some 20-odd years ago.
She goes to bed at eight every evening and gets up at 3.30 in the morning (or the ‘middle of the night' as I prefer to call it) She performs her early morning prayers, has a light breakfast and then checks her pulse and monitors her heart rate along with other potentially life-saving data. Although she'll allow herself the odd chocolate treat or gooey cake, she survives mainly on a diet of nuts, plants, herbal teas and funny-coloured rice. A fitter old age pensioner you couldn't wish to meet and I'm convinced she'll outlive me by a considerable distance.
After several hours wandering about under the hot Suphanburi sun, she was definitely starting to flag - but present her with the opportunity to mooch around a traditional Thai market with lots of fruit and veg for sale at knockdown prices and it's as if someone has plugged her into the mains switch. Before long she's whizzing up and down the aisles like Usain Bolt's pacemaker.
Ye olde Sam Chuk
Folks come from miles around to visit Suphanburi's 100-year-old Sam Chuk Market, which was to be our last stop of the day. It's not uncommon for the odd Thai TV star or celebrity, certainly if they live in the province, to be seen slurping noodles at their favourite shophouse restaurant. There are plenty of old-style eateries at the Sam Chuk Market. But for the most part, it's a grid of small sois where you can buy everything from a straw hat to children's toys to bunches of asparagus to home-made ice cream. Families have sold their wares at Sam Chuk for generations.
The four of us walked around the market for an hour and came away with enough food for a fortnight. Cheap? The sellers were almost giving it away. One seller who spoke excellent English, called me over and asked if I had tried the best ‘nam manaaw' (lime juice) in Thailand and offered me a taste. He was right. It was an incredible lime juice. "The secret is in the honey that I add to the mix" he told me.
It was a perfect day for taking liquids on board and what better than a lime juice with honey. I bought six bottles.
A terrific restaurant find
We ended a tiring day at the superb Loft Coffee House and Restaurant, which again came highly recommended on various Thai travel forums as ‘the only place to eat in Suphanburi'. It's several clicks outside Suphanburi Town but so worth the effort. The moment you enter, you can feel that Loft is an ‘in place' to be. A restaurant with its own social media buzz but not trendy in a pretentious way. The food is Thai / Western fusion with four menu pages devoted to just desserts. I ordered possibly the best ever chicken and cashew nuts I've eaten in Thailand (85 baht) and we capped a fine meal with milo ice cream sundaes and Korean ice dessert with fresh mango. All dishes were well-presented and the service was fast despite us snagging the very last table at a busy time of day. The four of us waddled out, patting our stomachs for less than 300 baht a head.
Suphanburi is certainly great value for money and we'll definitely be back. But we'll make it during the cool season next time.