Most people who’ve been to Thailand have a favorite place. Some love the bustle of Bangkok, others the easier pace of Chiang Mai and most, one of the many splendid beaches. When I tell people my favorite place in Thailand is Surin, I either get puzzled looks or giggles.
Surin isn’t really a tourist destination as much as it is a pitt stop for people on their way to Laos from Thailand, or the other way around. It’s a pretty sleepy town, not much happening. But for me it holds the essence of Thailand and memories of infinite peace and joy. I first went to Surin in 2006, as part of an initial needs assessment visit to Thailand to set up support services for Fairtrade rice producers there. We visited maybe a dozen rice cooperatives across the country, starting from the fields around Surin, over to Ubon Ratchathani, and finally, in Ayuthaya near Bangkok. But as they say, the first impression is always the one that stays.
Far from the frenetic pace and crowds of Bangkok, Surin was sleepy, quiet. We could walk all over town, and if we got tired, we could just get in the back of someone’s pickup truck and go. The only entertainment in town was a bar in what looked like some sort of warehouse with huge pictures of various historical communist leaders-Lenin and co-hanging from the rafters. People in the bar ordered pitchers of beer with chunks of ice in it, and they danced to everything, including the happy birthday song. Take the ice out of the beer, add some country music, (and maybe take Lenin’s mug out) and we could’ve been in any small town in North America.
The food, the food, the food was INCREDIBLE. From tiny roadside spots where we debriefed over dinner, to lush garden-like open-air restaurants where we celebrated the end of a week’s hard work visiting the rice fields, having intense discussions with farmers, and even trying our hands at harvesting (which is damn hard work, so remember that the next time you shove a spoon of rice in your mouth), the meals were just spectacular. As in every country I’ve ever visited-the food in the countryside, in smaller towns, was infinitely better, fresher than anything I ate in the city.
Over the week we got to know of the incredible things rice farmers in Thailand were doing to earn a living, to work together in cooperatives, to plan for their children’s futures. Their creativity, their spirit, and their hospitality-incredible. But what struck me most was the vision, the dreams you saw in the eyes of these farmers when they spoke of the future. I can still picture it in my mind’s eye.
Over the years, I had the privilege of getting to know more farmers, more cooperatives, to share dreams, hopes and joys from successful plans. And with the good, I sat with some of these farmers for hours, learning of challenges, of failure, mapping, strategizing, working through solutions and action plans with them. From the idealism of youth, I grew to learn that the path to progress is never a straight upward curve. And I became richer in friends.
One of my ex-colleagues in Thailand made this video of Rice Fund Surin, one of the rice cooperatives that is very close to my heart. My friend Sompoi, who manages the coop, has done incredible things with it. Sompoi is a tiny little powerhouse-take a look and you’ll see what I mean.
Ah, and if you go to Thailand, do the tourist circuit, then go to Surin to really rejuvenate.