Right Phrathat Din Thaen or the Earth Stupa.
Soil has been piled up and from afar it looks like a red hill. Frangipani trees without leaves or flowers stand around the foothill as if guarding it from intruders. From the base where locals laid flowers, one can only see some big umbrellas — the kind used in monk-ordination ceremonies — at the hilltop.
It’s a signal visitors know that this is not just a hill, but the sacred site called Phrathat Din Thaen or the Earth Stupa, in Ban Saengpha in the Na Haeo district of Loei. Locals believe the stupa was built two centuries ago.
When Tshewang C. Dorji, Bhutan’s ambassador to Thailand, Australia, Singapore and Myanmar, visited the sacred site with his spouse recently, they gently laid an offering at the foothill. The offering is made of a young banana trunk decorated with pink dok phung (waxed flowers). It was his first time visiting Loei. In fact, he is the first ambassador to visit the northeastern province.
The purpose of his trip was simple: to observe the local culture, traditions and way of life of people on behalf of the Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (Dasta), with the aim of leading to future co-operation of sustainable tourism management between Thailand and Bhutan.
“There are lots of similarities between Loei and Bhutan. What impressed me most is how Loei can manage its communities — the togetherness of the communities,” said the ambassador.
During his two-day visit in late November, hosted by the province and Dasta, the ambassador and his team visited communities and famous temples in Na Haeo, Dan Sai and Phu Ruea districts. The group visited Wat Si Phochai Saeng Pha to observe the performance of Hae Ton Dok Mai, a procession during Songkran in which locals weave bamboo sticks into a tall diamond-shaped tower and decorate it with fresh flowers.
The group also stopped at Wat Phon Chai to see a Phi Ta Khon (Ghost Mask) festival, which usually takes place in June every year. The ambassador also joined the Hae Ton Phung procession, where he and Loei Governor Chaiwat Chuenkosum carried a pyramid-shaped ton phueng, made from banana trunks and adorned with wax flowers, to pay respect to the revered stupa of Phrathat Sri Song Rak in Dan Sai.
Ambassador Dorji referred to Loei as “lovely Loei”, as he said Loei had much more to offer than just its tourism slogan — namely, status as a leisure destination.
“It’s lovely Loei because of its people, culture, traditions and the simplicity of life,” he said.
Tshewang C. Dorji, right, Bhutan’s ambassador to Thailand, Australia, Singapore and Myanmar, and his spouse visit Wat Si Phochai Saeng Pha. KARNJANA KARNJANATAWE
According to Dasta Deputy Director Dr Chuwit Mitrchob, Loei was selected as host venue for the ambassador’s visit because of factors similar to those in Bhutan. An example is its mountain landscape; another is the way of life of the people, especially in Ban Saengpha in Na Haeo district, where locals abstain from eating meat and undertake Buddhism’s five precepts on Wan Phra or Uposatha Day, marked by full and new moons.
“The ambassador is interested in the mission of Dasta because it’s a mission we share — developing sustainable tourism,” he said.
A Dasta team visited Bhutan from Dec 6-9 and met with the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) to discuss four key issues:
First, sharing Dasta’s experiences on having a master plan for designated areas for sustainable tourism. Second, promoting the concept of Community Based Tourism (CBT) in Bhutan and third, introducing a criteria of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), whose criteria Dasta has used in evaluating its works in six designated areas, including Koh Chang and its vicinity; Pattaya and its vicinity; Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet historical parks; the old town of Nan; nine out of 14 districts of Loei; and U-thong Ancient City in Suphan Buri.
Finally, they intend to work with the Asian Eco-tourism Network (AEN), founded by Dasta in June 2014, and make the best use of the AEN’s knowledge, business development and best practices of tourism sustainability implemented by 18 member countries.
“We expect to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Tourism Council of Bhutan by either the end of December or early January at the latest,” Dr Chuwit said.
Meanwhile, Dasta plans to host a field trip for spouses of ambassadors to visit other designated areas overseen by Dasta, such as in Sukhothai and the old city of Na, said Dr Chuwit.
Ambassador Dorji, on the other hand, has another plan in mind.
“I would also like to share some of our culture with the Loei people. As we have some students studying in Bangkok, we will try to see whether we can work with the governor’s office and get some students to visit Loei,” he said.
For the future co-operation between Dasta and TCB, the ambassador expects that their efforts will lead to the ultimate goal — the happiness of the people of both countries.
“We have similar developmental goals. The late King Rama IX introduced the sufficiency-economy philosophy. For me, the intention behind that philosophy is to bring a smile to every Thai. That’s why the late king put so much effort into it. He went all over Thailand to improve the lives of the Thai people. In our case, His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness. When you are happy, you smile. It’s not all a question of economics, but of what effects the daily life of people and how every citizen can be happy,” he said.
“In terms of that, I think we can share both experiences. We can learn from each other. We can see the best similarities and best practices, and how both countries can move forward together,” Ambassador Dorji.
The principal seated Buddha image at Wat Pa Huai Lat in Phu Ruea. KARNJANA KARNJANATAWE
The traditional Hae Ton Phung procession. KARNJANA KARNJANATAWE
centre Phi Ta Khon or the Ghost Mask dance festival. KARNJANA KARNJANATAWE