SARABUR, Jan 14 — Let me take you down to the sunflower fields, where golden heads that hang low at night rise to follow the journey of Helios’ chariot across the sky...
Forgive me for the slightly psychedelic rumination: one can’t look out at these acres that seem to stretch into the horizon without thinking of that trippy song by The Beatles — Strawberry Fields Forever — and all its hallucinogenic beauty.
These wondrous sunflower fields are found in the Saraburi Province, about 100 kilometres or a two-hour drive from Bangkok.
Saraburi, located east of the Chao Phraya River valley, is considered the entryway to north-eastern Thailand. With rolling plains and hills in the distance, Saraburi is truly where the sky meets the earth directly, dramatically so.
We make a weekend getaway of it, driven to the province by Nitipon Naopradit, our local friend who is also originally from Saraburi. Private car is the best way to experience the sunflower fields of Saraburi as there isn’t one specific field. Instead there are tens of thousands of acres of flowering fields and farms; you’d often see these golden blossoms popping up by the roadside too!
As we head onto Highway 1 (Phahonyothin Road) from Bangkok towards Saraburi, Naopradit tells us that the cool season in Thailand is from the middle of October to the middle of February. (The rest of the year is either hot or wet and rainy.)
However, the best time to view the sunflowers is from November till January, when they are in full bloom.
Soon we get off the highway and are in Saraburi proper. There are no road maps, none that we know of, for the sunflower fields. Part of the fun — the experience and the adventure — is to explore the roads of Saraburi in search of those striking blossoms.
And so we do, with the clear blue sky as our map of the many paths to come, the many paths we can take.
We pass fields where there are cattle grazing languorously in the sun. We pass a series of makeshift stalls — on both sides of the road — of folks selling homemade khao lam (a mixture of glutinous rice, sugar and coconut milk roasted inside bamboo tubes).
We pass by old men and young children going about their day, not noticing us; we are just another car passing by, full of day-trippers seeking sunflowers.
The first sunflower field we do encounter is both a bit of a shock and disappointment. Brown, dried up heads and stalks. Past its prime. Have we missed the peak season? Naopradit assures us some farmers harvest earlier; this is just an outlier. Reassured, but just barely, we sink back into our car seats and continue to look at the passing landscape earnestly, willing our dream field to appear.
And then, suddenly, appearing from a mist of green sugar cane plantations, there it is: a magnificent, sprawling field of sunflowers. Its bright yellow hue dotting the green like tiny suns in a verdant sea. There is a trio of cyclists admiring the view; a middle-aged couple taking a selfie surrounded by the flowers.
Time to join in.
It’s easy to get lost in the splendour of it all, to waste no time to snap away. Then some saner voice inside of us tells us to take it slow, to rummage and explore. To take in the view. To peer closely and experience this field of sunflowers more deeply.
We observe tinier heads of sunflowers, barely budding, the tiny petals aching to separate and spread out like still-wet butterfly wings from an imprisoning chrysalis. We admire the half-blooms, the adolescents of this sunflower dynasty, unruly in their manner of popping up here and there without care.
The largest heads, those in full bloom, look as large as our own heads (though perhaps prettier, ringed as they are by a collar of flaxen ruff that would have made the Virgin Queen — the fashion-frenzied Elizabeth I — green with envy). Such beautiful, elegant, symmetrical discs!
A few heads hang heavy, the ray flowers having dried up, the seeds in its centre ready to be harvested by farmers. Apparently, the farmers in Saraburi takes turns in planting these flowers so there is always a field in full bloom at any time. (Hence our earlier scare with the harvested field.)
We are in Amphoe Wang Muang (Wang Muang District in Saraburi) where there are over 10,000 acres of sunflower fields. A goldmine for these golden blossoms. So there are other fields to explore, acres of sunflowers awaiting discovery.
Some fields are marked by a solitary kite hung from a stick to show the wind direction (or are they meant to be scarecrows?) whilst others have groves of sheltering trees to provide shade for travellers such as us. Some are quite free of other people, so we feel like the only humans in a dreamscape Apollo must have conjured up.
Given the popularity of the sunflower fields, both with locals and foreign tourists, more and more districts and provinces are beginning to plant them as part of an eco-tourism drive. Yet for the heartland of sunflowers, in all their crowning glory, Saraburi is still the place to beat.
Walking between the plants (so thickly grown there are no discernible rows), the sunflower heads bobbing against our cheeks, we can’t help but wonder if John Lennon had visited Saraburi whether that song would have been titled Sunflower Fields Forever instead.