Community-Based Tourism in Trat, Thailand
The ease and prevalence of travel has made our world a small one. Many countries rely on the tourism industry to boost their economies and work to attract travelers with a variety of accommodations and chain restaurants. But how much do we really get to experience a destination when we stay in a cushy hotel with other international travelers, eat familiar cuisine, and speak in our native tongue? I recently had the opportunity to immerse myself in a place very different from my own and see what it truly means to “live like a local.”
As a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, I ventured to the province of Trat, situated on the country’s eastern coast and sharing a border with Cambodia. Here, a team of guides from a company called Local Alike took us to three villages to meet locals in their homes and learn about and experience their eco-friendly and canal-based way of life.
The only community-based tourism company in Thailand, Local Alike allows travelers to book off-the-beaten-path experiences in order to immerse themselves in the destination. The team visits villages interested in joining the program and helps them prepare to host visitors, with a focus on the locals’ needs and preference. The ultimate goal is to preserve the local culture and generate income for the villages while providing a fun, educational, and unforgettable experience for travelers.
Our journey began at the Ban Nam Chiao Ecotourism Community, where we were warmly welcomed with smiles and wais, a slight bow with the palms pressed together as if in prayer. Here, Thai Buddhists and Thai Muslims live together harmoniously and show respect for one another’s religious beliefs—if only the rest of the world could follow their example—and they treated us to a demonstration of making a crispy caramel sugar stick called tangme krop, which both Buddhists and Muslims enjoy, especially during Ramadan.
As part of the Local Alike program, members of this community also chose Thai names for everyone in our group. Mine is pronounced “Are-ree” and is, “a word used to describe generosity and kind heartedness.” We practiced writing our names in the Thai alphabet—for me, “อารีย์”—and worked on our pronunciation, grade-school tasks that gave us a deeper understanding of the culture and further connected us with the community. We were in their country and it would serve us well to embrace the ways in which their lives were so different from our own.
One thing I would like to incorporate more in my own life is how the Ban Nam Chiao community works to give back to its environment. We boarded small boats in groups of threes and fours to cruise out to a nearby mangrove forest. A local teenager on our boat was one of the first to dive in once we reached deeper water, searching for tongue shell that live below the sandy bottom. We then helped release small edible sea crabs into the water and pulled our boats up to the shoreline to get out and plant mangrove roots, helping to facilitate an environmentally beneficial cycle.
The Ban Nam Chiao community truly makes the most of its natural surroundings. The people here are possibly most known for their ngop hats, made with the palm fronds that grow along the canal. We rode bikes to meet a 74-year-old woman who makes these hats and watch her in action. These hat-making techniques unique to the community have been passed down through generations (the woman who taught her is now more than 100 years old!).
Our next lesson in Thai life came from the Chong Changtune Live Eco-Museum in Bo Rai. Here we met Pi Yi, the former Tourism Authority of Thailand director in Trat and the eco-museum co-founder (along with his daughter), who told us about his community’s dedication to natural and cultural conservation. The first half of our day with the Chong community focused on wellness and relaxation. We made an herbal balm, were treated to a Thai massage, and, most memorably, took part in the “Spa de Chong,” a local invention in which a person sits on a small stool beside a steam instrument and has a chicken coop with a hole cut out at the top placed around his or her head. It’s a hilarious visual, as well as a wonderful, eco-friendly way to sweat out the toxins from the body.
After lunch, we rode on sidecar-connected motorbikes called salengers to a nearby river. A Chong woman first demonstrated how she uses several parts of a palm frond to create a check dam and slow water flow, before a group of kids sat us down on rocks in the water and applied white mud from the river floor to our a arms, neck, and back. We sat, half-submerged, and relished the coolness of the water as the mud dried and nourished our skin.
After a quick dip to rinse off, we re-joined the woman to learn how to mine for Siamese rubies in the riverbed using an ancient Chong technique. As she sat in the water, she held a large, shallow bowl, dipping it into the riverbed to catch the rocks and sand along the floor. We watched as her fingers moved quickly through the fragments, sifting and sorting as she searched for the shiny red gems. We couldn’t resist joining in to help, eager to discover our own treasure.
Our final community visit was with the Huai Raeng Ecotourism Group. Called the “Land of Three Waters” because of the combination of fresh, salt, and brackish water that meet here, the property is quite fertile and provides ample natural resources for the Huai Raeng people. Upon arrival, we were led down to a dock to board long boats for a tour down the river, in order to see first-hand how much the community relies on this water source.
Our guide brought us to the water’s edge, where nipa palm trees thrive. As with the Chong people, the Huai Raeng community uses the trees’ atap leaves to make check dams and roofing, as well as to roll cigarettes and to cook a traditional Thai dessert called khanom chak, a combination of flour, coconut, and sugar wrapped in the leaves and cooked on a charcoal grill.
After returning from our boat ride, we were not only treated to a demonstration and tasting of the khanom chak but also were shown how the people use natural resources to make products including mangosteen rind soap in a bamboo mold and coconut oil. Über-locally made items were plentiful in all three communities we visited, but this one has my vote for best souvenirs.
A trip like this is all about the people you meet and the things you can learn from them. This was first-ever trip to Asia, and I felt as though I not only got to see the sights but also gain a deeper understanding of the culture and the appreciation of nature. I returned home with soaps, sugar sticks, and coconut oil made right before my eyes and special memories of the warm welcomes we received.
One last thing: It’s always appreciated to learn a few key words and phrases when visiting any country that speaks a language different than your own. Though several of the people we met in these communities knew a bit of English, and we had guides to translate for those who did not, I saw first-hand how a very basic understanding of the Thai language put a smile on people’s faces and helped shorten the communication gap between us. Keep in mind that all phrases end with either “krup” for men or “ka” for women. “Hello” is pronounced, “saw wad dee” and “thank you” is, “kob koon” (and with the gender modifier I, for example, would say, “saw wad dee ka” and “kob koon ka”). Trust me, knowing these two phrases at the very least will be met with gratitude and greatly enhance your experience.