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Thailand: Community-based tourism

Thailand’s community-based tourism projects offer an insight into local life while supporting its people, environment and wildlife

Thailand: Community-based tourism
Khao Sok National Park. Image: Tamsin Wressell

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“Oh, one more way you can die here,” says Ot, halting mid-step and resting on his bamboo walking stick. “These low hanging vines? That’s where snakes hang. Poisonous green vipers,” he pauses for suspense, widening his eyes and fanning his fingers. He glances up to gauge the group’s reaction.

Satisfied that fear has been induced, he relaxes, shaking off his tense posture before grabbing his stick and continuing up the mountain, beckoning us to follow. “But I like to believe their poison is nocturnal, because they move less in the day,” he continues. “They see rats in the morning, so use up all their poison then. I don’t understand snakes. I’ve never kissed one”. He turns to me, making eye contact, “Have you kissed a snake?” He doesn’t wait for a response, though, and continues his snake-related rambling as we make our way through the humid jungle.

We’re an hour into an uphill trek in southern Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park, battling with vines, boulders and lingering insects for a view over Khao Sok Lake, weaving through the oldest evergreen rainforest in the world. Today, macaques squawk, shaking the trees as they swing from branch to branch; Malayan sun bears claw at the lower trunks; and tarantulas burrow deep into the earth down among the roots. The forest is flourishing. But it’s had a difficult journey to get to this point.

The logging and mining industry took its toll in the 1960s, then the forest was a refuge for Thai students and communist insurgents hiding from government forces in the late ’70s, before its rich biodiversity was finally recognised and the borders were drawn up to make it a national park in 1980. Eco-resorts started to open their green doors to welcome community-based tourism in a bid to help the national park thrive, and survive.

Sumnuk — nicknamed ‘Ot’ (‘little frog’ in Thai) for his big head — is our community guide for the day, working for the Krai Son Raft House, a guesthouse on the edge of the lake some 650ft below our current position. Managed by the national park itself, the floating bungalows offer visitors community-based experiences.

“Around 300 families used to live here, until the dam was built and wiped out the houses,” Ot had told me earlier. “It was a small community built around the lake. Dive into the water now and you’ll be swimming on top of a sunken jungle.” The government paid each family to leave. “I think we were all happy to get away from the tigers and bears. Before, when it got dark we’d have to put the light out and be really quiet. We made a lot of babies then. There wasn’t much else to do while we waited for the tigers to pass.” Though decades of hunting and logging had decimated the Indochinese tigers, conservation efforts have led to the recent discovery of a new population in eastern Thailand, but poachers still pose a threat. Now, a small floating shop selling fish and local products bobs on the lake opposite the guesthouse. Longboats ferry guests over and the shop has proven a welcome boost to the community’s fortunes.

With few opportunities for their economy to grow, more villages in Thailand are opening up to tourism, and in a bid to avoid exploitation or unethical tourism, some companies — like Rickshaw Travel — are creating authentic, smaller, community-based trips that can benefit locals. Lodges are built for visitors (under the strict provision that they’re eco-friendly) generating work for the community and investing only in local suppliers.

Before travelling deeper into the national park, I spent a few days at Anurak Community Lodge, a collection of 18 eco-friendly bungalow-style rooms that’s an example of accommodation built for mutual benefit. Anurak, meaning ‘to conserve’, offers activities and trips based around nature. I fall asleep each night to the raucous sound of crickets and sip my morning coffee overlooking the limestone karsts that Thailand is so famous for. I spend my days at the lodge tubing and kayaking with community guides An and Lei, before learning to cook massaman curry and turmeric chicken with Jan. In a makeshift kitchen, in the heart of Khao Sok National Park, I eat intricately wrapped rice parcels and thinly sliced lemongrass to the sounds of a tropical storm.

The money coming in from tourism goes into conserving natural habitats. An elephant is under the care of Jan and her family, too. With many of the community out of work, illegal hunting became rife in this area. Tourism, I’m told, is an attempt to prevent hunting and preserve the country’s wildlife.

Back on our hike, and Ot continues to gain pleasure from scaring the group. It’s how he started the walk, and there’s no sign he’ll stop. I like him and his inability to sugar-coat anything instantly. What should we do if we see a bear? We could play dead, but it’s pretty pointless. It’s best just to pray. What if we don’t have good travel insurance? Too late. What if we find ourselves in danger during the walk? Make sure he gets a chance to run first.

He continues this routine of asking and answering his own questions, occasionally stopping to point out insects and plants, such as the trees that have strangled others and the towering bamboo — the oldest grass on the planet. For the rest of our 230ft uphill struggle, clambering up rocks to the viewpoint, Ot tells me of his ties to the area. He likes the local people. He likes the land. The lake makes him happy. “If there was no lake, there would be no me here today,” he tells me.

At work on the coconut farm, Khlong Noi. Image: Tamsin Wressell

At work on the coconut farm, Khlong Noi. Image: Tamsin Wressell

Meaningful experience

Many of the community tourism schemes in Thailand encourage visitors to have a more meaningful travel experience, after popular films like The Beach brought backpackers flocking to get their fill of paradise. Walk down the infamous Khao San Road in Bangkok and your senses are assaulted with neon signs, insects on sticks and ‘I heart Bangkok’ magnets on sale. Just last year, Thailand closed Koh Tachai island after it was declared ruined by tourism, with overcrowding, animal welfare concerns and mangroves cut back to clear a path for further resorts along the shorelines.

Speaking to Ot, I get an understanding of where his passions lie — maintaining a sense of community, reducing the harmful effects of tourism and always being two steps ahead, “because remember: the bear. I run before you.”

The following day, I leave Ot behind and head south to Khlong Noi to swap eco-friendly resorts for a homestay. Chet, my host, has worked in community-based tourism (CBT) for nine years and wants to show me its impact on his riverside village. Despite being half an hour away from Surat Thani, the main gateway for tourists arriving by sleeper train to the south of Thailand, this collection of nine villages is relatively undiscovered by visitors. Along with nine other houses, Chet has opened up his home to entice visitors to the area. It’s fairly basic — my bed for the night is a mattress on the floor stuffed with coconut fibre, while a bucket in an empty room is the shower. The grounds, on the other hand, call attention to Chet’s passion for vegetation. He’s an avid topiarist, with hedges trimmed to resemble elephant, fish and a few that are a little more up for debate.

Sitting outside to admire Chet’s handiwork, we peel away banana leaves from the parcels of steamed sticky rice cakes Nee, Chet’s sister, has made us as a welcome snack, her son coyly hiding behind her apron. After three years of homestays, he’s still a little shy, but excited by the guests that stay in his house, says Chet. “We like to give information to other countries about how we live our life, and how we do the research and environmental conservation. But we also like to learn about other cultures. My nephew is learning English and it’s building his confidence.”

Within an hour, the sticky rice cakes are gone and the hot weather is too, replaced by reduced temperatures and torrential rain. “The weather is turning crazy. Climate change,” Chet says. “We need to save the trees so our community can breathe.” The first rule of CBT in Khlong Noi is for money to be fed into conservation. It’s a circle, where conservation and tourism wouldn’t survive without each other.

As the rain slows, we start our tour of the villages. Khlong means ‘little river’, and it’s clear to see how much of local life orbits around theirs. It’s a means of transport, a food source and a trading ground. We meet Mr Thon — the only person in the area who can make handmade fishing rods and ‘Mr Frog Man’, who runs a boat-making workshop to keep the tradition going. Later, Chet takes me to a coconut farm. Every part of the coconut is used: the skin for fire, fibre for mattresses, strays for fertilisers and the flesh goes to the supermarket. Locals chop coconuts by the riverside while fishermen throw out nets. “You wouldn’t have seen this before the ethical tourism plan was introduced. The funding meant we could clean up the river. With that, it brought shrimp. And with shrimp, comes money,” he explains.

Back at Chet’s, I’m handed a pair of shears to help with his daily topiary ritual while he continues to explain the importance of CBT. Despite nearby communities being left devastated by the 2004 tsunami, Khlong Noi was protected by the mangrove. The money made from tourism is being invested in planting more palms as added protection. “The project isn’t just about preserving culture,” Chet adds. “It helps communities survive. But it’s also to show people what life is like here for us. So, let me show you something a bit special — fireflies.” With that, Chet dashes back to the house to turn off the lights. We gather on the riverbank and wait for the insects that rely on such conservation to come out and astound us.

What next?

Rickshaw Travel works with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to support community-based tourism. It offers ready-made itineraries or the opportunity to build your own holiday from a series of bite-size trips to Thailand, such as the three-day Bangkok: Longtails & Tuk Tuks, the three-day Giant Trees & Lakes of Khao Sok and the two-day Village Life by the River. Prices start from £175 per person.

Return direct flights from Heathrow to Bangkok are available from £465 with Eva Air.

Published in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)