Those who haven’t visited Thailand, and even some of those who have, might think of its tourism industry as being synonymous with full moon parties and massage parlours, but there’s another kind of tourism which is all about exploring the real Thailand. It’s about meeting communities of Thai people, learning about their life and culture, and respecting the environment.
Community based tourism, which is often described as “travelling like a local,” has been going on in Thailand for decades, but is still not as well known as it should be. Community based tourism seeks to uplift local communities by providing them with a sustainable way to support themselves while providing a rich, cultural experience for travellers.
There are many instances where local resources are used in unsustainable and often damaging ways for the sake of tourism. In Thailand particularly, elephant tourism and tiger-temple tourism have been detrimental to local wildlife and neglected the value of these animals and their habitats. Increasingly travellers are looking for alternative experiences that have positive outcomes.
Community based tourism revolves around respect for local people and their customs, it celebrates their traditions and beliefs, builds relationships between different cultures, imparts local wisdom, conserves the environment and protects local wildlife. Communities understand the value of the resources that they have and work to protect them and share them in a sustainable way with visitors.
As part of a community based tourism trip in Thailand, I was fortunate enough to visit three communities in Trat province which were somewhat off of the beaten track. While all of the communities were incredibly welcoming, what really struck me was how different their resources were and how wonderfully they made use of them.
Nam Chiao Ecotourism Community
The Nam Chiao community have been involved in community based tourism programmes for over 11 years, so are old hands at it. The community is spread out along a canal, where Thai Buddhists and Thai Muslims peacefully co-exist.
Our visit was during Ramadan, so we learned to make Tangme Krop, a sweet candy made from sugar and coconut. This sweet is consumed by everyone in the community but even more so during the fasting period. The locals swear that putting a stick of this sweet in your coffee is far better than any kind of sugar or cream.
The locals here are dedicated to protecting the mangroves and have strict regulations about cutting down mangrove trees, which was often done in the past in order to clear land to build houses. The community replant mangrove trees and re-release small sea crabs that get caught in their fishing nets back into the mangrove swamps to keep the balance of the eco-system.
Chong Changtune Ecotourism Community
The Chong Changtune community is new to the community based tourism movement and is still in the process of setting up their facilities to accommodate tourists, but I thought that they were doing a pretty awesome job already.
The Chong Changtune community are the inventors of the amazingly bizarre chicken coop steams for tourism, which are a twist on the traditional Thai herbal steams. The community also offer different types of massage and run trips down to the river where you can bathe in white mud.
The community here are dedicated to natural and cultural conservation. They are replanting many kinds of plants and herbs in the area which are no longer commonly found in the wild and they replace everything that they pick with a new plant.
Huai Raeng Ecotourism Community
Sitting on the banks of the Trat river, the Huai Raeng community bases their activities around using their natural resources to produce natural products.
I was totally fascinated to discover how pure coconut oil is made, something which I’ve always wanted to know. The process involves grating a coconut and mixing and massaging with water to make coconut milk. Then the liquid is put into a plastic bag and hung up on a tree branch where it separates into solids and the coconut oil.
The community are also the ambassadors of using mangosteen fruit rind to make soap because it is good for the skin. Instead of buying moulds to set the soap, the community use the inside of bamboo, giving the soap a distinctive curved shape.
Different Communities mean Unique Experiences
Community based tourism provide unique experiences that you rarely find otherwise while travelling. Each of the three communities that I had the pleasure of visiting were completely different and I learned something unique from every place. If you are heading to Thailand and want to try a different travel experience, then give community based tourism a go.