Ecotourism in Thailand

For the villages of eastern Thailand, sustainable tourism is helping to preserve a way of life under threat, proving that ethical travel is good for travellers and locals. Martin Syminton finds out more

Deep in the forests of Thailand’s Trat Province, I found myself discussing rubber and rubies with the headman of Chang Tune village, the charismatic Woranit (“Call me Warren”) Kayaras. We had just paused at a clearing when he pointed to a gash in a tree trunk that oozed a sticky white goo. “Rubber tapping is one of our traditional ways,” he announced with a gravitas that made me reconsider all thoughts of nicknames, before narrating the tale of the region’s gem trade – a sad history indeed.

I had come to eastern Thailand to experience what the country offered in ‘green travel’. Chang Tune is now one of several settlements in Trat Province that practice Community Based Tourism (CBT), allowing visitors to share in culturally sustainable activities and learn traditional skills. I travelled with Bangkok-based agency Local Alike – winner of the Thailand Green Awards 2015, who have pioneered this kind of small-scale venture across the area.

My guide Bow Pongnin was quick to explain the merits of the concept: “Visitors gain an awareness of local lifestyles and ancient traditions through first-hand experiences,” she enthused. “The projects are owned and managed by the communities. This then generates an income stream that is used to improve quality of life and help to preserve traditions.” So it was that I came to be wandering the forest with Woranit. As we walked on, he continued the long, tragic history of gemstone mining in Trat Province while I listened, engrossed as much by the tale as the way he told it. An ambassador for a way of life that many still cling to, even as Thailand changes all around them.

Locals driving through Thailand (Martin Symington)
Locals driving through Thailand (Martin Symington)

A ruby in the rough

Upon my arrival back at the village, I received an altogether more hands-on form of local hospitality – a regional variation on the kind of vigorous massages you’ll find all over Thailand. This required being aromatically steamed in a ‘chicken coop’ cage made from bamboo and palm leaves before a strenuous pummelling that was administered by a short, strong-armed lady equipped with mysterious potions concocted from herbs that had been foraged in the forest. I emerged from the bamboo bed renewed and with a ravenous hunger, all the better to enjoy servings of banana stalk curry and skewers of spiced river fish. Their fiery flavours were duly tamed by a bowl of rambutans, a local fruit with a thick hairy skin that tasted not unlike charred pears.

After lunch, we hopped aboard a Salenger, a kind of motorbike with a crate-like sidecar attached that are used hereabouts as both taxis and delivery vehicles. A bone-rattling ride later, we reached the tea-coloured Khlong Eng river. There, children frolicked in twirling eddies while local women taught us how to sieve pebbles and silt while keeping our eyes peeled for the red glint of a Siamese ruby.

I had little luck on the gem front that afternoon, though I did discover what a ‘check dam’ was. These temporary barriers were built, beaver-style, out of fallen palms and tangles of thick woody vines called liana. The practice is sustainable because you pan the fast-moving shallows below the dam in advance of the monsoons washing the area clean during the rainy season and replenishing its jewels. But Trat’s gem-packed rivers weren’t always such a blessing. Nearby, the Bo Rai Gemstone Museum showed all too clearly what Woranit had meant when he dolefully recounted the arrival of the mining companies during the ‘ruby rush’ that peaked in the late 1980s. The mines had wreaked havoc upon the environment and the local communities, which were only now just recovering.

 Sifting for gems the traditional way (Martin Symington)
Sifting for gems the traditional way (Martin Symington)

The museum lay on the site of a now-abandoned opencast mine. Inside, a tableaux of life-like wax figures demonstrated how rubies had been panned and dug for in the area over centuries. By contrast, it was shocking to see how these small-scale methods contrasted with its brutally bulldozed pits where the rusted cranes and diggers of industrial-scale mining now lay strewn like discarded toys.

While mechanical ruby mining has been banned by law in the region for more than a decade, panning for gems like prospectors in the American Old West is obviously not a serious economic alternative. But I reckoned Woranit was on the money. In keeping alive these practices for community-based tourism, they can become a method of preserving traditional ways of village life otherwise lost to the ages in this far-flung pocket of Trat Province.

Of guavas, religion & prawns

Although this was my fifth trip to Thailand, I had never previously ventured this far east. Trat Province borders Cambodia, with which its history is also entwined. It was briefly annexed by French Indochina in 1904, but the colonists were sent packing just three years later. That date (23 November) is now celebrated as ‘kick the farangs out day’ – a farang (a corruption of ‘foreign’) being Thai slang for a foreigner of European decent. It also means ‘guava fruit’ in Thai, explained Bow, chuckling at the possibilities for word play.

As it happened, guava (the fruit, not the people) is vital to the region, with a lot of it passing through mainland Trat on its way to Cambodia or the sprinkling of islands that belong to the province. More on those in a moment. First, I wanted to see how some other villages had invested their hope for the future in CBT projects.

Restored fishing village Koh Chang's Bang Bao (Dreamstime)
Restored fishing village Koh Chang's Bang Bao (Dreamstime)

I based myself in Trat town, the small provincial capital where a growing traveller scene has built up in recent years along its riverfront of old wooden-balconied houses and restaurants. From there, the ‘Ecotourism Community’ of Ban Nam Chiao was just 20 minutes by minibus, lying on a canal cutting through estuarine mangroves. We were welcomed to the village by Di Noi, the lady who fronted the CBT project for Ban Nam Chiao. Through a translator, she explained the realities of modern village life.

“Our people have always made their living from fishing and fruit farming,” she said. “Now the future is very uncertain because the young leave us to find jobs in the big resorts. It is not good for the village and it is not good for the young people because they encounter prostitution, alcohol and drugs.”

Ban Nam Chiao is fascinating for many reasons, not least because it is home to a large number of Thailand’s Muslim minority as well as mainstream Buddhists. Had I not known this in advance, the sight of its domed mosque and gilded temple might have provided some clue. And while this is not unique, ethnic tensions between the two religions do exist in Thailand and increasingly across South-East Asia. Yet the village has existed without trouble for years.

Certainly our hostess was all too aware of the witness her community bore to the notion of differing faiths rubbing along. Di Noi happily announced that she was Muslim while her co-host was Buddhist. Together, the pair gave a cookery demonstration, joking and showing us how to prepare specialities born of the fusion between the two cultures. My favourite was tangme krop, a crispy caramel sweet customarily enjoyed here by villagers of all faiths.

Some tasty rambutans (Martin Symington)
Some tasty rambutans (Martin Symington)

The third Trat village we visited was Huai Raeng, which had styled itself as an ‘Eco-museum’. According to Bow, the villagers ‘curate’ their own cultural identity and environment. Unwanted thoughts of native fishermen sat in glass cabinets crept into my mind, but I was eager to see what this meant.

In practice, Huai Raeng was a bustling farming and fishing community. Sold as the ‘Land of Three Waters’ – the legacy of an ecosystem that includes fresh, brackish and salt water – we arrived to a tranquil scattering of rickety wooden homes on stilts, all set in a clearing next to a river. Some locals sifted rice, others demonstrated how they produced the speciality wares on sale. I sat with one woman as she sliced a pile of purple mangosteens and mixed their rind with palm oil to make a silky-textured, chemical-free liquid soap.

Afterwards, I was taught how make a betel leaf wrap with walnuts, pineapple and salty egg. It was a fiddly practice involving a dexterity with palm string that I was utterly unable to master. Then, led by a fisherman who introduced himself as ‘Chu’, we glided down a jade-green creek in a wooden boat, watching the fish eagles circle and plummet. Trees arched over the water where we stopped, allowing Chu to dip his small net under a semi-submerged branch. One by one, he set about catching a handful of freshwater king prawns, which he would sell at a premium in the market.

It struck me as he did this how impractical it was. Why not just use a bigger net, I enquired? “If I caught more, there would be fewer left for tomorrow,” Chu answered patiently. I chastised myself: That’s sustainability in nutshell, you dumb guava.

A fishing village in Trat Province (Dreamstime)
A fishing village in Trat Province (Dreamstime)

Recycling paradise

In search of further ‘green travel’, my next port of call signalled something of a sea change in surroundings, as I boarded the ferry from Centrepoint Pier to Koh Kut. The emerald-hued island lies opposite the Thai/Cambodia border in the Gulf of Thailand, but remains relatively unknown. Despite its hemline of dazzling sand and translucent coves, it has so far resisted the siren call of industrialsized tourism that has swept Phuket and Koh Samui. And if the name sounds familiar, it might be because of Koh Kut’s lone luxury resort, the 2014 Thailand Green Award-winning eco-hotel Soneva Kiri. A dizzying counterpoint to the homespun simplicity of the CBT villages, Soneva Kiri lies firmly on the exclusive side. The standard room was a private villa with an infinity pool, merged with patches of rainforest. This ultimate in eco-luxury is a place where lunch, if you like, is sushi on your sun lounger. It is the sort of castaway reverie where you might wash up one in a lifetime (unless you are Madonna, who comes here often). Fireflies lit my path to dinner as a symphony of croaking and chirping emanated from the undergrowth.

“So, what’s your take on Paradise?” grinned the resort’s resident ‘social and environmental sustainability coordinator’ Martijn van Berlo the following morning. Before long, he had outlined all current eco-concerns for the ‘Garden of Eden’, from cesspits and garbage incinerators to cooking fat recycled as biodiesel, to solar panels and waste separation. A quietly spoken Dutchman, Martijn admitted that there was “still a long way to go” in the resort’s quest for sustainability. He also left me to ponder his argument that, unlike luxury resorts that can afford to recycle and treat waste, it was the simpler beach hut hotels that trash the environment – the next challenge for Trat perhaps?

The mass menagerie

Leaving behind the questions and decadence of Koh Kut, my next port of call was its neighbouring island of Koh Chang (or Elephant Island), only a 45-minute ferry ride from the Mainland’s Laem Ngop pier. Its bulbous outline, which gave rise to its name, loomed alluringly as we approached. Today, the whole island is a National Park and the tourist authorities have often trumpeted the green appeal of its woodlands and wildlife. The beach-less east coast is blanketed in forest, and I stayed in a serene hotel comprising wooden bungalows of minimalist simplicity, built under a canopy ringing with birdsong.

Phi Lom temple on Koh Chang Island (Dreamstime)
Phi Lom temple on Koh Chang Island (Dreamstime)

Koh Chang’s east coast is the one bit of Trat Province that does feed off large-scale tourism. Khlong Prao beach, which stretches out for miles, is strung with resorts ranging from upmarket to backpacker basic. My guide to the island was Yim Chat Kaew, a young woman who could not contain her distaste for some of their activities, particularly those involving animals.

Despite its name, there are no indigenous elephants on the island, and yet several camps offered riding or swimming opportunities with the animals, each shipped in from the mainland. No doubt some operators treat their source of income humanely, but at least one has been raided by the police for illegally importing baby elephants over the last few years. Yim said that other shows involving monkeys, snakes and, worst of all, crocodiles were just as bad. “I would like to feed the tourists that go to these to the crocodiles.”

Thankfully, there was Koh Chang’s interior to escape to. A worthy paradise. As I set off , I gazed up at the high central ridge, draped with vegetation like mops of wild green hair. Sadly, a recent deluge had washed away my trekking trail to the ridge, so I had to make do with a shorter track through the banyan trees to a double-tiered waterfall called Khlong Plu that plunged into a clear pool.

I was not the only person there, but it was an enchanting spot. All around, insects were trilling like telephones and fish darted in the shadowy underwater light. I jumped into the cool water and, after my sweaty hike, it felt like diving into silk. Then I lay on a rock like a lizard and thought about Woranit Kayaras and all the other inspiring people I had met on my tour of Trat Province’s greenest and finest. Perhaps all travellers could benefit from a bit of their collective wisdom, I decided, as the natural waters rippled all around me.

Visits to CBT communities should be pre-booked. Local Alike arrange group and tailormade tours. 

 

Main Image: The beaches of Koh Chang (Dreamstime)

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