Four remarkable Thai villages prove the merits of community-based tourism
As part of its corporate social responsibility initiative “Journey of Development”, Thai AirAsia is encouraging people to sample community-based tourism, with the focus on four villages that His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej visited years ago.
The four pilot destinations are Baan Pha Mee in Chiang Rai, Baan Kok Muang in Buri Ram, Phromlok in Nakhon Si Thammarat and Koh Klang in Krabi.
The programme is designed to both raise the standard of living in these communities and improve the residents’ English-language skills.
Thai AirAsia and the Thai Journalists Association recently hosted an Asean Travel Journo Camp. Marking the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, they took 17 members of the press from nine Asean member-countries (only Singapore was not represented) to two of the four communities.
Ahka villagers give the travelling journalists a rousing welcome
An hour’s drive from Chiang Rai Airport is Baan Pha Mhee, a mountainside Ahka village surrounded by coffee plantations. The village’s name refers to a mountain that looms nearby in the shape of a bear. The current population just tops 600.
Chinese immigrants from Xishuangbanna established the village 85 years ago, and today the area is one of the country’s top coffee producers. It wasn’t always so. As recently as the 1970s it was a source of opium, and there were border disputes flaring in the vicinity.
His Majesty King Bhumibol came to visit and convinced the inhabitants to start cultivating other crops instead of opium. He realised that the temperate climate in the hills suited crops that could be grown sustainably, still bring the farmers sufficient income and do far less harm to society than opium, from which heroin is derived.
You don’t need a coffee maker to brew fantastic coffee.
His Majesty introduced the farmers to more than 150 legal alternative crops, including cabbages, tea, and, of course, the one that ultimately brought Baan Pha Mhee fame and success – Arabica coffee.
“At first the King gave us Robusta coffee beans to grow,” said Rawimon Mongkoltanaphum, president of the Pha Mhee Community Tourism Enterprise. “But later he suggested Arabica instead, because it can really flourish in the rich soil and cold weather of the North.”
The press assembled on Doi Pha Mhee was keen to try “Pha Mhee hot coffee”. It’s a rich mix of Arabica, milk and sweet syrup. “Iced coffee with young coconut meat” has coconut water and the meat of a young coconut sweetening the intense flavour of the coffee.
No matter which one you prefer, the experience is like drinking a cup of royal coffee.
A visiting journalist tries the Akha swing at Baan Pha Mhee in Chiang Rai.
Further up the mountain by four-wheel vehicle is another signature attraction of Doi Pha Mhee village – the Akha swing – and it’s not to be missed.
Visitors are encouraged to climb on and experience the exciting sensation of flying through the sky, wonderful views of Chiang Rai all around.
The Akha swing is found in most Akha villages, there for a traditional annual ritual normally held amid the rains of August to bring fertility in the coming harvest season – and to honour the women of the tribe.
The Swing Festival gives young Akha women the opportunity to don beautiful and elaborate costumes and ornaments to indicate that they’ve reached marrying age. Nowadays visitors are free to join the Akha maidens in an exciting show of joy and liveliness.
Baan Pha Mhee was designated a community tourist destination last December. Its younger generation contributes in applying the theories of His Majesty the late King and helping develop the village, and the residents have succeeded in ridding the community of its former reputation as a narcotics centre, replacing it with a fresh image as a welcoming destination for tourists.
Baan Koh Klang is a charming Muslim community in the South.
From Chiang Rai, the next stop for the travelling journalists was Krabi in the South, where we saw how farmers grow rice in the middle of an island.
A 10-minute boat ride from the city of Krabi, the island community is Baan Koh Klang, with a population of about 5,000, mostly Muslims and mostly engaged in shallow-water fishing or rice cultivation.
Koh Klang might not be the destination for tourists seeking crystal-clear water, white-sand beaches and five-star hotels. Nonetheless, it has plenty of charm and much to see and appreciate. There’s the fascinating Thai-Muslim culture, pristine mangrove forests, the Hua Tong boats typical of Krabi province, and the unique Sangyod rice.
Rice is cultivated right in the middle of the island.
Sopha Kohklang, the local CBT coordinator, showed us that Sangyod rice is organic, purple in colour and high in fibre. It’s produced only here and in Phatthalung province.
In Koh Klang the planting takes place in August and the harvest comes in December.
“I invite any tourists who are interested in community-based tourism to come and visit us and see how we live, eat and dress,” Sopha said. “The highlights here are the charming way of life among the Muslim people and the way the rice is cultivated right in the middle of the island.
“If you want to try fresh Sangyod rice, you have to come here!” she said.
The residents happily show visitors how the rice is planted and harvested, and they’ll also invite them to try their hands at making batik and building a model Hua Tong boat.
Then there’s always a trek to the beach at low tide, where they’ll demonstrate how to dig for clams and other shellfish. There are more than 30 different species that are good to eat, but the Spotted Babylon sea snail brings in the top prices for villagers.
The Hua Tong longtail boat is a symbol of Krabi province.
You can spend just the day at Koh Klang or stay overnight. The local homestay is called Kidteaung Cottage, and tourists who move in will really feel that they’re living like the locals.
At the end of their trip, the journalists from around Southeast Asia shared their thoughts.
“What I like about Thailand are its people and preserved temples and traditions,” said Joseph Tristan German Roxas, a news producer in the Philippines. “Thai people are very nice. I like how they’re so loyal to the royal family.
“When I go home I plan to write about my experiences in Chiang Rai and Krabi,” he said.
“The community-based tourism we saw in Chiang Rai is a good programme to highlight – how people are given the chance to improve their lives on their own. I also plan to write about how they grow coffee and how they feel about the late King.
“As for Krabi, I plan to write about the Koh Klang community produces rice both traditionally and
in the modern way.”
IF YOU GO
For more information about community-based tourism in these locations, call Phakakan Rungpracharat of the Doi Pha Mhee CBT Group at (089) 449 7842 and Sopha Kohklang of the Koh Klang CBT at (086) 072 7860.