You know, I’ve never been an ardent Thailand enthusiast. Oh, I’ve been there once or twice, well, three times, actually – in Bangkok, in Phuket, in Phang Nga Bay, on Koh Samui, and most recently in Ayutthaya. The temples are beautiful, the beaches equally so, the people friendly and the food the best there is…, but I just never felt that special magic that seems to hit everyone the minute they step onto the whiter than white sand. It’s not your fault, Thailand. Rather, there’s that slightly bitter flavour of western hedonism that seems to be especially prevalent among travellers to Thailand, the unsavoury attitudes you meet even before you leave your home airport.
Then an invitation from Thailand’s Tourism Authority popped into the mailbox, suggesting I have a look at a different side of this oh-so-popular country. Would I come and experience community-based tourism? A self-explanatory term, perhaps – but I’ll say a few words about it anyway. Community-based tourism means visitors (that’s us) get a glimpse of life in a community, with residents inviting us to take part in local, cultural activities and teaching us time-honoured crafts. Most importantly, everything remains at the local level: they set the conditions, they retain control and, not least, they reap the benefits. That’s quite a change.
I was curious naturally, so I adjusted the brain and body settings to explore mode, and off I went. We were five Nordic journos and bloggers, strangers at first, now friends. We began and ended in Bangkok, where I hadn’t been since 1994. (Where did all the tuk-tuks disappear to? This time, I could easily count the few I saw – on one hand.) However, we spent most of the time in Thailand’s eastern provinces, Rayong, Chanthaburi and Trat, near the Cambodian border.
What I found was Thailand beyond the tourist beat, Thailand beyond the beaches, the busy bars, and the full moon parties. This was traditional Thailand, green, sustainable Thailand. And I came home with a more profound awareness of Mueang Thai, as the locals call their country – a deeper understanding of the country and its people.
Last week, I wrote about a wonderful eco-spa in Trat. This week, we’ll take a look at Chanthaburi – but first a quick stop along the way.
On the way east, we stop for lunch at the lovely Prai Rayong, an outdoor restaurant and oyster farm, where the seafood is delicious –
– and the colours bright and cheery.
Chanthaburi province is famous for mat weaving, fruits and gemstones. At the little village Samet Ngam is Chanthaburi Mat Weaving Local Handicraft Centre, where you can see the process, from harvesting the Kok reed, drying, it, dying it and waving colourful mats, flip-flops, bags, and dolls.
Fruit at the palace
These lovely dancers welcome visitors to the Suan Ban Kaew Palace. This was once the residence of Queen Rambhai Barni, the wife of King Rama VII. Today it serves as a cultural history museum.
Here’s a small selection of rambutan, mangosteens and other fruity goodness in Chanthaburi.
The king of fruit is the dreaded durian. Be careful when you cut it – and when you smell it. It’s illegal to bring on the metro, even in Bangkok. But don’t let that stop you from trying a bite or two. Like a mature Stilton, it smells like death warmed up – but has a very pleasant taste.
In Chanthaburi town is the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. It is said to be the lovliest Christian church in all of Thailand, and reminds us of Vietnamese fleeing religious persecution at home. The church is beautiful.
Chantaboon Riverside Community
My absolute favourite part of this province is the 300-year-old Chanthaboon Riverside Community. Just past the church is a foot bridge, from where you can get a first glimpse.
Once across, you’ll find lovely old houses and shops, colourful doors, unexpected murals, sweet street signs…
chess played in cafes…
… the gorgeous Baan Luang Rajamaitri Historic Inn, where I would love to spend the night in a room overlooking the river. Then I’d pretend it was 1916, sit on the veranda and not do anything but watch the water drift past.
Remember I mentioned mat weaving, fruit and gemstones being the main industries in this part of Thailand? At Ban Roy Sib Kaw shop, I cut and polish my very own yellow sapphire. Or at least, I give it a fair go. However, more experienced (and more patient) hands than mine are needed to make it beautiful.
Have you experienced community-based tourism, in Thailand or elsewhere? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
Disclosure: I was a guest of TAT, the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Every bit of clumsy craftsmanship, every thought and opinion, are mine, all mine. As ever.