With its talcum powder-soft, white sand beaches, turquoise sea and exquisite food, Thailand is at the top of many a holiday wishlist.
The fourth most popular holiday destination in the world, the country received a record 38.3 million tourists in 2018 and collected $62 billion in tourism revenue.
But how many of those visitors get the authentic experience of daily life in the country?
In 2012 Somsak Boonsam established Local Alike, a company which promotes “community-based tourism.” Via its online platform, Local Alike offers tourists the chance to leave the resorts and visit over 100 communities, from hill tribes to fishing villages.
His aim is to address the current inequality by generating employment and funneling tourism dollars “to the people who need it most,” while giving tourists the chance to “have new experiences and make personal connections with local people.”
CNN set out to visit three Local Alike community guides and hear their stories.
Spirit of the slum
Chan Kaithong lives in Bangkok’s largest slum. Near the city’s port, but just a stone’s throw from luxury shopping malls and hotels, the Khlong Toei district is home to 100,000 people.
The slum has a terrible reputation. A project sponsored by the United Nations Drug Control Programme in 2000 reported that Khlong Toei is “likely the most developed drug market in Bangkok.” Kaithong says many “external” Bangkok residents are too scared to enter and taxi drivers sometimes refuse to ferry passengers in.
But, she says, the drug problem has vastly improved since the government installed CCTV and started arresting sellers and providing treatment for addicts.
Kaithong has spent her whole life living in the district. Like all the other houses in the 1970s, her one-room childhood home was made of wood. Fires were a frequent hazard, she says, and since then, most wooden houses have been replaced by brick and cement constructions – each measuring a tiny 20 feet by 13 feet.
Despite their straitened circumstances, many of Khlong Toei’s residents are hard-working, says Kaithong. While showing tourists around the slum’s ramshackle alleyways, she takes them to visit carpenters who buy cheap pallets from the port and upcycle them to make wooden furniture. Visitors also eat lunch at a local restaurant and try their hand at making flower garlands – one of the slum’s cottage industries. “It’s perfectly safe for tourists in the daytime,” she says.
Kaithong says she loves her community and applauds the spirit of residents who are striving for a better life. Some have managed to break the cycle of poverty by sending their children to university, while others volunteer to clean the streets.
“I’m very proud of where I come from.”
Warms the cockles
Technically, Sorn Phuengsai – known to everyone as Uncle Sorn – lives within Bangkok’s boundary, but his village feels so far removed from the crowded, noisy city, that you would never guess. Three miles from the sea, his house in Santor lies on a network of saltwater canals lined by mangrove trees and fishermen’s homes. There are no streets here – all travel is by boat.
At the age of 76, Uncle Sorn is stooped and moves slowly, but he holds down two jobs – as a cockle and prawn farmer, and a tour guide.
Uncle Sorn says that although he rebuilt the house, he has lived on the same plot of land for his whole life. The youngest of seven children, he was adopted by his aunt who was single and childless. On leaving school at 12 he went to work, helping his aunt to run her salt farm.
The pair filled the ponds at the back of the house with seawater, waited for the water to evaporate, and mined the salt left behind. “It was very dry and dusty,” Sorn recalls. “When I was young, my face was always dirty.”
When the profits from salt farming dried up, Sorn reinvented his business as a prawn and cockle farm which, he says, was “much more successful.” It’s hard work though – Sorn collects small cockles from the sea, transfers them to his ponds, waits 8 months for them to grow and then scoops them out of the water by hand, to sell to traders. He has to keep a constant lookout for predatory snails which try to prize their way into cockles’ tightly sealed shells and eat them.
Tourists – who visit for the day to relax, enjoy a seafood lunch and try their hand at shellfish farming – have no problem catching the cockles, which swim free in the water, but the prawns are another matter: “They are so fast,” says Uncle Sorn. “And they jump!”
Mud, mud, glorious mud
When Thaksin Minman was 40, his wife died. With four children to raise, and desperate for money, the former motorcycle taxi operator resorted to dealing drugs.
Shunned by the local community in Baan Laem, a fishing village on the east coast of southern Thailand, Minman hit rock bottom when he was arrested. A policeman admonished him, saying that by selling drugs to teenagers, he was destroying the future of the country.
“Those words changed my life forever,” he says.
Minman decided to clean up his act by pursuing a tourism venture, but friends and relatives just laughed at him. “Nobody believed in me,” he says.
In 2012, his luck changed when he met Fud Himma – who jumped on board without hesitation. As business partners the two men complement each other – Minman is excitable and candid; Himma is quieter and more self-contained. “He’s better than me in every way,” says Minman, “but he never disagrees with me. He’s my moral support.”
The pair’s mission is to lift the whole community out of poverty. To do that, they have devoted themselves to sustainable living.
The first step was to persuade locals to stop chopping down mangrove trees for use in construction. The mangroves are a breeding ground for crabs – the village’s main source of income – and they bring in tourists. They also asked the fishing boats to donate a pregnant crab or two from each haul, explains Himma.
The crabs are kept in a tank – safe from fishing nets – until they are ready to spawn. Visiting tourists then help return the crabs to the sea, and also plant mangrove cuttings.
Buoyed by the success of this project, Minman started casting around for new ideas. Three years ago, he was struck by one – literally.
“After planting mangroves, I took tourists to wash in the sea,” he says. Rather than getting clean, the group scooped up mud from the sea floor and threw it at each other. Wading into battle, Minman offered his face as a target. “When I washed the mud off later, I noticed how soft my skin felt,” he says.
Laboratory analysis revealed that the creamy, gray-blue mud is rich in minerals, including silicon, that benefit skin and hair. The “natural spa experience,” that Minman and Himma now offer, has proved so popular that they have launched their own line of mud-based beauty products, including soap, a face mask and a hair treatment.
As tourists have flocked to Baan Laem, homestays have cropped up around the village, transforming the fortunes of locals. Minman says he feels immensely proud of his achievements – “nobody ignores me anymore.”