The tourism industry has been a driving engine of Thailand’s economic growth since the 1990s. In 2018, more than 38.28 million tourists visited the kingdom and there was an increase of 4.24% to 39.8 million in 2019.
Thailand has a long list of must-see places and must-do activities for every target group. But the overwhelming number of tourists, although a boon for the economy, also cast an impact on the community and environment in several popular sites. As such, the Thai authorities are urging tourists to visit lesser-known destinations to divert the massive crowds and income to these hidden gems.
A few years back, the Tourism Authority of Thailand launched a campaign dubbed the “12 Hidden Gems” to promote 12 cities that were usually not on the holiday bucket list. Another year, it selected the Thai way of life as the theme to convince more tourists, both Thais and foreigners, to go local and appreciate Thailand in a more authentic and less touristic atmosphere.
Thailand Today’s editorial team brings you to the provinces of Chanthaburi and Samut Prakan to explore riverside communities that have retained their old charm and local characteristic, which are powerful magnets that can draw visitors from near and far.
Chanthaburi is on the eastern coast of Thailand, about a 2-hour drive further east from Pattaya. Due to its far distance from Bangkok, which makes it quite tiring for a day trip, the province has earned its fame from fruits and pepper more than from its beaches and tourist sites. However, the old town of Chanthaburi along the bank of the Chanthaburi River is an overlooked spot for those who crave for nostalgic memories.
Imagine rows of low-rise wooden houses and Colonial Era style buildings along the river with a Chinese shrine brightly painted in red at the far end. The elegant towers of a French Gothic church on the opposite side perfectly complement the multicultural elements of Chinese, Vietnamese and French influence on the landscape. During its heyday over a century ago, this was the busiest commercial district in the province where villagers from afar came to trade their goods and crafts with rare commodities from Bangkok.
A manifestation of its past glory is the house of Luang Rajamaitri, the first person to grow rubber in the Eastern region. This 150-year-old 2-storey wooden structure was the residence of one of the most prominent merchants of Chanthaburi. The house is currently functioning as a historic inn and community museum and has become a model for architectural conservation that goes along with community tourism.
This is how it began. When Luang Rajamaitri’s house was in a deteriorating state and required renovation, a sustainable solution was the ideal option. So, his descendants permitted the architectural team to renovate the house. At the same time, a social enterprise to run the house as an inn was set up with people in the community as the shareholders. This model enables the locals to have ownership in a conservation project ensuring that this house will be loved and cared by the community in the long term.
Today, the ground floor of this historic inn is open as a small museum with exhibition of photographs and household items from the time of Luang Rajamaitri. Visitors stepping inside will be brought back to the days when boats were the only means of transport, and the riverside market was full of traders and shoppers roaming around to get deals done.
Things have changed much and the old town of Chanthaburi has lost its function as a trading centre. The market moved to a new location, and the old town along Sukhapiban Road became a sleepy quarter full of decaying houses. Luckily, the recent trend of community tourism that stirred up the quest for charming communities helped revive Chanthaburi’s old town as well. Many residents came back to restore their houses or lease them to be used as hostels, restaurants, or chic cafes by the river. It has also become a favourite location to shoot films and advertisements.
In several towns, the surge of tourism has affected the daily life of the locals. Traffic jams, parking chaos, garbage problem, and overcrowded tourists are some of the unexpected and undesirable experiences. For Chanthaburi, community members have decided to keep things as they were as much as possible.
“We prefer to keep our usual way of life. Once, the authorities tried to develop the area for commercial activities, encouraging us to sell products, especially local products with added value. The municipality set up a weekend market on the road in front of our houses”, says one of the house owners on Sukhapiban Road, who is a descendant of Mrs. Thin Pokabal, a leading textile trader in the late 19th century. “Eventually we came to a conclusion that it’s not what we want, and there were too many people as well. We’d rather set up our own stalls once a year during Christmas when the church has celebrations. That’s already fine for us.”
Chanthaburi has had many Vietnamese Christian migrants since the early 19th century. Moreover, the province was under French rule for a brief period during 1893-1904 after Siam had a territorial dispute over the left bank of the Mekong River. Siam had to surrender her claim and pay 1 million Francs and 3 million Baht after the French blockaded the Chao Phraya River with gunboats. When Siam had not fulfilled the demand, France kept Chanthaburi as collateral for 11 years, so traces of French influence like Christianity and the Catholic church are still evident. This part of history makes Chanthaburi unique from other provinces and could be used as a tourism marketing gimmick.
Thin Pokabal lived through the days when Chanthaburi was returned to Siam. Her great-granddaughter still keeps a document issued by the French Consul stating that she is under French protection. Textiles were a regulated product, so its trading had to be mandated by the French authorities. She was an affluent trader of textiles, and her house lies a few hundred metres from the house of Luang Rajamaitri. The fifth generation still lives in the house and keeps the place alive.
Travelling around 200 kilometres from Chanthaburi, we arrive at Phra Pradaeng in Samut Prakan province, another riverside community just across the Chao Phraya River from Bangkok. It became well-known when the Bhumibol Bridge was built to connect Bangkok with Phra Pradaeng to ease traffic and a canal was constructed as a short cut for the water flow in the river. Nearby the area is a dense green zone nicknamed the ‘lung of the capital’.
In recent years, visitors have flocked to the community to wander in the Bang Nam Phueng Market full of local goodies and foodies, or to bike along the alleys in the orchard and park.
Not far from the market is the Bang Nam Phueng Community, where some residents have opened their homes as a learning centre for visitors. This is another model of tourism with local participation that demonstrates how the Sufficiency Economy Philosophy (SEP) could be applied in action. In March 2018, the Thailand International Cooperation Agency (TICA) organised a training course on the SEP and brought participants to Bang Nam Phueng to gain first-hand and hands-on experience.
The first stop was the Baan Thoop Hom Samunprai (Aromatic Herbal Joss Stick House), an expert in joss stick making and ‘tie and dye textile’. Tie and dye is a dyeing technique that creates amazing motifs on the textile by tying knots on the cloth according to the desired pattern before dyeing. Demonstrators are family members who make their own products but spare time to run workshops for curious and interested guests.
Rolling, smashing, and tying the cloth are the first steps that participants joyfully experiment with sounds of giggles and selfies from time to time.
“This is a new experience for me” says Osborne from Vanuatu. “And I have something for my wife, too!” he concluded while dyeing his piece of art. When the fun was over, the rope was untied, and the cloth unfolded. One word explains clearly how the happy reaction was. Wow!
Less than 5 minutes away on foot is another lovely house in the orchard and a paradise for massage fans. The star product of Baan Look Prakob Tanyapuet is a massage compress ball, which has won a nationwide competition for a locally developed or improvised product.
Participants of this workshop can try using the compress balls on their own body while the demonstrators explain the basic principle of Thai massage and the various positions to heal different parts of the body. The compress ball is filled with grains like mung beans and Job’s tears mixed with some herbal ingredients to enhance the healing and relieving effects. It must be heated before use. How? Microwave!
Once heated, the compress ball combined with physical massage will have an almost magical potent to relieve aches and pains on the neck, shoulders, back, or anywhere else.
Judging from the number of people cycling around, strolling in the orchard, shopping in the Bang Nam Phueng Market and attending the local workshop, the trend of local tourism appears promising. Development that opens the window for local participation and respects their decision is a sustainable path for sustainable development. This way, the local residents will have a shared sense of ownership and conviction to develop their community. Chanthaburi and Bang Nam Phueng are just a couple of showcase examples of how to drive tourism towards supplementing community development. There are several more unseen destinations in every corner of the kingdom waiting to be discovered.
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