On the edge of Bangkok and alternative travel
For the amount of green space afforded each denizen, Bangkok routinely places last on the list of urban centers in Southeast Asia, with only a mere meter or two per human, compared to a capacious 50-plus for the leader, which is usually Singapore. But in the desert of concrete that is the Thai capital there are a few oases of greenery, such as the overpraised Bang Krachao and the unsung Bang Khuntian.
The latter resides on the border of Samut Sakhon and Samut Songkhram provinces, only a few kilometers from the Gulf of Thailand. Because of its geographical position, this district of the capital has been blessed with a cornucopia of marine creatures, birds like Asian open bill storks and red kites, along with the city’s last tracts of mangrove forest and even some crab-eating macaques.
But it sure isn’t the easiest part of the city for visitors to navigate. Even if you’re a fluent Thai speaker your attempts to arrange a boat to explore the waterways could easily founder. So I threw my oar in with Local Alike, a community-based tourism outfit in Bangkok, which has put together a popular program called “A Day as a Fisherman.”
The company, co-founded by Somsak ‘Pai’ Boontam and Noon Pakavaleetorn back in 2012, has been a trailblazer in their field, bagging some hefty awards for social enterprises in Thailand and Singapore. On their tours (now numbering 60 across the entire country) some 70 percent of the price per PAX is ploughed back into these largely agricultural communities—so often dependent on the caprices of Mother Nature—to form a revenue stream that helps to keep the villagers’ heads above water during hard times in dire straits.
Pai knows this turf well. Growing up in a poor, rice-farming community on the plains of Isaan, in a household without electricity, he later worked in Germany to finance trips through “rural parts of India, Myanmar and Laos, and came to realize that tourism could be an important force for not only employment and income, but a source of hope for these communities,” he said.
It’s also a source of entertainment and amusement for the likes of Uncle Son, our boatman and guide for the day. On his long-tail boat he took us out for a canal tour of Bang Khuntian, with its green water and placid vibe. After coming from the heavy metal clamor of Bangkok, via train and a songthaew (pickup truck taxi), this was a lullaby—the only thing disturbing the peace were a few other long-tail boats motoring past, leaving chevrons of foamy water to dissolve in their wakes.
Among Thai foodies, the district’s most appetizing attraction is its seafood restaurants perched on stilts. Bangkok Seaview is the most renowned and, complete with English menus, the most farang-friendly too. It even has its own pier and a fleet of long-tail boats to bring you on a 15-minute jaunt to this floating smorgasbord.
Uncle Son whisked us past Bangkok Seaview to visit his ramshackle shellfish farm which has a dock made out of plastic barrels roped together and boarded over with planks. I have had a few of these “local experiences” tours before, apprenticing as a rice farmer up north in Sukhothai province and learning how to cast fishing nets with Muslim fishermen in the mangrove forests of Phang-nga province. But this was a different kind of local experience. As usual, you can join in the good muddy fun too.
Fully clothed and with headgear to ward off the pulsating sunbeams, the shellfish collectors wade into the neck-high water to scoop up the cockle shells, a local delicacy called hoy kang luak, and put them in a little pouch they carry, tossing the juveniles back. The shellfish are ready to be harvested when they’re around eight months old. Uncle Son showed us how to determine the mollusc’s age by counting the whorls on the shell.
The shellfish collecting was the last act in a gentle drama that began with a trip to a local school and learning center for mangroves where an older lady showed us how to tie-dye fabrics in the local style, with local color, only a few shades of brown, and no psychedelic plumage. They’re not making a fashion statement either; this kind of tie-dying is how they strengthen and preserve their fishing nets.
Enhancing the community-based tourism vibe was a lunch break at Uncle Son’s house for some local dishes prepared by his wife served in that communal Thai way which turns every meal into a family affair. I’ve been hearing backpackers prattle on about the difference between tourists and travelers for many years. The traveler supposedly lives like a local. The tourist lives like, well, a tourist. But times and tourism have changed enormously. Now most of the backpackers in Thailand are on package tours of Khaosan Road, the Full Moon Party, and hill-tribe villages of the Golden Triangle, whereas the higher-end ‘tourists’ are seeking out more and more of these kinds of “local experiences.”
For me, it’s the difference between traveling for the sake of escapism and traveling to find out how other peoples really live, and eat, and sleep, and bathe. Granted, lurching around in the mud sweating like a suckling pig on a grill is not everyone’s idea of a great day out, but after being immersed in this fisherman’s world, chances are you won’t be complaining too much about the slow Wi-Fi in your hotel.
This ain’t tourism in its shallow, old-school definition of sheer escapism. This is cultural and ecological immersion in local lifestyles.
Billed as a “travel social enterprise”, you can book a tour by visiting Local Alike’s website at: www.localalike.com