In Phuket, Community Tourism is Trumping Mass Tourism

Fostering eco-travel, Phuket's Bangtao community has teamed up with hotels, offering organic food and sustainable tours.

Please login to bookmark

Sonthaya Kongthip aka Tiki, head of Phuket’s Bangtao community, rides his motorised tricycle. Photo courtesy: Philipp Meier

Turkey-sized guinea fowl trigger a tik-tik-tik-alarm as I enter a hamlet in Phuket’s Bangtao neighbourhood. Roaming roosters crow for dominance, ducks quack to alert their peers, and I’m fooled into thinking a local shouts in her home. But she sings, loudly and happily, unperturbed by the open front door. It’s this rural idyll I’ve come here for after living on the island for two years.

Phuket is no longer “an impregnable jungle full of tigers, wild elephants, and rhinoceros,” as described by early visitors. But there’s more to this tourist magnet than palm-fringed coves, feathery cabaret shows with sparkling sequins, and Sino-colonial mansions telling the story of tin barons. Fostering eco-travel, the Bangtao community’s teamed up with hotels, offering organic food and sustainable tours that Sonthaya Kongthip aka Tiki, the head of community, leads.

 

Immersing Myself in Bangtao

Sitting on Tiki’s 150cc tricycle, I set off on a bumpy ride. My surroundings suggest I’m in some backwater in Isan, Thailand’s largest region bordered by the Mekong. Palms and banana trees sway in the howling wind, a smiling, hat-wearing Thai waves as we drive past, and buffalos graze on a verdant meadow the size of a football pitch.

Pulling over, we approach Bangtao Beach on foot. Catching the salty tang whipped up from breaking, thundering waves, I join fishers gathered around a table. If the conditions were better, they’d be unloading and selling white snappers, fresh barracudas, and glittering butterfish.

 

Also Read | Splendour at Sea in Koh Samui

 

While sea gypsies have lived on Phuket shores for generations, fishermen here don’t belong to any tribe. Still, they’ve adopted techniques like spearfishing, but usually fish with nets that hang vertically in the water and drift with the current. The darkly tanned, 58-year-old Ya-Ya’s done that for 30+ years. Drawing imaginary circles, he says something in Thai, and his mates fall about, slapping their thighs. Underneath the laughter lies trauma. Ya-Ya felt the tsunami’s aftermath for four months, but travellers haven’t taken his fishing trips since COVID-19 hit. Luckily, the Bangtao Community that the Tourism Authority of Thailand established in 2012 saves 10% of the tourist spend to help members.

“Ten years ago, everyone liked Koh Phi Phi. Now they visit our villages – for learning, talking, experience.” Not only Tiki is aware that travellers have changed. Wellness Travel Coach and Consultant Sahara Rose De Vore says, “Training and running a global network of travel professionals myself, I can tell you not one person reports deciding to take a trip just because a destination has a great hotel or beach to relax on. They travel for a lot more meaning.”

 

Exploring an 81-Year-Old Rubber Farmer’s Life

Smiling Thai kids run behind us as we drive to a rubber plantation. I smell incense, though 90% of Bangtao’s denizens aren’t Buddhists but Muslims. You’d be forgiven for thinking local Muslims embrace art deco. Concrete houses present an explosion of colours from seafoam- and mint-green to bright yellow, orange, blue, and pink. Visual evidence like mosques, temples, churches, and shrines shows that religious groups have lived here peacefully for centuries. Phuket’s multicultural jumble derives from trading and tin mining, an industry that emerged in the late Ayutthaya Period.

Still on Tiki’s motorised tricycle, I duck in time to save my head from close encounters with elongated banana leaves before meeting Lab, who’s harvested rubber since he was 10. Today isn’t ideal for rubber tapping because showers have damaged rubber crumbs and grooves in the bark. Yet Lab scores a tree for me, slanting a cut down from left to right. An odourless, milky liquid oozes out and drips into a cup.

 

In Phuket, Community Tourism Is Trumping Mass Tourism

Clockwise from top left: Fishermen unload their catch every morning at Soi Tua, weather permitting; Lab likes to drink black coffee out of a plastic bag; Boats moored at Bangtao beach; End the tour with a delicious meal at the beach. Photos courtesy: Philipp Meier; wiratho/Shutterstock (beach)

 

Rubber was introduced here in the early 20th century due to its soaring price. Rainforest blanketing almost the entire island had to make way for perfectly aligned rubber plantations. Many are still around today, stretching away over millions of deep green woodland acres. Locals started promoting Phuket when cheap plastic heralded the tin’s demise. Lab’s 53-year-old daughter Eumporn speaks with poignant clarity. “The first backpackers came in the 1970s. Everything beautiful.” Tiki adds Thailand’s tourism must change as humanity and nature are imbalanced. “Low-carbon and climate issues, deterioration of natural resources, pollution. And every country needs a medical map.” Phuket’s forging a new era with more sustainable tourism in mind; communities participate in decision-making processes at events like Phuket’s TTM+ 2022.

As it pours down, we repair to Lab’s house. Cold bursts of wind and sprinkling of rain come in through concrete block screens, and windows slam shut. Lab’s hens and Thai-Turkish ducks have stopped clucking and quacking. Instead, a bird so exotic pipes up that even Tiki can’t name it. And a greater coucal’s boop-boop-boops make me feel like I was in the jungle. While people associate Thailand with beach life, happiness runs deeper than holidays, a paradise in the real world and a sense of escape. Joy for Lab and Eumporn results from having all they need. Radiating positive energy, Eumporn says, “Hungry? We have khanom,” passing me a box with green, bite-sized sweets. Just as beneficial to Lab as tapping rubber is looking after his durian, mangosteen, jackfruit, and litchi-like longan trees. They provide income during the monsoon. Bangtao-born, he loves his simple life, and that’s contagious.

 

Learning from an Award-Winning Goat Farmer

A tour highlight is milking calf-sized, bleating Swiss-Thai goats, but Tiki takes me to the goat farmer’s home as it’s raining cats and goats. Unlike the ranting ducks, roosters, guinea fowl, and turkeys gobbling in approval, Manit welcomes me warmly. Clad in a shirt and sarong, he wears curly hair and speaks in a raspy voice. “Coffee? Sugar? One spoon?” Serving me a cup of joe, Manit offers yummy peanut flour biscuits. And a 10-year-old boy brings me chewy Thai caramel sweets the size of Lindor truffles.

Born in Phuket, now 44, Manit says, “I think Covid’s permanently changed tourism.” Formerly a cook, he goes, “Now hard work too, but happy.” His joie de vivre intrigues me. “What’s the most exciting part of your life?” Without hesitating, he responds, “Breeding!” He’s brought American, South African, Thai, and Swiss goats together since 2005. A white South African Boer has won an award at Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Cup.

He shows me around his grandmother’s home, where poultry smell prevails. Bright orange parrots chirp, and a hill mynah mimics my whistling with such clarity I can’t help laughing. Holding up an embellished wooden cage, Manit says, “Muslims like keeping pet birds, combining art and culture.”

As a Phuket News article says the Phuket tourism chief expects 10,000 tourists per day in Q4 2022, I ask, “How would you like to see Phuket’s tourism industry change?” “Have organic food and tours. Tourists yes, but interested in local culture.” He envisions Russians and Chinese to keep coming for sun, sand, and sea but says locals know this only benefits taxis, hotels, and tour operators. “Therefore, we’re taking tourism in a new, more sustainable direction.”

It’s been an enlightening tour, and community members have taught me kindness, hospitality, plus contentment with one’s possessions. Hearing a woman sing as though nobody’s around – Tiki banters, “Freestyle!” – I offer money for goat milk, coffee, and treats. Pointing to his chest, Manit declines, “Khon Thai jai dee” (Thai people are good-hearted).

 

Also Read | Thailand Quickie Guide: Cultural North or Beachy South?

 

To read more stories on travel, cities, food, nature, and adventure, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.

Essentials

Travellers interested in fishing trips can contact Ya-Ya at +66 (0) 99 186 78 72. Those who can’t speak Thai had better ring up Tiki at +66 (0) 62 228 78 96. On sunny days, people can end the tour on Bangtao Beach and eat fish they bought earlier, listening to waves lapping ashore. The community also offers camping adventures near Phuview’s gushing, single-tier waterfall feeding a milky-grey pool – red jungle crabs’ habitat. And culture buffs can stay at Manit’s home for up to a month. “But no AC,” Manit warns, “only fan.”

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

  • Philipp Meier is a Phuket-based travel writer passionate about Thai culture and wandering off Thailand's well-trodden tourist trail. His work has been published in the South China Morning Post, Culture Trip, BootsnAll.com, GoNOMAD.com, Bookaway.com, Noumena.pro, among others. You can find him at Writer Philipp Meier.

COMMENTS

Please Login to comment
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE