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A Tale of Two Communities : the development of community tourism of Chantaburi and Bang Namphung

 

By Thailand Today Editorial Team

The tourism industry has been a driving engine of Thailand’s economic growth since the 1990s. In 2017, more than 35 million tourists visited the kingdom and another 37.5 million is expected to arrive this year. 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 impact on the community and environment in several popular sites. Thai authorities are urging tourists to visit lesser known destinations to divert the massive crowd and income to these hidden gems.

A few years back, the Tourism Authority of Thailand launched a campaign dubbed “12 Forbidden (to Miss) Cities” to promote 12 cities that are usually not on the holiday bucket list. Another year, it selected Thai ways 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 Chantaburi and Samut Prakarn to explore riverside communities that could retain their old charm and local characteristic, which are powerful magnets that could draw visitors from near and far.

Chantaburi is in the eastern coast of Thailand, about 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 Chantaburi along the bank of the Chantaburi 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 in the far end. The elegant towers of a French gothic church on the opposite side perfectly complement the multi-cultural elements of Chinese, Vietnamese and French influence to the landscape. During its heyday over a century ago, this was the busiest commercial district in the province where villagers from afar come 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 Chantaburi. The house is currently functioning as a historic inn and community museum and became a model for architectural conservation that goes along with community tourism.

This is how it began. When Luang Rajamaitri’s house was in deteriorating state and requires 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 shareholder. This model enables locals to have ownership in the conservation project, ensuring that this house will be loved and care 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. 


Photo credit : Atchara Chaiyasan, TICA

Things have changed much and the old town of Chantaburi has lost its function as a trading center. The market has 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 Chantaburi 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 also became a favourite location to shoot film and advertisement.

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 experience. For Chantaburi, 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.”

Chantaburi has many Christian Vietnamese migrants since 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. Siam had to surrender her claim and pay 1 million francs and 3 million baht after the French blockaded the Chao Phraya with gunboats. While Siam hasn’t fulfilled the demand, France kept Chantaburi as collateral for 11 years so traces of French influence like Christianity and the catholic church are still evident. This part of history makes Chantaburi unique from other provinces and could be used as a tourism marketing gimmick.  

Thin Pokabal lived through the days when Chantaburi was returned to Siam. Her great granddaughter still keeps a document issued by the French Consul stating that she is under French protection.  Textile was a regulated product so its trading must be mandated by the French authorities. She was an affluent trader of textile and her house lies a few hundred meters from the house of Luang Rajamaitri. The fifth generation still lives in the house and keeps the place alive.

Traveling around 200 kilometers from Chantaburi, we arrive at Phra Pradaeng in Samut Prakarn Province, another riverside community just across the Chao Phraya 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 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 Namphung 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 Namphung Community, where some residents have opened their homes as learning center for visitors. This is another model of tourism with local participation that demonstrates how Sufficiency Economy Philosophy (SEP) could be applied in action. In March 2018, the Thailand International Cooperation Agency (TICA) organized a training course on SEP and brought participants to Bang Namphung to gain first-hand and hands-on experience.

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 product but spare time to run workshops for curious and interested guests.

Rolling, smashing and tying the cloth are the first steps that participants were joyfully experimenting, with sounds of giggle 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 massage compress ball   which has won a nationwide competition for locally developed or improvised product.

Participants of this workshop could 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 tear mixed with some herbal ingredients to enhance healing and relieving effects. It must be heated before use. How? Microwave!

Once heated, the compress ball combined with physical massage would have almost magical potent to relief aches and pains of the neck, shoulder, back or anywhere else.

 

Judging from the number of people cycling around, strolling in the orchard, shopping in the Bang Namphung 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, local residents will have a shared sense of ownership and conviction to develop their community. Chantaburi and Bang Namphung 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.

Ready to plan your next destination?

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