It is possible to travel in Thailand and never interact with Thais.
I’ve heard the same about the US. That international visitors want to interact with local Americans and authentically experience our way of life, but they end up spending an entire holiday nattering only with people employed within the tourism and hospitality industry.
And frankly, it takes some work to get off the beaten track.
Right now, my boys are climbing on our bungalow and playing with a little Thai girl who is about three years old. They are all tossing around an old coconut and laughing wildly. The boys have asked her several times in Thai what her name is, but she just giggles and touches their hair. They are calling her Hit-hit, mainly because she is hitting them and delightedly yelling the word “hit!”
We are living with a Thai family on an island in southern Thailand. Arranging the homestay took some work, and we are staying with a man named Bao, who is our host father and the President of this island.
Bao told me that his island, Ko Yao Noi, is 95% Muslim and the primary work here is fishing and working with rubber trees. About fifteen years ago, a massive fishing trawler parked off the shores of Ko Yao Noi and started dredging and netting every fish its path. The local fishermen watched helplessly as the giant trawler scooped up buckets of their fish for export to China. Bao said the fishing grounds dried up, the coral bleached white and died, and even the mangrove swamps suffered from the environmental havoc started by the fishing trawler.
Bao, also a fisherman, started talking with his friends, first during humid afternoons while they tried to unsuccessfully net crabs or anything to feed their families. Then, with people at community centers and the local mosque. He asked, why can’t we preserve our way of life? Why can’t we be in charge of what happens on our island?
Bao rallied the people of the island, and they successfully expelled the trawlers and turned the island’s shores into a designated marine park, with only local fisherman allowed to fish under new regulations from the island’s government. Slowly, the fish returned to the coral and laid eggs within the roots of the mangrove trees.
With fishing restored, Bao secondarily realized that it wouldn’t be long before Ko Yao Noi could suffer from the same unchecked tourism development that had overrun several nearby islands. Islands within twenty minutes by boat have international airports with non-stop flights from abroad, their beaches are filled with unregulated dive shops, there shores are crowded with miles of foreign-run resorts built on fragile land, and, being Thailand, there are red light districts catering to every late-night whim.
Bao talked with everyone in the community who would listen, and finally found a sympathetic ear from a group of study abroad students from New York.
Working with Bao and the local community, the students explained the basics of sustainable tourism and the idea of community homestays for tourists from an American perspective. Eco-tourism was a popular idea for the local people who had already worked so hard to preserve their environment. The families were awestruck that tourists would want to come and visit the island as is. That visitors would want to eat local food, stay with traditional families, and participate in the way of life that already exists.
For his initiative, Bao was recognized by the King ten years ago for leading the Thai community on his island to embrace sustainable tourism and homestays. National Geographic Traveler gave him an award for the same work, and he built a small, thatched-roofed community center on a corner of his rubber farm.
With this as the backdrop, we have been sitting in Bao’s kitchen for the past week, learning Thai, pantomiming with him and his wife, and eating all sorts of Thai food. I cover my head with a scarf and wear long-sleeves and pants, and Bao eats at another table, both because of his Muslim faith. I think the food is delicious, but the boys are struggling with the sheer foreignness of it. It is spicy and “weird.”
But, this is why it is worthwhile to do a homestay. Big resorts often smooth out the ruggedness and rawness of travel. It is vanilla and simple to slide into clean sheets after speaking with an English-speaking staff. It is easier to be shielded from the jagged edges of Thailand.
Instead, we are sharing a table with Bao and his wife, Uni, and trying to learn the Thai names for all of the new food – the sticky rice, the spicy mussels, the sweet crab, the strange fish, and the fresh fruit. Roam has learned he loves fried sting ray. And Zane likes raw squid.
We quickly learned that our main transport would be via moped, just like everyone else on the island. And, that doesn’t mean one person per moped. Instead, the Thais pile on each moped with a balancing act of groceries, children, people and laughter. Roam and Zane have both become adept at crouching between the legs of the driving adult and peering over the handlebars as the rest of us pile on the saddle – four people for the ride.
The boys were in a children’s parade and afterwards watched the Olympics of the island. The boys helped me teach an English class for the local primary school, with all the fifth graders playing Simon Says and doing the Hokey Pokey with us. We have been invited to go with Bao’s nephew, a local fisherman, twice to help him fish. Zane learned to haul fishing nets, fish with a hand-line, and steer a long-tail boat. Roam learned to throw in the buoys, rubber-band a crab’s pincers, and untangle sharp shells from the nets.
Yes, we’ve also had long days of relaxing under palm trees, snorkeling in the turquoise waters, biking languidly around the island, and drinking fresh mango shakes. But, the memories we will hold are those of the people, the Muslim women calling, “beautiful babies!” as the boys walk by, the call to prayer from the nearby mosque at dusk, the generosity of Bao’s community as they have welcomed us.
And, don’t get me wrong, a resort has its luxurious time and place. In fact, we are heading to one for the next three-days to reward the boys for their week of patience and openness. They can’t wait for a pizza. As Zane asked when eating a plate of chicken and rice for breakfast, “why can’t we just stay in a place with a swimming pool like normal people?”
And as we left the pier this afternoon with a plastic bag full of fish that Zane had caught on a hand-line, an American backpacker stopped me and asked me for directions. “Don’t you live here?” He asked, gesturing to the Thai people who were interacting with us. I explained the homestay and he said, “Man, I wish I had thought of that.”