Community Based Tourism and Tsunami Relief in Thailand
by Bret Walberg
Andaman Discoveries, in Southern Thailand, offers customized volun-tour trips that allow socially conscious travelers to become actively engaged in the villages’ community development process, using the principles of community-based tourism.
Andaman Discoveries operates out of Kuraburi, a small town along the Andaman coast two hours north of Phuket that is the starting point for tours to Koh Surin National Park. You can take a tour that lasts from a single day to a whole week, or participate in longer-term voluntourism projects, during which time you will visit villages such as Ban Talae Nok, Tung Nam Dam, and Phak Triam. In these authentic little towns and villages their traditional coastal livelihoods are unspoiled.
The villages of the North Andaman suffered a heavy loss of life in the tsunami, with half the villages being physically removed from the map. Out of the disaster new opportunities were sought and the North Andaman Tsunami Relief (NATR) organization, the parent of Andaman Discoveries, helped one village start the Ban Talae Nok soap cooperative. Two years later, the business is growing and employs 15 of the village ladies, providing a welcome boost of employment, self-empowerment and income. Seeing and hearing the employees discuss the cooperative imparts a sense of the personal impact of the tsunami and the rebuilding that has happened since then.
A contribution to the village Community Fund, included in each of the trips, means that all villagers benefit from having voluntourists and tourists in their community, not only those villagers directly engaged in Community-based Tourism. Some past projects for voluntourists have included teaching English, hospitality training with homestay host families, light construction work, planting community gardens, beach clearance and mangrove forest restoration.
Andaman Discoveries offers a range of activities, such as soap making with the villagers, rubber tapping, fishing, hiking, snorkeling and cooking traditional meals. There are a host of activities to choose from to fit the interests and fitness levels of every visitor. One of the more active highlights includes climbing Eagle Mountain. Like each of Andaman Discoveries’ activities, this two-hour hike is led by a local guide, supported by a translator, who accompanies the group for the duration of the tour to ensure mutual exchange. On the way to the top the guide will stop the group for talks and discussions at several points of interest, so that this interpretive hike imparts much wisdom about the biodiversity and natural history of the area.
In terms of accommodations, visitors can stay in a homestay during their time in the
villages, or take advantage of the variety of accommodations Andaman Discoveries offers to suit all tastes; but spending time in the home of your host gives you a unique glimpse into the relaxed lifestyle of their extended family culture. You eat in the traditional family style, circled by your hosts and savoring the array of simple, delicious local dishes. The culinary adventurers can partake in the whirlwind of preparation and cooking in the kitchen in order to help produce dinner.
Bodhi Garrett, who founded both NATR and Andaman Discoveries, is proud to relate that several recent visitors have even gone so far as to say that their tour provided a “life-changing experience”.
It feels good to know that your activities are helping to steer the ship of development in a way that values and honors these natural areas and traditional lifestyles. It also feels good to travel this way, and participate in such an authentic experience, which is also helping restore the lives and livelihoods of those affected by the tsunami.
It’s a view of the real Thailand that is well worth experiencing.