By Kitchana Lersakvanitchakul
AS PART of the efforts to forge closer ties between Thailand and her Asean neighbours, the government agency known as Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (Dasta) recently introduced a new tourism route that starts in Trat, the kingdom’s easternmost province, and leads to Koh Kong, the capital of Koh Kong province in Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains.
Museum of Trat
“We are responding to the government’s ‘Asean One Destination’ project, under which tourists can begin their trip in one country and finish in another,” says Dasta deputy director-general Dr Chuwit Mitrchob of the “Thailand Plus One” programme.
“Two of Thailand’s six special economic zones are in the Northeast and the East, and Trat and Loei share their borders with Cambodia and Laos respectively. Here in Trat, local people and the Khmer come and go across the border for trade but less for tourism. We feel this new route has a great deal of potential as it will encourage visitors to enjoy both sides of the border in one trip.
“The next step will extend as far as Sihanouville. Camdodia is currently working on making its transport links more convenient and our aim is to open routes that will take in four countries. Right now, we are focusing our efforts on involving communities on both sides of the border in order to build possibilities for accommodation, restaurants and souvenirs as well as tourist activities,” he continues.
The traditional lifestyles of the local people are on show at the Museum of Trat.
“I think of sustainable tourism development like a journey – one that never ends. We are in the initial stages of building tourism between Thailand and Cambodia. In the future, Europeans will be able to fly to Sihanouville and travel to Trat, which has also an airport. However, we don’t want any community to be totally reliant on the income from tourism. It’s an industry that is much too volatile and is affected by such unpredictable factors as political divides and natural disasters, as well as by the low season.
“Our philosophy is to create a happy community. We want the community to earn a decent income and also to be happy. The community must be strong enough to assume responsibility for itself and its visitors. We raise knowledge and awareness of marketing and services, as well as introduce community members to successful role models in other community-based tourism destinations in Nan, Loei, U-Thong and Sukhothai. Each community can share experiences, knowledge and at the same time learn lessons from the mistakes of each other,” says Dr Chuwit.
The magnificent Tatai Waterfall at Koh Kong
After the five-hour drive to Trat, our first stop is the Museum of Trat, which is housed in the original colonial-style city hall. Museum assistant Rungrote “Neng” Swangkarn guides us around the exhibits and explains Trat’s natural heritage and culture including the lifestyles of its people, archaeological finds and historically important events during the reign of King Chulalongkorn, among them the naval battle at Koh Chang.
Leaving the museum, we travel to nearby Wat Bupharam. Built in the mid-17th Century, the temple is home to an old wooden hall and murals of the early Rattanakosin period. The temple's museum houses ancient relics, Buddha images, and Chinese and European porcelain. We are particularly interested in the monk’s kutis, raised on stilts, that we are told were built between 1827 and 1832.
Dinner is a convivial affair and the chance to sample a variety of local delicacies including noodle soup with seafood and mantis shrimps and kanom jak – a dessert made of flour, coconut and sugar.
On the second day, we explore the fishing village of Mai Rut sub-district and learn about how the fishermen live. We also visit their crab bank. “We are promoting crab conservation to ensure that the crustacean continues to thrive. The fishermen bring female crabs with their eggs to the crab bank. When the eggs hatch, the baby crabs are released into the sea and the mother crab is returned to the owner,” says subdistrict headman Natsini Intaraprasert.
A Mai Rut villager prepares crabs.
“We are also promoting homestay accommodation in the village as a way of generating more income for the members of Mai Rut sub-district tourism group. Right now, there are two homes designed for homestay priced from Bt300 to Bt500 per person. Homestays have become popular, particularly among Thai tourists who come here to buy fresh seafood and want accommodation. Our group is providing accommodation, seafood and boats. We have natural resources in the mangrove forest, which is just five kilometres away. We invite visitors to attend the release of the baby crabs, tour the mangrove forest, dig for clams and fish for squid. Towards the end of the year we organise squid fishing near the shore, and in October, you can see many colourful jellyfish,” she adds.
Our trip continues with the short drive to the border at Ban Had Lek where we cross the Koh Kong Bridge into Cambodia. The fee is very reasonable: Bt250 one way for a bus and Bt100 for a car.
Our plan to visit Khun Chang Khun Phen stupa, which sits on a rock in the middle of the tributary, is thwarted when the driver tells us our double-decker coach is unable to go under the electric cable. Instead he drops us at the pier for a boat ride to Tatai Waterfall where we pay Bt500 for the boat hire – very reasonable at just Bt50 per person.
And it is well worth the money. Tatai Waterfall is a large rocky cascade located in a lush jungle on the Tatai river, about 20 kilometres east of Koh Kong province along National Road 48. The waterfall has two stages. The first stage is 5 to 6 metres high; the second stage 12 to 15 metres.
Unfortunately, time has run out and we are unable to visit Bang Kayak, the biggest mangrove forest in Asia that extends over an area 25,000 rai. Perhaps the lack of time has its merits though, |it ensures that we will return.