By Pattarawadee Saengmanee
The Nation Weekend
IF YOU’VE never been to the Klong Toei district of Bangkok – most but not all of which constitutes Thailand’s biggest slum – your chance has arrived to see it as a tourist.
It is not at all what you might have been led to expect.
Klong Toei is among the several dozen communities across the country where tourism is being promoted so that people can see different ways of life and different aspects of culture in this diverse land.
The local barber is usually busy thanks to haircuts priced at an unbeatable Bt10.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand and travel agencies Local Alike, KTC World, AirAsia Journey D and Take Me Tour have mapped out 25 “eco-cultural” tours for a campaign called “Once as a Tourist”, part of the “Amazing Thailand Unseal Local” project.
In all, there are 42 communities in 15 provinces awaiting visitors for quick hops or three-day homestays, each place offering its own unique kind of fun and chances to learn.
Baan Laem in Nakhon Si Thammarat has “Once as a Mud Man” that involves a pleasant cruise to Ao Thong Kham (Golden Bay) for a mud bath, cooking class and a hike through a mangrove forest.
Baan Nong San and Na Chueng in Sakon Nakhon have “Once as a Designer” with workshops on indigo dying techniques and traditional silk weaving.
For “Once as a Hill Tribe”, Baan To Phae in Mae Hong Son dresses guests in Tai Yai apparel, the better to explore the local history and have fun making handicrafts.
Tourism Authority Governor Yuthasak Supasorn says the aim is to promote sustainable tourism in lesser-known communities and help their residents earn extra income.
Apart from free treatments every Monday, the health centre in the Lock 4-5-6 community features a playground for kids.
“Today’s younger travellers want to find new experiences, not just stay in a hotel,” he says, “and the ‘Once as a Tourist’ campaign will meet that demand.
“It will be a channel that connects travellers with communities and give villagers a chance to promote their local wisdom and way of life, while travellers will have the opportunity to sample new things and get closer to nature.”
Bangkok’s Klong Toei – for so long avoided by tourists because of its notoriety over drug abuse and other crimes – has a rosier aspect these days. Its “Once as a Hero” programme entails a 90-minute walking tour of three communities within the district, with the curious names 70 Rai, Lock1-2-3 and Lock 4-5-6.
Visitors stroll along a railway line that once transported freight in and out of the port.
Klong Toei’s jumble of ramshackle housing sprawls across 400 rai belonging to the Port Authority of Thailand and is home to about 3,800 families.
Sanchai Yumsan, head of a children-and-youth project for the Duang Prateep Foundation, lives there and serves as a guide and is quick to dismiss the idea that this is Bangkok’s unholy underbelly.
“It’s no longer the dark side of the capital,” he says. “People think we’re still all rude, dangerous troublemakers, but everything has changed. There’s no drug trafficking here anymore. We want to invite tourists into our homes so they can learn about the ways of our community. We guarantee their safety!”
The district’s 20,000 inhabitants mostly work as labourers and rent their homes on a yearly basis for Bt1,500 to Bt2,000.
Kids can find the answers they seek in the books at the Miraibrary, which also hosts fun activities.
With the help of Local Alike, the Klong Toei tours began in 2015 and have proved popular with government officials and university students, both local and foreign, who are involved in or studying community development.
Another guide, Natthanun Sae Lee, 54, says residents have been negotiating with the Port Authority for a decade about encroachment issues. The authority wants everyone moved out by 2021, so they have to find a new place to settle. “We hope they’ll allocate new space or provide some other solution,” he says.
Forty sois criss-cross 70 Rai, with groceries, beauty salons and eateries seemingly on every corner. Right at the heart of the community is the Chao Po Phra Pradaeng Shrine, built in 1985, where residents beg favours of the spirits.
Residents of Bangkok’s densely populated Klong Toei district frequent the Chao Po Phra Pradaeng Shrine when in need of a little spiritual help.
A short walk from there is the headquarters of the Sukkha Asia Foundation, which welcomes visitors to its Miraibrary on the ground floor. It’s a creative space for youngsters and has thousands of educational books in English, Burmese, Cambodian and Thai. Volunteers lead free classes in storytelling class.
At Duang Prateep Kindergarten, the little ones are learning to meditate. More than 200 youngsters spread through seven mixed-age classrooms are being given a Montessori education, which emphasises self-directed activities, hands-on learning and collaborative play.
In the community designated as Lock 4-5-6, students crowd into a barbershop for Bt10 haircuts. A health centre doles out free treatments every Monday.
“Grandma” Prachum Prasert makes a living crafting ribbon strips for flower garlands.
A stroll along a disused railway track takes us to the home of Prachum Prasert, 74, who everyone calls Grandma. Cheerful and friendly, she shows us how to make bands of coloured ribbon to wrap around flower garlands. She’s been making them to order for five years, earning Bt60 for every clutch of 100 ribbons.
The tour ends in Lock 1-2-3, proceeding along narrow alleys that offer up-close glimpses of the residents’ daily lives and ending at a grocery store ready with refreshing drinks.
The package tours across Thailand range in price from Bt1,500 to Bt4,000 and can be booked at Local Alike, KTC World, AirAsia Journey D, Take Me Tour, Thai Ticketmajor and SiamRise Travel.
Find out more at www.TourismThailand.org/UnsealLocal.