Voluntouring in Thailand
Participate in a Community-Driven Ecotourism Project
I do not eat anything with eyes. And, yes, that does include potatoes, though more out of a general distaste for the tuber than my refusal to consume creatures that can witness their own demise. For years this dietary principle has served me well, so you can imagine my horror when young Yat ripped the front claws off a netted crab and handed over his hard-shell body with its still-live wriggling limbs to take home and cook for dinner.
This was my welcome to Baan Thalae Nok, a small village north of Phuket. I had arrived that afternoon to explore life in a rural community and do a bit of “voluntouring” with the help of Andaman Discoveries, a community-driven eco-tourism project created at the request of the villagers. As a volunteer, I would participate in a series of hands-on activities: mangrove reforestation, beach cleaning, and English teaching.
I had hoped for something raw, I did not realize how delightfully organic the experience would be.
Baan Talae Nok is one of those rare self-sustaining communities that still live off the land. It houses a culture that has not amended itself to the demands of tourism.
Sensing the rarity of the situation I was in, I reluctantly gripped the crab between the thumb and forefinger of my right hand, as if by holding it delicately I might reduce the pain of its having just lost two limbs. For the next hour I followed Yat down a 7-kilometer stretch of deserted beach. We collected shells and waited for the sun to set while she told me her village’s story.
The people here are small resource users, mostly of fish, cashew nuts, and nipa palm, a material they use to thatch their homes. The village used to lie along the beach until the December 2004 tsunami destroyed it completely. The houses have since been rebuilt, a safe two kilometers back from the sea.
Aid poured into Baan Talae Nok after the tsunami, but it brought its share of negative consequences. There were complaints of aid misappropriation, and, as is often the case, aid dependency. A large sum of money was dedicated to providing new boats to traditional fishing communities, but that negatively impacted the wildlife in the area.
“Everything has repercussions when you’re living in an environment where you depend on natural resources,” says Kelly May, director of Andaman Discoveries.
With the immediate need for crisis relief gone, attention has turned to long-term projects such as education and community development. Created by the North Andaman Tsunami Relief Fund (NATR), which works toward self-sufficiency, Andaman Discoveries aims to develop community-based tourism, a form of commercially viable tourism that provides maximum benefit to the surrounding communities and minimum impact on the environment.
“Our goal is to make it so villagers can conduct community-based tourism on their own terms,” says Kelly. “We try to create the kinds of tourism that fit into the lives of the villagers rather than forcing them to adapt their lives to tourists.”
With NATR’s assistance, villagers in three areas—Tung Nang Dam, Baan Talae Nok, and Pak Triam—have created tours, itineraries, and volunteer projects based on the needs of their individual communities. Visitors stay with local families, allowing them to experience firsthand the traditional lifestyles found in this seldom-traveled area of Thailand.
“In many places in Thailand there is a tendency to deal only with Thais in the service industry. This is more of an opportunity to see Thais as real people,” says Kelly, who believes getting tourists into these villages shows them that people living there defy traditional stereotypes about poor, remote communities.
For now, there are plenty of areas where volunteers can get involved. In addition to teaching English, projects include planting community gardens, assisting tsunami handicraft cooperatives, guide training, and participating in a host of immediate needs, such as helping paint a village community center. There is no way to anticipate what the needs will be during a person’s visit, but often that adds to the richness of the opportunity.
“The most important thing with volunteering is that there’s an actual need. We don’t want to send in volunteers to do jobs the villagers do themselves because then we’re creating an artificial experience,” says Kelly. “We also do not create volunteer projects just to get people into village. We work closely with the villagers to assess the needs and project possibilities.”
One of the best ways to help is simply by visiting. Travelers can be of benefit just by interacting with the villagers and helping them practice their English skills. And because of the program’s infancy, visitors can actually volunteer to be tourists. These “pilot tourists” help community members put into practice all the skills they’ve learned in their tourism training and workshops.
“It’s difficult to express to tourists that they’re helping simply by interacting with these communities,” says Kelly. “But they’re being beneficial just by being open-minded, because it builds up the villagers’ confidence and allows them to learn by doing.”
The area around Baan Talae Nok is still remote. A clutch of volunteers I met while walking through the village admitted they never would have visited if they had not been volunteering. But that seems to be the beauty of the village. It truly is Thailand, not an amusement park version of the country developed for the entertainment of tourists.
In the early morning the clearest sounds are gibbon calls, the unmistakable whoop-whoop echoing through the jungle canopy. Lime-green grasses and hardy saplings sprout from the soil two years after a giant wave swept the landscape clean. And in the evening people gather on front steps with smiles that reveal that many promises have been kept.
For More Info
Andaman Discoveries offers something for regular tourists wanting to get off the beaten track. It also assists with volunteer placement and trains local villagers to become tour leaders. The projects currently taking place in Baan Talae Nok, Tung Nang Dam, and Pak Triam were created at the request of the villagers, not as something NATR created for them. Andaman Discoveries provides the vital link between people seeking an authentic experience and communities wanting to share their way of life with visitors.
People with specific skills are also welcome to contact Andaman Discoveries for particular placements. For those willing to devote some added time, Andaman Discoveries can come up with focused long-term projects.
For volunteer information, contact Andaman Discoveries (www.andamandiscoveries.com) at firstname.lastname@example.org or call +66-0-879-177-165.
For details on its integrated sustainable programs in the south of Thailand,
Customized tours and volunteer placements cost around $45 a day, including food, accommodation, an introductory workshop, activities and equipment, a local guide, 24-hour English-Thai speaking support staff, and comprehensive support material.