There is an alternative option for tourists visiting to the bright neon lights and gyrating girls of Patong. Going on a homestay holiday is also one of the best ways to genuinely experience the graciousness of traditional Thai culture.
The Community Based Eco-Tourism Club on Koh Yao Noi is partly run by the Phuket Tourism and Sports office. It is also operated by the locals who act as homestay host families and those who take visitors on trips to experience the area’s natural beauty and traditional farming and fishing techniques.
Koh Yao Noi is in Phang-nga Bay and the island is being showcased around the region as a successful home stay model where tourists and the community learn to live together.
Director of Phuket Tourism and Sports office Promchote Traivate introduced us to the island’s sustainable tourism project, which he said that as well as being a boon to the islanders is also a way of preserving traditional lifestyles.
“Visitors can get hands-on experience by joining our eco-tourism project. They learn how to do things the way the locals do, such as plowing with buffalo, planting rice, but it is important to preserve the traditional way of life for the sake of the locals themselves, who are dangerously close to losing touch with traditions they have lived by for thousands of years,” said Mr Promchote.
“The aim of this group is to encourage the community to become involved in tourism but in a way that is eco-friendly by preserving the environment,” he added.
Mr Promchote explained that there are now hundreds of buffalo on the island, but only one of them knows how to plough a field and there are only a few people on the island who know how to teach it.
“Koh Yao Noi Eco-Tourism community is a role model for community-based tourism. The aim is to introduce the lifestyle of the islanders – who are traditionally fishermen – to tourists and raise awareness of problems faced by them as an alternative to conventional tourist attractions. It is also an additional and sustainable source of revenue for locals,” said Mr Promchote.
Tourists can either make their own way to the island for a day trip or they can join one of the 2- to 3-day homestay packages available.
A regular ferry service operates about 12 outbound trips a day to Koh Yao Noi from 7.30am to 5pm from Bang Rong Pier. The boat calls in at a few islands on the way before reaching Koh Yao Noi about 45 minutes after setting off from Phuket.
From the pier, you can take a songteaw to the first stop a few kilometers down the road, the island’s Tourist Service Center, which is a wooden structure with a concrete floor and an iron and straw roof. The center was established with the help of a 300,000-baht donation from Rotary International.
This is the HQ of the Koh Yao Noi Community Based Eco-Tourism Club, which has been awarded by Conservation International and National Geographic Traveler’s World Legacy Award for the island’s Responsible Ecological Social Tours Project.
The project has also received the Award for Outstanding Performance from the Tourism Authority of Thailand in 2007, and the Ministry of Sport and Tourism has Certified Koh Yao Yai’s community as Home Stay Standard Thailand (2007-2009).
Our visit to Koh Yao Noi was a day trip so we had to squeeze in quite a few activities in a short space of time. Normally, travelers spend a few days as home-stay guests, so they can take their time doing different activities.
Our next stop was a tiered rice paddy snuggled at the base of a hill. It was a scene that Claude Monet would have turned into a masterpiece. Crouched in the lush carpet of young rice stalks were women dressed in colorful sarongs, scarfs and straw hats. They were bent to task against the hilly backdrop, some pulling out half-grown rice to be transplanted, others planting rice in neat rows giving them space to grow.
Off came our shoes, and we rolled up our sleeves as our hosts encouraged us to join them in two feet of muddy water to try planting the rice for ourselves. After a while what were once nice straight lines of rice plant had become wonky first-time attempts at self sufficiency. I was worried we might have dramatically reduced their crop for the season but it was smiles all round from our hosts.
Our work had made us hungry and we were bundled into the songteaw to be taken to lunch. We pulled into an area dotted with four beautifully made guest bungalows that looked like log cabins. They wouldn’t have looked out of place covered in snow and nestled in the Alps. We were going for lunch with our hosts in the Eco Tourism Group Meeting Place – a house on stilts that juts out toward the sea.
We took off our shoes and walked across the wooden floorboards to the dining area that ha a spectacular view across the water to Koh Yao Yai.
On the table was an array of traditional dishes, such as curries, fried vegetables and of course, a lot of very fresh seafood, including colorful crabs, which our hosts had to show us the best way to de-shell. The meal was a fun and casual affair, made all the more relaxing with the magnificent view. The seafood was some of the freshest we’d ever tasted and our hosts made sure we were satiated.
Below us, hundreds of crabs with oversized claws went about their business of chasing each other out of holes in the sand, while long-legged birds hopped from place to place picking off the smaller shore-side creatures.
This place also has two spotless guest bedrooms simply decorated but very cozy looking with a bed, wardrobe, a TV and drawers. The window provides a view along the coastline with long-tail boats resting on the sand.
Our next stop was a secluded house on stilts a short way inland. We had to travel down a narrow dirt track to get to the local dwelling. Sitting under the shade of a large 100-year-old tree were a group of smiling faces belonging to several generations, from a mother and baby and shy but curious kids to the grandparents who showed us some of the ways they harvest and prepare food.
They demonstrated and let us try some of the everyday skills they employ to find and make their food. We tried casting fishing nets in a perfect circle and pounded the husks from rice before cleaning the grain of chaff by throwing it in the air from a woven grass tray, which brought the chickens running over to peck around our feet. We were also shown an ingenious mouse trap that relied on a heavy block of wood and a twig trigger to drop the block onto the unsuspecting prey.
We had all developed a thirst but there was more work to do before we could take a drink, which was to be fresh coconut juice taken from coconuts that we were shown how to properly cut open.
Our final adventure for the day was to introduce ourselves to the only buffalo on the island that knows how to draw a plough. He allowed us to climb up on him and graciously posed for pictures with everyone.
Next, I found myself up to my knees in mud as I gripped the plough handle while the buffalo pulled me round the field. It wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined and I had visions of living the rest of my days as a content hunter-gatherer farmer.
Mr Promchote explained that a few years ago, the island had very few buffalo, even though it had once before had many.
“As farming technologies arrived, people stopped using buffaloes to help with their farming. Subsequently, the number of buffalos on the island became less, as did the number of people who knew how to farm with them,” he said.
“Now there are several hundred buffalo on Koh Yao Noi following an intensive program to re-introduce them here, but as well as teaching the buffalos how to plough a field, we have also had to teach the farmers how to work with them again,” he added.
There are a few rules that home stay guests need to follow that help you fit in with the community. They are to dress modestly, not to consume drugs or alcohol, not to leave any litter and not to take any shells or coral.
The community is responsible for developing the tour programs, along with the regulations, activities, and prices for them and there are several two- and three-day programs available through the Community Based Tourism project.
Depending on the number of days you stay, trips can include activities such as exploring the island’s seven traditional villages, learning how to make batik, visiting a coconut-shell souvenir workshop, helping farmers and fishermen and testing your bargaining skills at the local market.
You can also take trips to nearby islands with their diverse eco-systems. Depending on the lunar cycle and tidal patterns, some programs may include collecting wing shells and a trip to see Thailand’s only blue coral.
Dinners and breakfasts are eaten with your home-stay family. The longer you stay, the more you learn about their way of living in harmony with the surrounding ecology.
If you go to the island independently, accommodation is very reasonable at about 150 baht per night for a bungalow and food. Children can stay free of charge, which allows you to consider spending more on the wide range of attractions and excursions.
For about 300 baht you can join local fishermen and pick up a few tips on how to catch shrimp and crab using nets, and you’ll also experience the seagrass and shellfish grounds. For about 2,000 baht you can take to the open sea with the fishermen and join them in haling in their catches of fish and squid.
If you want to see some of the interesting animals that inhabit the area take a boat trip to nearby Koh Boi to watch gibbons. There is also a giant tree there. There are several other boat trips available that take visitors to caves and hidden-away bays with pristine beaches, or to observe tropical fish among colorful coral, or watch birds making their nests.
These day trips range in price from 1,500 baht to 2,500 baht per person depending on the distance covered. The boats can carry between three and four people.
To remain in keeping with the ecological theme, there are several activities that only require human power, such as sea canoe tours around mangrove forests or around the island, trekking, or you can simply rent a bicycle and tour the island by yourself for about 200 baht a day.
For more information about Koh Yao Noi’s eco-tourism home stays email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.kohyao-cbt.comTo contact the Tourism and Sports office, call 076-221765 or email email@example.com