By Connor Newson
Part of why Thailand attracts so much foreign tourism is down to its exotic and natural beauty. Beauty that in the last twenty years has helped boost its economy significantly. However, in many cases these inherently magnificent sights are overshadowed by the thousands of hostels, bars and other infrastructure that is needed to cater for such an industry. It is this sort of development that is constantly susceptible to overconsumption, to a point where the aesthetic romanticism of such landscapes are overwhelmed by relentless tourism that can bear heavily on the environment and its inhabitants. Places such as Koh Phi Phi, Phuket, and other crowded southern islands are an apt example of this. Still, not everywhere has been engulfed just yet. Laemsak, an isolated village in the south, is one of those.
I have been volunteering here for three weeks now, teaching English to the local community for a project that aims to bring community-based tourism to the locals in order to have a fair share of Thailand’s growing capital that hasn’t yet managed to reach them. An advantage of my role is being offered excursions to locations that not many other visitors have been before – free of charge! The catch? There are cameras following to capture the action and promote community-based tourism in the area. I can only assume that a show of my foreign genetics is a way of showing other tourists that this is a place worth seeing.
And so I have been torn between contributing to locals that want to gain economically from an established industry elsewhere, and the uncertainty that it may just expand hideously and tarnish the aesthetic of Thailand’s remaining beauty. My reluctance to deny the desires of my new friends who so desperately want to put themselves on the global map – and rightly so – causes me to agree to this latest adventure. In essence, today I am a guinea pig running the wheel that no other tourist has ran before. We embark on a new route, a trial run for future tourists, and what we are about to discover will be a surprise even to the locals and cameramen following.
After waking up at 6am and driving north for a while, myself and four colleagues (Teo, Sutima, Natalie and Jamie) arrive at a small pier on the river near Ban Lui. We climb onto a Longtail boat at 7am with a driver and a local cameraman. Five minutes down the river we stop at a floating fishing village where our cameraman jumps from our boat into a different one. The identical vessel is complete with a driver, two other crew members from the village, and three canoes squeezed on deck in which they sit. They come from three different villages, and so their coalition is based around this tour which would collectively provide money to all involved communities – community-based tourism. The drivers rev the huge engines, submerge the propellers, and speed away from the fishery down the widening river.
As subjects we were given no instructions, although I had already assumed the appropriate attitude for my role. Chill and enjoy as a tourist would – especially when it’s free. I lay comfortably on the nose of the boat as the sun begins to peak over the surrounding mountains. Its illuminating light gives life to the flourishing and tangled greenery that climbs up the mountains on either side of the river. We are the only boat on the river for kilometres, besides the camera boat that has been weaving from one side to the other to catch the best angle. Soon enough, even that becomes a ghost that blends in as a picturesque silhouette on the canvas of rural, untouched Thailand.
We continue around a curve until our boat slows at the sight of a few figures in the middle of the river. As we get closer I notice they are the shoulders and heads of local fishermen. Their bodies are submerged as their arms dig deep, only re-emerge again with shrimp, crab or other creatures clenched in their hands. Each catch is thrown into a basket that is wrapped around their torso. I look to my right and watch as a single bamboo seems to drift past. Upon closer inspection I notice the bamboo stilts on which it sits only a few inches above the water. Detached from the land and only accessible by boat, it is the only structure visible for the entire day after passing the fishery.
Soon we become enclosed on both sides by bicycle tyres that are strung together by sticks and rope anchored into the thick muddy riverbed. Some tyres are partially buried beneath, some hove above water level, all confuse me as to their purpose. Fortunately, Sutima – local to the area – is able to explain that these are Oyster farms. The tyres are immersed in water twice a day due to the rise and fall of the Andaman tide. Eggs released by oysters near the mountain float down the river and attach themselves to anything they can – including bicycle tyres. Here they are able to grow before being harvested by fishermen. The tyres run for hundreds of metres until we come to a small sandy island in the centre of the river.
We dock on the shore and jump off, unwittingly stepping onto an island inhabited by thousands of red crabs scuttling about. They move in their masses and split as we approach. Some of the younger crabs become stranded at the sudden sight of us alien visitors, so they rapidly dig in a downwards spiral to hide beneath the sand. Noticing this as an obvious sign of intrusion, we decided to board the Longtail once more and carry on down the river, leaving the cast of crabs in peace.
Eventually, we come to an opening of a sprawling mangrove forest. We had travelled 20 kilometres down the river, and finally it was time to use the canoes that had been squeezed into the identical boat at the floating fishing village. We both cut our engines and the crew lift the canoes into the water for us to clamber into. Teo and I share one, Natalie and Jamie climb into another, and the cameraman and his driver occupy a third as we set off into the undergrowth of the mangrove.
Now, with no spluttering engine to spoil the silent serenity, this really feels like a hidden paradise. Even more so than the seclusion we had been experiencing for the past couple of hours. The sun flickers through the leaves above and onto the spider-like roots of trees that stretch sporadically, from the suspended trunks into the riverbed below. We weave in and out of the maze, watching in awe as mudskippers ripple across the water’s surface. The tiny fish below our canoe distract us and we become stranded on the shallow waters. But the warmth of the river is inviting enough for me to get out and pull our canoe into slightly deeper water. After half an hour of breathing in the fresh sea air that emanates from up ahead, we reach our Longtail boat which had taken an alternative route.
Back on deck with the Andaman sea now in full view, we turn around head back towards the pier. Our promotional excursion was almost at an end – or so everybody thought. As I bask once again on the nose of the Longtail boat in the setting sun, reflecting on how gloriously exclusive the river has been, the engine suddenly cuts out. A serene silence blesses us once more. I look up at the cameraman who is now stood at the rear of the boat, staring intently a hundred metres to the side. I follow his eye line to the water and catch a glimpse of a what I initially think is a large fish momentarily surfacing. A couple of seconds later, just off to the right, it appears again. This time I see its pink head and shiny grey back elegantly rise and fall, and its heart shaped tail flick up before diving below once more.
This is no fish. What we are witnessing is an Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphin, more commonly known as a pink dolphin. In fact, we begin to notice a entire pod of about six pink dolphins working in harmony with a small fishing boat on the river rounding up their food. I was soon made aware as to why the driver and other locals seem just as surprised as us. These mammals are some of the rarest animals in the world, and it is a first sight for them as it is for us. We stay to watch them surface for air and spit water as they released air from their blow holes. I had never seen a dolphin before, and felt amazed that my first time is seeing them now, in the wild, in such an untouched part of Thailand. However, my amazement soon turns to concern as I am reminded of my purpose on this boat by the sound of a clicking camera behind me.
The cameraman is eagerly trying and catch the moment a foreign tourist watches as pink dolphins frolic about from the close proximity of his friend’s boat. This is a potential goldmine opportunity that he did not want to miss. And I was his guinea pig from which tourism would soon follow. After other areas have seen the influx of wealth flow in, it is understandable and justified for secluded communities such as this to want a piece of the moneycake. And to criticise this would make myself a huge hypocrite. However, after a day of being surrounded by genuine culture and raw nature, unscathed by the sprawling effects of tourism, my mind sits uneasily at the prospect of tourism completely consuming another beautiful part of the world.
As a tourist, it seems there is little escaping the chance of negative contribution. This is a concern that unfortunately comes simultaneously with exposing myself to cultural differences in order to understand diversity within the world, and wanting to help a community weigh in on the incoming capital. And so I feel it is important to draw attention to that. However, in light of wanting to enjoy the beauty and romanticism of the breath-taking landscape that surrounds me, I lay back down and relax. As our boat rocks gently on the water, my mind casts back to a fitting quotation by Scott Fitzgerald that I once read back in secondary school. “We beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”. On one hand we are all entitled to benefit from tourism whether that is economically or culturally, yet at the same time we desperately desire to hold onto the exclusive serenity of beautiful and undisturbed places such as this that may one day become a memory. I can only hope that my input here will be put to healthy use and not overuse.