I WASN’T sure what to expect when I was invited recently to spend two days and one night at Ban Laem Homestay in Nakhon Si Thammarat. But within minutes of arriving, I knew it was going to be an experience I would treasure for a long time. Warmly welcomed by the amiable villagers, the atmosphere was like being at a friend’s home – a place where you can kick back and relax without judgement.
Fishermen at work in the Golden Bay. /Courtesy of Local Alike.
Located in the Golden Bay area of Tha Sala district, this hamlet is luring visitors with cosy accommodation, tantalising seafood meals and several fun activities that allow guests to experience the lifestyles of this Muslim fishing community and learn more about marine ecosystems.
Ban Laem Homestay is being promoted as a model of sustainable community with an enhanced standard of hospitality. It is part of the “Happy Home Happy Stay” project, a collaboration between The Erawan Group and Local Alike.
“The Erawan Group operates more than 60 properties both in Thailand and the Philippines. In 2016, we initiated the ‘Happy Home Happy Stay’ project, aiming to share our hospitality and management experience to develop communities. We travelled around the country looking for the type of strong communities we could help grow sustainably,” says Petch Krainukul, the group’s president.
“Ban Laem Homestay is a pilot project. We picked this village because it has beautiful nature, a unique mud spa and striking Southern-style houses that identify its character. We educate villagers about hygiene and help renovate public areas, bathrooms and landscapes because cleanliness is the heart of any hospitality service. A team from Hop Inn teaches villagers how to greet guests and how to use the QR code system for check-in. We also plan to expand our project to other communities around the country,” he adds.
Bang Flittary's House offers tourists comfortable accommodation.
A mere 20 kilometres from downtown Nakhon Si Thammarat, this land was once home to a pristine beach with boutique resorts and seafood restaurants and 40 years ago was a popular holiday escape for local residents and Malaysian tourists. Then so-called “progress” set in, with the mangrove forest destroyed to make way for shrimps farms that before too long were also abandoned.
In 2014, Bang Taksin Minman joined with his neighbours to open their houses and welcome guests for overnight stays in the hope they could bring their home back to life and promote tourism.
“Eight years ago, hundreds of local students came here to reforest the area but they also turned our home into a garbage dump. We started by providing a catering service to reduce the number of plastic bags and foam containers in the area then we created a fun activity programme that included a mud battle that made our village widely known,” says Bang Santi Himma, secretary of the Community Enterprise of Ban Laem Homestay Mangrove Forest Conservation.
“The idea for launching a homestay programme came when we met an 18-year-old foreign biker who was cycling around the world. With a budget of just Bt100 as day, he was delighted to stay with us for a month and helped us create a fanpage on Facebook to promote our village.”
Popular with Thai families and tourists from the UK and Malaysia, the village has now four families ready to accommodate guests in their home for a two-day, one night programme. For just Bt1,750, tourists can enjoy three meals, an eco-cultural tour and cooking classes and for an extra Bt200 also get an airport transfer to the village thrown in – though this is limited to four people.
“I have long dreamt of improving the quality of our lives. In the past, our village had a drug problem and residents lived in poverty and were always exploited by loan sharks,” says Bang Taksin, another leader of the Community Enterprise .
Fishermen at work in the Golden Bay. /Courtesy of Local Alike.
“Now, our village can accommodate around 50 guests and we plan to expand services to 10 houses. Thanks to our focus on sustainable living, we can earn Bt40,000 a year and we’ve learnt how to save. This project belongs to everyone and will be handed down to the young generation.
Surrounded by tropical plants and towering coconut trees, I spend one night in Bang Fittary’s house. Built of hardwood, it boasts a living area on the lower level, a private balcony and a bathroom with separate shower and toilet.
The airy bedroom has everything the urban traveller needs. There are four clean mattresses, towels, a television, three fans, mosquito nets and plenty of plugs. A fully-stocked mini bar corner is available in the house though there’s no refrigerator.
In the afternoon, we ride a modified motor-tricycle for a village tour and Bang Santi takes us to the headquarters of the Hang Uan Weaving Group. Jinda Laohawiwat, 60, and her members are happy to demonstrate the traditional techniques used to weave a 15-inch bolt of hang uan as young palm leaves are known in the southern dialect.
“In the past, fishermen used hang uan to interlace with their nets. With their soft texture and durability, they are ideal for fashion accessories and home furnishings such as shoulder bags, hats, coasters and place mats and are now available at many resorts in southern provinces and handicraft shops in Bangkok,” says Jinda.
We continue to Ban Suan Wanlee, home to a large organic mulberry garden. It’s the brainchild of former accountant Prasat Wanlee, who got his first mulberry tree from Chiang Mai and used pruning techniques to propagate.
Visitors can pick and eat mulberries at Ban Suan Wanlee.
“Now I have more than 500 mulberry trees in my garden and can harvest around 30 kilograms of fruit a day. I use chicken manure as fertiliser. The black fruits are sweet and light red ones are sour. The peak of the harvest season is March and April. As part of the homestay programme, I invite tourists to pick and eat the fruit fresh from the bushes and feed them crackers topped with mulberry jam that contains no gelatine and refreshing mulberry soda,” Prasat says.
We also join a cooking class led by local housewives and learn how to make several southern curry pastes like red curry, yellow curry and tai pla curry. The main ingredients are chilli, curcuma, garlic, galangal, shallot and salt and all the ingredients are found in their backyards.
And we also get to taste kanom pa da. Made from rice flour mixed with sweet nam wa banana, it looks like a doughnut but is filled with spicy curry and mangrove leaves before being fried.
We’re up before the birds the next morning, climbing into a fishing boat at 5.45am for a three-hour cruise through the mangrove swamp. We stop at the mouth of the Golden Bay to watch the sunrise and enjoy a breakfast served by Bang Santi of hot coffee and Ovaltine, deep-fried dough sticks, kaoman gaeng massaman (rice cooked with coconut milk and with massaman curry) and roasted sticky rice stuffed with taro.
Bang Santi serves hot coffee.
“The Golden Bay occupies 3,000 rai and offers a beautiful view of Nakhon Si Thammarat’s mountain ranges. Local fishermen have transformed seven rai into a marine life sanctuary where schools of small fish live to conserve the ecosystem. We are now in seabass season, which runs from January to March,” he tells us.
A few fishermen are already out and we watch them for a while before planting a mangrove tree. On the way back to the shore, Bang Santi invites to jump into the water and enjoy a mud spa that nourishes the skins and the hair. The mud here has a blue tinge and is rich in more than 40 kinds of minerals. It’s even certified by the Pikunthong Royal Development Study Centre and Thailand’s Institute of Nuclear Technology.
The trip ends with a lunch of khaoman talay khlon (rice cooked with coconut milk and squid gallbladder) served with deep-fried mangrove leaves with shrimps and other seasonal seafood dishes.
“Our slogan is ‘Ban Laem Homestay has nothing but the heart’. Coming here, tourists can experience the ways of a Muslim community. We’re friendly and nothing like the negative portrayal of us that’s given out on the news. We always treat visitors as our friends,” says Bang Taksin.