Located on Southeast Asia’s Indochina peninsula, Thailand is known for royal palaces, tropical beaches and riverside communities. In the bustling capital city of Bangkok you’ll find historic sites, street markets and mega malls. In contrast, the outlying provinces, such as Trat, are home to small, simple villages along rivers and canals. Nearby are tropical islands with beautiful beaches.
On a recent visit hosted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, we visited the capital city of Bangkok as well as three off-the-beaten-path villages in the eastern province of Trat. We found Thai people to be welcoming and happy to share their way of life. By spending time with locals, sharing meals and learning basic Thai, we felt we got to experience authentic Thailand. It was one of my best trips ever!
From Bangkok, it’s about an hour flight or five-hour drive to Trat, situated on the east coast of Thailand. It’s where we started our amazing journey. We visited three villages and the island of Koh Chang. While there, we traveled with guides from Local Alike, a tour company that partners with villages interested in community-based tourism programs that generate income and immerse travelers in local culture and customs. It was a wonderful way to spend time with locals and learn about their culture through hands-on activities.
Ban Nam Chiao Ecotourism Community
In this simple, friendly village, Thai Buddhists and Thai Muslims live together harmoniously along a scenic canal dotted with colorful boats. Boats and bikes are popular modes of transportation.
In a large, open-air community space, families can participate in several activities. We learned to write our names in Thai and how to make kao griab ya-nah (rice chips topped with shrimp paste) and tangme krop, a stick-shaped crispy caramel.
After lunch, we cruised in small boats along the calm river and watched local teens collect tongue shell. We helped release small edible sea crabs from our boats and planted small trees at a nearby mangrove.
Back on land, we peddled bicycles alongside the canal and on dirt roads, stopping at one home to learn how to weave traditional ngop hats from atap palm leaves.
Chong Changtune Live Eco-Museum
After a brief demonstration, we made our own herbal balm to take home in small jars and were pampered with mini Thai massages. The most unique was a chicken coop herbal steam, originally designed to rid impurities after childbirth.
Lunch was served family-style with large platters of banana stalk curry, fish, rice and fruit. After lunch we rode salengers (a motorbike with an attached passenger cart) to the Klong Ang River. Local kids slathered white mud on our arms and backs. While waiting for it to dry before rinsing, a Chong woman showed us how to pan for Siamese rubies in the riverbed, a fun activity for both kids and adults.
Huai Raeng Ecotourism Group
Situated on the banks of the Khlong Huai Raeng River, the community is called the Land of Three Waters for the combination of fresh, brackish and salt water. The friendly Huai Raeng people demonstrated many uses of natural resources. We rode in small boats through an atap palm forest and watched a demonstration for the many uses of these sturdy branches.
Hands-on activities included making small lunch packs from betel leaves that we stuffed with rice and copped veggies. We also learned how to make mangosteen rind soap in a bamboo mold, coconut oil and a dessert called khanom chak. The traditional Thai dessert (which has a gel-like consistency) is made of flour, coconut milk and sugar, wrapped in palm leaves and cooked on a charcoal grill. The soaps and oils are sold at modest prices and make good souvenirs.
Where to Sleep in Trat
Local Alike can arrange homestays in villages and Bangkok. If that’s not your style, you’ll find many hotels throughout Thailand. In Trat, we stayed at Hotel Toscana Trad, a 29-room Tuscany-style hotel with a pool, free WiFi and air-conditioning.
We were excited to visit the island’s beautiful beaches, accessible via a pleasant, hour-long ferry ride. We stopped for a swim at a beach and dinner at a popular seafood restaurant, Phu-Talay, before checking into The Spa Koh Change Resort, a secluded wellness retreat. Cozy meandering paths lead to spacious rooms situated among a mangrove forest. Amenities include a pool, yoga classes, spa facility, and organic dining.
Even in bustling Bangkok, we got an insider’s look on a tour with Trikaya Travel. Tippie, our group leader, brought us to famous temples, ruins, Chinatown and a popular downtown flower market. She also shared her favorite restaurants and street treats, such as Roti Saimai, a traditional sweet that looks like colorful cotton candy wrapped in thin bread.
Bangkok provides a good opportunity to try exotic food and fruits, like the sweet mangosteen and rambutan. Public transportation is good. We got around by train and Tuk-tuks, small open-air taxis that zip through traffic.
It’s simply amazing to walk through the crumbling ruins of an ancient city in Ayutthaya Historical Park, and the Grand Palace, where several royal events take place each year. At the Wat Pho Buddhist temple complex, young and old line up to see the famous 150-long Reclining Buddha. It gets crowded so it’s a good idea to arrive early to explore the various Buddhist buildings and sculptures.
Chao Phraya River Cruise in Thailand
The 2.5-hour cruise along the scenic river is a relaxing way to see stilted homes hugging the riverbanks, and city landmarks. The buffet lunch, served inside, is quite good. It’s also fun to walk or sit on outside decks for close up views of boats and bridges.
Damnoen Saduak Floating Market
This adventure starts on a speedboat through canals lined with homes and shrines. Once at the market, we boarded narrow boats and cruised slowly by merchants selling locally made toys, clothing, art and other goods. We negotiated great prices on colorful purses, scarves and other items.
Where to Sleep in Bangkok
I really enjoyed the comfort and convenience of the Pathumwan Princess Hotel, located in downtown Bangkok. The contemporary hotel has city views, a pool and direct access to the MBK Center, a giant mall packed with shops, restaurants, ATM machines and currency exchange facilities.
Planning the Trip
Planning an eco-tourism trip to Thailand can be overwhelming (especially if it’s your first visit), but local tour companies can customize a vacation that fits your family’s budget and interests, and offer helpful tips. For example,when visiting Bangkok’s temples, proper etiquette requires long pants, capris or skirts and shirts with short or long sleeves. We were able to use our own cell phones in Thailand without an international plan by buying a $10 SIM card sold at the airport and at small markets, such as 7-11.
It’s also important to always bring your own tissues and hand sanitizer to public restrooms. In addition, we downloaded a “Learn Thai” app on our phones, which came in handy for learning basic conversational words and phrases like kob khun (thank you). Words end in either krup for men and ka for women, as in kob khun ka when spoken by a woman.