The big resorts have their place, but here’s why getting off the beaten track was our Thailand highlight…
‘I want to save all of this for everyone’…
Dende Wuttipong explained passionately as we sat in a cave once inhabited by indigenous Thais, eating lunch and gazing out over the almost entirely unspoilt coastline around Laem Sak.
The other backpackers headed for Krabi and Koh Samui must have wondered why we were dropped off in the nondescript town of Ao Luek, 2 hours south east from the mid range resort of Khao Lak and about an hour from Ao Nang.
But Ao Luek’s nearby coast is as beautiful as anything you’ll see in Thailand. Thankfully – hardly anyone knows about it yet, and it’s escaped the clutches of mass market tourism.
That’s why Den’s involved with a burgeoning initiative called Community Based Tourism; to keep his beautiful home away from big business while still offering wanderlusters like us a glimpse of what Thailand is really like that won’t ruin it for future generations.
We stumbled across the homestay Den works for by complete chance; a British woman we got chatting to on the beach in Koh Lanta told us it was the most untouched, beautiful landscape she’d ever seen, completely off the tourist track and a haven of peace and tranquility.
We were instantly sold, changed our plans and booked up immediately. And she was right. Thanks Julie!
The Baan Suan Thip is a labour of love for a wonderful lady called Tan, who built it as a retirement place, cultivated a beautiful garden around a few modest rooms and bungalows and started it up as a B&B two years ago.
As the sign amongst the flora suggests, she’s created a little slice of heaven, nestled beneath a hill known locally as the Sleeping Lady, which many believe holds spiritual significance.
We felt at ease immediately. Tan speaks excellent English after studying in London and we learnt so much from her about Thai history and culture.
She organised a cookery lesson for us (the Tom Yam will enter our dinner party repertoire!), but the highlight was Den’s personal tour of the Laem Sak coastline in our own longtail boat.
It was about as far removed as you can get from the thousands of organised boat tours you are continually offered in Thailand, and all the better for it.
It started with a fascinating behind the scenes tour of a new Buddhist temple that’s still basically a building site.
Den explained how Buddhists, Muslims and ethnic Chinese live harmoniously side by side here, and the community are paying for the temple one donation at a time.
It’s taken five years already, will be finished when it’s finished and will welcome everyone. The views are pretty unbeatable too.
Then followed our personal longtail explore of the bay. We were shown a sea grape farm (a local delicacy and £9 a kilo!) where centuries-old practices remain unchanged.
We clambered amongst caves where Thais lived five thousand years ago, and between rocks where Den showed us arresting landscapes it felt like no one else has ever seen. It could have been a scene from Jurassic Park – we almost expected a T Rex to stride out of the bushes!
Just staring at the unreal limestone landscapes was enough, but what came next took things to a new level.
Ever seen hundreds of fruit bats attacked by bald eagles? Us neither, until Den showed us through another chink of light between the rocks, through some thick mud and in amongst a scene that wouldn’t have been out of place on Planet Earth.
We felt like the only people on earth watching nature at work, and hearing the screech of the bats as their hunters swooped above. It was mind blowing and unforgettable.
We barely saw another person all day, let alone a tourist. And that’s what made the whole philosophy of this place so endearing.
There are a couple of other homestays in the area doing similar things; we joined one of them one evening drinking beers around a plastic table as the locals sang Thai songs under the stars. It was the perfect end to our two-day escape.
Mass market tourism still has its place of course; it keeps hundreds of thousands of Thais in work and showcases a truly beautiful country in myriad ways.
But unchecked development must be challenged, and there’s been plenty of it since the 2004 tsunami. That’s why we have to applaud people like Tan and Den for trying to preserve their home and show it off at the same time.