“You give them history, temples, pagodas, traditional dance, floating markets, seafood curry, tapioca desserts, silk-weaving cooperatives, but all they really want is to ride some hulking gray beast.”
This is how a native Thai woman describes her perception of tourists in Sightseeing, a collection of short stories on modern Thai life by Rattawut Lapcharoensap. She’s complaining of farangs, or foreign tourists, who, in her opinion, come only to ride elephants and get sunburned on the beach.
So, for my recent two-week trip to Thailand as Digital Nomad, instead of simply mingling with fellow travelers in popular destinations, I tried something new. I spent more than a week in homestays, or local family-run lodging, ranging from day trips to three-night stays. This style of travel is part of the country’s ongoing push toward community-based tourism, where locals run the activities and profit from them.
Researching the trip wasn’t easy, and I arrived unsure what to expect. Despite my worries, my experience was ultimately inspiring. It enabled me to live among rural Thai folk, explore rural life, take bike rides to see local crafts made, and eat very well.
And I didn’t see another tourist during my eight days of homestays.
Community-based tourism projects, including homestays, are on the rise in Thailand. The Tourism Authority of Thailand maintains a “7 Greens” site listing many homestay options, and travel agents like Local Alike and SiamRise Travel, who specialize in these sorts of trips. That’s important because they are very difficult to arrange on your own without some knowledge of Thai. The agents offer trips, usually a couple of nights, which include transport, accommodation, meals, activities, and English-speaking guides. These are arranged directly with local co-ops so that villages reap the benefits.
This model has been popularized by the Thai government’s One Tambon (meaning subdistrict) One Product campaign (OTOP), which encourages local entrepreneurship. After the 1997 Asian financial crisis significantly devalued the Thai baht, the government launched OTOP, a program that rewards and promotes communities that produce high-quality goods, such as handicrafts, cotton, pottery, and foods.
In Ban Na Ton Chan, a village outside the first Thai capital of Sukhothai, a co-op takes locally woven traditional fabrics and soaks them in mud to soften the fabric. Profits are shared, and locals alternate taking trips to sell their products in Bangkok markets.
“Our target is not tourism,” the co-op director, Sa Ngiem, told me. “This is just what we do.”
Tourism is increasingly becoming part of daily life in villages like Ban Na Ton Chan, which have started homestay experiences for travelers. In my experience, the term “homestay” is used loosely. In three of four villages I visited, I didn’t stay in someone’s home, but on the same property in a stand-alone bungalow, often with private bathroom and air conditioning.
My favorite, however, did involve staying in a family’s home. Outside Trat, near the Cambodian border in eastern Thailand, I stayed in a home on stilts on a pineapple and rubber farm. We sat on the wood floors to eat and shared access to the cold-water shower. I had a simple fan-cooled room with a half-inch mat to sleep on. When late-night rains came, we all chipped in to lower the tarps over the wall-free living space. The food was the best I’ve had in Thailand. Plus they took me to a “chicken basket” spa.
Each homestay was rewarding in its own way. Outside Krabi’s beach resorts, for example, I learned how to dig for clams at low tide in a Muslim fishing village, and that you can eat a fried crab whole. In Samut Songkhram, near the famed floating markets southwest of Bangkok, I biked through pomelo orchards, counted fireflies on the canal, and helped a 70-year-old design a star-shaped kite.
At Ban Na Ton Chan near Sukhothai, I cooked my own noodle lunch and biked from house to house to peek at local life. At one, a woman offered me a hot, freshly made clump of sticky khao mao, a delicious snack made during monks’ ordination.
All this is good travel—and something I’d do again. I’ve been traveling through Thailand for the past couple of decades, but I’ve never enjoyed it more.