by Greg Penfold

A Royal Example

Thailand's agri-tourism projects have much to offer

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In December last year, Harvest SA had the privilege of being invited by the Royal Thai Embassy on a tour of Thailand’s Samut Songkram Province and Nakhon Pathom Province, rounded off with a sojourn in Bangkok. The intention was to showcase the attractions of these regions, which are thriving hubs of domestic tourism but seldom feature on the typical international tourist itinerary. Of primary interest was the Royal Thai government’s local agri-tourism initiatives.

Thailand is a country like no other. Never having succumbed to colonialism, thanks to the far-reaching vision of monarchs such as Rama VI, who brought Thailand into the modern world, and the popular King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), under whose reign, which ended in 2016, thousands of development projects were initiated that have greatly benefited the country and its people, Thailand has succeeded in being progressive without sacrificing its unique culture. This successful balance is evident throughout the country.

Ably guided by Kitti-Chanok Phaholyothin of the Royal Thai Embassy in South Africa, we were treated to a series of experiences that should surely feature on the wish-list of any traveler who wishes to augment the standard Thai experience of mountains and beaches. Beginning in Samut Songkram Province, with our base at the Thada Amphawa Resort, a constellation of comfortable lodges like a marina overlooking the water, we rapidly began to appreciate why the riverine town of Amphawa is such a popular destination for Thais keen for a break from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok.

Situated some 50 kilometres southeast of the big city, the town’s chief attraction is the Amphawa Floating Market. Traditional boats jostle on a canal of the Mae Khlong River, offering countless mouthwatering delicacies amidst a uniquely festive atmosphere. Lining the canal are hundreds of stalls with a bewildering variety of goods. Although the market is very busy, there are comparatively few foreign tourists, making this an exciting opportunity to go off the beaten track in search of authentic experience. Towards evening, singing fills the air from a dozen different establishments, and pleasure-seekers pack the long-tailed boats heading out to marvel at the clouds of fireflies along the banks of the Mae Khlong River.

Not far from the floating market is the Chaipattana Foundation, a royal project under the initiative of H.R.H Princess Mahachakri Sirindhorn. Here, an area of land has been turned into a working farm and cultural village dedicated to preserving the traditional Amphawa way of life. We enjoyed an artisanal market, investigated the coconut orchard and were shown the process of making traditional Thai sweets from coconut sugar. The folk of Amphawa are very proud of this project, as it enables them to maintain a link with the living traditions of the past whilst sustaining themselves economically, in line with the principles of King Bhumibol’s Sufficiency Economy.

Another must-see attraction in Amphawa is the King Rama II Memorial Park. Situated in spacious, beautifully landscaped grounds, the park includes four exquisitely crafted traditional Thai wooden buildings housing artifacts from the early Rattanakosin era, King Rama II’s household furniture, and fascinating displays depicting the daily lives of Thai people during the king’s reign.

Waters of life

From Amphawa we departed for Nakhon Pathom, some 56 kilometres to the west of Bangkok. After checking into the Sunlove Resort and Spa, with its beautiful wooden lodges crafted in traditional Thai style, we embarked on long-tail boats for a sight-seeing tour of the community-based tourism area along Khlong Mahasawat.

This famous canal, one of many that crisscrosses Nakhon Pathom province, was dug from 1860-1862 under the orders of King Rama IV, to connect Khlong Bangkok Noi with the Nakhon Chaisi River. When it opened, the canal made accessible some 32 sq km of fertile farmland. For this reason, Khlong Mahasawat was chosen in August 2015 as a pilot project in the collaboration between the Thai Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives and Ministry of Tourism and Sports to promote agro tourism. The other pilot destinations are Pak Phanang in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Ban Khok Muang in Buri Ram, and Khao Kho in Phetchabun.

Observing from the level of the water, passing ornate temples, watching people about their business in their riverside houses on stilts, you have the feeling of blending into a landscape woven together by water. Then you disembark and enter the lives of the Thai farmers working the land and the water. We floated on the surface of a lotus farm, surrounded by thousands of water lilies cultivated to meet the daily needs of the country’s Buddhist temples; we drank the juice of the astonishingly potent and delicious gac fruit; we walked through fields of orchids, Thailand’s most famous export flower, resplendent with delicate colours; and we thrilled to a breakneck ride through orchards and past rice fields on a Thai tractor.

Everywhere we went, we encountered people who more than lived up to their country’s reputation for friendly hospitality. It was clear that the Thai government’s support of agri-tourism has benefited these communities by enabling them to be economically self-sufficient while maintaining their traditional lifestyle. Thailand, we salute you!

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