“Arrive with an empty cup.” These were amongst the first words my Thai guide, Khun Ball, said to me when I met him recently on a trip to Ban Muang Pam, a Karen village in the mountains of Mae Hong Son. “Let the community fill up your cup”, Khun Ball continued. The affable guide offers up the same simple words of wisdom to all of the guests who join him on visits to Community Based Tourism (CBT) initiatives in northern Thailand. Khun Ball encourages tourists to arrive with an open mind and be open to new experiences. This is a man who passionately believes in the power of CBT and has seen with his own eyes the many positive benefits CBT brings. On my visit to Ban Muang Pam I was able to experience first-hand the positive impact of Community Based Tourism as I was warmly welcomed into people’s homes and learnt more about the local community and the traditions of the village.
What is Community Based Tourism (CBT)?
Community Based Tourism is an initiative managed and owned by the community, for the community. This form of responsible tourism takes into account the need for cultural, environmental and social sustainability. There are many mutual benefits to CBT in Thailand. As a guest, you are able to participate in the daily life of the village in a non-obtrusive way as you learn more about the ups and downs of the lives of the people who live here. And the villagers can see that there are Thai and international tourists who are genuinely interested in learning more about them and their traditional way of life. Sadly, there has been a tendency in the past for some elements of Thai society to look down on hill-tribe and rural communities. But Community Based Tourism has helped to break down barriers and has increased mutual understanding and appreciation of different lifestyles. This in turn has helped to create more pride amongst the villagers who are then further motivated to preserve the old ways and unique local skills which might otherwise die out because of the pressures of modern life.
The initiatives have also helped to empower rural communities. Before CBT was introduced, many adult male villagers would leave the community to seek employment in the city. Now that there is a viable alternative, there is less pressure to leave the village which in turn has had a positive impact on families and the cohesion of the community.
What to expect at Ban Muang Pam
Although the ethos behind CBT is a serious one, this is Thailand so there has to be that endearing sense of fun and enjoyment that Thais call ‘sanuk’. And my stay in Ban Muang Pam proved to be one of the most sanuk experiences I’ve enjoyed anywhere in Thailand. And for that, I have to thank my hosts Khun Rangsri and his family together with my guide, Khun Ball.
As I soon discovered, Khun Rangsri proved to be a man of many talents. Tracker, chef, conservationist, local guide, CBT co-ordinator, weaver, carpenter, handyman . . . these are just some of the many hats that the quiet and amiable Karen man wears. But above all else he is a proud father and husband. And being welcomed into his family home and sharing so much time with Khun Rangsri and his family I could experience for myself the benefits of Community Based Tourism. But what I wasn’t quite so prepared for was how much of a positive impact the visit would have on me.
If you visit Ban Muang Pam (and I can’t recommend it highly enough), the advice of Thai guide, Khun Ball, is all you need to remember: “Arrive with an empty cup. Let the community fill up your cup”. Travel with an open mind and an open heart. Visiting Ban Muang Pam you are staying in an authentic, rural hill-tribe village so don’t expect city luxuries or special concessions for Western tourists. Host families may only speak a few words of English, but smiles and laughter are an international language. However, your guide is on hand to help you with translations and to assist you in any questions you may have.
A visit to Ban Muang Pam involves lots of walking. Although you don’t have to be super-fit to complete this trip, you will clock up a good number of miles up and down the hills and across the valleys and rice fields of Mae Hong Son. But the gorgeous views, incredible experience and sense of freedom are likely to take your mind off any weariness. And at the end of a long day in the fresh country air, you will be treated to a meal created with love and cooked with pride by your host family.
You are encouraged to join in with traditional activities such as making bamboo baskets and weaving. The cultural exchange is just one of the many benefits of Community Based Tourism. Local community guides like Khun Rangsri will take you under their wing as you learn about the local way of life and admire the skills and knowledge that have been handed down from generation to generation.
The weather can get chilly during the cool season, but the welcome in Ban Muang Pam is amongst the warmest you are likely to receive anywhere in Thailand. Expect the toilet to be outside and the shower to be cold. You will wake up early to the sounds of cockerels crowing. This is the village alarm clock. Embrace the experience. Embrace it all. Open the wooden shutters in your room, take in the cool air and witness the early morning mist over the scenic Mae Hong Son countryside. Switch off from the outside world. Connect with nature and feel the travails and stresses of modern life slowly slip away.
Book a Community Based Tourism trip in Thailand
For more details of Community Based Tourism initiatives in Thailand, visit CBT Network
For more photos and background on the community at Ban Muang Pam, check out their Facebook page here: Ban Muang Pam.