Have you ever wondered what Thailand was like before the Full Moon parties, before every strip of coastline became lined with villas and hotels? Wondered if it was possible to see a more genuine side to the country as a visitor? I was in Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan 23 years ago, and even then it was banana pancakes and European techno all night long. And from speaking to friends who have been to islands that then were unknown specks, mythical places as personified in Alex Garland’s The Beach, the commodification of the country for tourist pleasure has only spread.
But not everywhere. There’s really only one place to stay in Ko Pet – Lamai Homestay – designed and built by Welshman Jimmy and his Thai wife Lamai to bring money into one of the poorest and most unchanged parts of Thailand and help the community keep its soul, not sell it away.
Everything about a visitor’s stay here is designed to open the doors to a side of Thai life you’ll never see on the beach or the Khao San Road, but also to ensure that tourists’ presence doesn’t affect it. Here the tours offer a privileged chance to witness life as it is really experienced by local people, not staged for an audience. Shopping for food at the local market. Or food-foraging and capturing the same wildlife eaten by the village people and which are all plentiful in the local environment, which means catching and frying scorpions and spiders – a favourite local snack. Learning about the process of rice planting and harvesting. And watching the water buffalo amble home as the sun sets over the paddies at the end of the day. Life is uncomplicated here, and this is what visitors love.
For all the tours, guests are accompanied by Lamai, who ensures that they get a genuine local insight into all that is going on, yet also that their presence is not impinging upon the villagers’ way of life. Furthermore, the homestay employs local people on a rotating basis to demonstrate crafts – silk-making, basket-weaving, mat-making, food-foraging. This ensures everyone can benefit financially. And Jimmy and Lamai make sure that many of these people working with them will be women who are for whatever reason unable to work in the rice fields – mothers with small children, pregnant ladies, elderly or disabled women.
This commitment to the integrity of its community and environment runs through everything the homestay does – all the food is sourced locally, their gardens are teeming with local wildlife, everything that can be is recycled. And in a country that has long been beset by issues over tourism and the treatment of children, their policy is up front and very clear: “Children under the age of 16 are not employed at any time. Visitors are requested to be very sensitive in their treatment of children and to report to Lamai the behaviour of any tourist which could be construed as exploitative in any way.”
A business like this should be full every day of the year. But the bitter irony is that their strengths – being truly off the beaten track, enabling a deep, authentic connection to real life, also provide the hardest challenge. Not one tour company has agreed to make them part of their itineraries, despite the homestay having won countless awards, including most recently the Thailand Green Excellence in Tourism Awards in 2013.
So it is a constant struggle to bring in business. But for anyone seeking to provide their guests with the chance to discover and savour another side of Thailand, or even just the chance to unwind away from touts and backpacking hordes, there are few places left like Lamai Homestay. As one visitor wrote about staying here:
“We learned more about Thailand in our first hour with Jimmy than in our first two weeks in Thailand.”