Imagine staying in a touristic Thai town, liveable indeed but busy with cars, traffic, daily life activities, crowded shopping malls and normal parking problems. And imagine that, starting from this city, just a few minutes boat trip away, you can turn back in time and reach a place who is living a more traditional life style like it was 40 years ago.
It may sound quite strange for us, the Westerners, since in our countries it’d be unlikely to happen, but here in Krabi this place exists. Just descend from Krabi town to Tara Park, hire one of the many long tail boats, cross the Krabi river, get off in Koh Klang and you’ll see the hands of your watch quickly scrolling backwards.
Approaching the opposite coast of Krabi River you will soon realise that something is becoming different: an irregular bamboo canes fence to break waves caused by boats and protect the coast from erosion, the line of local boats parked and a host of simple wooden stilts, as per local tradition. The only reminder of the modern world is the wharf where mini ferries load and unload people and scooters. The turbans, the chadors and the clothing of the fishermen, consumed by life and by the salt, take the place of jeans, t-shirts and shirts; the rhythms are slower, smiles more genuine.
Singing Bird Contest
Moving inward and looking back, you have the feeling that the world and its little miseries are fading away: spectacular sceneries of palm trees, water buffaloes and white herons take over, and even if some changes are taking place and the wish of some comforts, especially in housing, is becoming a reality, it’s also evident the desire to keep the traditions alive. So, if you are lucky enough to arrive on the right day at the right time, you may run into a singing birds contest:
Dozens of wooden cages, each containing a “red-whiskered bulbul”, are lined hanging from a frame. Near the cages a couple of judges who observe carefully the performance of the winged little champions, a man sitting on the sidelines ahead of a basin of water calculates time with a prehistoric method and all around the audience is formed mostly by owners of birds and several curious.
I have to admit that at my first attendance as a spectator I didn’t understand that much of the contest, but what impressed me was that, despite the methods of judgment being anything but scientific, I did not notice any doubts or hints of a dispute. The little winner won for his master the sum of 500 baht, making clear that its market value of about 50,000 baht is not undeserved.
Traditional Fishing Community
Koh Klang is a charming, peaceful island, not a tropical “paradise” of white sandy beaches, but a traditional fishing community where visitors can see the tight relationship between islanders and the sea. It is mainly populated by Muslims and Islam is the center of local life, so that prayers and Islamic festivals are devotedly observed. The majority of the inhabitants work in agriculture, most of them are fishermen or farmers: rice farming is one of the highlights of the island due to the quality of the rice.
Koh Klang is in fact the producer of a traditional strain of brown rice called “Khao Sang Yot”, generated by rice seeds coming from Patthalung Province and grown in a soil where fresh and salt water find their perfect balance. Farmers conserve the practice and the spirit of traditional rice farming, working together in the fields, side by side, to plant, usually in August, and harvest in December.
Artisans are another expression of the culture of Koh Klang’s people. Proceeding by tuk tuk inside the island, there are two places that should not be missed.
Long Tail Boat
Mr. Sombun Mankha’s workshop is a place where the art of building “Hua Tong”, the local long tail boats, is handed down from the memory of the past to the new generations. His father, Mr. Matdap, was a master boat builder for over 50 years and when in 2002 Krabi’s governor was looking for a unique souvenir to reflect the identity of the province, he suggested a model fishing boat.
Intending to preserve the memory of the past lifestyle of the residents, Mr. Sombun organised a group of boat builders who started to make miniature of long tail boats. Today he is very proud to have been able to pass his father’s ancient wisdom of boat building to the future generations.
Last time I went to the Island I couldn’t meet with him as he was in Bangkok, teaching his art in a university, a clear proof of his ability and popularity.
Pateh Grandma Prachim Lekdam
Don’t call them batik, they are “pateh” and the custodian of this art form is Grandma Prachim Lekdam, whose ancestors came from Malaysia. To be true to her origins, she decided to go and learn about pateh in Naratiwat province.
The difference between pateh and batik is in the pattern-making. In the production of pateh, metal blocks with intricate and complex designs are used, while for batik patterns are made with a tool called “canting” that contains hot wax for application on the clothes.
Grandma’s motifs are inspired by nature and the island’s ways of life; visitors can experience designing and making their own colourful souvenirs. Like Mr. Sombun, Grandma Prachim established a group that now counts 30 members who, besides the handing down of this art, provide the younger generations an important source of income in addition to fishing.
Cruising Along Mangroves
Moreover, the islanders’ attention to their traditions has developed a form of niche tourism who is attracted not only by the human aspect but also by the natural environment of caves, canals and mangrove forests that surround the whole island. A boat trip along the canals, before visiting the village, is a full sensorial discovery and allows the visitors to get a complete view of this little world and ecosystem.
Cruising along mangroves, besides the fish farms located here and there along the canal, visitors can spot birds, lizards, monkeys and, if you have a good sight, some snakes twisted lazily around the mangrove roots. At low tide, as if by magic, the muddy banks will fill with small fishes known as mudskippers, which are able to “walk” on the sand, and with several species of crabs, including the “fiddler crab” who are known for their dimorphic claws: in males one claw is much larger than the other.
Thanks to their fishing lifestyle and local Muslim culture, and their ability of making use of the rich natural resources surrounding them, the Koh Klang Villagers have an outstanding local community that has received numerous awards, including the “Outstanding Community Tourism Award” and the “Thailand Tourism Award” on the occasion of His Majesty the King’s Birthday Anniversary on December 5th 2007 by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).