Chilling Out in Rural Thailand: How a Holiday at Gecko Villa can Change Lives

ImageImageFull disclosure: One of my oldest friends is behind this Responsible Tourism venture in Thailand, but I give it my full support as it is testimony to his lifelong devotion to the cause of fighting rural exodus and providing decent livelihoods in rural communities. Many of the lowest wage workers in Bangkok, notably those in the sex trade, come from Isan, the northeastern part of Thailand that borders Laos. Gecko Villa, a fully catered holiday rental in that little known corner of Thailand, is a peaceful and beautifully appointed retreat where you can relax with all the creature comforts, enjoy home cooked food and experience the “real” Thailand – try to go there during rice planting/harvesting season for a real immersion experience!

Khun Ten, the owner of the villa, explained to me how it all works.

Q. Tourism in Thailand has for many years been a mainstay of this SE Asian economy, centered on specific destinations. The infrastructure on islands such as Phuket or Koh Samui, or in the coastal city of Pattaya is specifically geared to mass tourism, where international hotel chains dominate. So how do you attract independent visitors to the undiscovered northeast?

A.  It’s true that whilst the northeast of Thailand (locally called “Isan”) is the largest region in the country, it is visited by only one percent of international travelers. Yet we see this as a strong point:  we aim to offer something very different to visitors.  At the same time, we feel that the number of visitors seeking greater authenticity, and direct interaction with the locals, continues to grow. Most visitors will have found our detailed website themselves, but we also work with a select number of travel agents offering tailor-made holidays.

Q. How does a holiday at Gecko Villa differ from a normal hotel stay, or from a normal vacation rental?

A. In a number of ways – including the location, the user experience, the services provided and the activities offered.

The villa is a spacious and independent holiday villa set in the heart of the countryside – it is not just part of the room inventory of a larger hotel or resort – and is built around a private swimming pool that overlooks our adjoining rice paddies and plantations. I and my family and relatives live in a small village nearby.  We meet and greet guests at arrival to transfer them to the villa, and look after them throughout their stay. We  introduce them to the locals and to indigenous ways of life, and cook Thai meals for them. In a way, we have taken the concept of a normal holiday letting, but added catering and other services that would more typically be found in a resort (such as laundry, traditional Thai massage and more.)

We are happy to involve guests fully in the local ways of life.  Activities can include Thai wet market visits and cooking classes, visits to local schools and temples, tours of the listed wetlands of Nong Han, and boat trips on the stunning pink lotus lake nearby, as well as  excursions to the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Ban Chiang . The more adventurous may want to help out with the rice planting or harvesting, or go hunting for insects or field mice – unusual but traditional sources of protein.  Of course, if guests simply wish to relax by the pool, enjoy having their cooking done for them and indulge with a traditional Thai massage by the pool, these options are always open.

But I think the main factor that differentiates a holiday with us is the personal touch.  This is true from the outset – as the vast majority of our guests contact us directly via our website – right through to guests’ departure. Everyone involved at the villa has a direct interest in ensuring that visitors have an enjoyable stay, and I believe that the opposite is also true, as guests see that their holiday contributes directly to the well-being of all those involved – from the driver and the cook to the housekeepers and the massage therapists.

Q. You also underline the responsible travel aspects of holidays offered

Yes. Gecko Villa, from the outset, was rooted in the principles of responsible tourism. One of our main achievements has been preventing the typical separation of families and the migration of parents to Bangkok or overseas. Out of the rice planting and harvesting season, the vast majority of locals are still obliged to seek unskilled employment far from home, and this means that young children have traditionally been left with elderly grandparents. Creating local employment has enabled several families to stay together, promoting stability and a secure, local and individually empowering source of employment.

Many guests comment on how they will seek out a holiday that will impact the locals in a positive way, without passing through middlemen.  In turn, they enjoy a more authentic stay, being able to “go local.”  We are also very grateful to those guests who help the immediate local community – for example through  donations to the local village school or giving English lessons there. It has also meant access to better education and medical treatment for those involved.

Q. Can you share some of the eco-friendly initiatives you have integrated at the villa?

A. That’s an interesting question, as some of the practices at the villa that might be seen as “eco-friendly initiatives” are in fact traditions borne out of necessity, whilst others are more deliberate.

Traditional practices for example would include our rainwater harvesting. As there is no mains supply of water at the property, an environmentally aware and sustainable approach to water conservation is second nature. Guests will see large red water jars under the roof of each and every house in the local villages, as this harvesting has been undertaken for centuries.  Then take recycling. Again, this has been practiced for many, many years in most rural areas in Thailand, as well as in most cities, where “saleng” – or waste recyclers – separate plastics, metals, bottles and so forth from waste, selling it on to specific recycling facilities.

The trick is to then to try to extend such practices. As an example, promoting the use of banana leaves, rather than plastic bags, to wrap food, or a more controlled use of organic waste for the creation of fertilizers.

Likewise, equipping the property with power-efficient, energy-saving fittings and equipment makes a big difference, especially with items such as air-conditioners. And using a salt water chlorination process at the swimming pool avoids the use of powdered chlorine.

The Thai and Isan food prepared at the villa uses locally sourced ingredients. When you look out from the swimming pool over the rice paddies, you are looking at the very source of the rice we eat each day. We also grow our own lemongrass, basil, pea eggplants, tamarind, chili, mint, spring onions, mango, banana, limes and more.

Then there is the simple matter of design. The villa was built by local villagers, using the local and sustainable “Pradoo” wood, and a number of elements of the property reflect traditional practices aimed at a better integration with the environment. The high and pitched roof of the building, for example, and the villa’s extensive balconies, ensure maximum cooling breezes and ventilation, & shelter from the tropical sun. The construction of the house on raised pillars also helps ventilation, allows a quick run-off of rains, and reduces the risk of termites.

Q. You also mentioned reforestation in the area…

A. Vast expanses of Isan are dedicated to rice farming. Historically, this has meant that ancient forests have become more and more rare.  It is only recently that the locals have realized the need for biodiversity. We can only play a small part, but we hope to encourage others to join us as they gradually see the advantages.

Our approach has been twofold. On the one hand, we took an area of unproductive rice paddy fields adjoining the property and replanted this with indigenous trees, mixing in cash crops such as rubber trees with endangered species such as mahogany, teak, and local hardwoods. We hope that this will not only be a boon to the local flora and fauna, but also avoid the strain on water requirements and the production of methane that are typical in rice paddies.

On the other hand, we acquired a site of mature woodland originally destined for felling and conversion into rice paddies. Our aim here was again to help maintain the eco-system and natural wildlife, and reduce water requirements.

Q. Do you intend to expand the property at all ?

A. No. We want it to remain a family affair, to retain its authenticity and to continue to have a “small footprint.” After all, these elements are what attract guests. For the same reason, we never book two sets of guests into the villa at the same time – we want them to be assured of privacy, whilst nurturing direct interaction between guests and locals.

Note:

Gecko Villa is a 3 bedroom vacation rental sleeping up to six guests. Rates include the villa and private pool, airport transfers, freshly cooked, authentic Thai meals daily, and maid & laundry services. The minimum stay is only 2 nights.

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