Pickup trucks lined up in rows in a car park at the Huai Luek checkpoint. In a nearby gazebo, a group of drivers waited for customers who wanted to hire them for a safari tour inside Kui Buri National Park in Prachuap Khiri Khan.
"Show me your ticket and wait here," said an officer of the park. She told me to wait for a local guide who would accompany me to explore the park. A student guide showed up with binoculars. Visitors can also rent them at the information centre at the checkpoint.
Observing the park’s wildlife requires some luck. Late afternoon is the recommended period for the safari. Lucky visitors will have a chance to see a herd of elephants and gaurs. The wildlife pictures were taken years ago when I visited the park around the end of July. At that time I saw two herds of elephants and a large herd of gaurs munching grass on another hill. But I was not as fortunate this time. I spot only one young elephant running quickly from one bush to another bush in the forest. My guide and I wait patiently for others to come out. Finally we give up. My guide said other elephants would not show up because they might smell us.
When we were ready, the guide told our chauffeur to leave the station. The tour would lead me to a 15km route where wild elephants and gaurs can regularly be spotted.
The service is the cooperation between the national park and Ban Ruam Thai village, a nearby community. The aim is to promote eco-tourism and help generate income to the villagers.
Ban Ruam Thai is situated about 20km from Tanao Sri mountain range, the border between Thailand and Myanmar. It was founded in 1978 following the government's policy to allocate farmland to those who volunteered to settle down in the area, which was once known as a red zone, in the days when communism was seen as a security threat.
During the early years, about 150 families moved in. They came from different parts of the country, especially from the Northeast. Some of them were former soldiers. As a result, the village is named Ban Ruam Thai, meaning the gathering of Thai people.
Each family received a 20 rai plot of land for farming and another three rai for building a house. They have the right to live in the allocated land but can't sell it as the title deed belongs to the Forest Department.
At present, the community is home to 600 families with a populations of about 2,000. Most are farmers, with pineapples as the dominant crop. Each family also grows vegetables and herbs for their kitchens, following the sufficiency economy philosophy of King Bhumibol Adulyadej or King Rama IX. Some also raise chicken and tilapia.
Making mulberry leaf tea (cha bai mon) is an activity to be enjoyed while visiting the Ban Ruam Thai community. Somporn Kritchakul, a member of Cha Bai Mon Group, shows me how she turns green mulberry leaves into tea. I chop the fresh leaves and roast them in a large wok. I wear a cotton glove and put my hand on the chopped leaves before circling them on the hot pan. From time to time I have to flip them over and repeat the circling process until the leaves dry. Before being packaged, the tea leaves must be put in an oven to make sure the leaves are truly dry in order to make the shelf life last longer.
A few years ago, the community wanted to promote tourism activities to generate extra income for villagers. They found their strength in processing agricultural products and introduced nine workshops as well as homestay services to attract tourists.
The workshops let visitors learn more about their lives including a visit to a pineapple farm where visitors can help farmers harvest pineapples. Other workshops provide lessons in making paper from pineapple leaves, roasting mulberry leaves for tea and creating snacks made from jackfruit.
"Making pineapple paper is one of the most popular activities. It shows visitors how we can turn abandoned leaves into value-added products like paper boxes and fans," said Namfon Eiamsaard, the deputy village head.
Pineapple is also used for popular village-created products, including pineapple soap and hand sanitiser, she said.
During my visit, I learned how to make the pineapple hand sanitiser and mulberry leaf tea.
"We grow mulberry trees in a 150-rai plot of land. In the past, we grew trees only for feeding silkworms. Today we can also sell organic mulberry tea," said Chamnian Polrat, chairwoman of the Mulberry Leaf Tea Group.
The group has 15 members who also raise silkworms for producing silk yarns. The group does not weave silk cloth. They sell all their yellow silk yarns to the Queen Sirikit Department of Sericulture's Chumphon Office. "I like our visitors to try our tea. The smell is nice and it is good for health," she said.
Ban Ruam Thai also arranges meals, which for me was a set lunch. They are keen in welcoming group visitors because most of their tourists are government agencies or school students. After lunch, I wandered around the community before it was time for the safari tour. The Kui Buri National Park allows the service to operate in the late afternoon, the time when wildlife roam around for food.
The park covers an area of 969km² that straddles Kaeng Krachan National Park to its north and Tanao Sri mountain range. Thirty percent of Kui Buri's forest cover is formed by deciduous trees, 40% is dry evergreen forest and the rest a tropical rainforest.
The forest is also the origin of the Kui Buri River, which has spawned at least four waterfalls in the park. The park is home to some 250 elephants and about 150 gaurs. It is widely known as a place where visitors can observe wild elephants and gaurs in their habitats. Since the park resumed operations on July 1, it has limited visitors to 200 people a day. The Huai Luek checkpoint has an additional 40 spots for walk-in visitors. Every tourist is required to wear a mask and check in with the Thai Chana app before taking a pickup ride.
A pick-up truck is modified to serve tourists. The tour can last about a couple of hours, depending on the day and needs of the tourists. During the tour, you may spot birds including the oriental pied hornbill.
The large Jamaican cherry tree (takhob) is grown in the front yard of Namfon Eiamsaard’s house. It is my first time trying the red takhob fruits. This little fruit, about 1.5cm in diameter, has a sweet taste. When ripe, the fruit can be used for making local wine. Namfon also offers a homestay service. Her house can accommodate up to four guests.
Namfon Eiamsaard hosts a workshop in making pineapple hand sanitiser which is quite useful during the Covid-19 pandemic. The hand sanitiser has 70% alcohol and also has a good smell of pineapple juice. The group also producespineapple hand cream (60 baht), liquid soap (80 baht) and charcoal soap (50 baht).
Farmers in Ban Ruam Thai grow pineapples and raise cattle including oxen and goats for sale. Some plots of land were cleared during the dry season for growing crops like para grass, Congo grass and Napier grass for sale and for feeding their animals.
A lunch set is prepared and served next to the Tourist Information Centre and the village’s Otop shop. Choices are plenty including dishes cooked with pineapples. Although I like fresh pineapple and pineapple juice, I do not like pineapple in cooked meals. I preordered other choices of food like chicken soup with gourd, deep-fried fish with garlic and nam phrik (a chilli dip). Most of the vegetables are homegrown and chemicalfree. The food is delicious. Their dessert also is good. It’s my first time to eat kaeng buat khanun (jackfruit in sweet coconut milk). The fruit has a nice chewy texture. After a big lunch, I still can finish two dessert bowls.
Ban Ruam Thai has a One Tambon One Product (Otop) shop, currently under renovation, that sells local products made by community members. Among them are deep-fried jackfruit, pan sib sai thua (mini-puffs stuffed with ground mung bean), nam phrik khluay (banana chilli paste) and mulberry leaf tea.
- The ride was a bit rough and dusty because the pickup truck runs on a dirt road. But it would be a rewarding trip if you can spot the wildlife.
- The road to Ban Ruam Thai is in good condition. The community can arrange a tour package including workshops and lunch or dinner sets. For more information, contact Namfon Eiamsaard, deputy village head at 082-731-2226 or visit its Facebook page at facebook.com/baanruamthai.
- Kui Buri National Park is open daily. It can accommodate 200 visitors per day. Booking is required via QueQ app (available for both iOS and Android devices). A safari tour is available at the Huai Luek Checkpoint. A pickup truck can accommodate up to eight passengers. The price is 850 baht excluding an entrance fee to the national park. The service is available from 2pm-5pm daily. For more information and booking for the safari service, call Huai Luek Checkpoint at 065-994-2680.
- For information about Kui Buri National Park, call its tourist information centre at 032-510-453 and 081-776-2410.