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Lost in the Mangrove

On a homestay and cruise in the southern mangrove village of Leeled, discover a way of life quite un-Thai and a heartening lesson on how villagers are reversing environmental damage they’ve wrought on Nature. It’s an eco-tourism adventure.

The boat quietly pulls away from the Leeled dock. Within moments, we are deep in a maze of quiet canals that wind through a mangrove forest that, a few years ago, was open sea. Kingfishers flash electric blue as they dart through the nipa and lampoo (Sonneratia) trees, crab-eating macaques cavort in the upper branches, a heron stands stilt-like in the shallows, waiting to spear a fish. Barely visible to one side, a shy water monitor glides gracefully among the tangled tree roots.

We cruise through a lost world whose plants suggest a pre-historic rainforest. The setting is pristine, pre-human; the clear water is free of trash.. It is hard to believe that four short years ago, this was a cesspool.

Leeled is a small coastal village nine km. northeast of Suratthani, the southern Thailand departure point for popular beach resorts of Koh Samui and Koh Phang-ngan. Its stilt houses dot the thick mangrove that walls the town off from the Gulf of Thailand. Here, visitors discover a Thailand unlike any they’ve experienced.

Arcing 3,219 km. between Cambodia and Malaysia (and, on the Andaman Sea, between Myanmar and Malaysia) Thailand’s coastline is divided roughly 10-to-1 between golden sand beaches and mangrove. In the past few decades, these coastal forests have been devastated by villagers cutting nipa and other trees to make charcoal and fishing stakes and by shrimp farmers who fouled the marshlands and polluted the water.

“By 2000, the water had turned black and we had no place to bathe,” Leeled’s Kamnan (village leader) Prasert Chanjukorn said. “Fish yields dropped and we were battered by storms because we had no natural barrier between us and the sea. We decided we had to do something about it.”

Leeled rose to this daunting challenge with surprising speed, becoming model for villagers here and abroad. It has also turned one of Thailand’s overlooked regions into a magnet for visitors.

The starting point for a tour is the Nature Learning Center. It was built as part of a Community-Based Tourism (CBT) project to educate Thais and foreigner about mangrove forest eco-systems and their vital importance. Visitors explore it on eco-tours organized by tour agencies in Bangkok and Suratthani.

Based in one of 13 village homestays, the traveler ventures out to learn how the villagers harvest, but do not exploit, the area’s rich natural resources. At high tide, they gather nipa palms, forceped fiddler crabs, mollusks; they set crab traps, and fishing nets. At low tide, they collect hard clams, mollusks, fish, and crabs. In the waning moon, they journey into the sea to look for shrimp.

Half of Leeled’s 4,500 people grow coconuts, palm oil, and fruit; a third raises shrimp or fish for crabs; 20% are open sea fishermen; and the rest pursue occupations that utilize raw materials from the mangrove. It was to preserve their lifestyle that in 2000, the villagers sat down to map out means to counter damaging practices and take shared responsibility for the mangrove’s health.

Effluvia flowed down the river, trees were cut wantonly, garbage and chemicals were dumped into the waterways by shrimp farmers, and the waters were overfished. Aided by an EU grant, they established CBT and began devising means to counter the eco-problems.

To eliminate the ammonia by-product produced by shrimp and fish farmers, they transformed fetid shrimp feces into nature fertilizer. They placed a ban on dumping of garbage into the waterways, and formed a collection system to dispose of it. They prohibited the use of fishing equipment less than three km. from the outermost tree.

Recognizing that trees were the key to a healthy environment, they reserved a two-acre sanctuary as a breeding habitat for plants and aquatic life. In the open areas, they limited tree harvesting to allow the cleared areas to re-seed naturally. On a boat ride, the guide proudly shows us groves of trees that have grown to seven meters in only four years, increasing the 2005 forested area by half to an impressive 3,127 acres. When we enter the sea, he points to where small trees are now poking their heads above the water, extending the shoreline an astonishing 1.2 km. into the Gulf. Tourism here is participatory and visitors are invited to plant lampoo trees in still-bare areas.

The village has also built a 470-meter concrete walkway so visitors can stroll deep into the mangrove. Illustrated signs provide details about the various plants and their uses. The predominant lampoo trees provide edible leaves, and a sour young lampoo fruit that is a key ingredient in delicious dishes. Ripe fruit become animal feed. This softwood’s beautiful, delicate flowers are blended into a dry, red curry. If left overnight in the open air, the nearly-opened flower yields a sweet sap. Boiled into syrup, the sap becomes the prime ingredient in two sweets: Khanom Tang Mei (a sweet, chewy candy wrapped in nipa leaves) and Khanom Jak Ping (a delicious sweet made from sticky rice flour, raw cane sugar, and shredded fresh coconut wrapped in nipa leaves and charcoal-grilled on low heat). Sample either at a village house.

Also populating the brackish water is the Coastal leather fern whose young leaves are edible. The bark of the Portia tree is processed into rope and caulking material for boats.

The forest is also filled with medicinal plants like Acanthus (sea holly). Its trunk and seeds are said to cure cancer, abscesses and lymph system disorders. Convolvulacae remedies indigestion, and Aegialtes rotundifolia cures loss of appetite, dizziness, gastric distress, and menstruation disorders.

The mangrove is also home to black tiger shrimp (farmed extensively and used in kapi fish paste), banana shrimp, blue swimming crab (weighing more than 500 grams, the Forceped fiddler crab with its huge right claw, mullet, catfish, damsel fish, horse mussel, cockle, and Tok mollusk (used as duck food).

The waterways once nurtured crocodiles, so many that villagers were compelled to build pens in the canals in which to bathe. After Indian merchants began trapping them for their hides, they were quickly eradicated. Now, only the water monitor plies the waterways in search of food. It is reclusive and only becomes a problem when it gets into a farm pond and eats the fish. Generally, it generally flees at the sight of humans and nobody gets excited and reaches for his/her gun.

At low tide, Mud Skippers (lungfish) slither across moist mud flats, mimicking the cartoons of evolutionary animals crawling from a sea-based to land-based existence.

Fish and shellfish are caught in a Pong (Chon Peek), a V-shaped fishing trap made of stakes and set in the sea. The Chengleng, a cone-shaped bamboo trap, is set on a line and sunk into the sea or in a canal to catch shrimp, catfish, and crab. The Krum is an imitation reef that lures salt-water catfish, damselfish, mullet, and shrimp into a false sense of security, whereupon they are trapped.

Among the notable insects are the gigantic Goliath moth (the world’s largest), whose wings are a handspan in width. At night, the visitor rides a boat along the canals to observe clusters of fireflies that hang in the trees and blink yellowish green in perfect synchronicity to attract mates. In addition, flightless fireflies resident in the mud banks blink their beacons. Both can be observed through the year but are most active during the waning moon.

To capitalize on their abundance of natural resources and to generate income for women, two occupation groups were created. One uses nipa fronds and leaves as its raw material. The second group produces kapi, the shrimp paste that is a vital ingredient in Thai cuisine. Both groups invite visitors to watch demonstrations of their skills.

On an open platform, villagers weave rattan and nipa they collect from the coastline, with bamboo which they buy. Insects may devour the house frame but the nipa roofing is impervious for 3-5 years. Elsewhere, villagers strip a nipa stalk into two thin tissues. After drying, these papery sheets are sent to Thailand’s North to be wrapped around local tobacco to produce homemade cigarettes. The craft provides a family with a 200-baht per day income.

Another cottage industry is kapi production. Small shrimp are sun-dried, then mixed with one kg. of salt and pounded in a large mortar. After fermenting for two days (the scent permeates the air), the mash is placed in the sun again. After a second pounding, it is ready for sale. Three kg. of fresh shrimp makes one kg. of kapi which sells for 110 baht; the average family can produce 100 kg. per day. It is an important ingredient in Thai dishes but visitors are offered it with makam (tamarind) pods. The combination is sour and salty but, surprisingly tasty.

Villagers also raise swallows in a windowless six-story building erected solely for the purpose. On the ground floor, a sound system broadcasts swallow calls (which sound like bat screeches) to attract the birds. The nests they build are sold for high prices for birds’ nest soup popular among the Chinese.

One can also observe Duang, or coconut worms that look like fat, thumb-sized maggots. They feed on a coconut palm pulp and after one month are fried and eaten.

While mangrove exploration is Leeled’s primary tourist offering, there is culture in abundance. Village elders have revived the nearly-moribund Likay Pa “southern Thai folk opera” and Manohra, encouraging professional actors and actresses teach local children the dance steps. Visitors can arrange an evening of these unique performances which present dramas of ordinary life. The eldest actress in the village is 93-year-old Yai Niem who sits impassive until the music transforms her into a sprightly 18-year-old.

Leeled’s predominant Buddhist parishioners worship at five monasteries. Most are of marginal architectural merit, the most attractive being Wat Phra Anon, atop one of Leele’s two hills. More intriguing is the monument on the second hill, Khao Sivichai. Thailand’s Fine Arts Department suspects that it may be an ancient Brahman site that in ancient times was an island. A Department team has been excavating it since 2004 providing the visitor with a glimpse of a Srivijaya-period (7th-13th centuries AD) site.

An eco-stay in Leeled represents a foray into a little-known but fascinating facet of Thai life. It rewarding as much for its wealth of activities as for the knowledge that, through its innovative approaches, it has pulled itself from the poorest district in the province to one of the wealthiest. The visitor is the richer for it.

You will need an English-speaking guide and transportation to, from, and within Leeled; both can be arranged through Bangkok or Suratthani travel agencies. To gain the full experience of interacting with the gracious villagers it is recommended that you stay for three days although it is possible to reside in Suratthani and make day trips.

A motorboat ride through the mangroves is only one of many highlights of a three-day visit. A six-passenger boat costs 850 baht for a 2.5-3 hour trip. It departs from the Ecology Center which also offers free use of six plastic kayaks, although it is advisable that one hire a guide.

One can take classes in kapi production, plant trees, make nipa roofing, and work on a fishing boat, day or night. At night, arrange a cultural performance and/or travel a canal under a starlit sky created by hundreds of fireflies.

Leeled’s website, leeledcbt@hotmail.com, is currently offered only in Thai but will soon be presented in English as well.

January-October is best, although some monsoon rain may fall during the latter part of the year.

Holidays with which to coincide a visit.

June: Suad Klong Day (Canal Chanting Day). In the morning, villagers build a small raft of banana plant sheathes. They place flowers, candles, joss sticks, locks of hair, small nail clipping, and scraps of clothing on it and, as monks board it to chant scriptures, it is cast adrift along the canal, bearing villagers’ bad luck to the sea.

October full moon: Grandma-Grandpa Welcoming Day. The Master of Hell allows the spirits of ancestors to receive merit from their children. Villagers offer foods and sweets to the monks at the temples.

October 15th day of waning moon [new moon] :On Grandma-Grandpa Farewell Day, the spirits return to Hell. There is more food, and monks chant.

November full moon day or waning moon day: Chak Pra-Tod Phaa Paa. On the day prior to commencement of the celebrations, monks decorate car and boat floats with mythical figures. Trees and bushes are also wrapped in monk robes. The following day, a convey winds through the streets and a boat procession wends its way through the canals. Robes are offered to monks.


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