CHIANG RAI – Thai enthusiasm for entrepreneurial start-ups has seized on tourism, the country’s biggest income-earner, with a pair of businesses offering that can put tourists in residence with a Lahu hilltribe in Chiang Rai, go hunting for the ghost of Mae Nak and try all sorts of other interesting adventures.
TakeMeTour.com and LocalAlike.com are investing in what makes Thailand truly exotic and charming for both domestic and foreign travellers.
“The Thai way of life is often really unique,” says TakeMeTour co-founder Noppon Anukunwithaya. “Living with people in interesting situations, eating with them and sharing in their pastimes, you get to know their culture deeply. I experienced that when I toured Japan a few years ago with my Japanese friend, and I decided to offer the same here through this start-up.”
LocalAlike co-founder Suratchana Pakavaleetorn similarly discovered fascinating aspects of Thai culture firsthand, while researching sustainable development in Mai Fah Luang in northern Chiang Rai.
“I learned a lot about Lahu culture and their simple way of life, and my interest developed into this business.”
The two start-ups specialise in single-day outings or brief trips led by local guides and experts in specific fields.
Noppon and Amornched Jindaapirak started TakeMeTour two years ago with funding from private investment firm 500 TukTuks and technical support from Dtac Accelerate. It grew rapidly and currently has around 10,000 guides leading visitors from across Asia on tours to all corners of Thailand. It’s now booking five to 10 trips per day.
As well as pitching the simple ways of life that evoke nostalgia in most urban travellers, TakeMeTour’s promotions bear the catchphrases “Sanook” and “Feels Like Home”. You can cook a meal with a knowledgeable grandma, for example, and then sit down to enjoy it with her.
You can explore Bangkok’s nightlife or its best coffee emporiums, or find out where the coolest second-hand markets are. Foreign customers might ride the Skytrain for the first time, but they also pile into tuk-tuks and even sample motorbike-taxis.
Noppon reckons his operation is the largest of its kind in Thailand, offering more than 450 tours in 45 locations.
“Thailand is obviously a very attractive destination for people across the region, and in the top 10 globally in terms of the number of visitors. The tourism market is really huge,” he says.
“We have a lot of competitors booking tours here, but they’re all based overseas, in Japan, Singapore, the Netherlands, Spain, India – wherever. We’re the only firm focused strictly on Thailand, whereas the others offer tours in many countries – in fact they offer tour fragments of many countries.”
Suratchana and Somsak Boonkam run the homestay business, attracting tourists who enjoy “cultural travel” and bringing sustainable benefit to the communities they visit. LocalAlike was launched three years ago and has thus far handled almost 3,000 travellers.
Among the 30 communities on its destinations list, the most popular include Lahu mountain communities in Chiang Rai and a coconut plantation at Baan Lumklong in Samut Songkram. There are also 12 “social enterprise” projects, helpful outfits that can set up enriching experiences, such as getting a massage in the dark from a blind physiotherapist in Bangkok’s Sathorn district.
Customers might also have a go at growing organic rice or learn to make handicrafts, whether weaving textiles or sculpting an alms bowl for use by monks.
The time spent with the Lahu of Chiang Rai can include guided hikes, harvesting tea and playing traditional instruments.
“We do make a profit from the business, but we want support the local communities too,” says Suratchana. “It’s helps them in solving their own social issues, and in a sustainable way.”
To that end, LocalAlike has just launched “Klong Toei Tourism for Social Change” – visits to the Bangkok slum area arranged in conjunction with the Duang Prathep Foundation. The start-up trains residents to lead the tours and they can even set their own itineraries. Quite a few European tourists have paid Bt1,800 apiece to join the slumdwellers in their daily chores of mending clothes or making flower garlands to sell.
Visitors learn how to make the garlands and are then led to a community shrine to offer devotions. “They also learn the local wisdom,” Suratchana says. That same knowledge is the appeal behind deeper cultural forays on threeday trips to Nan, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Sukhothai.
“Most of our customers are foreigners, especially Europeans,” Suratchana says. “We have a few Thai customers too – they love our programmes because they want to help preserve their culture.”
While LocalAlike intends to keep its focus on Thailand, TakeMeTour is planning to reach further into Southeast Asia by the end of the year. It’s already seeking out qualified local guides.
“So far our biggest strength has been in recruiting local experts,” says Noppon. “Now we want to make sure we’re the first brand that travellers consider when planning a trip to Thailand. And then we’ll be offering tours to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.”
“We know from experience that, in developing countries that are rich in culture, like Thailand, we need to set up a local team in every country to help us.
“We’re also relaunching Pa Chan Tiew, our original business [http://PaChanTiew.takemetour.com], through which Thai travellers can arrange for Thai students living abroad to be their guides.
“Within the next five years we want to be a big regional player in this industry.”