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A boy from Koh Lon and his pet monkey

Island Aims to Promote Village Lifestyle

Saturday, May 10, 2008
HERE'S an invitation to be part of a living, breathing ecotourism experiment. Pack your bags, make a telephone call, and head for Koh Lon.

It's just 15 minutes by longtail from Chalong pier, but a whole world away from the hurly burly of Phuket.

Koh Lon, free from cars and stress, is caught at the heart of the same issue that grips the holiday resort island across Chalong Bay: how to find a balance between being a sweet place to live and the pace of a developing tourist hub.

The smaller island once contained a thriving Muslim community, but the young people have been drawn away to the bright lights and jobs in the big resorts.

Now the number of children at the local school is so small that it faces an uncertain future.

Yet among those who have not experienced it, the village lifestyle is suddenly popular all over again.

City dwellers want to go back for its slower pace and more meaningful relationships.

So the Koh Lon experiement is underway.

If Koh Lon can develop its own tourism niche, create some jobs, build its own small economy, the island and its traditional ways will be safe for generations to come.

By doing what comes naturally, the villagers could be saving a whole way of life.

Those of us who were fortunate to be on the first boatload of pioneer visitors one weekend recently can only say that readers should reach for the telephone now.

The villagers welcomed us in the most delightful fashion, catered to our every need, and couldn't have been more obliging and helpful.

We went for a 40-minute walk along the coast, passing beneath exotic fruit trees, enjoying a swing, chasing the chickens and roosters, and pausing while our guide picked some natural herbs for that evening's feast.

A boy on a bicycle pedalled after us, with his brown-eyed, blue-eyed pet monkey in the basket. We sat and had Muslim tea with a couple who invited up onto their verandah.

We swam among the bobbing longtails, looked over the residual damage from the 2004 tsunami, strolled past an inland pool, startling a small crocodile, then sat down for a feast.

The table groaned under local delicacies. Everything we ate was grown on the island or harvested from the surrounding sea.

''That's the best pineapple juice I've ever tasted,'' said another visitor. And that was before he'd tried the most tangy bananas in the world.

As the evening drew to a close, we were farewelled by a group of villagers carrying lighted torches.

A grandmother, acting as spokesperson, made her first-ever speech in English. She concluded with a heart-felt wish that we return to Koh Lon some day.

The lights of Chalong drew us back like moths in the dark. Was it fun? Yes. Romantic? You bet. Life in the village feels good.

In practical terms, the Koh Lon project has the support of several groups, including the Tourism and Sport Ministry and a European foundation, Hilfswerk Austria.

HA project manager, Khemwalai Theerasuwanajak, spent that first weekend in one of three family homestay destinations on the island.

She said the amount of accommodation would increase gradually, but the island already had the capacity to house as many as 100 visitors dormitory-style in the school and the mosque.

''What's important is to decide what the villagers themselves want from the project,'' she said. ''It will certainly help to give new life to the traditional ways and keep more local people on the island.''

The initial impetus for the project came from the villagers themselves, she said.

While generators are still essential for power on the island, most of the village houses scattered among the trees use solar power, too.

It's an ideal place to learn the secrets of self-sufficiency. The cost is 700 baht for one night, meals and activities included. Larger groups come at a substantial discount.

People who wish to be Koh Lon project pioneers and try world's tastiest pineapple juice should telephone Tourism and Sport on 076 217054 or Khun Promchote on 081 8697431.


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