Sunset at a peaceful beach in Trat’s Khlong Yai. Karnjana Karnjanatawe
The sandy beach of Hat Banchuen in Trat’s Khlong Yai district stretches out many kilometres, but there are not many visitors. Apart from a few locals, it is hard to find foreign tourists.
As I strolled along the beach trying to catch ghost crabs, a group of children were building a sand castle. During the half an hour I spent on the beach, there was no passing food vendor nor masseuse to interrupt the serenity.
“Khlong Yai has many beautiful and quiet beaches,” said Sutarak Sunthornviphart, acting managing director of Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (Dasta)’s Area 1 Office overseeing Koh Chang and its vicinity.
The beaches are low profile and are not on the tourism radar. Tourists travelling to Trat tend to go to the famous islands of Koh Chang, Koh Mak and Koh Kood instead, he said.
Some visitors may want to travel to Khlong Yai to visit the Ban Hat Lek border market or to cross the border to Cambodia’s Koh Kong, famous for casinos.
There are communities in Khlong Yai and Koh Kong that have the potential to be developed as tourist destinations, said Sutarak.
Dasta surveyed the coastal area along the bordertowns and found four potential fishing communities. They are Laem Klat, Mai Rud, Khlong Yai and Hat Lek. Dasta helped each of them form a community-based tourism club and designed tourism programmes.
“Our aim is to help locals to have sustainable tourism development and to encourage visitors to Trat to spend either one or two nights in the local communities,” he said.
According to Ban Laem Klat village headman Rawee Silaart, the fishing village has activities for visitors like fishing or learning to make artificial habitats for marine life.
Apart from promoting local communities, Dasta wants to develop a tourism network between the two bordertowns in Trat and Koh Kong province in Cambodia.
The agency has worked with the Trat Tourism Association to launch the Khlong Yai-Koh Kong route after a memorandum of understanding was signed by Trat and Koh Kong governors last year.
Visitors who cross Khlong Yai to Koh Kong can explore local fishing communities, as well as a large mangrove reserve in Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary.
Visitors from Thailand can also travel by land to other cities in Cambodia, including Phnom Penh, the capital, about 300km away, or to coastal cities like Sihanoukville, also known as Kampong Som, about 200km away.
The road to Koh Kong is in good condition. There are not many cars on the road except for passing trucks from time to time. Along the way, I saw farmlands and forests and sometimes people when we were close to villages. It was a scenic ride.
After one and a half hours on Road No. 48, our van stopped at a restaurant close to the Virak Bunthan Bus Station. A few vendors spoke Thai and greeted us with a “sawadee kha“. They were selling cooked venison and boar meat.
Our guide said that Koh Kong also housed Thai communities. Historical records show that Koh Kong was once governed by Siam and the province was called Prachan Khiri Khet, during the reign of King Rama IV before it was returned to Cambodia during the French colonial period more than a century ago.
I met a married couple named Pad, 73, and Riang Photiwan, 72, in a hamlet inside the Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary. They are fisherfolk who farm fish and clams. Although they have a house and children living in Khlong Yai in Trat, they do not want to lose the business of their ancestors in Koh Kong.
“During my parent’s time, we were not allowed to speak Thai,” recalled Pad, adding that it was illegal.
Things have changed since the end of the Cambodian civil war. The baht is accepted by local restaurants, convenience stores and even by vendors selling coconut water.
After lunch, we reached a pier in Kiri Sakor where a huge beachfront resort offering three 18-hole golf courses, owned by Chinese investors, has recently opened.
We took a boat to Koh Sdach (King Island, which is also known as Koh Chao in Thai). The island is about 1.5km off the coast of Koh Kong and is a resort island for Cambodians, according to Phutsa Siri, deputy village chief of Koh Sdach.
“Cambodians love to visit the island for fresh seafood. During the long holidays, accommodation is always fully booked,” she told me in Thai.
Koh Sdach is home to a fishing community. They built their houses or huts on stilts. While I wandered around the village, I found that the locals are friendly and not camera-shy. They always smiled or teased each other in front of my camera.
It was a pity that we did not have a chance to try their seafood, but I tried the fresh coconut water (30 baht). The sweetness helped cool me down from the almost unbearable afternoon sun.
From the deserted beaches fringed by coconut trees in Khlong Yai in Trat to the unspoilt fishing villages in Koh Kong, the two bordertowns have something to offer to tourists other than casinos.
The long and quiet beach of Hat Banchuen. Inset, ghost crabs on the beach. Karnjana Karnjanatawe
Children play with a tricycle on Koh Sdach. Karnjana Karnjanatawe
Rawee Silaart, the Ban Laem Klat Village headman, displays an ovigerous female blue crab saved in the village’s nursery called the Blue Crab Bank. The facility was built five years ago to help increase the number of crabs. The bank is operated by Ban Laem Klat Tourism Club and has about 50 members. They have an agreement that when an ovigerous crab is captured, it has to be released in the nursery. When the eggs hatch, they are released back to the sea. To help increase the crab survival rate, club members make an artificial habitat, which is made of frayed nylon rope attached to the middle of a concrete box. They release the box to the sea. Over the years, the habitat has helped increase the number of blue crabs, shrimps, fish and squid, said the headman. Visitors are encouraged to participate in the club’s activities by making an artificial habitat (500 baht a box) or release a crab back to the sea (30 baht per basket). Karnjana Karnjanatawe
These collections are exhibited in the Sala Ratchakarun building of the Thai Red Cross Centre in Ban Khao Lan in Khlong Yai. The museum displays stories of its former refugee occupants, including their personal belongings and handicrafts that they made while living in camps. The refugee camp was initiated by Her Majesty Queen Sirikit in 1979 to help more than 90,000 Cambodians who escaped the country’s civil war and landed in Ban Khao Lan. After seven years of operation, the camp was closed in 1986 when most of the refugees were resettled in third countries, according to the centre manager Suwan Pimolsaengsuriya. The place was abandoned until it was reopened as a museum in 1994, following the advice of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, president of the Thai Red Cross Society. In addition to the museum, the centre also houses beachfront accommodation, including camping sites. Karnjana Karnjanatawe
This fishing community of Boeng Kayak (or Ban Kayak by Thais) is well-known for its dried shrimp. At Boeng Kayak, visitors can walk on a 1km walkway to explore the mangrove forest. Karnjana Karnjanatawe
Koh Sdach is a quiet fishing community. You can wander around the village while sipping cold sugarcane juice or coconut water, or find a comfortable seat in a restaurant to watch fishermen take their boats out to sea. It was also lovely to see children playing along the alleys on little tricycles. Locals said that the island has good snorkelling spots. Karnjana Karnjanatawe
A long tail boat is used as transport by locals who live in small communities in the Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary, the largest mangrove forest in Cambodia. Visitors can also ride a long tail boat operated by the Boeng Kayak Tourism Club to visit fishing communities or to view the sunset behind the huge mangrove forest. Karnjana Karnjanatawe
Ban Hat Lek border market is next to the Khlong Yai immigration office. Behind a row of old shophouses, there are small alleys where visitors can find small stalls offering dried food, fresh seafood, clothes, fashion accessories, electronic devices and items for home decoration. Karnjana Karnjanatawe