Beyond the sightseeing bus

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CHIANG RAI, 7 September 2018: Promoting secondary destinations exposes the urgent need to source more travel experiences and connect visitors with local experts.

In theory, travel experiences go beyond pressing your face up to the window of a tour bus to peer into someone else’s world.

The term became popular with tour companies that recognised an urgent need to reinvent themselves and offer distinct experiences that could not be purchased directly on the Internet.

It inferred the company had recruited a local expert, someone with a skill, or a story to tell, that would fascinate ‘new gen’ travellers keen to learn, or participate, rather than be a spectator.

As I reside in Chiang Rai one of Thailand’s so called “emerging destinations,” I thought I check out its budding travel experiences.

AirBnB is famed for launching super hosts who point the way to “experiences,” but out of all the property options for rent in Chiang Rai, just one came close to offering an experience beyond bed and breakfast.  Malee Homestay, run by the daughter of an Akha village chief, claims it will throw you in the deep-end of an authentic Akha experience; cold water showers, no electricity, no Wi-Fi in a location high on a mountain ridge.

Most of the options focusing on Chiang Rai remain the passive sightseeing variety. The top 15 things you should do in Chiang Rai take you on a spin of colour-coded temples, an art gallery and tea tasting in a plantation or coffee tasting on a mountaintop. The nearest you come to an active, or a learning experience, is perhaps boiling eggs at a hot spring that is precisely 90 km from town, halfway to Chiang Mai.

There’s a hint of adventure in the zipline ride at Singha Park for around 15 seconds and the recent addition of a tree-walk, high above the gardens of Doi Tung could be termed an experience.

But for the most of it, if you ask a Chiang Rai resident where the travel nuggets are hiding you are likely to receive a blank stare.

The travel industry has to do a much better job at identifying viable travel experiences and they need to be led by local experts who can add value far beyond what the traditional guide can deliver.

For what it’s worth there are five cooking classes in Chiang Rai identified online, of which one claims to teach you the secrets of the Akha kitchen and the rest presumably dish out an elementary encounter with Thai cooking; Tom Yam Kung, Massaman and a sweet sticky dessert after quick tour of a local market.

If your hobby or lifestyle habit happens to be meditation, or the study of Buddhism, then Chiang Rai offers a weekly class conducted in English attended by expatriates and short-stay visitor. The sessions, every Tuesday, are led by a Buddhist monk who is also the dean and professor at the town’s Buddhist university.

There are daily yoga classes in town and two serious retreats set in beautiful surroundings outside the city. One offers meditation and yoga stays with three vegetarian meals daily included in the rate, while the other offers in-house rehabilitation to resolve addictions and speed up recovery.

But for a province that tags “art” in its timeline promotions, Chiang Rai needs to do better at introducing the vast wealth of Lanna art, while connecting visitors interested in art with local experts. Apart from visiting an art gallery there are very few opportunities for travellers to meet artists and interact and learn more about Lanna art and culture.

It’s not stretch to say that all secondary destinations in Thailand face the same issue; connecting local experts to share travel experiences with travellers is a hit-and-miss affair. Travellers are handed sightseeing tours when they are looking for encounters considerably more rewarding.

1 COMMENT

  1. Couldn’t agree more….the problem is that most locals lack the skills to market their businesses/ experiences effectively, especially to western markets. There is no platform on which they can do this. And the Tourism Authority of Thailand who has the most weight, just promotes the sightseeing attractions, which is why Chiang Rai is only known for its White/Black/Blue temples and the Golden Triangle. It’s such a pity ! It’s totally under-selling itself….

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