This August, Buffalo Tours is proud to launch our brand new, in-depth line: Local Life. As part of our exciting new initiative to respect, support and celebrate the cultures and people that make each of our destinations unique, this specialised line is designed to get travellers closer to the heart of Asia – without sacrificing the comfort and ease of a classic Buffalo Tours experience. We sat down with Hayo Massop – the man who created our Thailand Local Life experiences – to talk culture, food and the warmth of the Thai smile!
Thailand is hardly an “off the beaten track” tourist destination. What do you think many visitors miss about Thai culture on their visits?
Thailand has a whole slew of great activities for visitors, from cultural highlights like beautiful temples, historical parks, dinner cruises, cultural shows and more. While these are incredible, many are also created specifically for tourists’ entertainment – and many visitors will have an itinerary that’s packed with experiences like this.
But because these standard travel to-do lists so often include more heavily-promoted activities, travellers to Thailand sometimes miss out on golden opportunities to have authentic, day-to-day encounters with local people, explore small neighborhoods and try authentic food. Thailand is a great destination for first time guests to Asia as it is an easy destination to travel to, but many guests leave feeling as if they didn’t see anything particularly surprising, or that Thailand is “too touristic”.
That comes down to the fact that many travellers’ itineraries simply didn’t leave space for authentic experiences, so many guests missed the chance to really interact with locals outside their hotels, the shopping malls and the restaurants. They often leave without having the opportunity to absorb the local sights and smells, and the vibrant atmosphere of local Thailand. Many want to wander through local neighbourhoods and really see the day-to-day lives of locals in Thailand – and really feel like they’re leaving Thailand having tapped into the true excitement of visiting a new city or country.
What was your major inspiration when you went into creating these in-depth tours?
The main inspiration behind these tours was certainly our own day-to-day experiences living in Thailand. We created these Local Life experiences by paying attention to the experiences and the sights that our friends talk about. For example, our Street Eats by Tuk Tuk tour visits one of the famous century-old roti shops in the old part of town – a place where my Thai friends have taken me time and time again, simply because its one of the friendliest places to dig into this famous dish.
The guiding question for us is this: “What still surprises us, and where do we continue to spend time in our free time exploring?” We ask ourselves these questions every time we create our Local Life tours. During our Bangrak walking tour, we make a stop at the famous duck noodle shop that Thai colleagues have recommended for us to try more times than I can count. Another stop is at an old, retro cinema that is now closed, but has one of the most interesting stories behind it that is still fresh in the mind of one of our guides, who can tell colourful stories about watching old movies in local neighbourhood cinemas like these.
The stories and recommendations of friends – and a real connection to the day-to-day experiences that we think make Thailand very special – is what guides us in creating these tours. What we enjoy, as expats and locals alike, will also be unique experiences for our guests.
We’ve put a lot of energy into updating our Responsible Travel Policy and what it means for our tours, especially in Thailand. How did this play into how you created the Local Life line in Thailand?
When we began developing these tours, we had our own beliefs regarding sustainable tourism as well as Buffalo Tours’ values in mind. This is easy to do, as one of the main things we focus on at Buffalo Tours is how income from our tours supports local communities and shops. For most tours, this means trading the tourist restaurants for street vendors who make a living from trading with locals – so by simply buying something from rather than a chain restaurant, that money is going straight back to the local economy.
In the Chiang Mai Rickshaw Explorer tour, too, we have a stop at a local restaurant run by female prisoners, who are learning how to integrate and make a living by themselves after they finish their jail time. By making a stop here, we support this great initiative in Chiang Mai, and also get a glimpse into Thai local life in a really unique way. And, of course, since Thailand is such a great place to meet incredible wildlife up-close, we make sure that our Local Life tours focus on making these experiences in-line with our Responsible Travel policy.
Last but not least, these are small group tours – which means we are able to explore these areas without disturbing the livelihoods of these neighbourhoods and areas. We don’t take people out of their normal daily routine, and that makes for a great experience for travellers who want to see life as it really is in Thailand. This is probably the most important element of these tours – the fact that we leave local culture intact, and we don’t try to set everything up for the tourists’ eye.
There’s a whole lot of food on these new tours in Thailand. Why is this such an important part of Thai culture?
Food is a very important part of Thai culture! Thai people eat the entire day, and tourists also see that during their visits here – the locals eating snacks nearly every hour of the day. A common saying in Thailand is that one part of society is cooking and preparing food, and the other half is eating it! Guests will see street stalls, plastic chairs and small tables everywhere – and Thai food is also a very social, communal experience, since Thai food is so often shared and eaten together.
The thing is, many visitors to Thailand will see all of these street stalls and get curious about what those strange looking snacks are, but are hesitant to order some by themselves. During our Local Life tours – including our tasty Bangkok Chinatown Walking Food Tour – we try to sample lots of different things in small portions, so that if our travellers like a certain snack, they are more confident to order it on their own next time! Plus, ordering food at a street stall is such a great opportunity to interact with locals, who many times are waiting for a reaction from the “farang”, or foreign, to see if they liked it or not!
What do you think the biggest lesson that travelers will learn after their Local Life Thailand tour?
To appreciate the small things in life! I hope people leave with a new appreciation for what they have in their home countries. Travelling around the world and seeing people in all sorts of circumstances makes us truly appreciate our freedom and luxury. Interacting with people and witnessing different cultures firsthand also helps us become more accepting of the differences, and helps us to respect different lifestyles and people. I think we learn to look beyond colour, race and religion – and that we learn to be more open-minded.
These tours help people realize that in several neighbourhoods in Thailand, for example, there are incredibly vibrant Muslim communities. This is such a great example of how dynamic and complex Thailand truly is, and helps travellers recognise that the extremes we see in the media are not telling the entire story. Along the way, I like to think that we learn that no matter the differences, we are all so similar in our behaviours, our reactions and our values. Food and smiles really do connect people – and that’s a great lesson to learn in beautiful Thailand.