|Mud football kicks the fun out of any FA League!|
On a tiny island off the coast of Phuket, I’d found my way to a low-key ceremony being held in the middle of a muddy rice paddy. As an excited Thai man was telling me about his plans for this year’s crop, a group of about 15 boys and girls who live on the island dived into the gleaming mud of one of the paddies, jammed two wooden poles in the ground at either end and began the dirtiest game of football I’ve ever seen.
With water and mud spraying in fountainous glory all around, groups of farmers, stood head down in the surrounding rice paddies so all that was visible were a pair of legs and a sunhat, carried on with their planting chores, occasionally looking up to watch the match.
Nobody was keeping score, but after about 20 minutes of covering themselves head to toe in gooey sludge, the kids called a timeout and charged in the direction of a makeshift swimming pool dug in the ground and full of rain water, dunking themselves in it to clean up.
Aside from being the most fun possible for any child (I was bursting with envy), the mud football served a greater purpose as the trampling and stomping of feet helps prepare the soil for planting rice.
The kids had a blast and a woman named Ja Aoi was walking tall showing off a trophy after fending off opposition from 15 other farmers to win a rice-planting competition.
Another part of the ceremony saw a group of tourists riding buffaloes bareback as the animals slowly trudged their way around rice paddies, supposedly as part of a ritual to attract good vibrations for this year’s harvest, but who wouldn’t get a kick out of riding around on the back of a buffalo?
This is what tourists visiting Koh Yao Noi (Small Long Island) can see. The locals do what they do, spicing it up a bit for foreign visitors, but not enough for the experience to be contrived.
My day had begun early morning at Bang Rong Pier in the northeast of Phuket. The short trip to Koh Yao Noi, one of a pair of Muslim islands in Koh Yao district that actually fall under the provincial blanket of Phang Nga, was cooled by the lazy breezes of the morning.
Arriving on Koh Yao Noi was much like rocking up to any pier, bus terminal or train station in Thailand: there was a rabble of tuk-tuk drivers keen to help a confused foreigner out for a fistful of baht. Travelling through the island, there was an overwhelming sense that 20 years ago this is what Phuket must have been like all over.
The tuk-tuk driver delivered me to the appropriate rice paddy and within minutes the mud was flying and I was seeing what Koh Yao Noi can offer tourists. It’s not all for show, however; Koh Yao Noi is a self-sufficient community with a secondary school attended by about 1,000 children and a small hospital, where a Hong Kong tourist stung by a stingray was treated by a doctor receiving instructions from the mainland via live video feed.
Koh Yao Noi covers about 45 square kilometres, making it one of the bigger small islands around Phuket. In 2007 the islanders only managed to harvest rice paddies spread over 400 rai (640,000 square metres); next year the farmers hope to take it up to 1,600 rai.
“Young people aren’t interested and have become too busy to bother with rice,” said Promchote Traivate, director of the Phuket Tourism and Sports Office and consultant for the Koh Yao Ecotourism Club, a group established in 2002 to support community-based tourism in Koh Yao.
Koh Yao Noi used to produce plenty of rice to feed the 5,000 people living there, but locals saw the neon lights of opportunity shining in Phuket and left Small Long Island like moths.
“We don’t make much money growing the rice; we grow it to eat. But we want to bring tradition and culture back to the community,” said Mr Promchote.
Most people on Koh Yao Noi are either farmers or fishermen. Tourists are welcomed with open arms and the Ecotourism Club has built homestays and set up a variety of activities for visitors.
With 25 homestays, the community currently puts up about 250 people a month, usually Thais or Europeans, who stay for anything from two days to a week. Each of the bungalows is cozy and simple. With running water, a double bed, fan and fridge, there’s little else you need during a tropical-island getaway.
The developers of the project are keen for visitors to choose one of a range of packages comprising two or three days on the island, including meals with a homestay family and an itinerary crammed with trips and sightseeing.
Around the island there are plantations where visitors can learn the ins and outs of making rubber, while elsewhere it’s possible to see the process of cashew nuts being collected before the seeds are removed and smoked over a fire to be eaten or used for cooking.
Ever the entrepreneurs, the Koh Yao Noi community has a shop where travellers can buy everything from cashew nuts and their seeds to handicrafts such as hats and baskets.
With lots of fishermen on the island, tourists can go out and catch their dinner before returning in a blaze of glory to grill the day’s work. There are tours to see shrimp and crab nets in use, while at night the hooks are baited up for not mere fish, but squid.
It’s not essential to hunt down your meals, however, as there are several restaurants around the island, as well as small, local shops serving food. I had lunch at one of the homestays on Pa Sai Beach (Sandy Beach). The spread was a glorious ensemble of sweet, sour and spicy, as only the Thais can put on, with mounds of fish, pork, chicken and vegetables.
Coconut-collecting monkeys and eagles are common sights among the island’s wild inhabitants, although seeing an eagle caged up was unexpected.
Travelling around the island is easy enough. There are motorbikes and trucks for hire, or else bicycles are available and there’s the possibility of walking.
The people of Koh Yao Noi are gagging for visitors to come and support their community-based initiatives. Travellers can get a slice of rural Thai life while the islanders make enough money to support themselves and keep the good times flowing.
Although the community went to great lengths to put on a show, the highlight of my visit to Koh Yao Noi was always going to be watching a motley crew of children jumping around in the mud. Had I not been ill-prepared and wearing jeans and trainers, I would have been in there with them reliving my childhood, but instead I returned to Phuket relatively clean in terms of body and mind.
Photography by Matt Crook.
Getting There: The island is just off Phuket’s coast, but is actually in Phang Nga province. However, to reach it is easiest from Phuket.
Contact Koh Yao Ecotourism Club through Mr Sumreong “Bangmee” Rakhat in Phang Nga, Thailand, on +66(0)76-597244 or email email@example.com.