Attracted by the scent of durian roasting over a fire, docile dogs laze at an open-fronted house. A sheet of whitewater churns down a distant cliff. As young men strum guitars beside a clean river, old women carry baskets of leaves and grasses used for natural dyes and weaving. At the village of Baan Khiri Wong, a generations-old tradition of crafts and organic fruit cultivation is as strong today as ever — and travellers are welcome to take part in it.
Baan Khiri Wong is nestled at the eastern foot of the 1,835-metre-high Khao Luang, the tallest mountain in Southern Thailand and the source of the Tha Di River, which flows straight through town in a flurry of rocks, rapids and pools. The continual flow of mountain water joins moisture that floats off the nearby Gulf of Thailand. Khao Luang blocks the airflow, blanketing the abundant orchards in cool morning mist.
In November 1988, Khiri Wong was one of several villages devastated by mudslides that claimed more than 700 lives. While rebuilding with help from a non-profit, the villagers sparked a deforestation movement that prompted an anti-logging act to be issued the following year. Well before “eco-friendly” became a catchphrase, the villagers opened their community as a tourist destination “based on the idea of living with respect and awareness for nature”, as a local homestay program puts it.
Now seen as an exceptional example of community-based, environmentally sound tourism in Thailand, Baan Khiri Wong has managed to preserve its rural village feel despite drawing groups of mostly domestic travellers, especially during fruit harvest time from July to September. Travellers can partake in an array of local crafts and agricultural practices while relaxing amid some of Southern Thailand’s most impressive mountain scenery.
Khiri Wong is known for its dedication to Suan Somrom, a type of organic gardening in which several fruit varieties are grown in a single plot. Trees bearing durian, mangosteen, rambutan, sala, coconut and banana dot the village, from tiny roadside plots to vast hillside orchards. The fruit is widely considered to be among the finest in Thailand, which is saying a lot! Much of it is shipped to places like Bangkok’s Or Tor Kor Gourmet Market, where it fetches premium prices.
At other times of year, the village churns out preserved fruit products like sun-dried mangosteen (better than raisins) and roasted durian paste. The custard-like durian flesh is boiled along with natural additives, then wrapped in betel palm husks and cooked over a wood fire. When finished, the two-bite size treats have a rich and smoky flavour without the typical stench of fresh durian, and they stay good for months. Other Khiri Wong fruit products include fresh bottled juices and mangosteen wine.
The villagers also produce a number of hand-made non-edible goods that rely almost exclusively on things found in the local orchards or jungles. Certain types of leaves are used for natural dyes to make tie-dye wears; coconut shells are carved into toys and boxes; herbs are used for soap-making and natural remedies; and minerals are polished into beads to create splendid jewellery.
All of the crafts are organised into groups, each with a communal workshop where visitors can study the processes. At the heart of the village, an extensive Local Products Centre sells all of Khiri Wong’s locally made products under one roof. You’ll also find smaller shops dedicated to a specific range of products, including several dried fruit vendors near the temple and a large jewellery centre on the south side of the Tha Di.
After soaking in mountain vistas along the flower-lined roads to Khiri Wong, visitors can take a dip at a designated swimming area to the southeast of town, or rent a tube to float near the Nan Hin Tha Ha rapids at the far western end of the road that runs alongside the Tha Di’s northern bank. A bit further north is Wang Mai Pak Waterfall, one of several points that can only be crossed on foot or by dirtbikes via partially submerged roads. There’s also the small Soi Dao Waterfall, reachable after a short hike, or you could head to the larger Kharom Waterfall, among others, in nearby Khao Luang National Park.
The trail to Khao Luang’s summit begins in Baan Khiri Wong, and a few of the locals are able to lead travellers along a fairly challenging three-day trek that involves two nights of camping. Alternately, you can hire an official park ranger at the Khao Luang visitor centre. See the Khao Luang National Park page for info on pricing and the best times of year to attempt the climb.
Khiri Wong’s pristine natural surrounds teem with tropical flora and fauna. The longest snake that we’ve seen in the wild shot across our path like a whip as we strolled near the Wang Mai Pak Waterfall — bring a torch when walking around after dark! After some rainfall, the early evening cicadas were among the loudest we’ve heard. Colourful birds, butterflies and flowers were everywhere.
Khiri Wong boasts a small but eye-popping morning market providing a glimpse of the fresh local produce and forest products. From morning to early afternoon, you’ll find a string of street-style food vendors set up along the northern bank of the river, right in the heart of town. A coffee shop found here was one of several places offering bicycle rental, and we were told that motorbikes can be arranged as well. The village is also easy to explore on foot.
To try out delicious Southern Thai food featuring local ingredients, head a little further west along the river’s northern bank to Phu Ngam Nam Suoy (sign only in Thai; look for crimson-painted wooden doors standing in front of a wooden walkway to the restaurant). Here we enjoyed stir-fried pak kuut, a type of local fern, along with gaeng som (sour orange curry) packed with stringy stems of the bon plant, a cousin of taro, and a sour garcinia-family fruit called som kak, all served with fresh Lao coriander on the side.
While Baan Khiri Wong works well as a day trip from Nakhon Si Thammarat town, it’s also a great place to spend a few nights. A homestay program run by Mr Keeta (T: 086 788 8718 ; 075 309 010) costs 300 baht per night, per person, for fan accommodation with shared cold-water bathrooms, plus 100 to 150 baht per meal. The programme offers a choice of activities that you’ll do alongside the locals, like gardening or tie-dying clothes. If interested, stop by the Local Products Centre next to the giant durian statue, where songthaews drop off, and say “homestay.” The program can also be booked online through Hivesters.com.
Several other homestays and a few small resorts are also available in different parts of the village, including some, like the heavily signposted Bang Khiangkhai Resort, that offer villa-style accommodation with creature comforts (air-con, hot water, TV) for around 1,500 baht a night. There’s also the long-running Tha Ha Resort, set in a scenic spot atop a hill overlooking the Tha Ha rapids.
How to get there
Baan Khiri Wong is 25 km west of Nakhon Si Thammarat town, where dark-blue songthaews depart from a side street between Soi Yommarat and Klongtha Rd, no more than a km south of the train station. They run every 30 minutes until 17:00 and cost 25 baht per person, dropping off next to the Local Products Centre in the heart of the village. A taxi from the airport should cost 600 baht.
If coming on your own steam, take Route 4016 west out of Nakhon Si Thammarat town, and then hang a left (west) onto Route 4015. After about eight more km, take a right at a large statue of a meditating Buddhist monk or the next right, which is marked by a blue sign for Khiri Wong. Both of these roads run straight into the village, with the first one arriving on the northern bank of the Tha Di River, and the second arriving on the southern bank.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 1st February, 2016.