Header image courtesy of @sonderstoriess (Instagram)
Southeast Asian countries have always been popular holiday getaways for Hongkongers. Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam remain unbeaten as favoured weekend destinations, known for their bustling nightlife scenes, delicious local cuisines, and affordable costs.
However, drive out just a few hours from the cities and a totally unexpected kind of tourism experience awaits you. It exposes you to a simpler and more primary way of life—a life with minimum technology, reliant on the strength of one’s own hands and the land’s natural resources. A life where nothing much really happens and days are marked by mundane tasks of the adults, the bored kids by the doorstep, and few occasional greetings from passing outsiders.
It’s called rural tourism. And in the height of COVID-19, it has found a renewed surge in popularity.
Having lived in a concrete jungle like Hong Kong for one’s whole life, many have inevitably daydreamed about living in the suburbs, away from the chaos, to simply enjoy a slow, peaceful, and self-sufficient life. Once almost synonymous with “underdeveloped,” the digital age has crowned rural living with brand-new appreciation and is now considered an ideal for many city dwellers.
Even if it is not the most practical solution for highly urbanised Hongkongers, it is at least a soothing distraction, especially with the ever-present, suffocating cloud of COVID-19. In Western countries, we often hear stories about people moving to the countryside for flexible work arrangements or retirement. Some even choose to live off-grid, preferring to depend on nature’s bounties to fuel their life in a place of solitude, oftentimes at a lower cost. In some cases, people build their own farms and become self-sufficient.
A persistent longing for a pastoral life, in turn, fuels the rising popularity and development of rural tourism, in which people get to witness and experience survival-driven activities that are normally alien to them. Manual labour activities such as farming are exclusive to rural regions. Even in Hong Kong, people are becoming more eager to discover lesser-known locations for a weekend escape, filing out to Yuen Long’s sunflower fields or Sai Kung’s High Island Reservoir in droves. While there are only limited “secret” spots for rural getaways in the city, one can always take a high-speed railway to visit a suburban village in Guangdong province.
In countries such as the US, UK, and Australia, rural tourism often manifests in niche programmes, like wine tours, farm visits, seasonal events in the wild, and even agritourism. In Asia, however, rural tourism opportunities tend to centre around communities who subsist on a minimal way of living—a stark contrast to the West. Whether it’s drifting along to glimpse the bamboo houses and floating villages of Siem Reap or hiking up mountains to visit hill tribes in Thailand, intrepid travellers have taken to “uncovering” the simplistic lifestyles of settlements in rural areas—only to promptly return to their own creature comforts.
Although there are downsides to all kinds of intrusive tourism models, rural tourism does provide ample opportunities as well. It can create a reliable source of income for villagers who are not involved in the agricultural sector, as well as preserve fading folk art and handicraft practices. With community ecotourism, a subbranch of rural tourism, it is often a tool to promote conservation, especially in locations that are most vulnerable to climate change. Also, generally, travellers who seek out rural tourism opportunities tend to be more engaged with the local community and their culture in an effort to decrease the social gap.
Among the many locales that tourists seek out, some are better-known than others, feeding an interest that is prevalent amongst those who have spent their entire lives in high-rises and skyscrapers. From the hills of Chiang Rai to the rivers of Cambodia and Myanmar, we take a deeper look at the cultural experiences that rural tourism destinations can offer.
The Akha hill tribe is located around two hours away from the central city of Chiang Rai. A village of wood and bamboo, its residents rely on natural resources, selling tea and flowers in order to earn a living. The tribe has also joined the line of rural tourism. One of its villages, Ban Lorcha, is one of the community projects funded by the PDA organisation and owned and run by the Akha hill villagers to share their way of living, customs and culture of the Akha people to the visitors. What is worth noting is that this sample village has kept most of its original features for the visitors. Those who are looking for an authentic rural and cultural experience will soon fall for this place.
The quality of living among the Hill Tribe Akha vary. According to the locals, some Akha people are not officially recognised by the Thai government and there is dire disparity among these villages. As a result, many children do not have access to education and some are subject to illegal slavery and child prostitution. With assistance from NGOs, some children are able to receive education provided by volunteers.
By taking a two-hour school bus ride, these lucky children make their way to the Education Foundation and stay at the school accommodation during schooldays. Every now and then, they meet with volunteer teachers from different countries, are told stories, and given perceptions to a much broader world.
Outside the classrooms and home base stood a wide grass field. After class, the students play football matches, climbing games, walk along the golden field, and catch some green foxtails to make toys. They also dutifully make dinner, attend to farming work, and feed chickens during their leisure time. Very occasionally, they are able to throw a birthday celebration, or watch the World Cup match at the playground, stirring more than enough joy for the day.
While the volunteer teachers were disheartened in learning the tragedies some children went through, they were inspired by the burning passion and hope within these tiny bodies. Some want to work and study abroad in the future; some are determined to contribute to the school one day. One thing is common to them all: Learning keeps them spirited and alive. After all, the dream of outgrowing a rural and insufficient life never grows old.
Tonle Sap is a natural reservoir in central Cambodia and the largest freshwater body in Southeast Asia. The floating village is scattered with bamboo houses of different colours. Underneath the houses park the boats, the main and only transport in the area. The locals largely rely on income from tourism. There are day tours to visit the houses and communities of the floating village in which visitors are encouraged to support their livelihood by buying souvenirs, dining in the restaurants in the village.
Moving along, one can take on an adventure in the flooded forest by boat rowed by the villagers. Swallowed by the Tonle Sap, the dense mangroves stand firmly and wisely after all the years, growing into a misty and mysterious wonder. Apart from its physical beauty, the forest is also a landmark for the local fishermen as the trees attract shrimps and other fish.
On the way back, one can catch a glimpse of the warming and tranquil sunset at the green field and the river of life in Cambodia. Nature seems to be the best reminder in this rural land. The disappearing sun signifies the wrap-up of the day as it shines upon the peaceful farmland, the calming waves and perhaps the most diligent fishermen of the day.
Irrawaddy River is the most important and largest river in Myanmar. People wash, eat, and live by the river. It represents the spirit and soul of the Burmese people. Along this sacred river, there are several villages at the site of Inwa near Mandalay, famous for their handicraft production. Ancient ways of textile-making, pottery, and crafting of straw hats date back to generations ago. They represent the cultures of each village and are well-preserved by their descendants.
Nowadays, with the rapid development of rural tourism, more people are introduced to their indigenous arts and culture. Their visits and support further maintain the sustainable development of the handicraft industry in Bagan and Inwa. The mass production and dedication of the makers demonstrate the growing success of these villages.
While the country is known for its political instability and underdevelopment, the people’s spirits are the most uplifting. According to the photographer, although the locals can hardly speak English, they endeavoured to show their friendliness and kindness through their facial expressions and body gestures. The kids love to see themselves inside a camera screen. Through their generous smile and genuine hospitality, it is hard to ignore their pure contentment and joy coming out of the routine yet simple lives in a normal village by the Irrawaddy River.
With a global health crisis on our hands and entire countries in lockdown mode, it should come as no surprise that comfort is found in the unending depths of the internet. Some have also set their sights on rural destinations within their own borders, making the best of day trips and staycations, fleeing the city for a rented Airbnb or DIY camping sites. For those starved of travel, virtual experiences have tried to fill in the gaps. One particular brand of online entertainment, however, has emerged victorious, enthralling millions of viewers across the world. Known as “slice-of-life” YouTube channels, these unlikely celebrities vloggers depict serene, rural living experiences, shot and edited in such a way to encourage a sense of peace and serenity.
Among such rural internet celebrities, Li Ziqi has ascended the highest, amassing 11.7 million subscribers and 1.6 billion views on her videos. On her channel, she presents a closer look at her rural life in Sichuan, captivating eyeballs with her Chinese home cooking recipes that highlight her self-grown organic produce, as well as her handicraft. For city-dwelling fans, it is difficult to reconcile the manual labour required of a farmer and the elegance with which Li Ziqi performs her chores. From chopping bamboo and harvesting ears of corn to building furniture, this one-woman-show does it all, set to the dulcet tones that call to mind pastoral scenes from a Studio Ghibli animation.
Similar to Li Ziqi, Dianxi Xiaoge’s 5.8 million YouTube subscribers tune in regularly to catch a glimpse of her life in rural Yunnan. Set against a city famous for ethnic minorities and spectacular natural sceneries, Dianxi Xiaoge focuses on farm-to-table food preparation and tending to farmland in a village in the hills. Her Alaskan Malamute, Dawang, makes frequent appearances, to the delight of her viewers. Foraging for mushrooms and fishing for river snails are second-nature to her.
And lastly, for perhaps the most extreme demonstration of “slice-of-life” YouTube channels, no one can top Primitive Technology. If you want to pick up survival skills, and not just the Boy Scout kind, John Plant is your guy. In his 10-minute videos, supplemented by a soundtrack of birdsong and chittering, this Australian native remains completely mum as he shows his 10.2 million subscribers how to create tools, fish for food, and erect buildings using only materials found in the wild. From making his own primitive hatchet, which he then uses to chop down trees to construct grass-thatched huts, his videos are utterly compelling and his practices completely foreign to generations of urbanised populations.
Unlike other hit videos on the platform, “slice-of-life” content shares commonalities that are in juxtaposition to the hustle that trends social media, united by a tranquil tempo, light tone, and “minimal” script. It paints a beautiful representation of what modern-day rural living is like: farming organic foods and improvising home recipes, getting hands-on to survive in the wilderness, reminiscing about one’s rural childhood memories with one’s ageing grandparents, and so on.
Although they only represent “slices” of authentic rural life and often omit its harsh realities, the capture of such delicate moments has already soothed the hearts of millions of city dwellers. Coupled with the boom of rural tourism, the unstoppable popularity behind these video channels once again echoes with the growing desire to return to a simpler, pastoral existence.