Voice of Experience: Frans Betgem
Frans Betgem, board member at Khiri Group, shares his wit, wisdom and years of experience to recommend secret places in Thailand and Southeast Asia.
How did you become an expert on Southeast Asia?
I have decades of experience working in Southeast Asia with Baobab Reizen as a tour leader and as the research & development manager at Khiri Travel DMC.
In keeping with this month’s theme and the ongoing trend for off the beaten path travel, what is your definition of a secret escape?
A secret escape is a destination that has interesting things to offer but is rarely visited by tourists. Almost always, secret escapes are not the must-see locations. These A-list spots have become very crowded with the tremendous growth of tourism in the region in the past few decades. B-list destinations, however, are becoming more important if travelers want a destination that still cultivates a feeling of uniqueness and exclusivity.
How have some best-kept secret destinations of the region changed over time?
I feel privileged to have seen so much of the region in the 90’s before the explosive growth of tourism.
In 1992, to offer a cruise of Halong Bay, we had to charter a local ferryboat. We cruised the bay, bought fresh crabs and shrimp, La Vache Qui Rit cheese, French bread and beer for lunch. It was delightful and we had the bay more or less to ourselves. On return to Halong City, however, the crew had to get rid of all evidence of our cruise trip. The police only allowed ferry crossings, not tourist cruises.
In 1996, Willem Niemeijer (Khiri Travel’s Founder & CEO) and I traveled in the back of a truck from Luang Namtha to Ban Houaysai in northwest Laos. In those days it was a beautiful dirt road through dense jungle. I will also never forget the first overland trips from Bangkok to Siem Reap in 1999. The road from the Thai/Cambodian border to Siem Reap was one of the worst roads in Southeast Asia. There was plenty of adventure and excitement though. Another memory is sleeping on the beach at Railey Bay in December 1987. In those days in Krabi, there were only guesthouses on the beach and there was no electricity…
Is it still possible to find secret escapes in Southeast Asia?
In northern Thailand there are still places such as Phrae, Nan, Phayao, Lamphun and Lampang that are really interesting, and less crowded than Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Travelers will find very nice boutique accommodations and the undeveloped countryside is still very beautiful and scenic.
Another best kept secret in Thailand is Mae Sot, on the border with Myanmar. This town has a great atmosphere and some beautiful temples in comparison to other border towns such as Mae Hong Son or Mae Sai. With overland travel tours now just starting in Myanmar, Khiri Travel offers a new and unique 4-day cultural adventure from Mae Sot to Yangon.
How can destinations promote and develop their product, while still keeping it authentic and protecting it from the negative influences of mass tourism?
Hotels have to work together with stakeholders like the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), local travel companies, and DMCs to manage and promote the destination properly. For example, Mae Sot has a lot to offer but lacks tour programs. There needs to be a website with proper English that gives information on directions, accommodations, restaurants, etc. Mae Sot is a great gateway location next to Myanmar and Umphang, another secret place and off the beaten path location of Thailand’s biggest waterfall. There are plenty of fun things to keep travelers busy around Mae Sot for three nights but the local stakeholders, especially the hotels, have to get the word out.
Would you like to share an example of a secret hideaway where you would go to disconnect from daily life?
My choice would be Mae Sot or Doi Khuntan National Park in northern Thailand, a secret place discovered by missionaries stationed in Chiang Mai. Located halfway between Chiang Mai and Lampang, this national park is beautiful, quiet and relaxed with good accommodation.
For more information and expert guidance on finding some top-secret escapes in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, please leave your contact information in the form below.