Gecko Villa, Thailand: Interview Under a Traveller’s Palm

Up in the countryside of Northeast Thailand, in Udon Thani province, we recently sat down with Khun Ten, one of the owners of Gecko Villa, to discuss his unusual Thailand holiday villa, Isan itself (or the Northeast of the kingdom), and the property’s support for responsible, eco-friendly tourism.

Gecko Villa is a rural Thai holiday villa offering fully catered vacations of two nights or more, for anywhere between one and six guests. The villa enjoys a unique and tranquil rural setting among rice paddies and plantations stretching from the property’s private swimming pool.

What made you choose Isan as home for your holiday villa?

In fact, Isan chose us! I was born and raised near Khon Kaen and my wife is from this village here in Udon Thani province, so we are both locals.

The region is one of Thailand’s least developed, and employment is difficult to secure here, with the exception of working one’s own rice farm smallholding: this is always precarious, as a successful crop always depends on the weather patterns, and incomes are very low.

It was a friend who was in the hotel business who created the impetus to launch Gecko Villa – to create local employment and prevent the migration of parents to Bangkok or elsewhere to seek work. Traditionally parents, like my wife and I, have migrated to seek work whilst leaving children in the villages with grandparents, and we wanted to avoid such a split of our family.

How did you go about the construction of the villa?

From the inception of Gecko Villa, both I and the villagers involved were keen to ensure that the villa be designed, constructed and finished using only local skills and labour – and then be operated by local villagers, who would maximize the use of local produce and encourage the preservation of indigenous traditions.

And when I say local, I mean local! All of the builders and craftsmen who worked on the construction were from the three small villages nearest to the property. In decorating it, we used traditional Isan silks, cottons, cushions and Isan-heritage Ban Chiang pottery.

What makes Gecko Villa eco-friendly?

It’s a number of things we do, all of which add up.

In fact, villagers in Isan are very close to the land and have been for centuries, so tradition and necessity also play a major role. As an example, harvesting rainwater and minimizing water usage is automatic in a location where there is no mains water supply – you’ll see every house around Isan has big earthenware jars beside them. These collect rainwater from the roof and store it for later use.

Using salt water chlorination in the swimming pool (as opposed to chlorine) makes sense here, an area where salt is abundant in the ground. Growing vegetables organically is a local tradition in villages whose inhabitants do not want to waste scant funds on fertilizers.

From the outset, the property was constructed on disused rice paddies so no negative economic impact occurred. The wood used is local “Pradoo”. It is heavier than teak and twice as hard and is resistant to termites, grows rapidly, and is well suited to the soil of the Northeast. Most importantly, it is a local and sustainable tree that has the advantages of teak without the environmental implications.

At Gecko Villa we have reforested several acres of disused rice paddies with indigenous species, to help restore the local ecosystems.

We practice recycling and waste disposal programs. Again, these are in fact things that have happened in Thailand for a long time, practiced by people referred to as Saleng.

The villa uses power efficient, energy and water saving fittings and equipment. If one thing upsets us it is the high cost of solar power devices in Thailand: it seems absurd in a country where sunshine is almost always guaranteed and we would love to be able to deploy this!

I understand you are a keen cook. Can you tell me about Isan food?

We cook all meals for our guests during their holidays with us – and I’m always happy when guests learn how to make something special and can then recreate these dishes at home! Isan food is famous for its spiciness and complex depth of flavor – blending the spicy, sour, sweet and salty. Some local dishes include Larb – a spicy beef salad with fresh herbs; Som Tam – a zingy and crunchy green papaya salad, and of course sticky rice – the staple accompaniment to Isan meals.

We also cook traditional Thai food, and I suppose the greatest differences between the two are the extra spiciness of Isan food, and the fact that Isan cuisine rarely uses the “curry paste and coconut milk” formula of central Thai dishes. For us, the fresher the better!

The locals here have traditionally lived off the land, rather than simply on it, and we are always happy to show guests traditional hunting and food gathering techniques, and how these can be preserved only if the natural balance is maintained – and pollution avoided. For the more adventurous, there are local specialties including a golden array of crunchy, deep fried insects…or the kick of red ant eggs!

All produce is sourced locally, and we run our own organic herb and fruit orchards, growing limes, chilies, lemongrass, basil, pea eggplant, banana, mango, passion fruit, dragon fruit, mint, spring onions, jackfruit and more! The rice we serve is quite literally from our doorstep, from our own paddies.

How do you provide more enjoyable experiences for visitors and meaningful connections with local people?

Gecko Villa is deliberately limited to accept only a maximum of six guests at a time. They are directly welcomed by the local villagers involved in the property (including me!), with whom they have frequent daily interactions. We will involve guests in daily Thai village life and rituals (if they want!) and show them the area, explaining facets of life that may not be evident to visitors.
We also make sure that visits are generally made in ways that minimize the impact on the environment and maximize direct contact with the locals (ie visits by bicycle or boat rather than by minibus!)
Stays at Gecko Villa are tailored for each guest. Visitors may wish to relax in the privacy of the villa, or to be fully integrated into the local ways of life by the families that run the property – participating in rice farming, in temple or local village school visits, museum tours, Thai cooking classes, and so on. These activities are free of charge: additional services such as traditional Thai massage are sourced locally by experienced villagers to whom payment is made at cost, directly. We specifically aim to attract visitors who are interested in experiencing the ‘real’ Thailand, away from the major tourist centers. Those involved in the project thus understand the need to preserve and promote traditional local culture and ways of life. These are explained to guests at the property, but also on our website.
We also accompany guests to important ecological sites such as the listed wetlands of Nong Han, to museums such as Ban Chiang, and to a variety of local households to witness and experience life here at first hand.
In fact, it is the very local-specific things that interest guests the most often so we want to preserve and promote local Isan traditions – khit weaving, silk making, morlam music, Isan food, and Isan ceremonies such as Phuk Xieow. Most people will remember things that are unusual or special to them, such as visits to the local lotus lake, helping out with a rice harvest, learning to drive a tuk-tuk, negotiating local wet markets or giving alms to monks from rural temples, or discovering how silk is woven on old-fashioned wooden looms…

How successful has Gecko Villa been?

We have just had our tenth birthday!

I must say though, at the beginning, things were difficult. Very few people had ever heard of Isan, and the idea of a fully catered pool villa here, with local interaction, was a new one.

But I think time was on our side. The internet changed travel planning, allowing small, individual properties such as ours to gain a foothold. The, as we started to welcome back repeat visitors, word of mouth became a great ally. And finally, I think our concept came of age, as more people now want a genuine, authentic experience – they want to meet the locals and make a difference – and they are less tempted by a simple hotel or resort room where they are just a room number.

After ten years, we were also able to launch our second Thai holiday villa, Green Gecko. We aim to carry on what we do best, but ultimately think that two villas is enough: we want to keep the personal touch!

If I may, I’d like to thank all of the guests we have had the opportunity to meet over the years. The families here would not be here today were it not for them, and when guests come back, it really is as friends. I’d also like to thank the team at Thailand Holiday Villas who have given us so much support. We are so thankful to all of them!

For more information on Gecko Villa: Gecko Villa