Join us as we cruise the canals with tour guide Uncle Jeab.
Known in his neighborhood as Uncle Jeab, eccentric Thonburi local Jumpol Kunakorn relishes showing visitors around his backyard, which just so happens to be Khlong Bang Khun Sri, a historic canal dating back to the Ayutthaya period. With a cold brew in hand, we hopped on a longtail to gain insight on his life and community, with a side order of life coaching.
What did you do before starting your local tour business?
I’m 62 years old now. When I was 24, I was a salesman for Unilever, working up the professional ladder until I became a sales manager. I had to travel around a lot, and I realized that this was something I liked... You start to become familiar with the people that you encounter along the way...and build relationships with [them].
How long have you been a local guide?
I’ve been doing this informally for about 10 years. [When] I retired around five years ago… I started to consider what I really wanted to do. It was then that I started taking classes to become a [licensed] guide. [As a guide,] I can use all my experiences from the day I was born until today to make my tomorrows better.
What do you love about your job?
I can personally see how locals can benefit from “backyard” tourism because more income is spread—the boatman gets some extra cash, the riverside minimart gets more income from me buying beers. It helps to strengthen and embrace the community. Before, the locals were accustomed to the same obsolete things they see every day, the same people, same set of houses, and the dwindling amount of canalside shops. They like it more now that they are a part of an eye-opening experience for outsiders. It’s these little things that make me feel truly fulfilled, to see my neighbors happy from what I’m doing. What matters most to me is to have people know more about genuine local communities like Thonburi.
How are your tours different from “regular” tours?
Usually, tourists who want to take a boat tour find an operator along the Chao Phraya and don’t learn much about the history and the significance of the places they pass by. In the past, there were many fruit farms and herb gardens along the network of canals. Despite gentrification and the building of roads and highways, some of these still exist, and we stop so that visitors can buy vegetables and herbs to take home. I want the locals to [continue] growing their own fruits and vegetables here sustainably instead of this priceless land being replaced by shopping malls or property projects.
What are some of the difficulties that you’ve faced as a guide?
I had to sharpen up my English. The next challenge was to win over the locals because they doubted what I was doing at first. At first, they thought I was crazy, so it took me a couple of years for things to run smoothly as they are now.
How has your business been affected by the pandemic?
I personally think that we can turn problems into opportunities. Right now, all the longtail boats are parked along the canalside; it’s not like they can go back to business by just a snap of the fingers. We have to find ways to adapt to the “new normal” and consider the safety of travelers. Even if I have no travelers now, I am aware of how to adapt to the changes that can potentially happen in the future.