Sirada Pichayapaiboon
Founder, The Roots Routes

Southeast Asia abounds with astounding heritage sites and diverse ICH elements. However, due to the fast-paced development of modernity, heritage sites are at risk of deterioration while intangible elements face extinction. At the same time, mass tourism has also penetrated cultural heritage sites, significantly affecting the lives of local communities. As a consequence of poverty and lack of access to quality education, many of these communities have not been able to resist the commodification of their cultural heritage. They have often then seen their heritage being subjected to exploitative tourism practices, endangering the integrity of their way of life. In strong opposition to these tendencies, we believe that the cultural heritage of local and Indigenous communities can be a comparative advantage in Southeast Asia, helping such groups to achieve inclusive and sustainable development.

Collaborating with Kasayapi Hotel for the representation of cultural heritage assets in an old neighborhood of Bangkok. © The Roots Routes

The Roots Routes is a travel tech start-up focusing on sustainable tourism and cultural heritage preservation. Its main offering is a self-guided digital companion that leads individual explorers to alternative experiences. Our starting point for the Roots Routes project is the need to break the vicious cycle of cultural heritage deterioration and unsustainable tourism. In order to revive our roots, we want to communicate cultural heritage as something that is alive and that can shape sustainable tourism. Therefore, our goal is to redefine the cultural heritage aspect that plays a role within tourism by enabling personalized and immersive experiences that express artistic value and foster empathy for other cultures. Together with local communities, we strive to elevate them and their heritage from the margins by connecting them to various resources and stakeholders, promoting their cultures and livelihoods, expanding their access to creative markets and social welfare, and contributing to their socioeconomic empowerment.
With this vision in mind, the Roots Routes started to develop a web app platform in 2021, aiming to bridge the gap between travelers, local communities, and stakeholders in the cultural tourism industry. Following the motto of “travel deeper,” we aim to empower travelers to become explorers by providing routes tailored by the platform according to individual cultural interests. Guided by local experts, users will gain insights and learn about the unique roots that shape people’s way of life and define the individual character of a place. Going at their own pace, users will be presented with a variety of perspectives, stimulating them to reflect on their own perception of the cultural heritage assets along the routes. With this journey, the explorer will perceive the breadth of cultural value on different levels and through this gain a deeper understanding of the relationship of cultural elements that give each locality its sense of place. Furthermore, through the storytelling dimension of the platform, travelers will be able to learn about intangible and tangible cultural heritage from the local and Indigenous communities themselves. Even at times when physical travel might not be possible, explorers will still be able to use the web platform to discover places through the curated digital content on various routes featuring all kinds of cultural heritage.

The Vayubuth Group practicing khon dance, which is inscribed as World Intangible Cultural Heritage, in Kam Phang Temple. © The Roots Routes

In order to create such connections between travelers and destinations, the Roots Routes is working with many local stakeholders and communities. This work has been documented in collaboration with ICHCAP on the ichLinks platform(www.ichlinks.com). Taking the historic parts of Bangkok as our pilot area, we focused our initial collaborations on ICH and its safeguarding, focusing on involvement of small, local businesses in the tourism industry that offer a cultural heritage dimension.
Kasayapi Hotel, a family-run boutique hotel owned by locals who have lived in the neighborhood for at least five generations, is one example of such a partner. They have long striven to convey to their guests the way of life, traditions, and beliefs that their ancestors passed on to them. Through our platform and the design of a customized itinerary, they want to share this precious heritage to the next generation, utilizing their family history to provide a personalized window onto Thai traditions and culture. This is one good example of how the combination of tailored itineraries and storytelling offer locals a way to represent their relationship with the neighborhood.
Another case is the Vayubuth Youth Puppeteer Group, who study khon (traditional Thai puppetry) with affection and have a strong passion for their heritage. They practice a special style of this ancient form of art, called hoon lakorn lek or “little puppetry.” This practice has all but disappeared over the years since the 1970s and remains very rare in spite of some attempts to revive it, as it takes significant expertise and time. Consequently, only a few groups still perform this kind of theater, with the Vayubuth Group standing out even more due to the young age of their actors. The group now regularly performs at a temple in an old community along a canal in Bangkok every weekend, making this rare performance accessible to everyone and encouraging people to learn more about it. It is their goal to preserve and transmit this heritage for the next generation in order to exemplify not only a distinct form of art but also to reflect on the underlying culture, wisdom, and beliefs in Thai society.
The Roots Route is now planning a social media campaign with the aim of generating attention for the project, inspiring explorers to go and discover the local communities, and ultimately contributing to stimulating local businesses while also promoting their cultural heritage. We hope this will raise more awareness among a wider audience around the safeguarding of ICH.

The Roots Routes platform. © The Roots Routes