1 Plastic Pushback Want to save the planet, or at least a Thailand beach, one bag at a time? Say three simple Thai words at the check-out, “My aow toung” – “I do not want a bag”.
Every second corner in Thailand seems to have a Seven Eleven-style mini-mart where the cashier will automatically bag your purchases. That is, plastic bag them. If you’re quick on the draw with “My aow toung”, they’ll happily skip the single-use bag. To be polite, women can add “kaa” at the end of the phrase, while men add “khrab”. Or just say it in English. Bag by bag, over the course of a holiday you’ll stop plenty of plastic in its tracks.
2 Elephant Lib The elephant – ‘chang’ – is Thailand’s national symbol and the improved treatment of these animals in the last decade reflects positive changes in the wider tourism industry. Elephant rides, polo, trunk painting and other entertainment stunts are now out. Totally uncool, even if still available at some attractions. “Look, do not touch” is the drum in the best places such as Phuket’s Elephant Sanctuary, which shelters animals rescued from earlier ill treatment in tourism or logging. In the country’s north, the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation outside Chiang Rai cares for 20 rescue elephants and runs a no-fee program for volunteers who can make a minimum two-week work commitment. Or try their morning, riverside Walk With Giants stroll.
3 Voluntourism Thailand has 3220km of exceptional coastline. Mass tourism, one of the nation’s major money-earners has inevitably contributed in places to coastal damage, as have other factors. Coral regeneration and similar programs are now attempting to protect endangered areas. Several commercial operators run “voluntourism” programs at popular islands such as Koh Pha-Ngan and Koh Tao in the Gulf. Fee-paying volunteers (who are preferably certified divers) can sign up for coral replanting or sea turtle conservation projects and typically will work a five-day week as part of a supervised team.
Saving a reef, forest or species costs money and time. Lots of both. Maintaining a rescued elephant, for instance, can run to around $ 400 a week in feed, veterinary fees and mahout support. While volunteering is a constructive, “feel good” activity for travelers, there is a significant extra cost built into training and supervising short-term workers. Often the most cost-effective support we can give to a non-profit project is simply to donate plain, old, unromantic money.
4 National Park Treasures The lagoon waterways of Phuket Marine National Park in the far north of the holiday island shelter a web of species-rich mangrove trails. Waterbirds watch as you paddle a rental kayak silently past dense forests of buttressed roots. You’re just a few miles but many centuries removed from the island’s celebrated spas and shopping plazas. This is just one example of the low-impact, nature-focused activities that can be found in many of Thailand’s extensive national parks. Search for ranger – led excursions, plus budget cabins and camping sites. In Khao Sok National Park, a 740sqkm wilderness of rainforest, lakes and peaks north of Phuket you’ll find small pontoon cabins that can be your base for jungle excursions to spot macaques and gibbons.
5 Sustainable Beds Many Thailand hotels from right across the price range are plugging-in to sustainable practices, often driven by consumer demand for them. Unlike in the past, when ‘eco-friendly’ aspirations sometimes amounted to little more than a resort switching to low-wattage lights on footpaths (“Save the planet, break a leg”), the best operators today have adopted serious interventions. Ditching single-use plastics (especially water bottles), recycling waste, glass and aluminum, and banishing plastic straws were just the beginning. Much more has followed. You can often check a hotel website for its policies and sustainable practices before booking.
6 Go Local Consider favoring local enterprises and products during your trip. Check a few labels: is the souvenir or beach shirt you’re about to buy made in Thailand or somewhere else? Is there a community home-stay program available in the regional town you’re visiting? If you’re somewhere like Chiang Mai that still has traditional samlors – bicycle pedicabs – hail one rather than a belching tuktuk. It’s a fun ride and you’re directly supporting a local family. And then, go on, try a main street massage shop rather than an elaborate and pricey day spa – the treatment is often just as good, just minus the bells, whistles and orchids. Or ask around: is there a Blind Massage Institute in town?
7 Tipping Point Thailand is a tipping culture, where tips can be a significant part of a service worker’s daily income. And – let’s face it – we Australians are less than famous for being big tippers. As visitors, we interact daily with dozens of Thai waiters, drivers, guides and other providers who enable our journeys and enjoyment. Members of Thailand’s large informal economy, many of them have suffered greatly during COVID-19’s decimation of their industry. The most effective community support we can contribute is to use their services – and tip generously.