Save the Planet (But Duck the Greenwash)

by John Borthwick

Following last edition’s Green theme our travel writer John Borthwick has his own thoughts on the matter……Ed

Voluntourism … low-impact travel … carbon offsets …. As travel becomes ever more complicated, how can we trip the planet fantastic — or at least Thailand — without trashing it further?

Extreme no-impact travel would mean that you stay home, sitting near-naked in the backyard with a stack of recycled National Geographics and imagining all the great places you might have gone. Score ten points for being PC. “Nul points” for fun. “Tourists aren’t going to row there in a mung bean canoe,” an Australian tourism CEO once told me, sarcastically, referring to “green” travel.

Being an eco-friendly traveler means striking a balance between not going anywhere (“Save the Planet — Stay At Home”) and the self-indulgence of not giving a stuff about any impact, any place. In between these polarities a traveler has to duck paintballs of tourism’s “greenwash”. (Example: a five-star resort, built by leveling a rain forest, that now brags about its eco-lightbulbs.) Thailand fortunately has plenty of sustainable green travel activities.

Rafting. On the Nam Khong River, way up north, west of Pai, we’re paddling not in a mung-bean canoe but a six-person rubber raft. The 45-km river run will take a day and a half, ending near Mae Hong Son. We stroke down burbling alleys of water — slow rapids, you might say — that are colonnaded by stands of bamboo and teak, with a stained-glass jungle canopy above us. Come late afternoon we reach a jungle camp deep in Lumnampai National Park where we pass the night beneath a basic shelter. With stars snagged in the trees and frogs burping in the darkness, we share the ancient ritual of sitting around a campfire, talking story with strangers and new friends. Next day we paddle on, stop for a good wallow in a riverside hotspring, and then paddle some more. Come mid-afternoon we reluctantly beach our rafts at Mae Surin National Park — and wish that the river were twice as long.

Kayaking and Jungle Trekking. The camel-hump hills of Khao Sok National Park (inland, midway between Khao Lak on the Andaman Coast and Surat Thani on the Gulf) frame the huge Ratchaphrapa Reservoir. The lime-green waters of its Cheow Lan Lake are perfect for kayaking, especially when you launch straight out from one of its little “raft house” resorts — cabins built on pontoons beside the forest shore. After paddling comes trekking. Gibbons boom, mostly unseen in the jungle but it’s easier to spot the rioting, long-tailed macaques doing their no-net trapeze stunts through the jungle. The local hornbills are much more reclusive. “There are plenty here,” the guide assures us. “Lies, damned lies and tour guides,” we assure him, straining hopefully to see the Greater Alleged Hornbill.

Cycling.  You can pedal yourself delirious in Thailand, riding along in the breeze on out-of-town trails and back roads. A three-day ride heading south down the Gulf coast to finish at Chumphon initially takes us through a landscape of saltpans, fish farms and mangroves. South of Hua Hin we pull in for our first overnight hotel stop. Next morning we’re on a road so close to the ocean that spray bursts across us. In a few more hours we are amid the forest and limestone ramparts of Sam Roi Yot National Park. Our route is mostly off main highways as we pedal through the lyrically named province of Prachuap Khiri Khan. Macaques skitter through the trees, we roll past empty waves and half-moon bays, and the blue hills of Burma rise to our west. Our final day is an easy 15 km ride beneath a corridor of fir trees beside an endless beach — cycle touring doesn’t get much better than this.

Save an Island. Thailand recently took the unusual measure of protecting a pristine island that had become too popular, and thus degraded. Koh Tachai on the Andaman coast is now off-limits to all visitors. It’s perhaps an uncomfortable reminder to boat operators, tour companies and local developers that the term “marine national park” no longer means “tourist stomping ground.” Along that same glorious coast, however, tourists and divers can still visit the Similan and Surin Islands and further north, dive at famous Richlieu Rock. Meanwhile, well-regulated Koh Laoliang, off the Trang coast, allows only 40 pre-booked visitors at a time. Think snorkeling, rock climbing and sea eagles; forget day-trippers, phone and WiFi.

Elephant Ethics. Rockin’ the howdah is no longer cool. In fact, commercial elephant rides are increasingly seen as a Thailand no-no. Evidence is that carting a weighty wooden seat loaded with hefty tourists for many hours each day damages an elephant’s spine — not to mention the way young elephants are broken-in for the trade. Progressive resorts have already eliminated these rides. Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp near Chiang Rai has a team of mahouts who teach guests the basics of riding an elephant bareback in their Mahout Experience course. Meanwhile, at Elephant Hills tented camp at Khao Sok National Park the pachyderm thrills are about getting close-up and almost personal with your big chang by hand-feeding and then giving it a good hosing and scrubbing-down.

Two Cool Animal Acts. At Khanom, on the Gulf near Surat Thani, the locals are proud of their pink dolphins, some 60 in all. Here we join a dolphin-watching cruise in the marine national park waters. The local Flippers don’t disappoint, surfing our boat’s bow pressure wave; and — yes — they really are pink. Meanwhile, south of Prachuap Khiri Khan town, the local Thai Air Force base is home to a protected forest and its troop of langur monkeys. They sport Punk Einstein hairdos and have wide, white-framed eyes, and when they swoop from the trees to gently cadge bananas, it’s high impact (on us) travel of the most sustainable kind.