Eco-tourism on Thailand’s emerald isles
When a young American named Dick Sandler first came to Thailand back in 1966, he was living on a raft house in Kanchanaburi where he swam back and forth across the River Kwai for his morning exercise. When friends visited they all wanted raft houses of their own to stay in, which led Sandler and his cohorts to float the idea of starting the province’s first riverside resort, unwittingly pioneering a travel niche that would only start to bud in the next decade.
“I was doing eco-tourism before the term even existed, growing our own food and organizing sustainable tours,” says Sandler in a rare burst of braggadocio. He also ensured that the locals benefitted from his visitors, which makes him something of a pioneer in community-based tourism (another branch of the eco-tourism tree).
Fluent in Thai and schooled in economics, this entrepreneur and self-confessed nature nut eventually took on consultancy work with the United Nations Development Fund and the World Bank, working on rural development projects that allowed him to explore the kingdom’s most remote islands, jungles and beaches. Those discoveries led Sandler to found groundbreaking, eco-minded resorts on Krabi’s Railay Bay, on the fringes of Khao Sok National Park, and the Golden Buddha Beach Resort on Koh Phra Thong (population 300) in the Andaman Sea. An expression he coined has become a touchstone for tourism with a green theme: “low density, high value.” What he means by that are resorts where the accommodations are sufficiently spread out, and noise pollution is kept to a minimum, to ensure that the eco-system is not disrupted and the creatures that depend on it for shelter and succor will continue to thrive.
Even after a few decades in business the Golden Buddha remains faithful to that principle, with only 27 bungalows spread out over a large swath of impeccable beachfront free of touts, sun-loungers, and blaring beach bars. That allows the wildlife and reptiles to run rampant. So crab-eating macaques scurry across the sand in search of their staple supper, the famously shy Sambar deer go for dips around dawn or dusk, and bird-watchers will have a field day spotting Indian Rollers, Asian Fairy Bluebirds, Ruddy Kingfishers, hornbills and Brahminy kites—all frequent fliers in the island’s air space.
Koh Phra Thong is also renowned as one of the last nesting places for sea turtles in Thailand, and the resort’s former manager Loredana Follador—who escaped a near-drowning experience during the 2004 tsunami when fishermen helped her and her son to flee the tidal waves and reach higher ground—helped to start a turtle conservation project for them. That project is now run by Naucrates, an Italian “voluntourism” group, and the Phuket Marine Biological Center (PMBC). Visitors are welcome to lend a hand and some legs to take part in the nightly patrols during the nesting season to tag the females and locate their nests.
Though Dick Sandler and his partners sold the Golden Buddha resort some two years ago, partly so he could spend more time on Our Jungle House (his Khao Sok property), the resort’s new owner, Jochen Mosthaf, is expanding on his environmentally correct policies and practices by recycling wastes on the mainland, feeding the pigs leftovers from guests, and sourcing water from wells on the island rather than having it shipped over by boat.
However, now that the nearby island of Koh Ra has become a nature reserve, Jochen reveals that plans are afloat to turn the entire area into a national marine park, which he does not believe would be an improvement. “This island could not get more ecological than it already is.”
The resort’s future may be more of a grey than green area, but the new owner is less concerned about eco-tourism becoming spoiled by waves of mainstream voyageurs any time soon, because the market’s very nature is its niche appeal and protective camouflage. “Eco-tourism will always be a minority, but the interest is there,” says Jochen.
Golden Buddha Resort is closed from May 31 to October 31. Most guests come from the Phuket International Airport, 160 km north of the ferry pier at Kuraburi, where the resort will arrange transfers via long-tail boat.
Looking for Other Green Getaways?
KOH MAK: Island getaways have always tempted travelers with the promise of seclusion. In Thailand these days remoteness is a hot property. Take Koh Mak as Exhibit A. Located just south of Koh Chang, it’s larger and more popular neighbour, this 16 sq.km idyll is home to only a few hundred locals and a dozen-odd resorts hugging the island’s outer edges. It also has few roads, virtually no crime, and no uncouth tourist hordes, which makes it perfect for relaxing getaways. In addition, resort owners and residents are also working hard to position Koh Mak as one of Thailand’s most eco-conscious islands, so look for programs such as the volunteer once-a-month beach clean up, where visitors can join locals as they target one beach and give it a thorough cleanse.
Buses to Trat depart regularly from Bangkok’s Eastern Bus Terminal. Bangkok Airways also has several daily flights from Suvaranbhumi International Airport to Trat. Speedboats to Koh Mak depart from Laem Ngop pier.
KOH CHANG NOI: Backpackers were the Marco Polos of the travel world, discovering islands like Koh Samui and Phuket long before the jet-ski set began to whine. You can channel the free spirits of old-school wanderers and their modern brethren (tattooed, pierced and dreadlocked) on Koh Chang Noi in Ranong province. Settled some five decades ago by itinerant cashew-nut farmers, the island’s accommodations (mostly thatched bungalows in the lower price range) are studies in Spartan sustainability bastioned around the bays of Aow Yai and Aow Lek. The neo-hippies and punks enjoy their tunes and herbal supplements but don’t expect any howling-at-the-full-moon parties to disturb your peace.
Several long-tail ferries depart from the Saphan Pla Pier in Ranong daily. The trip takes about 90 minutes. During the rainy low season (May to October) almost all of the island’s resorts are closed.
SURIN ISLANDS: Among the diverse tribes of eco-tourism, campers are still the chiefs. For minimum impact on the environment and maximum freedom, rent a two-person tent from the National Park Headquarters on Surin Island, part of a five-isle archipelago and national marine park renowned for some of the best snorkeling and diving in Southeast Asia. To visit the more remote islands you will need to take a liveaboard from Phuket. For snorkeling around the main island there are long-tail boat trips every morning and afternoon that depart from the National Park Headquarters.
The island is inaccessible during the monsoon season from around mid-May to early November. Speedboats from the pier in Kuraburi take about 90 minutes.
KOH YO: Located in the middle of the Songkhla Lagoon, and linked to the mainland by the Tinsulanon Bridge and encircled by economical resorts, Koh Yo is notable for southern Thai touches, benevolent climate, and agro-tours of beauty. Start the morning by taking a long-tail boat to watch the fishermen trawling for net profits, before savouring a seaweed salad for breakfast (the lagoon’s seaweed is rich in vitamins, making for a tasty and healthy snack). Afterwards, the time is ripe for visiting the orchards of jackfruit, sapodillas and mangosteens, or head for the Thaksin Kadi Institute and Study Center, a repository of southern finery in fashions and handicrafts.
Regular buses to Koh Yo run from the city of Songkhla, or take a 1-hour taxi from Had Yai.
KOH YAO NOI: The Conservation Tourism Club of the Koh Yao Noi community was set up to give tourists a gigantic window on the livelihoods and lifestyles of the island’s Muslim denizens. Altogether, there are 30 rooms for home-stays with local families who can arrange educational daytrips to watch the local fishermen and rubber-tree tappers in action. This is a friendly but conservative community, so it’s best to dress accordingly, and remember that alcoholic beverages are not allowed in the homes (drinks are only served in the island’s commercial resorts).
Koh Yao Noi is accessible by long-tail boat ferries departing regularly from Bang Rong Pier on Phuket (a one hour trip), and daily speedboats from Krabi (Klong Hia Pier).