I first visited Thailand as a tourist in November of 2011 with two friends. None of us had traveled outside of the western world, and we were keen to see the exotic treasures that awaited us on distant tropical shores. We ogled at the pictures of the saturated blue ocean and the 5 star resorts that were only $50 dollars per night and thought it would be a cheaper, less-traveled version of Hawaii.
I arrived in Phuket and found many things: a few of them expected, many of them unwanted. The beaches were there, but so were the crowds, the trash. The things that struck me were the people trying to sell tourists pictures with their caged gibbons and langurs, and the children outside bars selling trinkets to drunken strangers at hours when they should be dreaming, not working.
Being there made me feel the negative effects of tourism like I never had before. For me, travel is a way of experiencing other ways of life and being inspired by the natural and cultural wonders of a destination. In Phuket it seemed that tourism had replaced Thai hospitality and natural beauty with second-rate resorts, overcrowded beaches, and a slew of problems that existed in between the tourist thoroughfares. I felt like my tourist dollars were perpetuating the whitewashing of Thai culture while promoting the idea that places like this were worth ruining for the sake of a cheap beer on the beach and a massage with a happy ending.
We decided to leave a few days early and go see the jungle. We ended up making our way to Khao Sok and spending quite a bit of time talking to Bodhi, who went to the same university as I did, 10 years earlier. It was here that I met locals and canoed down the Phanom river enjoying freshly picked fruit. It was here that I hiked through the jungle, surrounded by exotic and unfathomable wildlife. It was here where I saw Thai culture and nature seeming to thrive in ways I hadn’t seen in Phuket.
Now, two years later, I’m back as the sustainability coordinator for Our Jungle House. Why? For one, it’s pretty hard to turn down a job working for an Eco-resort in the jungles of Thailand. To be a part of a business that promotes the positive aspects of tourism was an opportunity I couldn’t ignore.
Since I’ve started working here to improve Khao Sok Sustainability, we’ve gotten our composting in gear, stopped using chemicals to clean our rooms, and installed a water filter to provide free refills to guests and reduce our use of plastic water bottles. We’ve expanded the amount of tours offered through our community-based tourism partners to include homestays, crafts workshops, canoe tours, fruit orchard tours, and cooking lessons.
Our future endeavors include making the resort completely chemical free, from the rooms to the kitchen to the laundry. We are also helping to finance a loan for our neighbor to produce organic free-range eggs. Exciting things are happening here, a genuine example of responsible tourism, and I’m excited to be a part of it!
Note to readers: My feelings about Phuket were based on first-impressions. There are certainly organizations based in Phuket that are doing great work in the community and working to preserve what’s left of its nature. You can read more about them in our upcoming post about responsible tourism destinations in Phuket.