I was 26 and didn't know any better. Bored with my job on the staff of Peace Corps in Bangkok, I hatched the idea of growing western vegetables in a fertile valley on the banks of the famous River Kwai. My Peace Corps colleagues pitched in with capital. We bought 25 acres of land, and I hired Khun Damrongsak, a Thai Luther Burbanks whom I stole from the Siam Intercontinental Hotel, to run the farm. We were off and running. Or more accurately, off and losing money. Damrongsak was a great scientist. He later earned a significant award for developing delicious hybrid guavas.
But like many smart scientists, his skills did not include management or profit-making.
If you want to be a gentleman farmer in the humid tropics, be prepared to lose 3,000 Thai baht a month for every acre of vegetables you grow. That was 1972, so in today's money be prepared to lose about $500 per acre. Why do you think only gentlemen go into farming? Unless the government's paying, who else can afford it?
But for all the money I lost for myself and my partners, I earned a lot of firsts. I was the first to grow broccoli in the Thai central plain. Oddly enough, of the 12 varieties I tested from seed companies around the world, the ones that worked best in the hot tropics were Sakata seeds from cold Japan. My broccoli proved very popular with the Chinese restaurant in town, and the owners became close friends, offering me a bed when I was stuck in town.
Damrongsak and I also grew snow peas, baby corn, and asparagus, and for a time I was also the "Mushroom King of Thailand." These were the relative successes. Lettuce also grew well, though not in the hot season; it has a resin which discouraged bugs without any need for pesticides. (Yes, this was the 1970's and most of us were still merrily ingesting chemicals).
I lived in a 4x4 meter thatch and bamboo raft that sat right in the river with windows that opened all around. Every morning I dove into the Kwai and swam across the river and back. This was truly the luxury of nature, and when my friends found out they wanted to come too. Especially intrepid Marcia, my economist buddy who was an intern at Thailand's central bank. She organized the first overnight raft trip down the Kwai in a little bamboo raft with a canvas tent in case it rained. Somebody finally suggested we offer all this to paying tourists.
Hence the other first for the farm was eco-tourism. The word wouldn't be invented for another 10 years, but we were doing it. We took our guests to meet the local villagers, who picked fresh coconuts for them and showed them how to harvest sugar cane. At evening campfires, we invited a few talkative villagers to answer questions from the foreign tourists and vice versa, with me as interpreter. The restaurant food all came from our own and local farms. And the activities were all about nature. Thus we became an early example of an eco-resort well before it became a much coveted and abused term in the tourism industry.
It’s now years later, and I have tried to apply all I learned to a tree house resort in a beautiful private rainforest adjacent to Khao Sok National Park, Surat Thani, in south Thailand. Here’s what I learned, and it seems to be working both for a sustainable business and sustainable environment.
Ecotourism Lessons learned. There are always lessons to be learned.
1. It's hard to be the first. Now the banks of the River Kwai are lined with floating and grounded resorts. Then none. If you're the first, everybody else learns from your mistakes and successes and has an easier time of it. Better to be the second.
2. How to deal with the locals. It is now taught in Ph.D course on eco-tourism that to succeed you involve and benefit the local people. We hired them and some of them walked off every night with our fuel and food. When we fired one, the whole village rallied to the cause of their village neighbor. Don't believe the Ph.Ds. It's dangerous to hire locals. Instead let them provide transport, tours, or other needed services, and they will be your nice bridge to the surrounding community.
3. Don't mix. No racial slurs intended, but it's hard to mix Asian and Western tourists. Most Asian tourists today still love to be in big groups and use nature as a setting for what they might do in the city. Westerners on the other hand want to enjoy the beauty of nature in semi-solitude. The two don't mix.