With its palm tree-lined islands, pristine beaches, and untamed jungle, Thailand makes a prime location for nature lovers, but mass tourism, all-night beach raves, and inner-city pollution have, until now, prevented the country from making waves on the eco-tourism radar. Thankfully, a growing trend of eco-friendly tour operators are shifting the focus back to the environment, embracing sustainable tourism that nurtures the country’s natural assets, encourages community-based tourism and preservation efforts, and best of all, offers some great guilt-free adventures.
1. Eco lodges, Chiang Mai
Eco lodges are fast becoming the accommodation option du jour in northern Thailand, with scores of tourists descending on the region to undertake treks to visit the area’s unique hill tribe villages, but be wary of their true eco credentials before checking in. Lisu Lodge in Chiang Mai is one of the best options, with its idyllic bamboo huts overlooking lush valleys, and tours that focus on cultural education and exchange, employing local village elders as their guides. The lodge takes its name from the Lisu Hill Tribe village in which it’s based and plays a crucial role in a community based project helping to conserve the heritage of the region’s hill tribes.
2. Nature treks, Chiang Rai
If you’re looking for an alternative to the hill tribe treks of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai makes another great starting point for hikers, located in the famed “Golden Triangle” region, where Laos, Thailand and Burma meet. Hiking to visit the nearby Hill Tribes is a popular choice, but there are plenty of alternative trekking possibilities in the region. Short trails or multi-day routes for all ability levels are available, and you can traverse slippery, wildlife-filled jungle, raft along the 80-mile long Mae Kok River, or climb to a mountain lookout for incredible views over the towns and valleys below. For best results, hire a local guide who’ll help you catch your own fish and teach you to cook it up in bamboo.
3. Eco-friendly fishing tours
Palm-lined bays teeming with squid come sunset, vast fishing lakes filled with an aquarium of fish, and ocean waters so clear you could catch a fish with your bare hands – Thailand is a fisherman’s paradise. For an eco-friendly tour, pile into one of the traditional long boats or a paddle boats and meander along the lakes and rivers or look out for the new electricity-powered eco-speedboats now available to charter.
For serious fishers, head to the Andaman Islands, a collection of Indian-owned islands northwest of Phuket where you can haul in massive tuna, marlin, and even sharks – the area is renowned as one of the best game fishing destinations in the world, and the strict environmental restrictions means there’s plenty of fish to go around.
4. Less-visited islands
The white-sand beaches, lush rainforest, and beach resorts crammed with bamboo huts make Thailand’s islands a hotspot for tourists, especially considering you can buy a luxury break here at a fraction of the price of resorts outside of Asia. Whether you head to a yoga retreat on Ko Samui, sip cocktails on the beaches of Phuket, or experience the famous Full Moon parties of Ko Pha Ngan, there’s an island to suit all tastes, but if you’re looking to avoid the mass tourism resorts and get a taste of life on a real Thai island, take your money to one of the country’s less-visited islands. How about hiking the jungles of the remote Ko Adang, snorkeling the colorful corals along the coast of the pint-sized Ko Kham, or experiencing the laid-back eco-conscious communities of Ko Libong?
5. Elephant sanctuary
Elephant trekking is big business in Thailand, especially in the jungles of the north, but before you sign on spare a thought for the animals themselves, who are often not cared for as well as you might be led to believe. While there are some tour operators that genuinely care for their animals, channeling your money into a sanctuary that rescues mistreated elephants and nurtures them in a natural environment is a much better way to get up close and personal with the trunked mammals without risking endangering them in the process. Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary is one well-reputed place run by a Thai-English couple where guests can get involved in the day-to-day care of the elephants, like feeding to bath time. You can even get a chance to play with the baby elephants. Alternatively, the non-profit Pattaya’s Elephant village has provided homes for former working elephants since 1973 and provides a thorough education for those fascinated by the gentle giants.
6. Bicycle tour
While motorbikes and motorized tuk-tuks might provide the bulk of transport options in Thailand, there’s a burgeoning trend of cycle tourism starting up, with a number of eco-conscious tour operators offering bicycle rental or tours. From historical cycle tours cruising around the temples of Bangkok to multi-day treks traversing the varied terrain and remote villages of rural Thailand, there are plenty of options for budding cyclists, but if you’re up for a serious pedal challenge, you could always sign up for the annual long-haul bike ride Tour de Thailand, a 30-day tour running the length of the country to raise money for charity.
If you’re paying a visit to one of Thailand’s many islands, make use of the many bike rental outlets springing up and hire a bicycle for some solo explorations – a great way to burn off those Thai curries while doing your bit for the environment. Just make sure you check your bike over before you set off, as not all rental outlets are not well equipped in bicycle maintenance.
7. Bird watching
With almost 1000 bird species fluttering and swooping the treetops and plains of Thailand’s jungles and lakes, it’s unsurprising that the country has become a hotbed of bird watching activities. Look out for 13 species of hornbills, raptors, and fifteen species of kingfishers on a longboat trip around Khao Sok National Park. Spot rail-babblers and great argus at Krung Ching Waterfall, and keep your eyes peeled at all times for the rare gurney’s pitta. Bird-spotting tours not only provide an eco-friendly way to get up close to the country’s wildlife, but tourist demand discourages deforestation, which means locals take a greater interest in protecting their natural environment.
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