Thailand

Wildlife Tourism Exposed: Nat Geo Uncovers the Truth About This Shadowy Industry

A tourist riding an elephant in Phuket, Thailand. Though elephants are considered domestic animals in the country, they must endure a brutal crushing of the spirit in order to serve man.

Wildlife tourism is a booming international business born out of the human desire to engage with exotic animals. Inextricably linked with the illegal wildlife trade – a black market with an annual estimated worth of $7 – $23 billion that puts 7,000 species at risk – the tourism industry has a dark side that has long been hidden from the public.

During our travels in South East Asia we had a number of unforgettable experiences with wildlife, as well as the chance to observe good and bad practices across the region. National Geographic’s recent exposé on the topic is a deep dive into this shadowy industry, and is essential reading for anyone passionate about travel, animal rights, and conservation. Below is an account of some of our experiences with wildlife tourism, our recommendations on where to go and what to avoid.

Interacting with captive elephants is very easy in South East Asia where thousands work in tourism, and where opportunities to ride elephants are widely available. We took the above photo while hiking to Big Buddha Phuket on a very hot day in Thailand. The hike took us through a jungle path along a cliff overlooking the Andaman Sea and past an elephant trekking camp on a busy road. The photo pretty much captures how elephant tourism works.

It’s easy to see that the tourist on the elephant appears overjoyed. Riding an elephant is probably a life long dream of hers because she likely has no idea of the cruel breaking of the spirit, known as phajaan, or the crush, that all elephants must endure in order to be obedient enough to give rides and perform tricks. Phajaan is a torturous event over days or weeks that usually occurs when an elephant is a baby or juvenile. The babes are separated from their mothers and beaten until they have lost the will to resist the elephant trainer, called the mahout.

The mahout sitting on the elephant’s neck in the photo uses his feet to guide the elephant by tapping her forehead with his right heel and steering her movements with his left foot on her ear. The bull hook in his hand, the tool most commonly used to control and discipline elephants, looms ominously above her head. A pink scar rings her back left ankle, likely the result of prolonged restraint. These are the things we can see.

What’s not visible in the photo are the concrete slabs connected to thick chains that line the edge of the cliff where we assumed the elephants rest at night, or the shacks in the jungle where it’s likely the mahouts and their families live. Beyond the animal cruelty that often goes unseen in this business is the human suffering of the animal caretakers who rely on the industry for their livelihoods. In Thailand, elephants are legally classified as domestic animals like horses or cows, and elephant training, like farming or ranching, is often a family tradition. In the case of elephant ownership, a lack of upward mobility often keeps families stuck in the cycle. The mahout is not the owner of the elephant camp.

We watched the above elephant in a caravan of several pass us, including one who walked with all four legs shackled together. When we reached the main road and entrance to the camp we discovered a baby elephant pacing in a small pen and a young male attached to a chain constantly pulling on his short tether. A family with a young child paid to feed him. We were asked if we wanted to feed the baby elephant, but declined, and continued on our hike unsettled by what we had seen.

Elephants carry tourists in high heat at Angkor Wat’s Bayon Temple in Cambodia. An elephant that died of heatstroke under these conditions in 2016 sparked an international outcry, including a petition to ban elephant riding in Cambodia that was signed by tens of thousands. This photo was taken in 2017.

National Geographic’s recent article covers a wide range of animals involved in wildlife tourism, from bears to wolves, sloths, elephants, tigers and marine animals spanning countries and continents. The main take away, though, is not just an understanding of the misery often involved in wildlife tourism, but the way tourists are duped. When writing about elephant camps in Thailand the article’s authors described two camps: one that offers elephant rides, and another that calls itself a sanctuary. At the “sanctuary” the animals seem free from servitude. But it turns out both camps are owned by the same company, and those elephants at the “sanctuary” also give rides.

This story hit close to home for us. One of our favorite experiences during our time in Asia was a day of snorkeling in Thailand, which we booked on a whim through our hotel. It was only later that we discovered the same company also offered elephant rides. Had we known at the time, we would have taken our business elsewhere.

We had a similar experience in Borneo when we visited two wildlife centers operated by the Malaysian government: Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, which appears to be doing great work returning orangutans to the jungle permanently, and their counterpart, Matang Wildlife Centre, which houses a menagerie of endangered and exotic animals that have been injured, orphaned, or rescued from the exotic pet trade. At Matang, most of the animals were living in cramped, small and sparse enclosures unlike their freely roaming cousins in Semenggoh.

Though Matang is not a zoo or sanctuary, not all the animals living there are releasable, causing visitors to wonder why the permanent residents are not living in better conditions. With no rangers available to answer questions, we left with the impression that Matang is under staffed, under funded, and poorly maintained, housing depressed and distressed wild animals. What we saw – pacing sun bears, an orangutan staring at the wall, rhinoceros hornbills in small confines, and a gibbon that threw poop at us – did not give us a good feeling, and it turns out other visitors shared our concerns. A slew of negative reviews on TripAdvisor have since reached the government, though it remains to be seen if any action will be taken to improve the conditions at Matang.

Orangutans at Matang Wildlife Centre in 2017.

Though not all experiences with wildlife tourism involve cages, chains, and trainers, when booking a tour out in nature you can still encounter some less than stellar guides and operators.

In Indonesia, we booked two tours around Komodo National Park that involved snorkeling with manta rays. It was surprisingly difficult to find information on most tour companies ahead of time, with many travel bloggers advising visitors to book in person. We scheduled one tour in advance with a sustainably minded company and the second on arrival, resulting in two very different snorkeling experiences.

The guides from the tour booked in person urged our group to jump into the ocean practically on top of the manta rays into a dark, swift current without any explanation of what to expect, while guides from the tour booked in advance encouraged us to calmly and gently enter the water at a distance so as not to disturb these gentle giants. Though no one was hurt with the first tour group, we felt that the experience could have been dangerous for us and the mantas.

So how can you avoid supporting unsavory organizations when seeing wildlife?

Research is your best bet. Visit the company websites and look at reviews on sites like TripAdvisor before booking. Reading blogs about others’ experiences can also be helpful. Though this will usually do the trick, it’s not always possible to know what a wildlife center, park or tour will be like until you get there. If something seems amiss, ask employees, and share your experience with others. Generally speaking, if an animal is performing i.e. being made to pose for photos, be constantly handled, do tricks, or give rides, it’s probably not a good situation. If you are able to interact with wildlife, it’s important that any contact is on the animal’s terms.

Arctic wolf, Sugar, relaxing at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in New Mexico.

Thankfully, there are plenty of sanctuaries, national parks, and reserves that offer opportunities to engage with wild animals ethically. Here are our recommendations on where to visit based on our experiences:

  • Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand – This sanctuary for elephants rescued from logging and tourism is truly fantastic. They have several projects around Thailand and neighboring countries allowing tourists to interact with retired elephants humanely. A number of tours and volunteer opportunities are offered. We volunteered on site for a week.

  • Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, Kuching, Borneo – The orangutans at Semenggoh have been rehabilitated and released back into the wild after being injured, orphaned, or rescued from lives as pets. The center is open twice a day for visitors to observe orangutans during feeding times, though seeing them is not guaranteed. Visitors have no contact with the orangutans.

  • Komodo National Park with Flores XP Adventure, Indonesia – Flores XP Adventure is an eco tourism company offering tours around Komodo National Park. On our single day tour, we saw komodo dragons, dolphins, tropical fish, manta rays, reef sharks, and flying foxes in the wild. Tourists have no contact with the animals.

  • Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, Ramah, New Mexico – WSWS rescues wolves and other wild canines from the exotic pet trade, providing lifetime sanctuary. Like ENP, visitors can choose from a number of tours and volunteer opportunities. We worked at WSWS for two years and definitely recommend a visit.

  • Wolf Haven International, Tenino, Washington – Wolf Haven also rescues and provides lifetime sanctuary for displaced wolves and wolf-dogs. They are accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and the American Sanctuary Association. Guided tours with no animal contact are available by appointment.

  • Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, Ubud, Bali – The Monkey Forest Sanctuary is home to over 600 long-tailed macaques on 30 acres of protected jungle within the city of Ubud. The monkeys are wild, but not shy. Although it is possible to touch them, it’s not recommended.

  • Bako National Park, Borneo, Malaysia – During our visit to this protected peninsula, we saw bearded boars, proboscis monkeys, macaques, a pit viper, and many other animals along the trails and beach. There is no interaction with the wild animals at Bako.

Ultimately, wildlife tourism exists because people love animals, but if we remain shielded from the reality of the industry, elephant riding, tiger cuddles, exotic animal performance, and ownership will continue. As awareness of the unethical practices involved in most animal attractions spreads, the industry will have to change, benefitting humans, animals and ecosystems alike.

*Interested in more ways to help? Thailand is planning to allow Asian elephants, an endangered species, to be exported from the country beginning June 23, 2019 for the purposes of research, study, good relations, and parts or products for academic research or as antiques/art objects. Asian elephants are a keystone species making them critical to their ecosystems, and with only about 1,000 left in the wild in Thailand, this new law, which would lift a ban on elephant exportation that has been in place for the last decade, is likely to compromise the Asian elephant’s future in Thailand and beyond. You can help by signing and sharing this petition to stop Thailand from exporting elephants.

A happy herd at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Visiting: Ko Lanta, Thailand

Photo by Majestic Bar

Thailand’s coast conjures visions of calm, turquoise waters, white sand beaches lined with palm trees, and exotic islands offering beach bungalows, cheap drinks and delicious food. But which is right for you? This was the question we asked ourselves as we readied for a trip to the Thai islands. Though we had heard plenty about Phi Phi, Ko Pha Ngan, and Ko Samui, it wasn’t until we stumbled upon a glowing review of Ko Lanta that we felt we had found the island just for us.

Klong Nin Beach, Ko Lanta

WHY KO LANTA?

Ko Lanta is famed for its long, quiet beaches overlooking the tranquil waters of the Andaman Sea, its gorgeous sunsets, chill vibe, and refreshingly undeveloped shores. A short boat trip from Phi Phi, or a van ride from the mainland, Ko Lanta is popular with couples, families and expats looking for some distance from the party scene. While those who seek it can still find nightlife, Ko Lanta’s wild landscape is its real draw, and a beacon to those who value the healing power of nature.

GETTING THERE

Ko Lanta Yai, also known as Ko Lanta, is the larger of twin islands off the west coast of Krabi Province. Ko Lanta Noi, the smaller, less populated of the two, is closer to the mainland. These islands along with fifty others comprise Mu Ko Lanta National Park, offering exploration, boating, snorkeling and scuba diving adventures. Ko Lanta used to be quite difficult to reach, but a bridge completed in 2016 connecting Noi and Yai has improved accessibility.

We traveled by boat (on a backpackers budget) from Phuket, Thailand, and booked our trip through Phuket Ferry, paying a few extra dollars for a shared ride from our hotel to Rasada Pier (much cheaper than taking a taxi).

On the way.

Our 4-hour trip from 'Phuket to Lanta’ started by sailing directly into a storm. But by the time we approached Phi Phi where we were to change vessels, the sun had emerged to shine brightly onto the island’s mystical limestone cliffs and azure waters. As we approached Maya Bay, however, the rain returned forcing us to surrender as it soaked our luggage, and us, while changing boats. Despite the sudden downpour, we made our connection and for the rest of the journey enjoyed the scenery, watching the densely forested Ko Lanta Noi and Yai, each lined with a mix of pine and palm trees, come into view. We passed a long sand bar leading to the mainland, under the newly built bridge, and with our bags in tow, climbed to shore at the colorful Saladan Pier.

Saladan Pier.

While onboard, we had arranged a shared ride to our new digs, and after paying our entrance fee to the island ($2 each), shuffled into the back of a covered pick up truck with eight others, piling our luggage on the floor between us. At Klong Nin Beach (or MOO 5 on Google Maps), we exited the truck onto a dirt road and headed for our bungalow already knowing we had made the right choice.

 

LET THE FUN BEGIN

 

TRANQUIL WATERS

Much of our time on Ko Lanta was spent soaking up rays, swimming in the gentle sway of the Andaman Sea, and talking for hours while we played in the waves. We ran, did yoga, and took long walks on the beach exploring the coastline. It felt wonderful to just be. Listening to the rock of the waves was so relaxing, and at night we occasionally glimpsed glowing fish and plankton as they wove through dark waters.

Good to Know: At times we thought we were being stung in the water, but never saw any evidence of stinging sea creatures, nor did we emerge with any marks or adverse effects. After a hard rain, the sensation disappeared for the rest of our stay.

 

EXPLORE KO LANTA BY MOTORBIKE

We’d read ahead that another of Ko Lanta’s highlights is its fresh pavement. Despite being relatively undeveloped, motorists can enjoy easy cruising on straight, smooth roads that roll up and down the island’s hills, making it simple and fun to explore.

We rented a motorbike for just 200 Baht (about $6), and filled the tank to the brim for less than another $5. Then we were off to eat lunch at a precariously perched cliff side restaurant, discover hidden beaches, gorgeous views, and some of the island’s natives: monitor lizards and naughty macaques.

 

SNORKELING AT THE NATIONAL PARK

We enjoyed a lovely day of snorkeling Koh Ha and Ko Rok at three locations in Mu Ko Lanta National Park, plus lunch on the beach and a fun boating experience. For a view into our day at sea, check out our snorkeling article and video

Koh Ha

 

WHERE WE STAYED

We fell in love with Ko Lanta, and ended up staying for twenty glorious days. The first half of our trip was spent at The Hut, a group of rustic bungalows directly across the street from Klong Nin Beach found on AirBnB for $15 a night. Run by a French and Thai couple, Pat and Louise were wonderful hosts who made good company and truly helped us when we were in need (like chasing down our bank card after it was eaten by an ATM at 711).

Our bungalow was cute and simple with an adorable porch adorned with a festive hammock. The interior was sparse – a bed, mosquito net, and bathroom – but you don't need much to be content on Ko Lanta. Though we did miss AC on hot nights, the room came complete with a ceiling fan. Some more plusses: the Internet was great and Louise’s home cooked Thai dishes were delicious. We often sat in the open-air restaurant working at bamboo tables sipping smoothies or iced coffees and petting Pong, the resident dog, and his cat friends before heading to the beach in the afternoon. (We worked while we traveled.)

Good to Know: A nearby mosque delivered calls to prayer on loudspeakers throughout the day beginning at dawn and even on the beach. It was strange at first to hear chanting coming from the palm trees, but easy to get used to. Helpful to know if you're a light sleeper!

The Hut Lanta.

After extending our stay at The Hut, we eventually caved to our desire for AC and moved down the street to Lanta Nature Beach Resort where we snagged the cheapest room they had for about $25 per night. The hotel had 50 rooms compared with The Hut's 10, certainly making it less personal, but our room was at the back of the property close to the jungle, which created a feeling of privacy, and our AC worked great. The hotel’s beach access, restaurant, small pool, and rooms spread across both sides of the main road created a nice ambiance. We loved eating breakfast overlooking the beach and dipping into the ocean between bouts of work at the hotel restaurant. An added bonus was booking a day of snorkeling directly through the hotel.

Lanta Nature Beach Resort

 

FOOD & DRINK

We spent most of our time on Klong Nin Beach, which offered a variety of restaurants, bars and shops. These were our favorites around the neighborhood:

Majestic Bar – With lawn chairs on the beach offering ocean views of gorgeous sunsets, Majestic Bar had tasty drinks and the longest happy hour of the restaurants we visited. The staff was very sweet and always welcomed us when we returned. The bar doesn't serve food, but partners with the restaurant next door, which delivers snacks and meals to your table while you dip your toes in the sand. Get there early for prime seating.

Rasta Baby – Overlooking the beach, Rasta Baby had happy hour specials at sunset, tasty margaritas, live reggae on Friday nights, and a cozy, cool atmosphere featuring pillows on the floor, tiny bamboo tables and buoys hanging from the ceiling. The bohemian shop in front offered beautiful handmade bags, crystal and shell-adorned necklaces, clothing and more.

Richey’s – Also on the beach, Richey’s had great Thai dishes that were some of the cheapest on the water. The atmosphere was warm and had more of a family vibe.

The Monkey Buziness Cafe – This cute café selling coffee, tea, ice cream, sweet treats and some savory dishes has outdoor café seating decorated with vintage coffee bags and a store inside selling locally made crafts. The Old School Iced Coffee was our favorite.

 

CONCLUSIONS

Ko Lanta was so much better than we could have ever imagined. It was the perfect island get away, and one of the most relaxing places we’ve been.

Have you visited to Ko Lanta? Tell us what you thought!

 

SNAPSHOTS

Snorkeling in Thailand: Koh Rok & Koh Ha

Thailand’s shoreline is known for its picturesque ivy speckled cliffs and gemmy aquamarine tide ideal for water adventures like scuba diving and snorkeling.

During a month long stint on Ko Lanta, an island in the Andaman Sea off of Krabi in eastern Thailand, we experienced an unforgettable day of snorkeling at Koh Ha and Koh Rok, part of Mu Ko Lanta National Park (comprising the southern tip of Ko Lanta and several small nearby islands).

A strip of Ko Lanta's shoreline.

Walking up and down Klong Nin Beach, our stomping grounds for the month, we discovered a plethora of tour companies offering snorkeling and scuba packages of all varieties almost everywhere we turned, each featuring day trips, overnights, and a seemingly inexhaustible list of islands to choose from for an excursion.

After doing our own research, we identified Koh Ha as our top choice for a day on the sea: a group of five limestone islands jutting out of the ocean to form an aqua lagoon, and booked a tour of three snorkeling locations, including lunch at the national park. The full day out cost 1,800 Baht each (about $55 a pop) and was absolutely worth it.

The strait between Koh Rok Nok and Koh Rok Nai.

Our package explored Koh Ha and Koh Rok, consisting of the islands Koh Rok Nok and Koh Rok Nai, which are popular for their shared crystal clear strait, the potential for sea turtle sightings, and spotting large monitor lizards patrolling the shore.

Have a look at our video for a view into the adventure, and read on for more details about our tour followed by snapshots at the end of this article.

Our tour began early, with our bright green boat (as advertised in the brochure) set to pick us up on the beach in front of our hotel at 8:00 AM. But as things sometimes go in life, the boat was late and the pick up turned out to be farther down the beach than we were told (lost in translation?), but we made it.

Once aboard, the boat began to immediately experience engine trouble causing us to turn back to shore where we waited for the crew to complete the necessary repairs: about 45 minutes. Some guests left during this time, but we didn’t mind sitting on the beach waiting it out. Meanwhile, the friendly captain assured us that the crew would extend our trip, affording our group the same amount of time at the islands as promised during booking. This turned out to be exactly as he described and we enjoyed a full day out on the water. When all was fixed, we returned to the boat and headed toward Koh Rok.

Two of the cliffs comprising Koh Ha.

The speedboat took about an hour splashing over the waves, and soon we were sailing between the tree-covered islands that form Koh Rok's lagoon. Eager to get underwater, our caravan of 15 jumped in to explore what the site had to offer. We dove two different points, swimming amongst tropical fish, a group of small clear squid, over colorful, textured coral patches and spiny sea urchins waving in the current.

We stopped for a pre-prepared lunch on the island, which also offers camping, and enjoyed more snorkeling off the beach, reveling in the opal waters, and digging our toes into the most powdery sand we’ve ever felt.

The national park at Koh Rok.

After lunch, we were back on the boat ferrying to Koh Ha for more snorkeling amongst beautiful plant dusted cliffs jutting out of the sea. A protected cove roped off to warn ships from entering offered sightings of more tropical fish, enormous clams, coral reefs, and bright blue and pink starfish.

An hour or so of fun and play later, our troop piled back into the speedboat and shipped off to Ko Lanta with satisfied smiles on our faces, arriving back at our hotel just before sunset.

A boat moored at Koh Ha.

This journey into the ethereal, mysterious and otherworldly universe of the sea remains one of the most memorable during our travels in Asia. It’s these kind of experiences that can deliver a renewed perspective and awe for the ocean, its incredible creatures, the importance of this ecosystem, and the diversity it contains.

 

SNAPSHOTS

Visiting: Big Buddha Phuket, Thailand

It was our first morning on the island when we noticed Big Buddha serenely overlooking the landscape. Gazing out our hotel window sipping instant coffee and taking in the palm covered hillside decorated with villas, restaurants, shops and a turquoise slice of Kata Beach’s half moon cove, we looked up at the behemoth Buddha while listening to the morning breeze that carried sounds of chirping birds, vehicles cruising the active roadside, and the mix of languages being spoken in the hotel lounge.

When looking into the area, Big Buddha hadn’t appeared in our research. Intrigued, we wanted to know more, and agreed to make an adventure out of hiking to the monument and scenic viewpoint.

Big Buddha's silhouette.

The bells to the right each dangle a heart inscribed with prayers in many tongues left by visitors.

A quick visit to the website offered some basic information and a brief history.

Entry is free and the site is open everyday from 6AM – 7PM.

Though construction began as early as 2006 the project was still in the finishing stages (as of our visit in 2017). Despite visible construction materials, the site offers outstanding panorama views from every angle, featuring, of course, a stunning 45-meter marble and jade Buddha seated atop the peak of Mount Nagakerd.

The back entrance to Big Buddha's interior.

A smaller 12-meter high glimmering gold Buddha serves as a replica for the larger statue and can be found beside its big brother. A path through the bottom of Big Buddha allows visitors to walk through and take a look inside.

At the base of the site is a traditional temple where monks can be found partaking in daily rituals and interacting with visitors. Being an active religious site, it’s good to know that guests, especially ladies, are expected to cover up shoulders and legs.

We had scarves that served this purpose, but shawls are provided and available for sale on site if needed at one of the plethora of shops offering souvenirs to take home with you.

Have a look at our video below for a walk through of Big Buddha.

If you'd like to know where we stayed in Phuket, learn about our adventurous hike, and peruse our gallery of snapshots (at the end of this article), please read on.

 

GETTING THERE

Relaxing on Kata Beach.

The drive from Phuket International Airport in a shared van with 15 other travelers to our hotel took about two hours stopping intermittently at each passenger’s accommodations. While this isn’t the fastest or most luxurious way to travel, it only cost about $6 per person, which makes it all worth it when you’re on a budget.

 

WHERE WE STAYED

While planning our trip to Asia we had always envisioned visiting Phuket, Thailand’s famed tropical resort laden island, a bridge away from the mainland, and a jump off to the country’s myriad of dreamy emerald islands, each with their own charm.

This was the second stop on our six-month journey overseas following a month in Bali, Indonesia. After pouring over reviews of Phuket’s beaches and hotels, we decided on Kata Beach on the southwest side of the Island. We arrived in February during the dry season and enjoyed remarkably flat teal waters. Generally speaking, Thailand doesn't have a lot of surf. Despite that, Kata Beach does have some of the surf culture we were looking for in a place to stay.

On a backpacker’s budget, we admittedly struggled to find a hotel with the amenities we wanted within our price range. That is, until we found Boondaree Home Resort through AirBNB, tucked away from the tourist center offering both ocean and mountain views.

For about $20 a night we enjoyed a private room with en suite bathroom, a pleasant view, free and reliable Wi-Fi, free coffee, a fridge, a tiny pool, and a quiet place to get work done within walking distance to town. While the hotel is on a very busy street, it's less than a thirty minute walk through sleepy back roads to the beach, and 10 minutes walking distance to nearby restaurants. The staff at Boondaree was super friendly and helpful, too. (A note of reference: all the hotels we looked at with similar amenities near any beach were at least double the price per night.)

 

OUR TREK

Let's Go!

While it seems most drive to Big Buddha we decided to hike for adventure and exercise.

We didn't have cell service at the time, and identified our route using Google Maps (the screenshots below were the road maps that guided us). Others who’d made the journey recommended leaving early to avoid walking during the hottest part of the day, but not being the earliest of risers we left at about 10AM. Hindsight is 20/20 and we can see now we would have been more comfortable if we heeded the advice.

It's important to know that Phuket is a developed city experiencing increasing growth, more so than we expected. Our hotel was on a steep and busy road not well suited for pedestrians. No sidewalks, just a little slice of asphalt on either side of the street littered with trash and broken glass.

Sunscreened, donning sun hats, sun glasses, sneakers, and carrying back packs filled with water and scarves, we started out on our hike. Motorists honked as they passed, some hoping we'd hire them for a ride, others simply alerting us to their presence. But once set out on our pilgrimage, we were determined to complete it.

The day grew hot fast as we walked the twisting highway that crossed the island from east to west. In a particularly narrow section passing a cliff side, we walked along a cement guardrail, enjoying the view of the other side of Phuket

The view from Mount Nagakerd.

After about forty minutes of trekking when the road started to dip downhill we began to wonder whether we were lost, and turned into a hotel restaurant to use the Internet and take a break from the heat. While sitting at the covered outdoor café, we watched a cat try to catch a stork (the stork prevailed), and consulted our map over watermelon juice and spring rolls.

At the end of the hotel’s driveway was a security shack that guarded a small road leading up the mountain. All signs pointed that we were to go that way. So we did.

The quiet street lined with fancy villas felt like a scenic road compared to the bustling highway, and soon, the asphalt met with a dirt path heading straight into the jungle. Now, this was the “hike to Big Buddha” we had in mind!

We forged ahead through a narrow trail along a steep cliff overlooking the east side of Phuket and Phang Nga Bay peaked with forested islands. Built into the hills, we passed both small shelters made of tin and boards, and abandoned half-built luxury homes. Orange and purple butterflies danced around us avoiding florescent black and yellow orb spiders perched in intricate webs.

We anticipated passing an elephant camp along the way, but were nonetheless arrested by the sight of a beautiful Asian Elephant walking toward us on the path, her mahout (trainer) on her head and tourist on her back. This was our first encounter with an elephant in our travels, and we found ourselves taken aback by both her majesty and plight. We stopped and waited, watching the elephant suck water from a small puddle on the side of the road and spray it under her belly to cool off. We continued on, passing two more elephants on a tourist trek, one with all of her four legs bound in chains.

Exiting the short and quiet forested segment of our walk, we came to an intersection with a winding road going straight up and down the mountain. To either side were outposts featuring young elephants. One juvenile that was harnessed to the ground by a chain on the side of the road paced and pulled at its fastened leg, only ceasing when tourists gave him a banana. In the opposite direction heading toward Big Buddha a baby elephant paced in a pen. We were offered to feed the baby, but declined.

*The cruelty inflicted on endangered Asian Elephant’s by the elephant tourism industry is well documented, and as such we do not condone elephant riding whatsoever. This is a complex issue, and in many cases both elephants and people are forced into bad situations that cause pain for both parties. If you want to interact with elephants in Phuket, please consider giving the power of your dollar to an elephant sanctuary like Elephant Nature Park's project, Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, the first ethical elephant sanctuary in Phuket.

 

ARRIVING AT BIG BUDDHA

Up and up the mountain we climbed for at least an hour more passing restaurants and viewpoints, until finally we came upon the entrance. Once inside, we took our time exploring the complex and catching some gorgeous views before making our way up the imposing set of steps to greet Big Buddha himself.

When finished exploring the main attraction we visited the temple, and finally found a cozy bench to sip some cold coconuts before heading back to Kata Beach, stopping along the way for a late lunch overlooking the sea.

Nearing the top of the massive set of steps leading to Big Buddha.

The walk was easier on the way back thanks to knowing the way and what to expect (going downhill helped, too!), along with our self-made agreement to finish the journey without any griping. Inspired by Big Buddha, we made an effort to simply be in the now, to accept what is – whether pleasant or unpleasant – and enjoy these little moments.

By the time we reached Boondaree after 5 hours of walking through the heat we were exhausted and slightly dehydrated, but also gratified. We had overcome a physical exercise, an exercise in faith when we doubted our way, and an exercise in patience. And back at the hotel, after a fun and memorable day of exploration, the tiny swimming pool awaited us.

 

SNAPSHOTS

What’s In the Water?

Our Global Waste Problem

& What We Can Do About It

A trash pile on the shore of Balangan Beach in Bali, Indonesia. Heaps like this are burned routinely as one of the most common forms of waste management on the island.

A trash pile on the shore of Balangan Beach in Bali, Indonesia. Heaps like this are burned routinely as one of the most common forms of waste management on the island.

It’s awesome to see that this year’s Earth Day was all about plastic pollution awareness, microplastics, ocean degradation and waste management issues. We encountered this problem daily while traveling through Southeast Asia in 2017, and it was eye opening. What struck us most – outside of the kind people we met, the gorgeous scenery, warm cultures and inspiring relics we had the fortune to explore – was litter, practically everywhere, and namely: plastic.

We first encountered the monster in Bali. It was my birthday. We had just landed 24 hours prior after flying across the world from Boston to Denpasar, surviving a harrowing lightning storm and the joys of three consecutive flights. We rested up and set off to spend our first day exploring the Island of the Gods. Months earlier, I had declared to my husband that all I wanted to do on my birthday was swim in the Indian Ocean, and I had been imagining the moment ever since. So, we set out to make that happen.

Denpasar is the main international airport in Bali, and a stone’s throw from the famed surf haven, Kuta Beach. We left our hotel and strolled through the busy downtown, past store after store brimming with cheap boardwalk style souvenirs. We’d read ahead of time that Kuta is known as a westernized party town, but also learning that it’s a surfer’s paradise, we planned to spend a few days there before heading off to quiet Canggu. We’d also read that travelers to Kuta have a reputation for being a bit “trashy,” but what was really trashed, it turned out, was the beach!

We got to Bali during rainy season (we arrived in January – the wet season is October - April), which partially accounts for the exorbitant amount of waste we discovered scattered across the beach as far as you could see. The sand was littered top to bottom with all manner of garbage: straws, plastic bags, flip flops, food wrappers, bottles, cups, broken glass, beer bottles, and plenty of other unidentifiable debris. We were more than a little grossed out, but still determined to take a dip in the ocean. It turned out that meant swimming through a sea of garbage. All the same types of waste found on the beach, and more, floated by, swirled around, and flowed in and out on every wave making it actually impossible to be in the water without having trash touching some part of our bodies.

Beach goers wade past mounds of trash after a beach clean up in Kuta, Bali, to enjoy some of the island's best surf. During the rainy season, garbage washes ashore in Bali after it's swept in from other nearby islands. Beach litter is further compounded by the island's waste problem, in which garbage is frequently left on roadsides near waterways, eventually seeping into rivers and streams that lead to the sea.

Beach goers wade past mounds of trash after a beach clean up in Kuta, Bali, to enjoy some of the island's best surf. During the rainy season, garbage washes ashore in Bali after it's swept in from other nearby islands. Beach litter is further compounded by the island's waste problem, in which garbage is frequently left on roadsides near waterways, eventually seeping into rivers and streams that lead to the sea.

We didn’t last very long, and struggled with seeing other beach goers playing Frisbee, swimming and surfing as if nothing was wrong.

How could we let this become the new normal?

We all knew that trash on the beach wasn't dumped there by some malicious company, or left behind by any one person or elusive malcontent. It couldn't possibly. So, that meant it wasn’t really anyone’s trash, but it was everyone’s. Ultimately, we couldn't pretend we weren’t swimming through the contents of a trash bag, and exited the ocean dejected, near tears.

We walked a little further down the beach, but just seeing more of the same, headed back to our hotel disgusted, disturbed and heartbroken by what we'd seen washing in and out of shore.

That night and the months that followed we poured over stats on ocean pollution, litter, and waste management programs in Southeast Asia. What we discovered both through our experience and research was that organized waste management and recycling programs were sorely lacking in the region. Not coincidentally, a 2015 report from the Ocean Conservancy found that China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand are the five countries responsible for half of all plastic leaked into the ocean globally.

An insightful mural at Old Man's in Canggu, Bali.

An insightful mural at Old Man's in Canggu, Bali.

Our research also confirmed resoundingly that throwaway plastics are a serious problem. The type of trash we saw most often from the beaches of Bali, Indonesia, and Borneo, Malaysia, to the streets of Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Phuket, Thailand, was food packaging waste: candy wrappers, straws, chip bags, bottles, drink pouches, and so on. They were everywhere.

These flimsy pieces of plastic aluminum composites are some of the most difficult to recycle because there is little market for their reuse. There are innovative companies out there like Terracycle who collect these items and turn them into new products, but these types of solutions are not yet the norm, and in some cases it can still cost the consumer to recycle, making these services inaccessible to those with lower incomes.

Hard to recycle plastics aside, we learned that recycling programs in high volume, tourist heavy regions of Southeast Asia are few and far between. Further research revealed that developing countries often lack the resources and infrastructure to provide widespread waste disposal services in general, which has in turn led to a lack of local knowledge on how to recycle properly.

As a result, in many parts of the developing world trash is either left on the side of the road in open basins or in plastic bags that are shredded by dogs, cats, monitor lizards and other hungry critters prior to collection, dropped into waterways, brought to illegal dumps, littered, or burned. Burning garbage as a way to eliminate it was the most frequent disposal method we saw. Families, farmers, and business owners alike all practiced it. The smell of burning plastic was a constant and familiar scent throughout our travels across the region. That smell hurts on so many levels and definitely isn’t good for you.

Trash awaiting collection on the side of the road in Bali is perched precariously beside a water run off that leads directly to the Indian Ocean.

Trash awaiting collection on the side of the road in Bali is perched precariously beside a water run off that leads directly to the Indian Ocean.

While these disposal methods would still pose environmental problems even if most of our waste were biodegradable, the majority of trash is inorganic. Plastic can take 400 years to decompose, and burning plastic mixed with household trash releases harmful gases such as dioxin and furan that are highly toxic to humans.

All this said, we see a clear and positive shift in recent times where more people the world over  are tackling this harrowing issue; from articles in the mainstream media to viral videos revealing the plastic epidemic and it’s toll on our oceans. In 2018, we know that ocean pollution is the result of our global failure to effectively dispose of waste, and with that realization we also have the opportunity to make lasting and powerful changes. 

Of course, in the areas most affected, people have been combatting pollution for years. Today, it seems these issues and the organizations fighting to alleviate them are finally getting the attention they deserve.

It turned out the trash heap we discovered in Kuta isn’t necessarily the norm year round, but is commonly found during the rainy season when waste left on roadsides is swept into rivers that flow out to sea where it mingles with garbage that washes up from nearby countries and islands. In response to these widespread issues, many organizations are dedicated to reclaiming Bali’s beaches, improving waste disposal services, and educating locals on how they can help. The country has even introduced a plastic bag ban beginning this year.

When we returned to Kuta three weeks later, we headed back to the beach with the intention of documenting what we saw there in January. To our great surprise, there had been a massive beach cleanup. Instead of trash littered across the sand and waves, we saw huge piles of neatly collected garbage lined up and down the beach, awaiting disposal.

It was an incredible feeling to know that all that garbage was once floating freely in the Indian Ocean, and heartening to realize that with awareness and passion, a positive impact can be made.

We feel that if we are to improve the situation, it’s important to know the facts so that we can take responsibility for our actions. In the spirit of Know Stone Unturned, the remainder of this article explores some of the data we collected through our research on this topic, and offers a list of 10 easy ways you can combat plastic pollution with every day choices.

Care for a swim? One rubbish pile among dozens lining Kuta Beach after a massive clean up in February 2017.

Care for a swim? One rubbish pile among dozens lining Kuta Beach after a massive clean up in February 2017.

THE STATS: THE PROBLEM WITH PLASTIC

  • The adult human body is composed of 60% water. Without it, the average person will die in just 3-4 days. Yet, 1 in 9 people around the world lack access to safe drinking water, while 1.8 billion people drink water contaminated with feces.
  • The World Health Organization estimates that half of the world’s population will be living in water stressed areas by 2025.
  • For millions of people around the world, the solution to unsafe drinking water is the plastic bottle. Even in regions with access to potable tap water, consuming bottled beverages, usually out of convenience, has become the norm. But our global addiction to ready-made and ‘disposable’ goods is only serving to further foul our waterways.
  • Ironically, producing a bottle of water takes about 6 times the amount of water contained by the end product.
  • In the U.S. alone, the production of water bottles uses 17 million barrels of oil every year. Billions of those bottles then go un-recycled. In fact, 20 billion plastic water bottles wind up in landfills or are incinerated annually.
  • While much of the global waste problem lies in the lack of waste and recycling services in developing countries, developed nations like the United States have just as poor a recycling record. It’s no secret that the U.S. is the biggest producer of waste worldwide. Americans generate nearly 625,000 tons of waste per day, yet our recycling rate is only 35%
  • Even more critical than the lack of services and the dominance of throwaway culture, is our broad disconnection from water consumption and waste production. Water coming out of the tap feels infinite, while trash picked up curbside seems like it’s got a place to go that we never need to think about. Of course, that’s just not true. For all the water on earth, 97% is contained in our oceans, leaving only 3% to fresh water sources (much of which remains in the polar ice caps). And while the oceans absorb about 40% of CO2 emissions, marine plants produce 70% of our oxygen.
  • Life on earth is in many ways sustained by the ocean. We now have eight million tons of plastic finding its way there annually, and that number is increasing.
  • It’s estimated that by 2025 the ocean may contain 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish, and that by 2050 we can expect more plastic than fish swimming in the ocean. That’s thanks to the nearly 300 million tons of plastic produced each year, 50% of which is produced for single use.
  • Ready for this: more plastic was produced in the last decade than over the course of the last century.
  • Once out at sea, plastic pollution causes serious harm to marine life and birds that either get caught in webs of trash or ingest plastic thinking its food.
  • While it takes hundreds of years to decompose in water, releasing toxic chemicals in the process, plastic breaks down into small pieces called microplastics that are commonly ingested and absorbed by fish, whales, birds, mussels, sea turtles, and many other walks of marine life. Although some species of fish can expel microplastics, most marine animals cannot. For them, ingesting plastics causes a false feeling of being full, which is often fatal.
  • Like eating seafood? You might want to know that every year fish in the North Pacific Ocean ingest 12,000 – 24,000 tons of plastic.
  • As the chemicals found in plastics and metals move up the food chain, they eventually surface in the grocery store, at restaurants, and ultimately on our plates.
  • At this point, the long-standing effects of ingesting microplastics and the chemicals they release are unknown. What we do know is that what affects one area of the food chain affects the entire food chain, and humans are at the top.
 

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: WHAT WE CAN DO TO REDUCE PLASTIC POLLUTION

Water, like air, is constantly cycling. It doesn’t belong to any one person, company, country or town, but to us all. In the same way that water belongs to all of us, so does water pollution. Luckily, everyone can reduce his or her plastic consumption by consciously using less plastic. It’s that simple!

Below are 10 tips on making the switch.

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning we may earn a small commission if you make a purchase from this website, helping to support our work at no additional cost to you. We only link to products that we believe in, and truthfully review all products we’ve used.

Klean Kanteen Bottles

1. Say No to Plastic Bottles

The average American uses 173 plastic water bottles each year, but you can avoid this with a reusable canteen. Insulated bottles like Klean Kanteens keep drinks icy cold or toasty warm for hours. The stainless steel interior is easy to clean, too, so you can use it for a variety of beverages. We've had ours for several years, and you can see that they have held up and are well loved.

Photo by PhotoDreamWorldArt

2. Bye, Bye Plastic Bags

Did you know that 100 million plastic bags are used every minute, but usually for only 15 minutes before they’re tossed? There are so many reusable bags out there to help curb the waste. We love those that fit easily in your purse, backpack, or pocket, like Baggu. Their design minimizes fabric waste, and can be shipped back to the company for recycling at the end of their lives.

Home Made Produce and Bulk Food Bags

3. Ditch Plastic Produce Bags

Go the extra mile by foregoing plastic produce bags found at most grocery stores. Check out Life Without Plastic’s food bags for bread, produce, rice, etc. They even have one for your sandwich! I started making my own produce bags out of excess fabric, old shirts, etc. You don’t need a sewing machine for this fun project and they’re a great gift to give, too!

Plastic Drinking Straws and Cups

4. Avoid Plastic Drinking Straws

500 million one-time use plastic straws are thrown away every day in the U.S. You can combat this by choosing a re-useable option when you need one, and letting restaurant staff know you don’t require a straw with your drink. Durable metal straws are a great fit for individuals and restaurants.

Reusable Mugs

5. Opt for a Reusable Mug

Bring a reusable mug to your favorite coffee shop. Often times, brewers give discounts for bringing your own cup! It's easy to find reusable coffee mugs these days, which is great. Klean Kanteen has a good option here as well, including a coffee style lid. If you’re not in the market for another canteen, a re-usable mason jar lid works, too.

 

Abeego Plastic Free Food Wrapper

6. Switch to Plastic-Free Food Storage

Plastic food containers are unhealthy for the environment and humans, too. Research continues to show that chemicals in plastic food containers can leach into food, especially when heated, and have been linked to hormone disorders, diseases and even cancer. Life Without Plastic’s online store is a great resource for food storage containers. We’re obsessed with their plastic free food wraps: pliable, compostable, beeswax wrappers that replace wasteful plastic wrap.

Microbeads Flushed Down the Drain

7. Cut Out Microbeads

Microbeads are non-biodegradable microplastics found frequently in personal care products ranging from toothpaste to face cleansers. Sewage systems are unable to filter them, which means they ultimately wash into our oceans where they become unrecoverable and are often absorbed by marine life. Beat The Microbead lists the products that do and don’t contain them.

Plastic Food Packaging

8. Avoid Packaged Foods

When you need a snack on the go, opt for munchies that aren't pre-wrapped in plastic. (A challenge, we know!) Generally speaking, non-packaged foods are healthier for you, anyway. So this is ultimately a win-win.

I'm A Trash Hero

9. Talk About It

Talking about these issues and sharing the facts is critical to making change. Make a post on social media, tell your loved ones why you recycle, show off your reusable bags at the grocery store. All these things get people thinking, and when it comes to sustainability, awareness is key. Spread the love through the word.

Reduce Reuse Recycle

10. Last But Not Least...

 

 

REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE...with Reduce being the key word! Encourage others to do the same, from friends and family, to your workplace, apartment complex, town, and local school system.

CONCLUSIONS

Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now and A New Earth said it best when he explained,

“The pollution of the planet is only an outward reflection of an inner psychic pollution:

millions of unconscious individuals not taking responsibility for their inner space.”

These words truly speak to the essence of global pollution. If we want to remain a healthy species, care for our world, and offer future generations the beautiful earth we enjoy today, we must become conscious consumers. If shortsightedness is the greatest challenge of our times, then we need to start playing the long game. Change will not arrive by someone else’s doing, but from our own.

The tail of a humpback whale and accompanying spray off of Boston Harbor in New England.

The tail of a humpback whale and accompanying spray off of Boston Harbor in New England.

SONGKRAN - Chiang Mai, Thailand

To take part in SONGKRAN is to take part in the craziest water-fight you could possibly imagine! For 3 days, entire cities become playful battlegrounds for locals and tourists alike. Chiang Mai, Thailand is probably the epicenter of it all. Social norms go out the window, and everyone is allowed to douse their neighbors with as much water as they can muster. Some with squirt guns, hoses, some with buckets, some with ice water even! Of course, there is more to the story. SONGKRAN is a celebration of the New Year in Thailand and the coming of the rainy season in this part of the world. The water festival represents the cleansing of the old and the coming of the new. Our experience at Songkran was somewhat by chance, but it was one of the most memorable, and downright fun experiences in our travels through Southeast Asia. To be a kid again.

SNAPSHOTS