IT is rare to find a national tourism office hell-bent on losing a top 10 ranking but in Thailand’s case, moving down – better still, off a list of the world’s worst environmental degradation perpetrators has top priority.
The kingdom, buoyed by its Tourism Authority’s successful “Amazing Thailand” campaign, has always scored high in terms of attractions, affordability and general value-for-money. And legions of Australians remain among its strongest proponents.
But, while capital Bangkok, warts and all, soared to become this year’s most-visited city in the world, a so-called green revolution doggedly continues to battle mostly inherent and traditional attitudes to get off that damned list.
As a frequent visitor for nearly 50 years I have been as guilty as most ignoring urban sprawl and rape of wilderness areas in the name of good business and tourist pandering. Only now, as examples of Thailand’s serious reformation command attention, progress is finally evident.
Departing Tourism Authority Governor Suraphon Svetasreni acknowledges change must be gradual but welcomes quite rapid advances in marrying environmental preservation with “willingness to accommodate visitors interested in interaction with local communities”.
Launching a tome detailing 50 green escapes, Khun Suraphon, who honed his marketing skills at TAT Sydney, applauds the marked shift from traditional visitor groups focused on the “wildlife” of Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket among others.
“Ecotourism and activities like rafting, kayaking or cycling are no longer exceptions. Thailand’s abundant nature and acclaimed biodiversity have foremost importance,” he said.
(Fifty Great Green Escapes is a handy reference book to have to help plan this new Thailand holiday experience. TAT Sydney will help you source a copy.)
Finally sold on the concept, I took the ageing (and occasionally aching) bones into the Thai wilderness recently to see how the effort is progressing, flying south from Bangkok to Phuket en route to Surat Thani province and its much-vaunted Khao Sok National Park.
The lure of Kha Sok Nature Resort with its tree houses and “modest home comforts”, plus a promise from resort owner “Mr Tee” and partner Aer (marvellous how Thais use nicknames to overcome pronunciation problems for foreigners) they accommodate “all ages and varying degrees of fitness with an assortment of ‘green’ activities as strenuous or laid-back as guests decide”.
I had also heard on the grapevine that Aer and staff were dab hands in the kitchen and that Mr Tee ensured adequate supplies of cold refreshments to revive visitors after a hard day appreciating nature.
Lofty accommodation, accessed by blissfully staggered steep stairs, came with a comfortable enough double bed, ceiling fan and cover-all mosquito net. A verandah at the top of the stairs had a couple of rustic chairs and a table – ideal, I fantasized, for that gin-ton or “scotch-and” at sundown while enjoying the chorus of a million chirping forest insects various, unseen birdlife turning in for the night and whooshing bats making their presence felt.
There was a fair bit of chattering going on out there in the shadows. Monkeys? Squirrels? Certainly not the snakes we were told were there. (Snakes don’t chatter!?)
Mindful of warnings to close and secure windows, shutters and doors before turning in or going out, I opted for a dusk walk along well-formed if dimly-lit tracks radiating from the reception area-cum leisure lounge-cum-dining room.
After treading on something quite large and very soft and recoiling as whatever-it-was rustled into the undergrowth, I decided a cold beer Chang in the lounge would be my preferred option before dinner.
The reason for the security warnings became clear upon my eventual return to my treehouse.
Accommodation and other bits and pieces intact; luggage stacked as I had left it; but my return seemed to cue a bit of frantic scurrying around in my adjacent toilet/shower area.
The door had been locked and barred okay – on the inside. But the holy of holies was open to the outside world – privacy was no problem half way up a bloody great tree with nearest neighbour barely within coo-ee – and I had had some visitors, presumably of the simian variety just checking out the interloper.
Luckily there was none of the damage they are known to wreak if you leave anything hanging or lying around in there!
Choice of activities next day included a 4WD tour of the park with, if you are lucky, some wildlife viewing; some more sensational kayaking; or a guided or DIY tour of the base area.
The 800 sq kilometres of this national park is virgin forest, a remnant, they say, of rainforest which predates its Amazonian counterpart.
We have to take the experts’ word for it that this is home to Asian elephant, tiger, bear, deer and rare simians.
On the botanical front there are abundant species of something which looked for all the world like a waratah; a hanging variety with GREEN flowers; and star of the show, luckily in season during my visit, the endangered Rafflesia kerrii which the Thais call bua phut.
The splendid and intricate flowers, which do not last long, smell a bit like rotten meat – a ploy to attract the flies they need for pollination!
Fairly, there are refinements to come in this type of holiday in Thailand.
But, again, it might be a good idea to sample it now before the glitz and glitter brigade, pandering to what they think tourists want or should have, forget the whole object of the exercise.
We must hope TAT can convince central government of a need for strict supervision of standards and rigid control of operating permits.
* This whole new dimension in Thailand holidays is, at least for now, best taken as an add-on to more conventional itineraries. Discuss with your travel agent or, if you are on the southern track to Phuket or the islands, even talk directly with Khao Sok Nature Resort. They can arrange to pick up guests at either Phuket or Surat Thani airports. The Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Sydney office is on 9247 7549.
PHOTO by PONGSAK KANNITANON
FEATURED CONTRIBUTOR – John Blair: John is an award-winning, world-travelled newspaper and magazine journalist who has worked in Europe and Asia as well as many years compiling and editing mass circulation travel pages here.As a professional traveler on all continents, particularly familiar with Australians’ favourite destinations, likes and dislikes, his column provides a definitive, warts and all guide for prospective tourists and adventurers of all ages.
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