As a responsible traveller, it's important to be aware of good and bad practices when you're abroad. Learn more about things you should steer clear of while exploring Thailand.
Following years of accusations against Thailand’s notorious Tiger Temple, operations began in June 2016 to begin removing tigers from the property after officials came in and found 40 dead cubs in the facility’s freezer. Before this episode, travellers would stop by the temple to take pictures of themselves close-up to the creatures. It’s since been revealed that many of the tigers would be sedated so that visitors could have their picture taken with them. The temple has also been accused of irresponsible breeding practices and illegal animal trade.
It’s clear that this treatment of these majestic animals is exploitation, so when visiting Thailand and looking for tiger experiences, always think twice about the animal’s welfare. Make sure the project you visit has the best in mind for the tigers, ask plenty of questions before booking, and never visit a sanctuary that allows selfies or has tigers perform shows.
While it’s natural to want to witness the remote way of life that goes on up in the hills north of Chiang Mai, a number of the tours that run travellers up to these villages take advantage of the people that live there. Many of the communities gain little or no commission from tourism, and are made to feel like they’re living in a fish bowl. These are people, and their lives should be respected from a distance.
All that said, there are ways you can responsibly visit the hilltribes in Thailand. A number of eco-tourism companies run small or private tours to the villages, and these give a cut of the money received directly back to the villages and their people. Stay longer than just an hour or two in order to take the time to get to know these fascinating people, and take genuine interest in their way of life.
The mistreatment of elephants is one of the most notorious animal welfare problems in Thailand. There are elephant camps across the country that raise elephants in captivity (or snatch them from the wild) and use them in shows and for tourists to ride on. For the most part, the training of these captive elephants involves wrenching young elephants from their mothers, and torturing them into submission, breaking their spirit. Even then, life isn't good for them. Many are kept in chains, with limited scope to roam, are controlled by the use of force, and made to do unnatural tricks.
If you want to see elephants in Thailand, do your research and find a responsible elephant project. Elephant Nature Park is one of the most famous organisations, a place where elephants roam free and travellers can interact with these gorgeous animals by bathing them and lending a hand at feeding time.
In Thailand’s more popular diving sites, mostly around the Andaman Sea off the coast of Phuket, there have been environmental issues that have prompted authorities to shut down diving trips. The sheer volume of tourists taking to the ocean is having a detrimental effect, in particular on the beds of coral as mentioned above, as well as causing problems with pollution, noise, littering and disturbance of marine life. Up for 60 speedboats per day tear through some areas, dropping off hundreds of travellers to explore the waters.
If you’re going out diving or snorkelling, be conscious of the busy areas and, if possible, avoid trips that run through popular routes. There’s plenty of ocean space around Thailand where you can hop on a boat and enjoy beautiful marine life without negative impact.
With so much beauty in its surrounding waters, many people come to Thailand to explore the ocean. It’s tempting to touch the beds or take a souvenir when you go snorkelling and find some beautiful coral, but it’s important to not take the marine life for granted. In 2016 Thai officials banned tourists from visiting parts of several islands, after the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources claimed that up to 80% of the coral reefs had been degraded or destroyed.
Steer away from stepping on or disturbing the coral reef in any way. Protest if your boat drops anchor on or near coral. If you see coral being sold at stalls or shops, be mindful that this could have been taken from the sea and that has a huge effect on the quality of the oceans around the country.
Volunteering is something of a minefield all over the world, but in poorer countries like Thailand it can be especially difficult to find a responsible volunteer placement. For example, there are many orphanages and schools across the country that accept volunteers, but it’s important when looking for a placement to have what’s best for the children (rather than you!) in the forefront of your mind. There have even been accusations that the interest in orphanage volunteering is actually fuelling the number of so-called “orphans”, and causing unnecessary separation of children from their families.
If you want to volunteer with vulnerable people, ask plenty of questions about the placement before committing to anything. If any money is exchanged, do your research to make sure your donation is going to the project directly instead of a middle man.