ETHICAL TRAVEL IN THAILAND
Everything we do has a consequence and our holidays are no exception and while I am quite sure that most people will always choose to avoid actions that give rise to negative consequences, the problem with travelling in Thailand is some of what is offered as part of the ‘Thailand Experience’ is not necessarily what is best for Thailand, or its people, flora, forna or environment.
One of the difficulties is that many of the worst abuses I am going to list below are cloaked in a pretence of ‘Environmental’ or ‘Cultural’ learning, just the kind of thing that families might go looking for. All I ask is that you give some thought to what is actually going on, and perhaps help your children investigate these issues as a means of gaining some real understanding of the impact of tourism.
Abuse of Wildlife
There are a number of tourist attractions that are providing entertainment or experiences at the expense of wildlife or domesticated animals. These range from the common experience of snakes, gibbons or young elephants touted around tourist areas as props for tourists to have their photograph taken.
The snakes and gibbons are taken from the wild, the gibbons are taken from their mothers, who are often killed in order to remove the youngster. They are highly developed creatures and suffer the same kind of trauma as you or I would under such circumstances. Baby elephants do not belong in tourist bars and restaurants, they too belong with their mothers.
There are a number of zoos and one Buddhist temple that are offering the opportunity to pet, hold or stroke a tiger cub: The are credible reports that these animals are sedated with drugs to enable you or your child to play with them. How do I know? Do not be fooled by the image of Buddhist monks caring for lost or injured wild animals, they are doing no such thing. What they are doing is operating a business, they are abusing endangerfs species for gratification and for their profit.
And while we are on the subject of monks, there is a Thai custom around temples of releasing caged birds, you will be told you are making merit by releasing them, this, is claimed to be merit making, but it is quite clear that if people stopped paying for a gage full of birds to release, other people would not be catching them and keeping them in those gages in the first place. Again the motive is not your merit, but their profit.
There are restaurants that offer ‘jungle food’, this is essentially wild and usually exotic game and again this is stolen from national parks, we non of us need to eat it.
There are still a number of Chinese traditional medicine dispensaries that offer tiger and wildlife based medicines, these are not only stolen from the environment but they have no proven medical properties.
Mounted and framed spiders, insects, bats and butterflies are widely available in tourist souvenier shops, again the shopkeepers will claim these have come from farms that bread these creatures especially for the market, they may even show you the back of the frame where the names sources is recorded. The likelihood is these have been stolen from the environment. There is no reliable means of determinging that they have not.
Despite laws banning the sale of protected species and Thailand’s commendable efforts in protecting wildlife there are still a disturbing number of outlets selling corral, giant clam shells, turtle shell and ivory. All of these products are stolen from the national parks or perhaps imported from countries with less stringent protection regimes, non of them enrich our lives when they are not left where they belong, in the environment where they come from.
Abuse of Natural Resources
Putting aside the theft and abuse of wildlife there are also a number of instances where other natural resources are being abused, the most common being the theft of teak wood or Rose wood from forests to make furniture. You will be told that the wood comes from a sustainable source or a managed forest; I have yet to be shown any evidence of this at any of the ‘solid teak furniture stores’ I have ever visited.
You may be offered rare orchids, again these are stolen from the environment, I ought to add, the orchids you can buy at the airports are not rare varieties and farmed for the purpose of selling to the public.
Then there is the impact of litter and other pollution, although to be honest most tour operators catering for western tourists are now pretty well attuned to the expectation that litter and pollution will be controlled, but do not be surprised to see litter and food containers tossed into the sea or buried on beaches, if it happens on your tour, ask the tour guide to pack the litter and take it home.
Abuse of People
This is a far more complex issue but it is one I ask you to give some thought to. The first image that comes to mind is, I am sure, the sex industry in Thailand, and indeed that is an area of wide spread abuse but I expect one that will not be added to by a family holiday. There are however some areas of abuse of people that your holiday may cross. The first is probably the abuse of ethnic minorities as tourist attractions; the case of the Long-neck Karen comes to mind but also the Malbri people and any of the other ‘hill tribe’ peoples who feature as attractions in tours to their villages. The long-neck Karen around Mae Hong Son are refugees, they are entitled under UN charter to protection against abuse, including being displayed, I have been to visit two of the long-neck villages and discussed the experience with others who have also made that trip, we all agree it is disturbing and not something that we want to repeat.
Many tour operators are taking trips to the villages and homes of ethnic peoples but the people themselves, the subjects of the tour are not playing any part in the transaction other than as passive exhibits in a human zoo.
I personally have deep reservations over the spread of Voluntour operations involving visiting orphanages - I've debated this issue at length on travel forums. My personal belief is that these businesses are selling access to the most vulnerable people in society - The exact kind of access that people who are a danger to children actively seek. It's something I find worrying. I’m of course not saying you or anyone in your party would present such a risk, but you would be supporting a business that leaves the door open for people who might take advantage. I only ask that you give the issue some thought before adding an orphanage visit to your itinerary.
The Shocking Condition and Treatment of Animals
If you are a dog lover a cat lover, an animal lover or just a sensitive soul then it is very likely that you will see at least one animal in a condition that will shock you.
The very first piece of advice I can give you is take care of your own safety before you consider any attempt to feed or assist a starving or maltreated animal. As I say above, rabies is rife in Thailand, as are a number of very nasty parasites, the most likely cause of an animal being underweight, completely bald or covered in open wounds is disease, and that disease might very well have the exact same effect on you and your children.
Thais may seem unconcerned over the fate of animals, but let’s not generalise, I have neighbours who go out of their way to feed and take care of strays. We can’t just say that Thais don’t care for animals, it is simply that Thai society views them in a different light.
It’s not all Bad News
There are a number of treks and environment based activities that are exemplary in the care they take not to cause damage to the environment; some activities are expressly based on educating visitors and locals on the needs to take care and on how we all can help reduce the damage we cause. Likewise and elephant trek, if properly run, provides a livelihood for both the keeper and the elephant.
Of course, as a visitor it will not be immediately obvious who is running truly ethical tours, all I can advise is that you ask a few questions before you book a tour. If you are visiting a hill tribe, ask what part the hill tribe play in the tour? How much do the people you visit receive from your visit? Is your tour buying food from the hill tribe you visit or are you taking it with you? What happens to all the plastic bottles and bags you carry up the hill, are they brought down again or just left as litter?
These concerns are becoming more and more recognised in Thailand and in every area you will find at least one tour operator who is running environmentally friendly or ethical tours. Just keep in mind, every time you ask for such a tour you are reinforcing that need and perhaps encouraging other operators to get on board the ethical tour bus.
How you and your children can help
I think the first way any of us can help is by learning about the issues and then setting and example. Perhaps the single issue we can all help with is litter, in particular plastic bags and plastic bottles, you will see them scattered everywhere in Thailand they all started being wrapped around a small purchase.
I always refuse plastic bags in shops and place things in my back bag. If you can carry a reusable water bottle and top it up from glass bottles, which are recycled, you will be reducing the use of plastic by one bottle each time you refill.
As for the other issues, I can only urge you to take note and avoid the problem areas I have mentioned, I know that can be difficult, especially when being offered an experience you will never have anywhere else, but I argue that this is the heart of the matter; our own actions are the problem, solving the problem requires we each of us moderate our actions.