Crystal clear blue water, beautiful islands, the famous long tail boats, swimming with sea turtles (which have eluded me on every other snorkelling excursion I’ve taken part in!), stunning viewpoints, and visiting spectacular maya bay... these are the highlights we expected from the Southern Thailand. Did we get most of these things? Yes. But what we weren’t expecting was a dengue fever scare, injuries that forced us to rethink our planned route, spur of the moment tattoos, and our first real glimpse at the truly awful wildlife tourism that is so common in Thailand.
Our first stop after getting off the plane from Chiang Mai was the province of Krabi, choosing to stay in the town of Ao Nang, a great choice as we were within walking distance to the beach and surrounded by many delicious restaurants and street food vendors! We had finally found our beaches and the desperately needed cool-down from a nice cool swim (did I mention we were still cooking in the heat?). Us two prairie dwelling Canadians couldn’t wait to get into that beautiful ocean water, and as soon as we did it was wonderful... although it was warm enough that it did feel slightly like bath water. After a few glorious minutes escaping the heat and relaxing in the water, my travel partner, Laura, started shrieking that something bit her! She concluded it must have been a jellyfish, and quickly left the water. After what was a painful (for her) tuk tuk ride back to the hostel, the pain subsided but Laura wasn’t quite ready to brave the dangerous ocean water again just yet, so we hid in the comfort of our air conditioned room and ate copious amounts of delicious food.
Once the trauma of the sting was over, we were ready for more adventure. We spent the rest of our time in Ao Nang doing island tours, kayaking, snorkelling, and hiking up to visit the tiger cave temple. Contrary to what the name suggests, there is no tigers at this temple, except for the giant tiger statues, and it takes some effort to get there. This hike involved climbing up 1237 stairs to get up the mountain, thankfully it was raining during our climb which was a welcome escape from the heat. The hike was well worth it to see the beautiful temple along with the spectacular views that looked like something right out of Avatar! Standing at the temple gave views of massive tree-covered mountains, and as we watched the mist roll through the forest it allowed for very serene moment to calm our bodies down and really appreciate the climb that we had just accomplished… if you ever find yourself in Southern Thailand, make sure to include this on your list of things to do!
Ao Nang was just our starting point to our island hopping adventure. Our next stop was the island that would end up being our favourite destination in all of Thailand, Koh Phi Phi.The moment our boat docked at the pier at Koh Phi Phi, we both were in awe at the beauty of the island, and instantly knew we were going to love it! Our time here was spent exploring the island by foot with friends as there is no motor transportation on this tiny piece of paradise. We were able to take part in the crazy nightly parties on the beach, hike to the stunning viewpoints (once again in the rain), get bamboo tattoos on a whim, and our favourite activity - visit Maya bay. We chose to visit Maya Bay with the Maya Bay sleep aboard tour, as this would give us the opportunity to experience the famous beach when it was not crawling with hundreds of tourists! Our trip to Maya Bay included a visit to the tourist-packed beach during the day, and plenty amazing of snorkelling. While the sights were amazing during the day, make sure you get to swim in the bay at night when there are thousands of phytoplankton lighting up the waters like stars in a sky - if I told you snorkelling with these bioluminescent plankton didn’t make me feel like a magical mermaid or an underwater version of Elsa from Frozen every time I moved my arm and lit up the plankton, I would be lying. The night also consisted of a beautiful beach fire, drinking games and an epic dance party on board our boat that lasted all hours of the night. Falling asleep and waking up to the gentle rocking of the ocean was one of my favourite memories from Thailand. Exploring the empty shores of Maya Bay early that morning was another highlight! Shortly after our trip the government has unfortunately temporarily shut down tourist access to Maya Bay to allow for the ecosystem to recoup from the mass amounts of tourism that has taken place in the area. This should act as a reminder for how fragile these ecosystems are and how damaged they can become from tourist impact - see our previous blog on Low Impact Travel for tips on how your can reduce your footprint when you travel!
One of our evenings in Koh Phi Phi we spent watching one of the famous Thailand beach fire shows - an impressive sight to see! Unfortunately, Laura once again fell victim to another Thailand injury when one of the fire dancers dropped the fire baton on her. Now at this point in the evening we were a few buckets of alcoholic drinks in, and didn’t pay much attention to proper first aid of the burn… this quickly came back to bite us in the ass when we arrived at our next island, Koh Lanta, where our first stop was at the medical clinic. Sadly, after the lack of first aid and too much time spent snorkelling in the ocean, her burn had become infected and she was forbidden from going swimming for the next two weeks. As I wasn’t going to do any tours or adventuring without my travel buddy, the thought of snorkelling to find sea turtles quickly vanished from my travel plans, as did our most of itinerary on Koh Lanta which had mostly consisted of boat tours and snorkelling. Not letting this get us down, we instead spent the rest of our time visiting the beautiful islands of Koh Tao, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui, hiking to viewpoints, exploring villages, visiting temples, getting lost, drinking more smoothies than I ever thought possible, and attending possibly the world's most famous party, the full moon party - I have never seen so much neon!
During our visit to our final island, Koh Samui, we decided to do a couple day trips. The first one being a trip to see the pink dolphins. The brochure promised close up views of plenty of dolphins, but as someone who works in wildlife tourism I was fully aware that we would be lucky to experience a moment even close to what was shown in the brochure. Luckily, we did see a few dolphins, and while our tour guide didn’t feed the wildlife, they did drive towards the animals when they saw them which can greatly impact their behaviour and safety. The afternoon ended with a quick snorkelling tour, where we witnessed almost every person on the tour except us standing all over the coral reef, a sight which made my heart sink as the future of coral reef ecosystems continues to be in jeopardy.. It wasn’t the worst wildlife tour I’ve seen, but all around me I saw simple ways that it could have been executed a bit more ethically.
Our next day trip was one that made stops at most of Koh Samui‘s most popular attractions, temples, famous rocks, viewpoints and waterfalls, it was a great tour, until it made a few unexpected stops. The first one being a “monkey show” where we witnessed pet monkeys, who live their lives chained up in small areas around coconut trees. When tourist arrive they are forced to perform, climbing up a tree and throwing down coconuts for tourists to buy, and then expected to pose for the perfect photo opportunity. My heart feeling a little heavier, our next stop was at one of Koh Samui’s most popular waterfalls. Unfortunately the terrible side of wildlife tourism simply continued with an elephant camp surrounding us as soon as we pulled up to the parking lot. The elephants were either chained up in an area not much bigger than themselves, or were waiting with saddles on their backs for uneducated tourists to go for a ride. It was a sight so sad that Laura had to walk away so she didn’t have to see it. Though it was a hard decision to make, i needed to get closer to these elephants to help document the horrible conditions that they were being kept in. I needed others to witness this horrible act of cruelty, because the more people who are aware of it, the more people will be fighting to change it. It was a horrible end to an otherwise great tour, but as tourists it is our job to make sure that attractions like this are not visited.
Despite ending our adventure witnessing some horrible animal cruelty, overall our time in Thailand was a wonderful experience. While the negative wildlife tourism was always lurking in the background of my mind, I have heard many stories and witnessed efforts of how Thailand is slowly changing this industry for the better. These positive changes are largely due to the pressure from well educated travellers - meaning that our voices are having an impact, so please continue to make sure you are being heard. I am optimistic about the future of wildlife tourism in Thailand, and look forward to visiting again one day to witness further changes!
Stay tuned for next months blog where we will take a more in depth look at Thailand’s elephant tourism industry, talk about red flags and warning signs, and how to spot the ethical places!