From city treehouses to island homestays and hope for gibbons, Thailand is awash with eco-initiatives that help local communities and provide extra insight into the Land of Smiles
From the top of the hill, I stopped to take in the timeless panorama. Undulating terraces tumbled down towards a patchwork of emerald-green fields where women were harvesting rice by hand, their faces shaded from the sun by conical straw hats.
I’d spent the morning scrambling up muddy hillsides, clambering down slippery bamboo ladders and wobbling unsteadily over rickety bridges. My guide, Rotee, has been exploring the natural pharmacy of the forest since he was a child and, while we hiked, he explained the uses of the native flora: quinine for fever, antiseptic tiger balm, the bulbous jackfruit as a source of fibre.
Rotee is a Karen Thai, one of the hilltribes of northern Thailand that emigrated from Burma centuries ago. His village, Mae Klang Luang, is set inside the boundaries of Doi Inthanon National Park, where the modest stilt houses still have walls made from flattened bamboo – although pampas-grass roofs had been replaced by longer-lasting corrugated iron.
Indeed, the Karen are open to new ideas, which I was here to experience. They have set up a homestay programme with the help of the countrywide Community Based Tourism Institute (CBTI), which empowers villages and gives visitors the chance to escape mass tourism and experience a more local, sustainable way of life; in the north this means helping with the rice harvest, tending the flower farms and discovering the forest.
Here, the Karen have set up a trout farm, and organic, shade-grown Arabica coffee is now their largest source of income. They may sell to Starbucks in Chiang Mai but in their wooden hut-café, water is still boiled in a metal kettle over an open fire. Rotee showed me how the beans were roasted and ground by hand before I drank the rich brew espresso style, watched over by faded photographs of a benign king.
I was staying at the Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon, a few hours’ drive from Chiang Mai. It’s part of the highly successful Royal Project that began in 1969, when King Bhumibol Adulyadej visited the remote hilltribes to find them living in poverty.
They were destroying the forest to plant poppies; many were lost in a blur of opium addiction. The king heard about a variety of peach tree that would give farmers a higher income than opium, and the world’s first project to successfully replace drug crops with legal crops was born.
The station, which was set up in 1979, is a working agricultural facility and an innovative research centre for a vast array of fruit and vegetables. It also disseminates knowledge to seven Hmong and Karen hilltribe villages – Mae Klang Luang among them – through practical demonstrations rather than textbooks.
On site there are spacious visitor bungalows surrounded by mist-wreathed forest (where the frog chorus was louder than the rain drumming on the roof) as well as a landscaped garden bedecked with beautiful blooms and a restaurant serving delicious meals created from the station’s homegrown produce.
From the mountainous north I flew south to Phuket. Parts of this archetypal holiday island have been overdeveloped, and rice fields have been replaced by concrete. However, a small public ferry from Bang Rong pier can deliver you to the Thailand of 20 years ago: the diminutive island of Koh Yao Noi, sitting among the iconic limestone karsts that jut out of Phang Nga Bay.
Bao Dusit Butree met me at the dockside. The former fisherman – 70% of the predominantly Muslim island’s population are fishermen or rubber and rice farmers – is the co-ordinator of the Koh Yao Noi Homestay Club. “I started talking about the need to control development and conservation 25 years ago, when factory boats were destroying our fishing industry,” he told me.
Bao set up the homestay programme around 19 years ago and now 20 families are involved, with income from guests going straight into their pockets, apart from a small donation to the village fund.
He explained the club’s rules: no alcohol or drugs in the community, dress modestly, take your litter away but don’t take shells or coral. Then he took me on a tour of his house: the ordered living room, the bathroom with its refreshingly cold bucket shower and my basic but spotless room, complete with a small electric fan.
A handful of chickens pecked around the garden, where Bao grows mangos, chillies, galangal and lemongrass, but the kitchen was his wife Aoi’s domain. As we chatted about island life, I feasted on spicy tom yang kung soup overflowing with juicy prawns and jackfish fried with garlic, while Bao ate his fish with a blisteringly hot pink sauce.
Days on Koh Yao Noi begin early with the call to prayer and the crow of cockerels. After a breakfast of strong black coffee and banana-leaf parcels of sweet sticky rice, I set off with Bao to explore the coast by traditional longtail boat. We watched as a husband and wife team pulled in their sea-coloured net, deftly plucking out their catch of blue crabs and abalone.
Back on land, we stopped at rice fields and rubber plantations, where lines of towering trees stretched into infinity; Bao showed me how the tree is cut to release the latex, leaving a trail of scars across the bark.
A women’s cooperative showed me how they create batik textiles in the age-old way, and people sold everything from battered TVs to foul-smelling durian fruit from narrow hammocks strung across their porches.
A motorbike whizzed past with four schoolchildren squeezed onto it – they learn to ride as soon as they can reach the handlebars. “If you see a motorbike without the keys in it, you know the owner’s not from here,” Bao told me.
Compared to Phuket, tourism on Koh Yao Noi is decidedly low-key, with a smattering of hotels, bars and Western-owned restaurants. But at the Six Senses Yao Noi, on the island’s east coast, you don’t have to sacrifice luxury to go green. Here my home-from-home was a secluded wooden villa ensconced in tropical greenery, with a chorus of birds in the morning, cicadas in the afternoon and tree frogs in the evening.
Built on stilts with a palm-thatched roof to resemble a traditional village dwelling, my four-poster bed was draped in a netting cocoon and I could shower inside or alfresco. But, unlike traditional village dwellings, I had a sunken bath and a private pool overlooking the ocean, as well as a butler on call to cater to my every whim.
Behind the five-star service, there’s an impressive sustainability programme in place, including waste recycling, tree planting and educational projects. Its shop supports Thai crafts; the produce from its sustainable organic farm – including very happy chickens’ eggs – is turned into gourmet fare at its three restaurants; guests are encouraged to taste local life by bicycle or on a tuk-tuk tour.
After early morning yoga, I could have tried a farm-to-table cooking class, indulged in a traditional Thai massage at the spa, explored the protected mangrove forest or kayaked around the bay. Instead, I succumbed to a tropical torpor and took a dip in the infinity pool, which morphed seamlessly into the sparkling waters of Phang Nga Bay.
Later, I saw the bay close up on a longtail boat tour, as we circled the otherworldly limestone pinnacles and dipped into hidden coves. When I grew tired of sharing Hong Island’s emerald lagoon with a horde of day-trippers, I island-hopped to Koh Nok, a castaway’s spit of sand populated only by scurrying crabs. I idled away the afternoon, wallowing in the bath-warm water and watching a family of wild monkeys forage on a rocky outcrop.
It’s a different story on Phuket. Helen, a volunteer at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (GRP), told me that hunters can kill around three gibbon families just to capture one baby alive, to be kept as a pet or touted around Patong’s party strip as a moneymaking photo-prop.
More than half of Thailand’s white-handed gibbon population has been wiped out in the past 30 years. Their future looked bleak until the GRP was set up in 1992, in a humid swathe of deciduous tropical rainforest around the Bang Pae waterfall, to rescue and rehabilitate them back into the wild. It currently has around 60 of these acrobatic, vociferous, highly sociable animals in its care.
As Helen showed me around, the gibbons swung down for a closer look, slipping their agile fingers through the bars to grab my camera, or just my hand. She explained that when the adorable babies grow into strong, territorial adults their owners abandon them; some of the older ones have become used to living around people. “Bo has been released six times but he always comes back. Others are too physically or mentally scarred to leave.”
The lucky ones use the GRP like a dating agency, meet their mate and return to their natural habitat. Helen told me that there are now five families living in Khao Phra Thaeo National Park. As if on cue, the gibbons began to whoop uproariously, their cries echoing through the forest as if in celebration.
Back in traffic-choked Bangkok, it was hard to believe that just minutes from the city’s skyscrapers there’s an undeveloped oasis of greenery and unpolluted air. But from Klong Toey dock, a low-slung boat sped me across the Chao Phraya River to Bang Krachao Island and the Bangkok Tree House.
This stylish and sustainable boutique hotel is the brainchild of Joey Tulyanond, whose family also owns the Old Bangkok Inn, a restored teak house and eco alternative to the city’s glitzy high-rises. When the Tree House opened at the beginning of 2012, it had already been six years in the making: two years to find the land, two years talking to the government and the local community, two years to build.
A self-confessed treehugger, Joey has created three-level tree-top nests from bamboo and reclaimed wood, with an indoor/outdoor shower (heated by solar power), bedroom, roof deck and living walls, and a ‘view with a room’ where you can sleep out under the stars. His goal is zero waste; he also pays locals to remove one kilo of rubbish from the river for every booking.
A roughly drawn map pinpointed the island’s attractions, including a Thai cooking school and an incense workshop.
You can take one of the hotel’s bikes and explore on your own but I opted for a tour with Paul Mueller, an American expat with a passion for recycling rusting bikes and a desire to build the perfect machine to weave through Bangkok’s congested streets. For now, though, there’s no problem with cars on Bang Krachao; the island has only one road. Most of the locals – who make a living from farming and ferrying people across the river – use the elevated concrete walkways to crisscross the island by bike.
At weekends, Bang Nam Pheung floating market attracts increasing numbers of Bangkokian day-trippers. Wooden boats moor along the canal selling organic fruit and vegetables, while stalls line the walkways serving up fiery stir-fries. But during the week the island is a tranquil place. The air was filled with the pungent aroma of damp earth and the buzz and whirr of insects as we cycled.
We passed tangles of mangosteen and papaya orchards sheltered by lofty palms, stilted wooden homes with miniature spirit houses, and ornate layered temples built by Mon immigrants more than a century ago. Paul pointed out the prehistoric-looking seed head of the nipa palm, the vertical roots of the mangrove-like lamphu tree, the electric-blue flash of a kingfisher and a fist-sized snail meandering across our path.
That evening I headed out on the nightly firefly safari. As the boat hugged the banks of the island, the guide explained that during their short lives, the male flies flash in unison to attract females, while the females are enticed by the prettiest display. He turned off the engine and I watched enthralled as hundreds of the ethereal creatures lit up a nipa palm like a tropical Christmas tree. It was as if Mother Nature were proving that, no matter how much neon you light in the city, she could still go one better.
All images by Sarah Gilbert.
Thai Airways, British Airways and Eva Air fly London-Bangkok direct; flight time is approximately 12 hours. Emirates flies via Dubai and Etihad flies via Abu Dhabi. Return fares from London start from around £500. There are also charter flights to Phuket with Thomson Airways.
Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways and Thai Smile offer flights in Thailand. Flight time from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is approximately 75 minutes; Chiang Mai to Phuket two hours; Phuket to Bangkok 85 minutes. Buses are the most common mode of transport and are generally comfortable and efficient but distances can be long. There are four main train lines from Bangkok: northern, southern, north-eastern and eastern.
The Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon in Chiang Mai province has rooms from 1,100THB (£23) a night.
On a small island in Phang Nga Bay, Homestay Koh Yao Noi costs from £10pppn; contact Mr Dusit.
Six Senses Yao Noi on Koh Yao Noi, has Hideaway Pool Villas from 14,786THB (£310) B&B including transfers to Phuket Airport.
The Bangkok Tree House, by the river in the capital, has Tree Top Nests from 3,900THB (£82) B&B.
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