Advice for Visitors to Chiang Mai Thailand.

Accommodations, food, night life, travel and tour advice.

In the foot hills of the Himalayan Mountains 800 kilometers north of Bangkok is the culturally rich city of Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai is the longest continuously lived in settlement from the ancient days of Siam.

Chiangmai could only be reached by an arduous river journey or an elephant back trip until the 1920’s. Chiangmai’s distinctive charm is still intact up to the present day.

Many guide books on Thailand only partially cover the real life experiences in Chiang Mai, I have been living here since 1989 so I would like to give you some advice about protocol, travel and accommodations in and around the city. Hopefully it will help you to enjoy your travels in Northern Thailand.

About the Author

Transportation:

When you arrive in Chiang Mai Thailand, it helps to know a bit about transportation within the city. At the airport, train station, or bus station, you will probably be met by the representatives of various guesthouses and hotels and tour operators. If you have a specific place in mind and you don’t see the specific signboard, you can always call the place to have someone pick you up from the train station, airport, or bus arcade depot. Taxis are available at the airport, with a price of 150 baht to most destinations.

The common vehicles of public transportation are more varied than public buses. The terms ‘dtoog dtoog’ and ‘sarmlor’ are open-air, three-wheel vehicles, and ‘zeelor’ and ‘songthaew’ describe vehicles with four wheels. Whenever you get in a ‘dtoog dtoog’, ‘zeelor’, or ‘samlor’, you should make sure that they take you where you want to go. Often the drivers work on commission and may tell you that the place you want to go is dirty, closed, or full if they don’t have a previous agreement with the place you have in mind. Always negotiate the price before you get in a dtoog dtoog or samlor. A zeelor ride should cost 15 Baht on a regular route, more if you hire it out to go somewhere out of the way.

The “Songteaw”

The best way to get around Chiangmai is by ‘songthaew’. These are covered pick-up trucks with two benches in the back. “Songthaew” means “two benches” in Thai. You will see them everywhere, and it’s easy to get them to pick you up. All you need to do is to put your arm out and look at the driver, and they will stop. Then tell the driver which street you want to go to, and if he is going that way, he will shake his head “yes”; if not, he will say “no” and go on. Don’t worry—there will be another one right behind him. When the driver turns down the street you want, start looking for where you want to get off and press the switch located on the roof of the cab. The driver will pull over, let you out, and then you pay him.

The fare should be 20 Thai baht or less (around 50 cents). If you tell the driver a hotel or establishment, he will think you want to hire him for a private trip, and the price will be much more. Negotiate any price beforehand if you want to go to an establishment.

Renting a motorbike or scooter:

There is a wide variety of two wheeled transportation available in Chiang Mai from loads of rental agencies. Price start from just a few dollars a day for a 100CC automatic scooter to large harley Davidson cycles, off road dirt motorbikes and every thing in between. It is important to know which type of motor bike works best for where you pln to ride.

IMPORTANT: Most people rent the automatic small scooters however this is very dangerous if you plan to travel into the mountain countryside or to Doi Suthep Temple on the mountain above the city. This is because when going downhill the scooter goes into neutral so you are free-wheeling and must use only your brakes to slow you down. If there are 2 of you on the scooter going downhill you could have a brake failure and find yourself in big trouble. The automatic scooters are made for riding in the city only not in the mountains.

If you are going to go into the mountains rent an automatic clutch motorbike or better so you can downshift when going downhill so the engine can help you slow down. A Honda Dream or Honda Wave is great for beginner riders and has an automatic clutch and a 4 speed transmission so you can downshift to help slow you down and also has a better power range when going uphill.

When you rent any form of transportation take photos from every angle of the vehicle to show the condition of the vehicle before you rent it. This will protect you from any rental agency trying to get you pay for damage that was there before you rented the vehicle.

Accommodations:

Booking accommodations might be the biggest decision you will make while visiting Chiang Mai. I hear many visitors saying “Chiang Mai has no real culture as there are too many tourists”. If you stay in the city center inside the moat and city walls, tourists is all you will see. The Chiang Mai locals call this area “Tourist Town”

Since 2010 over 100 new guest houses, small boutique hotels, restaurants, tourist souvenir shops and pubs have been built within or near the moat and old city walls. The establishments have now claimed this area as “The Old City” which is far from the truth. The real “Old City” is the area of “Gatluang” near Wararot Market located along the Ping River where all the commerce, traders and craft persons worked and lived. Inside the city walls is where the Royal Family, temple monks, Royal staff and elite military resided. The citizens of Chiang Mai were only allowed inside the old city walls during festivals, Buddhist holidays and with Royal events.

Today most of the business and residents inside the old city walls and moat are owned and operated by people from Bangkok and expats. This area now is more like the heavy touristy Kaosan Road in Bangkok than the culturaly rich Chiang Mai.

Another popular place is Nimmanhemin road in The “Huay Khao” area. This part of the city is where most of the epats live with condos, coffee shos and shopping malls catering to the western lifestyle. Again most shops owned and operaterated by those from Bangkok or expats, not much Thai culture here and prices are rather high so Thai people cannot afford to go there.

You can avoid the large number of tourists and experience the real charm of Chiang Mai by staying only 2 or 3 kilometers from the city walls and moat, not only that but at a lower price. There are wonderful communities where you can visit local markets, temples and talk with locals in their shops and restaurants. Experience real Thai food and daily life of local communities. The guest houses and small boutique hotels are far apart and you can get a ride by “Songtaow” into the city center within minutes.

Some of these areas are “Sanpakhoi” just across the Ping River on the Narawat Birdge. This is the home of the first Christian church in Chiang Mai, the lively Sanpakhoi market and Kawila Boxing Stadium. “Waulai” Area is across the street and moat from Chiang Mai gate and home of several small silversmiths, The silver temple at Wat Si Suphan and the Saturday night walking market.

Try booking your guest house or small hotel east of the Ping River or the old silver making area north of town near Wualai road. Waulai road has the Saturday night Walking Night Bazaar and home of the beautiful Silver Temple “Wat Siri Suphan”.

Culture:

The Thai people have several customs that are important to remember to avoid causing offense. Never touch the head, because it is the most sacred part of the body. The feet are the lowliest part, so don’t point them at others or rest them above ground level. Never stop a rolling Thai Baht coin or any type of Thai currency with your foot, as the money here has a picture of the king on it.

Respect for the king and religious customs is another important part of Thai protocol. They have great respect for the royal family, the flag, and anything with an image of the king, including the money. When you visit a Buddhist temple, you should always remove your shoes before entering any buildings. Men should wear long pants, and women should wear knee-length or longer skirts. Women are not allowed to touch monks or make prolonged eye contact with them. Do not sit on the walls surrounding the jedee, which contains the temple’s sacred relics of the Buddha.

The Thai “Wai”

Meeting and making friends with different people is an exciting part of travel anywhere. In Northern Thailand, it helps to know a bit of the language and something about the protocol. To say “hello”, say “Sawasdee Krup” for men and “Sawasdee Kha” for women. To learn more Thai before you come, an excellent free teaching website can be found at http://www.learningthai.com/. You will gain loads of respect from the Thai people if you learn just the basics.The Thais put a lot of emphasis on manners, so it’s a good idea to learn to say “Thank you”. In Thai, it’s “Kob Khun”, followed by “Krup” or “Kha” for women. The “wai” made by placing your palms together in front of the upper chest is the traditional Thai gesture of greeting or respect, and the gesture is always appreciated. The custom is that younger people “wai” elders first, so let the children and persons you think are younger than you “wai” before you “wai” them.

Whatever happens, though, don’t display your anger, because the Thais will think you uncultured, and ranting will get you nowhere. Smile and think “no problem”. Thais do not like confrontation, so getting angry will get you nowhere in Thailand. Here is an example:

Let’s say you arrive at your hotel and want a nice, hot shower or bath. You turn on the tap and find the hot water is not working. What most people would do is call the front desk and complain, and if you are tired, you might raise your voice a little, saying, “The hot water doesn’t work—what’s the problem?” It might take a long time before someone comes to check it out, if at all. What you should do is say, “I don’t know how to get the hot water turned on in my room; would you please have someone show me?” Someone will come to your room within a minute or two to check it out.

Food and Entertainment:

Thailand is a country of gourmands. Eating out is one the nation’s favorite activities, and knowing a bit of table manners will help you appear more civilized. Waiters and waitresses in Thailand are trained to take your entire order. When they take the order, they will often ask “one”, which is their way of asking whether they got it correctly or not. The entire meal is customarily served at the same time, but the empty dishes are removed one by one. Some street-side restaurants will not remove any dishes or bottles until you finish your meal. This is because they do not write down your order. They shout your order to the cook, and after the meal, they will count the plates and bottles and figure out the bill then.>
In the evening it seems every neighborhood has pre-cooked food for sale to take home. This is Thai fast food at it’s best. See what precooked Thai food you can buy at the market. Here I bought a 3 course meal and rice for $1.20USD or 50 Thai baht. Why cook at home when you can buy excellent cooked food this cheap

Chiangmai and the north have plenty of night entertainment available. It runs the gamut from restaurants to nightclubs, discos, or video bars. Thai people are often as interested in meeting you as you might be in meeting them, but one should exercise discretion and sometimes a bit of caution, especially in matters of the heart. In romantic situations, Westerners and Thais both occasionally get hurt. The best advice is to think with your head and your heart. Enjoy yourself, but be very adult about any given situation.

Day trips:

Many visitors to Chiangmai enjoy taking trips outside the city. We recommend these trips highly, but don’t forget to bring a few extras in case of emergency. Flashlights and extra batteries, as well as camera batteries, are recommended, as are matches or a lighter. Jackets may be needed for the cold evenings, speciall when visiting hill tribes high in the mountain or Doi Inthanon National Park. Don’t forget a first-aid kit and the ever-important toilet paper for emergencies. Ear plugs are a good idea if staying overnight in a hill tribe village, as the roosters can be very loud at 3AM. To see what is available outside the city from trekking and adventures to visiting hill tribe villages and ancient ruins while on tour visit our North Thailand Page

Visiting Thailand Hill Tribe Villages

Advice when visiting hill tribe villages near Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai Thailand

“More than tours we offer experiences”

A local hill tribe guide to join you is a must or better is a hill tribe home stay. Village customs and traditions must be strictly obeyed, only a local guide or host family knows as every village has different rules. Here are a few tips when touring or trekking.

About the Author.

Please be careful with trekking operators that advertise new area or village. Most good eco-culture friendly operators go to the same area and villages year after year. They have an excellent relationship with them so everything is in balance and harmony so they do not need to go to a new area.

Learning to weave in a Karen hill tribe village

Most hill tribe villages do not have handicrafts as they spend most of their time working in their fields. There may however be elderly women in the village taking care of young children that do make handicrafts. In this case there will be one home or area where handicrafts can be viewed and bought. No one will bother you to buy anything and you are not looked at as a major source of income.

Make sure you are not allowed to give candy to children or money for pictures. Fruit is the best option to give and can be purchased for around 25 Thai Baht per Kilo. Hill tribe children get candy any time their parents can aford it as it is very cheap but they never have enough money for fruit. Figure to purchase around 10 Kilos of fruit for a normal sized village.

Nothing should be exchanged directly between the visitor and anyone in the village. Give your gifts or fruit to the village headman, elder or teacher and they will distribute it. They know all the children and make sure everyone gets their fair share. If you do this yourself or the guide the older children will take it away from the younger ones. Another trick is a child will run back to their house and put it away and come back for more. The teacher or village headman will not let this happen.

A village is a very communal place and what belongs to one belongs to all. Jealousy and hate between villagers can arise because one family or person received something from you and they didn’t. It is true that many villages that are visited by tourists drop drastically in population because of jealousy. Most move away to a different village. Usually that of another family member who is married to someone in that village.

Playing a Karen Hill Tribe Harp

Ask to meet your guide first. Talk alone with your guide. Find out how much your guide knows about the village as you can. Tell your guide you want to give candy to children and pay villagers money for photos and if he or she says no problem find a different operator and guide. Many tour operators don’t care about the well being of the villagers and will say yes to anything you want to do.

Ask how many persons are going on the trek with you and get it in writing as part of your receipt. Many people are told a small number later to find out there are up to 15 persons going on the trek. If they come to pick you up and there is more than what they wrote on your receipt when you paid for the trek get your money back. 6 persons should be the maximum and the fewer the better and a private trek is best. The fewer people on the trek or tour the better the experience.

Hill Tribe Home Stay:

For a wonderful experience making life long friendships and learning local culture a Hill Tribe Home Stay is a must. The best areas for a village home stay is Doi Inthanon National Park and the small village of Thaton, both away from the normal tourist crowds.

Karen Hill Tribe Home Stay Family

Although both are with Karen hill tribes they are much different in what is available to enjoy. At Doi Inthanon home stay you will experience hiking in the cloud forest, swim at the waterfalls, learn to roast coffee and enjoy village life. In the Thaton Home Stay You visit other hill tribe villages such as Lahu and Akha, learn to weave cotton, visit the local market, cook Thai food then a private long tail boat ride.

Both are at clean comfortable traditional homes in your own bedroom, clean toilets with showers and all bedding is provided. In both villages your guide speaks perfect English and in Thaton your guide speaks all the hill tribe languages.

If you enjoy hiking and the outdoors Doi Inthanon is the one. For a more culture experience the village in the Thaton area is best.

Riding in a tractor to a Rice Field

An eco-culture tour and trekking operator will keep the number of persons visiting a village small. The impact of even 50 visitors a month in a village is devastating and should not be allowed. Some excellent operators take visitor to a village only once a week and then no more than 6 persons. They have many villages they can visit so they can take tourists daily to different villages.

There are areas where hundreds of trekkers visit each month to the same villages. In many villages in these areas the villagers will run up to you and try to sell you trinkets made in China as soon as you arrive. You will need to pay money for photos or make a purchase from them. Once you buy something from 1 you will be bombarded by several more selling the same trinkets. The villages heavily visited by tour groups and trekkers are mainly the Mae Teang and Pai areas.

Planting rice in the village

Some want to visit hill tribe villages on their own and most of these want to spend an evening with a family in the village. This is not a good idea. You must know the culture and customs of the village and each village is different. You can do a lot of harm by just entering the village from the wrong gate. Many have gates for visitors and gates for residents and the villagers believe if you enter from the wrong gate you could be bringing in bad spirits with you. They will then have to spend money for a ritual to cast out bad spirits that you brought in.

If you pay money to stay with a family the other families will be jealous and this could cause unbalance and arguing among villagers. They also barely have enough food to feed their family and will feed you and not have enough to feed themselves. They do not eat the same food as Thais so if you bring food they may not eat it. They do not use fish sauce but salt and they do not eat the white pig but black pig. Also they do not eat their own animals, not even eggs. They purchase eggs and meat from other villages to eat as they will not kill their own animals so sell them to other villages. If you give them money for food they will have to travel a long way to the market and will cost them time and money.

If you are thinking of staying overnight in a hill tribe village it is best to do a Home Stay that is included in your trek or tour not in a large group trek or going on your own. This way you will be treated like family not an unwanted guest. You will be able to visit local markets, visit neighboring villages and cook meals with your host family. You will make friends for a lifetime while enjoying a wonderful experience.

If you would like to visit a real hill tribe village find a tour or trekking operator that follow the basic rules of Eco tourism in Thailand They can provide a local hill tribe guide that knows the culture of the village and knows the villagers like family or has family in the village.

Eco-tourism is not cheap so before you go out to find the best price for a trek or tour, first think about who wins and who looses on a cheap tour or trek. No one wins. Think about it.

About All Thailand Experiences

About our Thailand Tour Company
All Thailand Experiences
and Founder Mr. Randy Gaudet


I first came to Thailand in 1968 while in the U.S. Air Force stationed in Udorn Thani in east Thailand. I was stationed here for 2 years before being stationed in Japan and Korea. I Loved Thailand so much I cried when I left and promised myself I would return.

In 1989 I had the offer to volunteer at Payap University in Chiang Mai Thailand for 2 years and accepted. Here I was supervisor of the communications department at Christian Communication Institute at the university where I supervised installing and training staff of the audio and video studio at CCI. While at the university I took the opportunity to take Thai language and Lanna Thai (North Thailand) history, culture and music classes.

Wat Thaton Temple
Bamboo school

After my commitment was finsihed at Payap University I lived in a remote area of north Thailand at Wat Thaton temple in the town of Thaton on the Myanmar border for more than 3 years. I taught English to Monks, novices, high school students, the Thai Army, local and tourist police. I also did hill tribe programs by taking a small number of tourists to hill tribe villages to spend the evening. All the money for the trek went to the villagers. I bought clothes for the children, medicines and blankets for the families I paid the villagers to build a bamboo schoolhouse and paid a teacher to teach Thai at the school who could speak their language. I taught them how to dispose of waste properly, keep the children and village clean and to use spoons instead of their fingers when eating which was a big source of their health problems. I provided seeds and Logan and lychee fruit trees for planting.

Randy Gaudet with village teacher

This was fine until I left the temple then the school stopped and the health problems returned. I talked with the Abbot of the temple and he now has a school for the children at the temple. He has a nurse looking after the children and takes those to the clinics that have problems.

While I was there I help start a guest home where travelers could stay in a Lisu hill tribe village and go trekking in the jungle and visit primitive hill tribe villages in the area. This was not easy, as the villages we visited didn’t want visitors as they wanted to maintain their lifestyle and culture. They have seen other villages who accept tourist turn into a village without harmony and lost their culture. These villagers were farmers and didn’t want to look at tourism as a source of income. I understood the problem as I have seen what a tour operator can do to a village. To them money is first and they don’t care about the hill tribe people or their way of life.

Building a Lahi Home

I stayed in these villages and met with the village headmen many times. I learned about their culture, way of life, religion, and do’s and don’ts. We then came up with a plan that worked out well for the villagers and our clients.

We can only stay in a village 1 night per week and no more than 6 persons. There are 35 villages in this area so we always have a village to take our clients. Nothing is allowed to be given to a villager directly by the visitor. It must be given to the guide who then gives it to the villager. No candy for the children and no photographs without permission. No money is allowed to be given for a photograph. The guide must be from the local area and must also be hill tribe and speak the language of the village.

Lahu Hill Tribe Children

I then trained 3 hill tribe men from the local area who speak English to be our guides. None of these men drink or smoke and their families are very well respected by all the villages.

Dinner in the jungle

For the Jungle portion of the trek I had to teach the guides to use a different trails so it could grow back. They make a hut out of bamboo and banana leaves for sleeping and I taught them not to clear cut and not to return to an area for at least two months. No more hunting of birds or wild animals.

Without the local culture we would not be able to give our clients the experience they are looking for. We also encourage our clients in helping the local people we visit.

Giving Shoes to Needy Children

Most of our clients want to help the poor villagers that they visit. We take them to a market here in Chiangmai to buy shirts and pants for the children before we visit. Shirts or pants can be purchased for a little as $1 USD, blankets for about $3 USD. We have had groups including one from Singapore who stayed at 3 different hill tribe villages. They brought medicines, blankets and clothes. They repaired playground equipment and repainted the school. We follow God’s word in Isiah 58: 7 “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, And not hide yourself from your own flesh?”.

Giving supplies to poor villagers

Our company buys clothes and blankets every year when cold season arrives to give to needy villagers. We also help orphan and abandoned children in 3 different children homes here in north Thailand.

Lisu Hill Tribe Guides with Family at Guest Home

We have trained and employed hill tribe people and families to be guides for us and host our clients. We helped Asa, a Lisu Hill Tribe man who has the guest home, photo right, get started and now has a very successful business. He handles all our treks for us along with other guides and porters he has hired. He used to get only 50 baht per day per group and now gets more than 1800 baht per person for taking our clients. We have a loving relationship with all the people that work with us and those we visit. To us they are family and our clients notice this and is mentioned often.

There are hundreds of tour operators in Thailand and most take their clients to the same areas and places. Most of these areas have more tourists than Thai people so there is no cultural experience to speak of. We won’t do that to our clients. We want them to enjoy a wonderful experience they will remember for a lifetime.

Taking tractor ti Rice fields

We specialize in quality and service with as much interaction with nature and culture as possible. I have been living in Thailand since 1989. I have traveled extensively throughout the Kingdom and wanted to share my wonderful experiences of Thailand with others. I talked with many travelers here in Thailand and saw a need to take visitors away from the normal tourist areas filled with large tour buses and groups. The biggest complaint I heard from visitors is “there is no real Thai culture”. “Everything is staged for the tourists”. This is because they keep following each other around using their guide books.

It took about 2 years of research to find the areas that were safe and could handle visitors. I spoke with village headmen, temple Monks, Hill Tribe villagers, National Park officials and local bird experts. I then had to train a staff that would take care of our clients with excellent service and provide correct information about Thai and hilltribe culture, Thai food, Buddhism, birds of Thailand, etc.

Harvesting Rice

All our guides are registered with the Tourism Authority but that is not enough. Our training program is by far the best in the Kingdom. They must not only study the subjects but also go to each area, town or village and learn first hand about the people their culture, birds and animals of the region along with any festival or event and when it takes place.

Learning to Weave

Our main and only goal is to provide a great experience our clients could not enjoy with any other guide or tour operator. From the comments in our “Guest Book” at our web site, email from previous clients and the large number of referrals we are meeting our goal. What we all enjoy is when our clients finish their tour they tell us “It was one of the best holidays we ever had and thank you so much”. “I will surely recommend your services to others”.

To us conservation is more than the natural environment. We take many clients to very cultural sensitive hill tribe villages. This is a very difficult balance of very different cultures but can be maintained. We follow 4 basic rules to maintain harmony in the villages and help the environment

Since we do only private custom excursions we want to know the needs of our clients. We then email back to them what we will and will not do for them. Most of our clients know only what they read from agent brochures about what to do in Thailand and these tours might not be the best for them. We explain to them that we do not go to these places and why.

Clients and Karen Hill Tribe Family during Home Stay

We send several email messages back and forth asking and answering questions before an itinerary is approved. We then do many follow up email messages about what they will experience, cultural do’s and don’ts, and answer any question they may have. By the time they arrive they have an excellent knowledge of all aspects of their journey with us.

Many of our clients are families and have special needs. We ask many questions about the children such as favorite foods and their interests as we want them to enjoy their holiday also. We want to know if anyone in the group is having a birthday or anniversary while they are with us so that we can make their day special.

Once our clients arrive we are on call 24 hours a day for them. They can telephone us anytime about any questions they may have. From the time they arrive at the airport to the time of departure back to their home we are there for them.

After they return home most of our clients stay in contact with us. Not only do they thank us for a wonderful time but they ask about the people they made friends with while with us. I am happy to say we have made many good friends from all over the world with those who have been with us.

Swimming at Waterfalls

I have talked with other tour operators and the Tourism Authority of Thailand about being responsible in maintaining hill tribe culture. No one seams to care, as money is the bottom line. Exploitation of the hill tribe people and their way of life are common here. I have been able to give lectures at guide classes for the TAT. I try to teach them about being responsible for maintaining the hill tribe culture. After all it is the guides who are in contact with the villagers and clients not the tour operators.

Randy Gaudet
Founder/Director
All Thailand Experiences

All Thailand Experiences Eco-tourism Policy

“Helping those in need through tourism”

Now a days everyone is doing ecotourism tours and treks in Thailand, but what is it? Do you know the questions to ask a tour or trekking operator to find out if they are for real or just a ploy to get you to go with them?

We at All Thailand Experiences follow the four basic rules for real Ecotourism in Thailand:

  • 1. The willingness and ability to maintain or improve the environment.
  • 2. The ability and the willingness for proper control when visiting ethnic peoples and villages in such a way that they can continue to maintain their natural being, customs, traditions and lifestyle.
  • 3. The ability and willingness of the tour operator to donate some profits to the people in the villages they visit and in helping protect and improve nature and the environment.
  • 4. We also bring trees along to plant near the villages so the villagers can take care of them. This lowers your carbon foot print.
  • 5. We DO Not take clients for elephant rides, elephant nature parks or elephant shows. We take our clients to Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation who helps sick, wounded and tortured elephants.

Do you know the questions to ask a tour or trekking operator to find out if they are for real or just a ploy to get you to go with them?

First of all, most operators care only about making you happy. They will say yes to what ever you want to do. This is fine if you are doing a normal commercial tour to the handicraft factories or city tour however if you want to visit a hill tribe village or a nature area this is not acceptable. The reason is because that is what the consumer wants and the operators want to meet the needs of their clients, which might not be in the best interest for the environment or local people. This means it is up to you to be well informed about what is and what is not Eco-tourism.

Here is a list of subjects and whys that separates the Eco-culture and nature friendly tour and trekking operators from those that are not. It is then up to you to decide which companies properly adhere to the true meaning of Eco-tourism in Thailand.

Tour and Trekking operators first must meet at least the four basic standards to be called Eco tourism.

  • 1. The willingness and ability to maintain or improve the environment.

Did you know that most of the plants and animals on the endangered species list are because of destruction of habit and not poaching, hunting or gathering? There are many examples of this in north Thailand. Not so many years ago there were lots of rare species of birds along the Mae Kok, Ping, Fang and Mae Teang rivers. Now because of clear cutting of bamboo for tourist for rafting all of the large and many rare species of bamboo are now gone. This means no more places for the birds to roost or nest, insects to eat and the beautiful stands of bamboo that were once abundant along the river banks are now gone forever.

So what can you do?

Bambaoo rafting Thailand

Try to find operators that use recycled bamboo rafts when ever possible They pick them up at the take out point and bring them back to the starting point by large truck. The rafts can be used again and again for a year or so. Others just take them to the end of the rafting trip and sell them for other uses or most are disposed of along the bank to rot and they cut fresh bamboo for new ones. Finding these operators will be difficult, as many tour operators will say yes they reuse the rafts when in fact you will find out at the end of your rafting trip they do not. Better yet find an operator that use rubber boats, kayaks or canoes with out gasoline engines if possible.

Swimming at the waterfall
Swimming at the waterfall at Doi Inthanon national Park Thailand

Another major problem is water pollution. With the large numbers of travelers wanting to trek and visit hill tribe villages they are the number 1 source of water pollution in remote areas. I know of many hill tribe villagers that used to go to streams for small fish, frogs and insects to gather and eat. Because of the trekkers using soap and shampoo at waterfalls and in streams the animals that depend on clean water along with the plant life that supports them are now gone. It is a fact that the hill tribe villagers before the tourists arrived used to gather the water and wash their clothes and body away from the streams or waterfalls so as not to pollute.

Many villages now also use the streams to wash in because they know there is nothing left to gather or fish for. They don’t know why everything is gone but it was all-fine before the tourists arrived. They also figure if the well-educated, smart and rich tourists are using the water to bath why should we carry water when we can just do what they do.

Do not bath in streams or waterfalls using chemical soaps and shampoos. There are biodegradable soaps and shampoos made that do not pollute so use these products. Another thing you can do is to carry the water down hill and away from the stream at least 20 meters. The best is not to use soap or shampoo at all while in or near the stream or waterfalls. Bring along a face cloth and add a little soap to clean your body and rinse off far away from the water source.

The people who lived in the rain forest or jungle knew in the past how important their water source was. It is a tragedy that these peoples had to give this up because of tourism. There are still several villages in Thailand that are pristine and still follow these good environmental practices. Their villages are in very remote areas far away from the normal tourist crowds.

These are the two main problems with tourism and the environment in Thailand today. For sure there are many others such as waste disposal that most of us already know about.

2. The ability and the willingness for proper control when visiting ethnic peoples and villages in such a way that they can continue to maintain their natural being, customs, traditions and lifestyle.

Lisu hill tribe New Year in Thailand
Lisu Hill Tribe

These are the worst horror stories not only in Thailand but also throughout the world today. Almost all of the villages visited by tour operators today have lost everything their elders have taught them going back hundreds of years. Villagers are starving, addicted to drugs and they are selling their children to be used as prostitutes or slaves. Believe it or not the villages that accept tourists have the biggest chance of falling into this problem. Here are the ways it usually (but not always) happens.

A guide goes out looking for a new area and villages to take tourists. He (or she) meets the people in the villages and wants to bring tourists with the promise of a more prosperous life (money) than what they have now. There are no rules or guide lines set except that the villagers can sell trinkets and handicrafts (most bought and not made by them) to the tourists. The family that has guests overnight receives a small sum of money, a meal but must supply the rice (in most cases). If the villagers can supply opium for the trekkers to smoke, so much the better, as the guide will make lots of money from this. Once this starts the local drug lords will make them keep purchasing the opium.

Happy Lahu hill tribe Chindren

After a year or two here is what happens to this once beautiful village. The once shy villagers rush to meet the tourists with souvenirs for them to buy. Most of these are made in Burma and not by the villagers themselves. They will not stop bothering people until they buy something and then leave.

The children ask and beg for money. Now, the villagers are looking at the tourist as a source of income not as a visitor. Most have quit working their fields just to meet and beg and sell junk to the tourists. Most of the hill tribe villages do not own land but are given an area to plant crops. If it is not used then another village will take over the fields. This is usually a nearby village that does not accept tourists.

The guide starts dinner at the family home and gives the host family around 50 Baht for having them. It is now evening and the guide asks who wants to smoke opium. Some in the group will probably say yes. The guide then buys the opium in the village for maybe 400 baht from which can supply around 20 or more pipe loads. The guide then sells it again to the tourist for maybe 100 to 200 baht a pipe load. This is big money for the guide. Mean while the children in the village see the foreigners smoking opium and think that they do the same everyday. In their mind they think they can smoke opium, go to college and make lots of money like the tourists do.

It is now a year later and the village has no culture to speak of any more. There is no cultural interaction between the villagers and tourists as the visitors are looked upon only as a source of income. The tour operator and guides decide to now leave this village for new villages without tourists and the process starts all over again. Now this village has no more tourists. They have no place to plant crops anymore as the fields they stopped planting have been taken over by nearby villagers. This means they now have to buy food and basic necessities but have no money. Many are now addicted to opium or heroin and even sell their children to keep up the habit. This is a worst-case example but has happened and continues to happen to this day.

So what can you do?

Please be careful with trekking operators that advertise new area or village. Find out why they have to go to a new village or area. Most good Eco-culture friendly operators go to the same area and villages year after year. They have an excellent relationship with them so everything is in balance and harmony so they do not need to go to a new area.

Most hill tribe villages do not have handicrafts as they spend most of their time working in their fields. There may however be elderly women in the village taking care of young children that do make handicrafts. In this case there will be one home or area where handicrafts can be viewed and bought. No one will bother you to buy anything and you are not looked at as a major source of income.

Make sure you are not allowed to give candy to children or money for pictures. As a matter of fact nothing should be exchanged directly between you and anyone in the village. A village is a very communal place and what belongs to one belongs to all. Jealousy and hate between villagers can arise because one family or person received something from you and they didn’t. It is true that many villages that are visited by tourist drop drastically in population because of jealousy. It is the lucky ones that move away to a different village, usually that of another family member that has already moved because of marriage to a village member.

Ask how many persons are going on the trek with you and get it in writing as part of your receipt. Many people are told a small number later to find out there are up to 15 persons going on the trek. If they come to pick you up and there is more than what they wrote on your receipt when you paid for the trek get your money back. Go to the tourist police and file a complaint. If they do not give you a refund just make sure you have the number of persons in your trekking party written in your receipt. 6 persons should be the maximum and the fewer the better and a private trek is best. An eco-culture tour and trekking operator will keep the number of persons visiting a village small. The impact of even 50 visitors a month in a village is devastating and should not be allowed. Some excellent operators take visitor to village only once a week and then no more than 6 persons. They have many villages they can visit so they can take tourists daily to different villages.

3. The ability and willingness of the tour operator to donate some profits to the people in the villages they visit and in helping protect and improve nature and the environment.

There are very few tour and adventure operators in Thailand that are willing to support this belief. The ones that do started their business out of love for nature and the people and wanting to share their experiences with travelers not just for the money. They know the profits will rise once previous clients talk to their friends and others about the wonderful time they had on their holiday. This means more money for the locals and the tour operator. They must work together without exploitation.

All Thailand Experiences supports Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation

The relationship that develops between the operator, guides, local people and communities when the tour or trekking company helps them is very important. This means you as a visitor can enjoy something special and richly rewarding instead feeling like of a source of income. You can develop true friendships with the people you meet and enjoy a spectacular natural unspoiled environment. You and your guide will be well respected by everyone you come in contact with. They also know that some of the money you paid for your holiday to visit them goes to help them and the local environment. They know their customs will be respected and their culture and way of life will remain intact.

Good Eco-aware tour operator helps in many ways in Thailand. They buy books and other supplies for local schools. They pay to build schools and pay for teachers to live in the remote villages. They provide blankets and clothing yearly to families and children. They pay for doctors to visit remote villages on a regular basis and provide medicines and money for treatments if needed. Some pay local remote villagers to keep a watch out for poachers in the jungle and rain forest and report any potential problems to local authorities. They also work with local police, park rangers and forest ranges providing funds for rewards when poachers or tree cutters are caught. They pay locals to plant trees where needed and teach the people about waste disposal and hygiene. Build toilet facilities and water wells or water gathering reservoirs in small mountain canyons. They pay for pipes and plumping from the wells and reservoirs to the village. The list goes on and on but the important thing is the tour or trekking operator wants to help.

So what can you do?

Try to find such a tour or trekking operator. The most important thing is being willing to pay more for you tour or trek. The fewer people on the trek or tour the better the experience. This costs more but well worth it. Most guides that work for these Eco-culture friendly operators are very dedicated to helping people including you. They go out and visit these villages and natural areas regularly if they have people to take or not. They have extensive training about the environment, animals, birds, insects and about the local people you will see and meet. They are paid much more than the normal commercial guide and are well worth it so be willing to pay more.

Eco-tourism is not cheap so before you go out to find the best price for a trek or tour, first think about who wins and who looses on a cheap tour or trek. No one wins. Think about it.

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