Unfortunately, Thailand is way behind much of the world in general eco-awareness; conflicts between economic and ecological interests generally work out in favor of the former. Environmental problems include deforestation, air and water pollution, flooding, habitat loss, and consequent species loss. Among the 33 mammals in danger of extinction in Thailand are tigers, leopards, and elephants. The last of these is a particular shame, as it was once revered (and still is in some quarters) as a creature of great spiritual significance; the few thousand that remain spend their time either entertaining tourists at elephant camps or searching for food in a shrinking forest.
Fortunately, several nongovernment organizations (NGOs), such as the World Wildlife Fund, have an active presence in the country, attempting to draw attention to the most serious problems. Thai authorities are also finally taking tiny steps to preserve the nature and wildlife of its many different ecological zones, from swamp jungles in the south, to mountain forests in the north, to the many marine parks in the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea.
Recycling in Thailand still refers to folks who go around buying up old papers, cans, and bottles, which they then sell for a pittance. Nowhere is trash separated at source before disposal. Your hotel may be your best bet for finding a place to deposit recyclable waste, especially if you choose a hotel that has instituted sustainable practices.
Visitors who choose to spend their time cycling, trekking, or kayaking in the kingdom inevitably have less detrimental impact on the country than those who breeze around in tour buses churning out carbon dioxide. However, choosing a responsible tour operator is not easy, as just about all of them these days use the buzzword "eco-tourism" in their sales pitches. Ask them exactly what they are doing to reduce their carbon footprint and to benefit the local community in the areas that their tours visit. For a list of local green operators, contact the Thai Ecotourism and Adventure Travel Association (tel. 02642-5465; www.teata.or.th).
Some hotel groups, such as the Banyan Tree resorts in Bangkok and Phuket, have made huge efforts over the past decade to implement sustainable projects, including a pledge to reduce their carbon footprint in all their resorts by 10% each year. To see a list of green hotels, contact the Green Leaf Foundation (tel. 02652-8321-2; www.greenleafthai.org).
When booking hotels, particularly on the beach, consider carefully whether you really need a room with air-conditioning and other power-draining equipment such as fridges, TVs, and DVD players. These days many eco-friendly, luxury resorts do not offer air-conditioning; instead, they provide well-designed, wooden bungalows with balconies that attract a delicious breeze, allowing you to appreciate your surroundings more than in an enclosed room, and mosquito nets over the beds can save you from nighttime discomfort. You can also sleep more soundly knowing your stay is making minimal impact on the environment.
In more than 110 national parks, visitors can see the local wildlife species in residence, as well as appreciate the delicate balance of each habitat. The more popular parks have clearly displayed interpretation facilities at their visitor centers, as well as trails with bridges and catwalks, and markers explaining the important elements of the environment and its inhabitants. They also provide log-cabin-style bungalow accommodations, plus tents and supplies for campers. Get in touch with the Department of National Parks at tel. 02561-0777, or visit their website (www.dnp.go.th/parkreserve/nationalpark.asp), where you can find information about the parks and also make online reservations.
General Resources for Green Travel
In addition to the resources for Thailand listed above, the following websites provide valuable wide-ranging information on sustainable travel. For a list of even more sustainable resources, as well as tips and explanations on how to travel greener, visit www.frommers.com/planning.
Responsible Travel (www.responsibletravel.com) is a great source of sustainable travel ideas; the site is run by a spokesperson for ethical tourism in the travel industry. Sustainable Travel International (www.sustainabletravelinternational.org) promotes ethical tourism practices, and manages an extensive directory of sustainable properties and tour operators around the world.
Carbonfund (www.carbonfund.org), TerraPass (www.terrapass.org), and Carbon Neutral (www.carbonneutral.org) provide info on "carbon offsetting," or offsetting the greenhouse gas emitted during flights.
For information on animal-friendly issues throughout the world, visit Tread Lightly (www.treadlightly.org).
Volunteer International (www.volunteerinternational.org) has a list of questions to help you determine the intentions and the nature of a volunteer program. For general info on volunteer travel, visit www.volunteerabroad.org and www.idealist.org.