One of the most gratifying parts of travel is dissolving stereotypes. No, the French do not eat baguettes and cheese with a side of chocolate for every meal (just every other meal.) No, Italians do not always scoff at the idea of American pizza (unless it is Dominos--they can scoff at Dominos.)
But the stereotype of Thailand living up to its name, "Land of Smiles?" Yes, this one is pretty darn accurate.
You'll notice the smiles when you stroll through the ornate gold temples and Buddhist statues in Bangkok, a wondrous and energetic metropolis of 6.5 million people (and likely the same number of tuk-tuks!) You'll notice the smiles while lost in Chaing Mai's outdoor markets, where the variety in merchandise is quite literally endless. Handmade quilt, toothbrush, raw meat: the choice is yours.
Thailand is certainly a happy country, but it is also a green country.
From the mountainous North to the beachy, relaxed coast; from the bustling Khaosan Road in Bangkok to the miles of rice paddy farms in the east, tourism means more than just travel here. Humanitarian and sustainable initiatives are weaved into Thailand-- from five-star resorts to discrete hostels. And that is what keeps the country smiling.
Ah, Bangkok. There are few words to describe such a city of such dichotomies--where one can lounge in the seductive and passionate Bamboo Bar at The Mandarin Oriental, drinking a signature Raspberry Nitrogen Sorbet, and then, a ten minute tuk-tuk ride later, be devouring ten cent Pad Thai from a street vendor in an ally of Bangkok's Chinatown (where, in my unbiased opinion, you will find the best noodles in the world.) It is one of those cities where you should abandon the map and get crazy, beautifully lost.
Maybe you'll end up getting a very Thai haircut at a local barbershop. Or maybe your wanderlust will take you to the posh Sky Bar LeBoa in the iconic State Tower, suspended 820 feet in the air over the metropolis (and where The Hangover II was filmed!)
One of the more "off the map activities" in Bangkok, minus the selfie sticks, which also drives tourism funds more locally, is the wooden Khlong Bang Luang Artist House.
Well over 100 years old and located on the Bang Luang canal, arriving is an adventure in itself---you feel like a true explorer in fording the river in a canal boat the resemble a gondola, passing through residential areas for a glimpse at the real Bangkok.
At the Artist House, children and children at heart can feed the fish flakes sold by locals, as the breeze daintily tickles their nostrils. Local entrepreneurs in canal boats will also likely row by, offering visitors little candies or treats. The Kham Nai puppet show is yet another highlight at The Artist House-- a collaboration of skillful local artists who want to both conserve and promote traditional Thai theatre. A group of old-generation puppet performers generously and enthusiastically give advice to novices hoping to hone their craft to ensure that the tradition lives on for future audiences.
Now you can live like Thai high society, or "Hi So" as it is known to locals, at a five-star resort that is also making strides towards sustainability. The Four Seasons Hotel and Resort in Chaing Mai values environmental protection and preservation by promoting sustainable practices that reduce impact.
The resort focuses on engaging in sustainable practices that conserve natural resources.
The chefs at the resort's Chef's Garden, for example, not only produce Thai and other authentically grown Asian crops but also ensure that all of the special dishes in the restaurants are chemical-free. Even the cooking oil used by the resort is favorable towards Mother Earth-- the system recycles the 20 plus liters of oil produced per day into a sustainable biodiesel. It is then used to light torches around the resort in lieu of electric lights. The resort has also created an efficient and effective wastewater treatment protocol which cleanses all wastewater from showers, pools and swimming ponds in a sustainable manner, and chemical free. This recycled water is then used to hydrate the lush gardens surrounding the compound.
Using local fruits, vegetables, and eggs, The Four Seasons Chaing Mai is part of "The Royal Project," intended to inspire surrounding towns and communities to become more self-supporting.
As explained in a press release for The Four Seasons Chaing Mai, "The Royal Project is an initiative of His Majesty, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand. It was founded in 1969 to solve the problems of deforestation, poverty and opium production by promoting alternative crops. It was the world’s first project to replace drug-crops with legal crops and is one of the most successful projects of this type."
Patara Elephant Farm
Elephants play an extremely important role in both Thai tradition and culture. They are also considered to be good luck. Unfortunately, elephant farms, especially in Thailand, have been making news for their abusive practices.
But not all elephant farms are doing harm. The Patara Elephant Farm, a half hour drive from Chaing Mai, realizes that elephants born in captivity would likely not be able to survive in the wild. These rescue camps provide the opportunity for exercise and socializing--two necessities for these gentle giants to live. Elephants, just like human beings, emanate love and require love in return. And this human-elephant love is seen at Patara, where guests "experience the heart of giving from the heart of living."
The farm's elephant for a day program provides a complete and utter role reversal--the elephant becomes the master of the human. The first step is assessing the happiness of the elephant because just like people, their emotions are grounded in body language. A content elephant will be flapping its ears and moving about, while a guarded elephant will be motionless and rigid.
Now imagine getting as, well, close, to another living thing as to dissect its dung and make sure that it's healthy. This is part two of the exam. Guests will have the unique experience of quantifying the amount of water in each specimen by wringing the dung in their bare hands (heavy water saturation is a sign of good health). You can say it's a unique experience and certainly an icebreaker.
Imagine using a bucket and scrub brush to rub the grass stains from your elephant's behind in a shallow pool of water underneath a waterfall. The elephants are at times known for being fresh and spraying their humans with feces water. Gross, yet bonding at its finest.
Once the elephant is clean enough, their human counterpart will have the opportunity to ride on their heads bareback, as the traditional upholstered box that would be mounted to their back can chafe their skin and cause terrible sores.
Patera Elephant Reserve offers day-long or overnight treks for travelers, which also integrate valuable lessons concerning an elephant’s daily needs and activities.
There is a reason why the name "Phuket" has always been synonymous with escaping reality. Situated on the Andaman Sea with that nearly perfect blue sky from November until August, Phuket has a gold mine of interesting and unique restaurants, bars, and clubs. Few places in the world have the sheer number of pristine white sand paradises to boast as Phuket, which is 540 square kilometers and fondly nicknamed "The Pearl of the Andaman."
While the possibilities in Phuket may be enough to satisfy an itinerary of a wanderluster for days, there is always another island to explore as well. Some more traditionally known and famous islands--Phi Phi Island, Coral Island and Racha Islands--host events that have been drawing backpackers for years. Ever hear of The Full Moon party, for instance, where one can celebrate life and the waning and waxing of the moon on a beach with thousands of other inspired individuals?
But Phuket is more than simply that stereotypical backpacker's dream. It is also very much at the forefront of the country's sustainability movement--both with its accommodations and activities.
The Sri Panwa Resort
Picture this. The Andaman Sea breeze tickling your nose as you sip a signature resort cocktail, casually floating in your villa's personal infinity pool on a breezy afternoon. But The Sri Panwa Resort in Phuket is more than paradise--it is proactive in practicing and growing its innovative green initiatives. So much so that it was awarded a Bronze Class recognition by The Department of Environmental Quality Promotion in Thailand, Green Hotel 2015 - by Department of Environmental Quality Promotion (Thailand).
As explained by the resort, "we are constantly exploring ways to develop in an environmentally conscience manner throughout the resort. We seek eco-friendly alternatives wherever possible, including energy saving, natural resource conservation practices, and building design."
The resort strives to use gold carts to reduce pollution of cars. The kitchen and food staff organically plant vegetables and herbs on the premises--free of chemicals--to be used in the kitchen the array of dishes. Even so much as the resort's Braille book is printed on recycled paper! How do all of these efforts manifest? Sri Panwa has a "Green Committee" team, responsible for sustainability and developing and delivering programs that educate administrative and support staff on the 3 R's: recycling, reducing & reusing. The resorts check energy saving initiatives each month from the back to the front
The resort also takes part in initiatives to clean nearby beaches, with the assistance of local volunteers, to rid of rubbish and excess. Sri Panwa also donates money and food to the Pucket Dogs Foundation, an organization devoted to assisting dogs with physical or mental impairments.
There's certainly a reason why Thailand is "The Land of Smiles." Now it is our job is to keep it that way by supporting the land's beauty and efforts to preserve it by the local foundations and businesses.