IIt was a sight familiar to anyone visiting a Buddhist country – an orange-robed monk approaching people with his bowl, ready to receive food (called alms) for good karma. But, standing at Wat Chak Daeng temple in Bangkok, something was markedly different.
Rather than the standard lunch of rice and freshly cooked vegetables, people here offered used plastic bottles. It was not a mistake – a case of confusing these holy souls with the bin men. It was the latest pioneering initiative from the monks themselves: getting involved in recycling.
In 2019, the temple abbot was struck by the scale of the plastic problem in Thailand – the country is one of the top five plastic polluters of the oceans – and wanted to help. He therefore encouraged the faithful to give the monks their used plastics as alms.
Behind the temple is a processing plant, run by locals and volunteers, where everything is cleaned and recycled into a number of products, including the robes on the monks’ backs.
It was strange to imagine such a change in mentality happening here, especially since I was only 15 minutes from the thriving center of Bangkok – where everything is apparently served to you wrapped in several layers of plastic, whatever however fervently you insist. otherwise.
I was in Bang Krachao, known as the “green lung of the city” for its proliferation of foliage amid the surrounding concrete jungle: my first stop on a mission to explore Thailand’s classic sights in the most sustainable way possible.
I began my quest through this verdant oasis on a rental bike, meandering footpaths and bike paths through a car-free mangrove forest. I passed palm trees filled with resident birds, wooden houses and not a skyscraper in sight, before arriving at my first base: the Bangkok Tree House, perhaps the most sustainable stay in the city. .
Constructed from recycled bamboo and metal, and featuring recycled artwork from driftwood washed up on the shore, its showers are heated and its lights powered by solar energy, while the bedrooms are in the canopy of trees, immersing you in nature. All food served here is organic and local. The meal I ate that night – while the fireflies provided mood lighting in the darkening sky – left a good taste in my mouth in more ways than one.
From Bangkok, I took the train to Kanchanaburi to visit the famous River Kwai – a much less damaging mode of transport than the car. Once there – instead of turning up the air conditioning in a local three star, I chose to spend two nights on the water at Jungle Rafts, a floating eco-hotel.
With a firm aim of bringing guests back to nature, there is no electricity on the rafts – the rooms are lit with lanterns and cooling is provided by the air circulating through the wooden cabins made from the hand. When it all gets too hot, the answer is to don a life jacket and jump into the water, letting the current take you to the end of the complex, before exiting a surreptitiously placed ladder and heading back to your room. The bonus is that every stay helps support the Mon community (an ethnic group originally from Myanmar) who live in the jungle next to the hotel.
“The hotel has been so important to us,” manager Bly explained. “We can continue our way of life while earning a living and sharing our culture with visitors.”
Part of it ended with a hike in his village. As we walked, Bly pointed out jackfruit, banana flower and cilantro – all ingredients I would later enjoy in my jungle-style curry on the plate.
After three days of floating and paddleboarding, I returned to Bangkok to take the sleeper train to Chiang Mai, the mountainous northern capital of the country. At around £35 a ticket (i.e. for a private first-class cabin with air conditioning), this 12-hour train journey is a cost-effective way to reduce the carbon emissions that a domestic flight would produce.
Its rhythmic movement gave me a wonderful night’s sleep when I left town and woke up to see fields of rice paddies and distant green mountains stretch beyond my window.
Chiang Mai is something of a sustainability hub in itself, home to many curious sustainability-focused businesses. These include a manufacturer of bamboo straws, a company that employs local villagers to make wax food wrappers (an alternative to cling film) and another that makes backpacks from of recycled bicycle inner tubes.
It also has a growing proliferation of vegan restaurants, including the Free Bird Cafe, which – in addition to its plant-based menu – provides reusable straws and refill stations for common household supplies such as soaps and shampoos. , as a restaurant-meets-zero-waste store.
I chose to stay at the 137 Pillars Hotel, where Manager Anne Arrowsmith told me about some of the eco-friendly initiatives the team has in place. There was a lot to showcase: from eliminating single-use plastics, to increasing their recycling program, to composting organic garden waste and providing reusable mesh bags to suppliers of their food deliveries. fruits and vegetables of local origin while categorically refusing plastics.
“We’ve done a lot, but there’s still a lot of work to do here,” Anne said as we drank a cocktail at the bar with macadamia nuts – themselves produced by the hill tribes who live in the mountains and have formerly survived by growing opiates. They now grow nuts, coffee and cocoa to make artisanal and regional products.
My final stop took me further south to Phuket and the neighboring island of Koh Phi Phi Don, accessible by train, bus and ferry. Here, I had opted for Zeavola Resort – whose late director Florian Hallermann literally wrote the book (Zeavola’s Little Green Book) on the sustainability of a luxury hotel. Here they have saved both the environment and money by switching to ceramic bottles for all toiletries, producing their own drinking water, building a treatment plant on site, eliminating chemicals in the cleaning products and making sure they clean the beach twice a day – recycling all waste collected.
Despite the lure of Andaman hot tub swims, I opted to hop on a locally operated long-tail boat to visit neighboring Phi Phi Le Island. famous movie star The beachits famous Maya Bay cove has just reopened after being closed to tourists in 2018 – a move authorities said was inevitable due to severe damage from overtourism.
In her reincarnated state, the number of visitors to Maya Bay is now controlled. Boats are prohibited from docking inside the bay, and swimming directly into it is prohibited, in an effort to regenerate coral and allow wildlife to return. So far things are looking up – blacktip reef sharks have started using the cove as a nursery again, the water is so clear it’s practically transparent and the beach never seems too crowded.
On my return to Phuket, I saw two monks in their orange (but really green) attire and smiled. Sometimes a single person’s travel habits may seem too small to really make a difference. But, as the world reopens, if we all make an effort to push for eco-friendly places to stay, eat and play, the future can be just as bright as recycled monks’ robes.
Thai Airways has restarted direct flights to Bangkok and Phuket from London; other airlines with direct flights include BA and EVA Air.
Train, bus and ferry travel in Thailand can be booked through 12go.asia.
For more information visit fanclubthailand.co.uk