Thailand is a destination that attracts millions of visitors each year and with it’s aquamarine waters, white sand beaches, dense jungles, perfectly contoured rice paddies and friendly locals – it’s no surprise why.
It’s also no surprise that with such a high volume of tourists, Thailand faces it’s fair share of struggles with irresponsible tourism practices and concerns. Some of these irresponsible practices are offered by Thai businesses themselves to meet a growing demand and others are performed by uninformed tourists who sometimes unknowingly contribute to unethical issues (even when they have the purest of intentions).
Continue reading to discover the 5 ways you can be a responsible traveler on your next trip to the Land of Smiles.
1. Don’t Contribute to the Sex Slave Trade and Child Exploitation
Sex Slave Trade
The sex slave trade is a massive global issue, affecting just about every country on the planet (and not just those of developing nations). In fact, my home state of Florida ranks 3rd in the U.S. for human trafficking cases.
However, with Thailand being the sex tourism capitol of the world, the issue is a little more in your face than in other parts of the world. As a result, there are more opportunities for tourists to unknowingly contribute to the issue even if not outright participating in sex tourism. Perhaps the biggest mistake that travelers make is not being conscious of where their travel dollars are going.
- Avoid cities that thrive on Sex Tourism such as Pattaya. Just don’t go – period. Show the Thai government that your tourism dollars don’t want any part it.
- Avoid notorious red light districts in the bigger cities, such as Patpong and Soi Cowboy in Bangkok. Unfortunately, due to movies like the Hangover II, which filmed several scenes in Soi Cowboy, this neighborhood is now somewhat of a tourist hotspot, even for those who are not actively participating in sex tourism. The problem is that most of the go-go bars that line the streets of these neighborhoods are covers for brothels – so you don’t to support them even by buying a single drink.
- NEVER attend a “Ping Pong Show.” These shows, which are popular tourist attractions in the red light districts, are nothing more than cruel forms of human zoo tourism in which the girls (almost always victims of human trafficking) are forced to perform crude sexual acts in front of a live audience.
- Be more deliberate with your hotel choices, especially if staying close to a red light district. This could be something as simple as calling ahead of time to check if the hotel has a system in place to reduce the risk of sex tourism on their property. For example, some hotels require any local women entering the hotel to show a valid ID to ensure that she is at least 18 years of age and not a child being taken advantage of, especially when accompanied by a foreign man. Some hotels go as far to register as a member of The Code – a multi-stakeholder initiative with the mission to provide awareness, tools and support to the tourism industry to prevent the sexual exploitation of children that is run by the ECPAT Foundation.
However, if you do want to do a thoughtful walk through in one of the red light districts to witness the issue firsthand, be very mindful of your facial expressions – do not embarrass the women more than they already are – even if they seem happy and smiling. And do not purchase anything within these neighborhoods.
One aspect of travel in Thailand that is hard to avoid is the presence of child beggars. And as cruel as it may seem in the moment, experts strongly suggest that you never give to child beggars. This includes those children who are selling cheap items, such as flowers, in exchange for a donation.
Doing so perpetuates a cycle of poverty where children (and sometimes their parents) see that it’s more lucrative for children to be out on the streets begging rather than staying in school. Unfortunately, in the worst case scenarios, giving to these children can also perpetuate a cycle of modern day slavery.
The issue of trafficking children by gangs and pimps to be used as beggars caught world attention thanks to the film Slumdog Millionaire. By giving to children who are in the streets as a result of these conditions only encourages these gangs to continue this behavior – demand drives supply.
And to make matters worse, once these children grow up and are no longer deemed “cute enough” to beg, the pimps will often sell them off into the sex slave trade – reinforcing yet another unethical practice.
Giving to child beggars also goes beyond money. Something as seemingly innocent as giving candy and sweets can be harmful as many of these communities do not have the resources for dental care and the sugar could lead to tooth decay.
As a rule of thumb – never give to child beggars.
The best thing you can do to become part of the solution rather than contributing to the issue of the sex slave trade and child exploitation in Thailand is to become an informed advocate.
Do a little reading before getting on the plane because having a good grasp on the issue will help you to stay respectful of the culture and avoid making any cultural faux pas. In particular, these are two books that I would highly recommend:
- Human Trafficking in Thailand: Current Issues, Trends and the Role of the Thai Government by Siraj Sorajjakool. – This book will give you a good overall look at the issue.
- Do’s and Don’ts in Thailand by Catherine Gordon and Kenny Yee. – This book is great for understanding Thai culture. It’s crucial that you attempt to understand a culture before ever attempting to understand any issue within that culture.
I also suggest reading these highly informative articles published by The Freedom Story – an organization dedicated to the prevention of child trafficking and exploitation in Thailand through scholarships, mentorships and culturally relevant programs for at-risk children.
Trafficking Aware Travel Guide
What the Media Gets Wrong about Sex Trafficking
The Role Businesses Can Play in Anti Trafficking
Commercial Exploitation and Trafficking – What’s the difference?
Profile of a Victim
“Estimates suggest that over 60,000 children are sexually exploited for commercial gain in Thailand each year” – The Freedom Story
For more information about The Freedom Story, the amazing work that they’re doing & how to get involved Click Here
2. Don’t Contribute to the exploitation of animals (aka don’t ride an elephant or take a tiger selfie)
In Thailand, elephant experiences are a huge draw for many tourists. Unfortunately, many of the elephant experiences that you’ll come across are unethical. In most cases, in order to perform circus-like acts or to work hours on end providing rides to tourists the elephants have been “broken into submission” through physical abuse, deprivation of food and water or by cruelly being isolated as elephants are highly social animals.
Admittedly, I did ride an elephant while traveling in Thailand back in 2012, which is now something that I regret. I decided to go with that company that I chose because the animals seemed healthy with no signs of abuse. I now know that although there may be no physical signs, that is not an indicator that the animals are treated ethically. When in doubt, if a place offers elephant rides err on the safe side an assume it’s not ethical.
Opt for ethical elephant sanctuaries such as Elephant Hills in Khao Sok. These sanctuaries provide abuse free homes for elephants with adequate space to roam. They also provide travelers with a more intimate experience by allowing guests to feed and bath the animals as opposed to riding the elephants or observing them in a show.
For a great article on what to look for when choosing an ethical elephant sanctuary Click Here
Guilty again. Back in 2012 I took a tiger selfie at the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi Province. I chose this location because of the claims that the tigers lived peacefully side by side with the monks. Somehow, the temple setting made it seem more legit than some of the other obvious tourist traps that also offered tiger experiences. Not to mention, there was an army of western volunteers that greeted you upon arrival signing the praises of the temple, claiming that after weeks of volunteering they never witnessed anything unethical. They also claimed that the tourists photos were necessary for the monks to raise money so that they could afford to take care of the tigers and keep them safe from poachers. It was pretty convincing at the time.
However, in 2016 the Tiger Temple was raided by Thailand’s Department of National Parks and was shut down due to evidence of illegal animal trafficking where they confiscated 137 tigers as well as discovered 40 dead cubs, 20 more in jars of formaldehyde and dozens of items made from tiger teeth. This just proves how crucial it is to do research before partaking in any tourism activity.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any ethical alternative tiger experiences in Thailand. The chances of spotting a tiger in the wild in Indochina are extremely rare so that rules out trying to see one via safari as a viable option. My advice is to cut your loses and be proud that you’re not contributing to tiger exploitation.
If seeing a tiger is a major bucket list item, then plan an ethical trip to India in the future and visit one of their National Parks for a sustainable tiger safari.
3. Don’t contribute to the Exploitation of indigenous tribes
Over the years, hill tribe visits in Northern Thailand have increasingly grown in popularity among tourists. However, not all hill tribe tours are created equal. Unfortunately, a good majority can fall into the category of “human zoo” tourism where the locals and their traditions are taken advantage of for commercial gain and the entertainment of tourists.
One example of this are the tour groups that take guests to visit a sub group of the Karen Tribe known as Padaung or “long necks”.
While the people in the villages are ethnically Karen, nationally they are typically Burmese – refugees who don’t have full rights in Thailand such as access to education, health care or jobs. As a result, these villages turn to tourism to support themselves, often pressuring and/or forcing young girls to participate in the ancient practice of Paduang – where heavy rings are placed around their necks which pushes down their collar bone, giving the illusion of elongated necks. If the rings were to ever be taken off, the girls would have to spend the rest of their lives laying down as their neck muscles would no longer be strong enough to support their heads.
Sadly, many of the tour groups that visit this sub group of the Karen Tribe charge the guests money to see these women (who are the main touristic draw)- and these women in return see a very small percentage of the profits, if any at all.
Opt for companies that visit authentic villages (not faux villages built solely for tourists) and that employ local guides from the hill tribes and reinvest a portion of their profits back into the community. Do your due diligence and research tour companies before choosing one.
4. Don’t Contribute to Over Tourism – Be more mindful of the destinations you visit within Thailand
Over tourism is an issue occurring all over the world. With travel being more accessible to more people than ever before, certain beloved destinations are starting to feel the strain as the constant flow of tourists are taking a toll on the environment, infrastructure, and local culture.
While tourism can be great for stimulating local economies, providing jobs and providing cross-cultural exchanges – too much of a good thing is almost always a bad thing.
Over tourism is a growing issue in Thailand with the best example being Ko Phi Phi’s Maya Bay (made famous by Leonardo Dicaprio’s 2000 movie The Beach). This beach off the coast of Phuket has been indefinitely closed to allow the island to recover from environmental damage caused by constant tourist traffic such as coral reef damage and excessive garbage littering the ocean.
Opt for lesser known destinations that are more off the beaten tourist path. Plus, by veering away from the popular cities of Bangkok, Chaing Mai and Phucket you’ll get a more authentic Thailand experience.
For example, Ko Samui is a good island alternative to the crowded Phucket. This gorgeous island in the Gulf of Thailand isn’t over run by tourists (as of yet).
Another good alternative would be to visit Chaing Rai in the far north near the Golden Triangle (where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet) as opposed to the popular Change Mai. Change Rai receives a lot less tourists than Chaing Mai and offers an authentic glimpse into rural Thai life. It’s also home to the unique “White Temple” and a gorgeous Tea Plantation. However, my favorite part of my trip to Change Rai was renting a motorbike and riding through the untouched country side.
Disclaimer: To avoid other destinations developing similar issues with over tourism, we need to adopt sustainable practices from the get-go.
The best way to make sure that your presence is a positive one is to ensure that your tourism dollars are being reinvested into the local community by shopping and staying local. Stay in local accommodations rather than big chain hotels, eat at local restaurants rather than in foreign-owned ones, buy locally made products and hire local guides.
5. Don’t Contribute to a Sensationalized Narrative. Be an ethical Storyteller
Nowadays with social media being accessible at our finger tips 24/7, every traveler is a storyteller -and we should all be striving to be an ethical one.
Ethical storytelling is the way in which we tell the stories of others accurately and respectfully without exploiting them or feeding into a sensationalized stereotype.
In Thailand, where there are so many opportunities for tourists to be exploitative (whether knowingly or not) we need to be very cautious about what language we use in our social media posts whether in a red light district, visiting indigenous tribes, or interacting with animals. We need to show the locals humility and dignity without any judgements or assumptions made through our own cultural lens.