Sustainable Thailand

While Thailand has suffered from over-tourism in the past, a range of eco-conscious initiatives are helping to shape the country’s sustainable post-pandemic recovery, says Lauren Jarvis

It’s 10.00am and time for breakfast at Samui Elephant Sanctuary on the island of Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand. A banana truck rumbles up and unloads, while excited tourists roll up their sleeves and get to work making sticky balls of rice, banana and tamarind for the 13 elephants that call the sanctuary home. 

Filling our tote bags with pachyderm-friendly delights, we follow our guide, Win, through the gate and into the land of giants. Wise, long-lashed eyes watch, as we gently hold bananas within reach of inquisitively twirling trunks, before the day’s heat begins to rise and our ele-friends head for a cooling dip in the pool. 

Founded by Wittaya Sala-Ngam, Samui’s sanctuary opened in 2018, inspired by conservationist Lek Chailert, founder of the Save Elephant Foundation and the larger Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai. Honoured with the Best Animal Welfare award for two consecutive years from the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the non–profit organisation offers a refuge for elephants rescued from the gruelling logging industry, and from the unethical elephant camps that continue to tout rides to tourists across the country. Samui Elephant Sanctuary is a sign that tourism here is changing for the better, and a reminder of the power of travel to do good.

Thailand phuketcleanup

A greener tomorrow

For countries welcoming travellers back after the pandemic, offering a greener, more sustainable way to enjoy their destination is emerging as a key selling point. Launched this April,’s 2022 Sustainable Travel Report revealed that an astonishing 71% of UK travellers now consider sustainable travel to be important. For these conscientious travellers, Thailand is an excellent holiday choice. 

“Around 20% of Thailand’s landmass is protected within national parks, forests and wildlife sanctuaries,” says Sam Clark, Co-Founder and Director of specialist Asia tour operator, Experience Travel Group. 

“This makes it a fantastic place to visit for activities such as tracking elephants in the wild, exploring by bicycle or on foot, and there are extensive birding possibilities.”

An excellent national rail network and community projects offer travellers the chance to travel lightly and “give back”, while discovering local culture and gaining an understanding of the country and its people. 

“Thailand is an exceptional destination for community-based tourism,” explains Clark. “Village home stays are remote yet easily accessible and feel a million miles away from the tourist trail. Plus they offer interactive activities where you get a real understanding of local life. 

“The Thais’ legendary hospitality mean the stays are comfortable and guests are well looked after, and the food is often better than you’ll find in many hotels!”

What’s new?

Fully vaccinated international visitors are no longer required to undergo any tests before or on arrival in Thailand. The Thailand Pass registration scheme and mandatory US$10,000 health insurance requirement was also scrapped from July 1. Foreign nationals are only required to show proof of either a certificate of vaccination or a negative RT-PCR within 72 hours of travel. 

Tembo Beach Club & Resort opened in 2021 on Koh Samui’s Bangkok Beach. The resort supports local projects including Save Elephant Foundation, Samui Street Dogs and Sisters on Samui, which helps communities impacted by covid. 

Five-star beachfront resort in Khao Lak, The Sarojin, has invested $50,000 in a new on-site water bottling plant to reduce plastic waste. The hotel already implements initiatives to reduce energy, water consumption and waste and supports local community projects.

Multi-eco-award-winning resort The Tongsai Bay on Koh Samui sits within 28.5 acres of unspoiled jungle habitat and has introduced a new vegan menu in its Polad Beach Bistro that uses local ingredients from its organic garden, plus innovative energy and waste-saving initiatives. The family-run resort also has a non-motorised water sports policy to protect marine life, and supports local animal, community and edu-cational projects. 

Sustainable luxury resort Soneva Kiri on Koh Kood island offers 34 spacious pool villas, with 2% of the cost of a guest’s stay helping to fund the Soneva Foundation, which supports community and environmental initiatives including the Soneva Hornbill Project, which has just seen the first pair of Oriental pied hornbills reintroduced to the island.

 Akorn DMC’s new Made in Chiang Mai excursion offers guests the opportunity to explore the city’s creative community and meet local designers, village weavers and hill tribe craftspeople.

Singapore Airlines’ budget carrier Scoot now offers two direct flights a week from London-Gatwick to Bangkok, with one-way economy fares starting from £212.

Thailand railtracks

Top experiences

Stay with the hill tribes:Northern Thailand offers some of the country’s deepest cultural experiences. G Adventures has opportunities to trek off the beaten path and stay overnight in hill tribe communities. “Staying with a family while you’re travelling is one of the simplest, purest ways of getting money into people’s hands,” writes G Adventures’ Founder, Bruce Poon Tip in his book Unlearn: The Year The Earth Stood Still. “It’s also about the best way to get to know a place.” 

A five-day round-trek from Chiang Mai costs from £271ppand contributes to the non-profit Planeterra Foundation, which supports global community tourism projects.

Visit an animal sanctuary:Spread some love at the excellent Gibbon Rehabilitation Project in Phuket, Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand or Lanta Animal Welfare centre on Koh Lanta. 

“Visits to animal sanctuaries are a highlight of many Thailand holidays, but not all are what they seem. Be sure to do your research and avoid anywhere offering rides, painting and performances,” advises Justin Francis, Founder and CEO of 

holiday company, Responsible Travel.

Let the train take the strain: “Many relatively unexplored places are easily accessible on Thailand’s excellent train network”, says Clark. Riding the rails will add to your adventure rather than your carbon footprint. From Bangkok, catch the train to the Historic City of Ayutthaya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, book a cabin on the overnight sleeper train north to Chiang Mai, or take a four-hour journey south to Thailand’s Royal Beach resort, Hua Hin, and watch the stalls of the Maeklong Railway Market fold away as the train trundles through the Samut Songkram Province.

Rustle up a local feast: Thailand’s restaurants serve up some incredible authentic cuisine, but for a meal you’ll never forget join the Cooking With A Local Family half-day tour offered by Tripseed. Patan Village near Chiang Mai is home to the Yong people and guests have the chance to visit the local temple, hear about Yong culture, and learn how to cook a traditional meal, before joining a family in their home for the feast. The experience is priced from £43pp including lunch, transfers and a guide. “Remote communities have few means of income, so working with villagers to create unique experiences like this brings in vital revenue,” says Tripseed Founder, Ewan Cluckie.

Thailand chiangrai

Where to book it

A two-week adventure by private vehicle and train, combining an immersive community experience in Phayao Province with a week at luxury resort The Tongsai Bay in Koh Samui and stays at boutique properties Ariyasom Villa in Bangkok and Raya Heritage Hotel in Chiang Mai costs from £3,450pp, including international flights.

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