How to travel sustainably in Phuket

It’s no secret that Phuket is no longer the unspoiled tropical paradise that first started luring international travellers to its shores in the 1970s. Yet thanks to its still-beautiful beaches, choice of good value hotels, excellent food and convenient air links, Thailand’s favourite holiday isle still manages to attract almost six million visitors every year.

I’ve visited Phuket a handful of times over the last 15 years, and I admit it’s not the easiest place to minimise your travel footprint. But while easy access to unsustainable holiday pleasures – from purchasing designer fashion fakes to riding elephants – can make it difficult to avoid contributing to the problems that plague Phuket, it’s more than possible with a little preparation. I was recently honoured to be invited back to Phuket on a trip with the tourism board to discover a few new ways to have a blast in Phuket, and depart with a clear conscience to boot. Read on for my lowdown.

It's not hard to see why travellers come to Kata Beach, Phuket. Image by Jeff Gunn / flickr
It’s not hard to see why travellers come to Phuket. Image by Jeff Gunn / flickr

Take a cooking class

Learning a traditional skill on holiday not only offers an insight into local culture, but also helps to preserve that culture by employing locals in the practice and development of it. As a country famed for its delicious food, Thailand is as an awesome place to learn the art of Thai cooking.

There are several reputable cooking courses offered in the Phuket area, and some top hotels (such as the luxurious Iniala Beach House) have their own in-house school for guests. On my latest trip, I spent the better part of a day learning how to cook three typical Thai dishes at the Phuket Thai Cookery School. Following a tour of Phuket Town’s colourful Talad Kaset wet market to learn more about the ingredients we’d be using, our group decamped to the cooking school headquarters in a stunning location right on the water at Siray Beach. Here, we learned how to cook key Thai crowd-pleasers including Tom yum goong, pad Thai and mango sticky rice, with one of several very enthusiastic chefs demonstrating each dish in the classroom before we moved in to the breezy (covered) outdoor kitchen to whip up each dish at our own workstation, then promptly wolf ’em down. I was pretty proud of my efforts, but with the ingredients for each dish all measured out for us, and assistant chefs on-hand to assist our cooking, I admit it would have been pretty difficult to stuff them up.

At 2,900B for the full day course (8am-3pm), which typically involves cooking five dishes, it’s great value, and a really fun day out. The menus change daily, so check the cooking school website to ensure you can cook your fave dishes on the day you’re keen to come.

I make a mean pad Thai. Just ask me © Sarah Reid
I make a mean pad Thai. Just ask me © Sarah Reid

Get a massage

Thai massage is an ancient traditional healing practice combining acupressure, Chinese and Indian healing arts, and assisted yoga postures. And if you’ve been lucky enough to receive a good one, you’ll probably still be fantasising about it. Now while I won’t deny I’m partial to a cheap massage, it’s worth keeping in mind that the cheapest parlours on the block typically undercut spas that invest in training their staff in this complex traditional technique (the better joints are also more likely pay staff fairly for their skills). Sometimes you get lucky, but cheap masseuses don’t tend to be highly skilled – it’s a disappointing waste of money when you realise your masseuse has no idea what they’re doing.

If you’re willing to pay a little more for expert service, try award-winning Thai franchise Let’s Relax – it has two branches in Patong. I was lucky to test-drive the Thai massage with herbal compress (1,100B), which equated to two hours of pure bliss. At the higher end, most of Phuket’s top hotels have excellent spas with highly-trained masseuses. Opt for one that hires/trains local therapists.

Cute baby gibbons belong with their mothers. In the wild. Image by Bernard Dupont / flickr
Cute baby gibbons like this fella belong with their mothers. In the wild. Image by Bernard Dupont / flickr

Support sustainable animal encounters

You can’t swing a fake Chanel handbag in Phuket without hitting an advertisement for Fantasea, a Las Vegas-style amusement park that uses wild animals for the purpose of human entertainment, but it’s just one of many wildlife experiences in Phuket that comes at great risk to the welfare of the animals involved. Fantasea, for example, forces animals to perform unnatural routines in costumes, which animal welfare experts claim is harmful for them. And while Kanchanaburi’s notorious Tiger Temple has now been shut down, Phuket’s Tiger Kingdom – also accused of various animal abuses – is still very much open. Phuket’s Nemo/Dolphin Bay dolphinarium, on the other hand, was found by conservation group Sea Shepherd to have direct links to the infamous killing ‘Cove’ in Taiji, Japan. The Academy Award-nominated documentary about what happens to dolphins at Taiji is pretty sobering viewing.

Another common sight on Phuket’s beaches is ‘pet’ gibbons. Poached from Thailand’s jungles or illegally bred in captivity, these achingly cute primates are typically paraded around Thai beaches by shady entrepreneurs for happy snaps, which is extremely distressing for the gibbons. Many of these ‘pets’ end up at the wonderful Gibbon Rehabilitation Project. Located near Bang Pae Waterfall in the Khao Pra Thaew Wildlife and Forest Reserve, about 20kms southeast of Phuket’s airport, this charity houses, rehabilitates, and rereleases gibbons rescued from Thailand’s illegal wildlife trade. Visitors to the centre (open 9am-4.30pm daily; until 3pm Thursday) can observe some of the gibbons from a viewing area, and learn more about their plight from volunteer staff. It’s free to visit, but you’ll have to pay a nominal fee to enter the park, and donations to the centre are encouraged.

Then there are elephant rides. I often hear travellers ask: what’s the most ethical elephant camp in Phuket? Well, as the most ethical facilities are legitimate sanctuaries that don’t offer rides, and there are dedicated sanctuaries in Phuket, the easy answer is none. There are a few newer places in the Phuket and Phang-Nga area that offer elephant bathing, which is generally a lot more fun for both parties, but most of these places offer rides too, so I can’t recommend them. One that doesn’t, is Elephant Hills, a luxury tented camp in Khao Sok National Park, north of Phuket, which has an excellent reputation. You can read a bit more about the issues associated with elephant rides here.

As for other wild animals, the most exotic-ish wild animal you’re particularly likely to encounter in Phuket these days is a macaque monkey or five (resist the urge to feed them, which can make them dependent and aggressive). If you’re a diver, consider signing up for a liveaboard trip out to the Similan Islands north of Phuket, which have some fine coral reefs that teem with all manner of aquatic life. And if you love turtles, scroll down to find out more about the The Aleenta Phuket’s turtle release program.

Shop wisely

Imitation RayBans and Luis Vuitton handbags are easily found on the streets of Phuket, but supporting the illegal production and distribution of these products not only undermines the intellectual property laws that protect the designers’ creativity, but also Thai culture. For why would a local artisan labour over a traditional weaving when they can make twice as much money flogging a fake Rolex or two? Support Thai artisans by seeking out classic Thai-made products such as hand-painted ceramics, Thai silk, hand-woven textiles and silverwear. The best local shopping is to be had in Phuket Town; try Ranida (119 Th Thalang) for organic textiles and sculpture, and Drawing Room (56 Th Phang-Nga) for abstract canvases.

Chinpracha House is one of Phuket Town's top colonial relics © Sarah Reid
Chinpracha House is one of Phuket Town’s most beautiful colonial relics © Sarah Reid

Soak up Phuket Town’s cultural heritage

Many visitors to Phuket spend their entire holiday at a beach resort without so much as a fleeting thought to visit the island’s Old Town. And it’s understandable – when annual leave balances are ticking, it’s fair that some people just want to relax. But if you’ve got a morning or afternoon to spare, Phuket Town offers a wonderful diversion from the beach, and a fascinating window into local history.

Once a prosperous tin mining hub, Phuket Town is dotted with stately mansions and brightly-coloured shophouses built in the Sino-Portuguese style around the turn of the 20th century. Some of these houses are now museums, while others have been morphed into boutique hotels, restaurants, galleries and cafes. After visiting Phuket Town several times without making it to Chinpracha House – one of Phuket Town’s most famous heritage homes – it was great to stop by on my latest visit. Built in 1903, the ground floor of this stunning Peranakan mansion (98 Krabi Road; open from 9am-4.30pm Mon-Sat; entry 200B) has been beautifully preserved for visitors (those floor tiles! The sepia family photos!). You can’t go upstairs, because the sixth generation owner still lives there.

Volunteer responsibly

It’s fantastic that so many travellers these days choose to commit a portion of their holiday to giving back to the communities they visit. There are myriad volunteer organisations in Phuket that address both the needs of the locals’ and visitors’ desires to help, be aware that not every organisation fulfils its promise of meaningful (not to mention safe and sustainable) experiences. A good resource to check out is Volunteer Work Thailand (volunteer-workthailand.org), though it’s important to do your own research before signing up to any project, and be sure to visit thinkchildsafe.org before opting in for any kind of work involving children.

The Aleenta Phuket runs a turtle release program. Fun! © Sarah Reid
The Aleenta Phuket runs a turtle release program. Fun! © Sarah Reid

Sleep green

Phuket hoteliers are finally waking up to the fact that the region’s long-term commercial viability rests largely on preserving the region’s natural good looks. As a result, there are a growing number of hotels committed to reducing their footprint on this fragile ecosystem. One of them is The Aleenta Phuket, at which I recently had the pleasure of staying. The Aleenta is technically in Phang-Nga, about 20 minutes north of Phuket Airport. It’s a lot quieter up here than Phuket’s southern beaches, but that’s part of the appeal.

The Aleenta’s enviro-initiatives range from an extensive water recycling program and key-activated energy saving systems to the very drinkable fairtrade, Thai-grown coffee and delicious locally-sourced produce served at the breakfast table. I was pleased to see in-room amenities provided in reusable pump-action dispensers – it baffles me why I only tend to see these in higher-end hotels. Surely it’s cheaper to switch to this system than have to replace those little plastic bottles of shampoo that guests invariably swipe, just because they can?

The Aleenta also recruits most of its staff from the local community, and runs the Pure Blue Foundation, a turtle release program with the Thai Muang Turtle Sanctuary, a short drive north from the hotel. Guests can adopt a turtle and release a hatchling into the wild.

If you’re after a cheaper, more immersive experience that puts control over tourism (not to mention your Baht) straight into the hands of locals, consider a homestay on Ko Ya Noi, an island in Ao Phang-Nga (Phang-Nga Bay) easily accessed from Phuket. Nestled amongst the exquisite karst pinnacles and caves that have made Ao Phang-Nga (Phang-Nga Bay) famous, Ko Ya Noi operates an award-winning Homestay Club that places visitors with one of 20-odd families (on a strict rotation policy, so you can’t choose) for overnight stays that include basic lodging, taking meals (such as freshly-caught crab) with your host family, exploring the lush, sleepy island and taking excursions to popular nearby islands with better beaches. Some travellers opt to combine a night or two at a homestay with a few nights at one of the island’s more upscale hotels such as the Six Senses Yao Noi, which has a comprehensive environmental and social sustainability policy.

Resist hiring a jet ski

Phuket authorities have recently cracked down on unscrupulous local jet ski operators, who are well known for scamming tourists out of hundreds of thousands of Baht for bogus damage claims. But think twice before you hire one. Not only do jet skis have an enormous environmental impact – from the millions of litres of unburned fuel they leak into oceans and lakes each year, to the noise pollution they create that disrupts the natural behaviours of marine life – but they’re also really dangerous (to humans and marine life such as turtles and dolphins), and annoy the crap out of everyone else trying to relax on the beach. Beaches which, if travellers do their bit, will stay beautiful for years to come.

Thanks to Amazing Thailand for making my latest trip to Phuket possible.