Ecotourism on the Mainland and Islands of a Southern Province of Thailand
In Ko Libong I saw more crabs in one morning than I had seen in the previous thirty years. The crabs were like an infestation, emerging from the dark and dense mangrove forest we could see to our landward. And on the mudflats of Ko Look Mai, where we were traipse, the crabs merged into waves—in their flight, as we approached, they looked like the ripple of the breeze on the surface of the sea. The seashells were also out in force, and they covered the muddy ground, exposed in low tide, so thickly that it was impossible to avoid stepping on them. What a feast for the birds: the high-pitched trills of hundreds of plovers filled the crisp sunny morning.
Elsewhere, too, I reveled in the natural bounty of Ko Libong, the largest is southern Thailand’s Trang province. The coast and islands of sparsely-inhabited Trang, much of it ensconced in the Chao Mai National Park, is a habitat of shorelines and river deltas embroidered with mangroves, empty golden beaches fringed with casuarinas, sparse habitations and developments, and only a straggle of tourists. Now there is a plan to keep that way; the governor has stated that Trang doesn’t want mass tourism, only nature tourists.
“Trang is very natural, and it has few resorts, so the idea is that it’s not too late to develop green tourism,” told me Anita Sriprasidh-siaw, co-coordinator of the project for sustainable tourism and co-owner of the Libong Nature Beach Resort.
A Master Plan for Sustainable Tourism in Trang has been drawn up by Swedish consultants under a project mostly funded by the Swedish government. It’s a plan that sets out the steps to be taken on the road to eco-tourism. It envisages measures such as setting limits for the number of bungalows on each island and the mainland beaches, developing trekking and biking trails, drawing up a detailed land-use plan, dealing with waste in an eco-friendly manner, introducing green technology such as solar energy in islands, gradually upgrading the bungalows to eco-cocoons (local building materials, water-saving provisions, and so on), introducing home-stays with local fishermen, and many other ideas. The general concept is to attract quality high-spending tourists and ensure that the local people benefit directly from tourist money.
To kickstart the process some pilot sites have been selected where practical eco-tourism principles are implemented. The pilot sites are four resorts, two tour operators, and two geographical areas, including Ko Libong. “We encourage the pilots to take concrete actions for environmental protection, promotion of the local culture, support of the local economy, and to place value on visitor satisfaction,” said Tomas Gustaffson, the Swedish project leader. “The pilots have now started to be models for others by their actions and achievements.”
Ko Libong is the obvious choice for the pilot trail as it’s the province’s least-visited island and has the most bountiful nature to preserve. Most of its beaches are small, and the seabed is either rocky or muddy, and the island only has one classical beach, called Had Tung Ya, a kilometer of golden sand backed by mountains and fronted by an open sweep of azure water; it was completely deserted when we visited, a world of untouched beauty and deep colours. Yet Libong is more than a beach: its hilly interior is resplendent with forest and rubber tree plantations, and a third of the island is taken over by impenetrable mangrove swamp. Every afternoon, in the last light, my favorite past-time was to sit on the sand outside my bungalow watching the seashells heaving up the beach for the night, and large crabs digging their abodes in the sand near my feet.
The island is also home to about 3,000 inhabitants, rubber farmers and fishermen, the latter specializing in the trapping of black crabs and deep-sea blue crabs that breed profusely in the mangroves. The inhabitants themselves are a quaint lot who greeted us jovially during our wanderings on a rented moped; their rustic houses are fringed with flowering plants in coconut husks, and pet birds—mynas and other birds—singing inside cages hung on houses’ porches. The islanders’ modest outlook is enshrined in a legend that involves the fall of a vain son. In the parable a bright young man was financially supported by the community to go study in Bangkok, where he married a wealthy girl. He revisited his village after many years and, repulsed by the backwardness and squalor, hastily departed. But he did not go far before his boat sank, its contents washing up on the islands that are now named after the detritus of the broken ship—Mook for pearls, Kradan for the wood of a boat, Chuak for the rope.
“Aside from involving the local community, we have also implemented simple ecological practices,” explained Anita Sriprasidh-siaw, co-owner of the Libong Nature Beach Resort, one of the pilot accommodation sites at Ko Libong. “For example, we only use glass water bottles, we use wash-water for plants, and we recycle all waste.”
More ambitious plans are in the offing: the installation of solar cells and water-saving taps, and the establishment of a garden for organic vegetables and herbs, especially lemongrass, which repels mosquitoes and pests and hence limits the use of chemicals. Rubbish at the island is also being tackled; at present there is still no provision for the disposal of rubbish, and two initiatives are being implemented: reduction of rubbish at source, and dealing with the rest by building a community recycling centre.
Yet the stars of Libong are the dugongs, which live in the narrow channel of water that divides the mainland coast and Libong. Docile and gigantic, growing to a weight of about 300kgs (660lbs), dugongs spend much of their lives devouring 20-plus-kilograms of grass daily in shallow waters. Now they are endangered; their numbers in Southeast Asia have plunged by ninety percent since the 1970s, mostly due to habitat destruction—the degradation of seagrass meadows by erosion and pollution caused by development or deforestation—and also due to hunting (their meat tastes like pork). But the story is different in Libong: the herd of 150 is among the largest in the region.
“Trang’s dugongs are very productive,” told me Kanjana Adulyanukosol, head of the government’s Marine Endangered Species Unit who has been monitoring dugongs for many years. “We see a high percentage of calves every year, so the population in Trang is maintaining itself.”
There are even some indications that the dugongs might have increased in recent years. That’s a rare success story, and as tourism in the province steadily increases, the potential disturbance wrought on the dugongs is a prime consideration in a carrying-capacity assessment recently concluded for Ko Libong. The idea is that the number of tourists is set at the point where the burden of tourism on nature and culture is not destructive. For Ko Libong the limit has been set at a maximum of 250 visitors daily—comprised of 200 people who stay on Libong itself, and another 50 day-trippers. The figure for resident guests represents a growth of 25 percent on current levels (at present Libong has 67 bungalows and some home-stays that add up to 150 beds, hence bungalows that amount to another 50 beds would be allowed to be built).
Elsewhere in the province the character of the landscape is different. The mainland coast is skirted by glorious and empty sandy beaches, their shores littered with seashells. There are two outstanding caves: Chao Mai, a cave full of stalactites and stalagmites, and Tham Morokot, a spectacular sinkhole accessed through a cave from the sea. Pristine beaches with lucid azure seas are found at Ko Kradan and Ko Mook, the two islands that have the densest bungalow outfits, and both islands also have some excellent patches of coral reefs.
Most accommodations are in the budget category, and under the master plan these will be gradually upgraded, together with the service, so that the province can rake in more money without opening itself up to the mass market as Phuket and Krabi up the coast. The Master Plan in fact envisages that carrying-capacity assessments would be carried out for all islands and the mainland coast, and then limits on number of beds placed accordingly.
The province’s single 5-star hotel, the Amari Trang Beach Resort, may be a taste of things to come. It is in the heart of Trang’s mainland coast, and the rooms have spectacular vistas of the wide bay which has tongues of sandbanks in low-tide and a scattering of offshore karst isles set on the horizon. A long beach stretches out from one side of the hotel, and the rooms, like the view, are a study in openness and brightness—spacious rooms with pastel-colored fixtures and large beds, glass doors opening onto wide balconies, bathrooms divided from bedrooms with glass partitions that can be slid open, and large trim open grounds—a hotel where the interior seems part of the larger landscape. “Trang is still rather undiscovered territory,” told me Phillipp Reutener, the manager. “And we felt that there is a market for this kind of exclusive resort in such an untouched location.”
Never mind comforts; I preferred to put up with erratic electricity—the electric generator in Libong is switched off three hours in the afternoon and five hours at night—and stay in Libong, where nature is endlessly stimulating. And all I had to do is sit on a log on the beach outside my bungalow and watch the drama every afternoon. There were the villagers foraging for dinner—for sea cucumbers, urchins, and seashells—in the muddy rocky puddles exposed at low-tide, their movements graceful and alert, like egrets stalking for prey. There were seashells heaving up Langkhao Beach for the night, kingfishers swooping down from trees to catch crabs, plovers whistling intensely at the shoreline, and brahminy kites gliding above the treetops. And there was the large cynical crab digging its hole near me and engaging me in a tango of deception—throwing the sand excavated from the hole a little way off, then scurrying around in belated randomness to create misleading tracks of footprints—a ruse designed to confuse us about where exactly its abode lay.
“Libong is not just another paradise island,” told me Amy Spasso, a visiting American artist. “It has a soul, it has life, and there’s so much to see and learn.”
For More Information
How to Get There: Nok Air (www.nokair.com) operates daily flights between Bangkok and Trang town. From Trang town the hotel of your choice can arrange transfers.
Where to Stay:
The Amari Trang Beach Resort (075-205888; www.amari.com; doubles from USD198 including breakfast in high season) is the only upscale resort in Trang.
The Libong Nature Beach Resort (Tel: 0818946936 or 075-207934; www.trangsea.com; email@example.com; doubles 1,300 baht in high season) is Libong’s best bungalow outfit. Its twelve basic bungalows have attached bathroom and fan, and common facilities include a restaurant and internet connection.
Dugong Watching: Despite claims by some resorts that you have a fifty percent chance of seeing dugongs during dugong-watching tours, the actual chance of seeing a dugong from a boat is very small. There is one feeding ground where sightings of dugongs are guaranteed, but scientists are keeping it a secret as they are worried that tourists visiting the area would disturb the community of dugongs.