In 2007, I first travelled to Thailand. We were a small group of friends who met as exchange students in China and decided to fly to Koh Samui. I was really excited – it was my first time on a tropical beach (before that, I had only been to the Mediterranean beaches in Europe). All of us wanted to more than just tanning and relaxing in the sun we came up with a daily programme of exploring.
We took the boat to Koh Phangan – already back then, the island was famous for its “full moon parties”. During our visit, we were a bit disappointed, because we had just missed one of the parties. But the beach was beautiful and empty and we really enjoyed the quiet time. I could not imagine what it would be like when the parties are happening. The next day, we rented a car and went to see some waterfalls and also stopped by an elephant “resort”. My friend really wanted to ride an elephant, so all of us went up the hill on two elephants who had small seats strapped onto their backs. When we reached the viewpoint, the elephant reached for the tip with its trunk. We found it cute. My friends went on to a tiger resort to take pictures with baby tigers and later that evening, a guy came over to our table by the beach and guests could take a picture with an iguana.
When I think about that experience today, it makes me cringe. I feel sad and ashamed. I was very naïve, I could have sensed that an elephant who reaches for a tip after lugging up tourists is most likely being treated badly. My friend’s pictures with the tigers were the first to raise red flags – I did some research and found out that the cubs are being drugged so that tourists could pose with them. I assume it was the same with the big iguana at the restaurant. When I then searched for pictures of the elephant “resorts”, I felt even worse – the cruelty was just insane.
When I searched for pictures of in Koh Pangan, I was glad that I had not made it to the party: thousands of people dancing by the beach Koh Phangan, the pictures were just horrendous – trash everywhere, people vomiting or doing other things, no respect for the island and its people at all. In 2012, I went diving near Koh Phi Phi and I was shocked. I had thought the reason we all went there was the nature, the silence, the beautiful water. We were welcomed by party boats with techno music, people vomiting/urinating from these boats and there was trash everywhere. On another dive in 2017, I only saw the famous Maya Beach from afar, it was full of these party boats. A few months later, the Thai government decided to close the area off for some time to allow it to recover.
Since that trip to Koh Samui, I have been constantly educating myself and before any activity, I do proper research about the places and their approach to animal welfare and sustainability. Maybe it is because I got older, but going to the full moon party sounds like an absolute horror trip to me today. The problem is that little has changed since that first trip in 2007. Animal shows are still a major tourist attraction – not only in Thailand but around the world. These animals are kept in tiny cages, they are chained and often drugged and physically abused. A lot of them develop psychotic behaviour – they move back and forth, turned around themselves, shake their heads or become overly aggressive. Of course, they do – would we not react the same way? Would we keep our sanity if we were caged, trained and treated as photo-props?
When I see footage of these places, I get really angry. I see the tourists laughing, engaging with the animals and not questioning the whole thing at all. Part of me says that maybe they are as naïve as I was. But is naïveté really an excuse? I doubt it. Furthermore, anything can be found online – reviews of tourist attractions including pictures are at our fingertips. There is much more information available and there is also more awareness.
What can we do?
First of all, your money is very powerful. You can decide which organisations and tourist activities you want to support. If any attraction involves animals, google them. See what people have to say. Check video and photo footage and ask yourself – does this organization seem like a legit place? Do they treat the animals well? One good example is the Green Elephant Sanctuary in Phuket which works with elephant owners, the mahouts, and teaches them how to treat elephants. (You can read my review here.)
Coming to the parties and party boats. Well, what shall I say? I love to party too. But do we really have to get wasted at places we should appreciate for their nature and beauty? Do we have to party in a way that leaves a trail of destruction behind, just because we wanted to have “the time of our lives”? Can we not party in another place? I leave this up to you to decide.
Being able to travel and explore different places is an immense privilege. I feel that many travelers or tourists or whatever we call them are not aware about said privilege. Travel with open eyes, learn about the local culture, appreciate things and respect nature. There is so much more to travelling than a stupid selfie with a drugged animal or getting drunk on a destructive boat.
If you want to learn more about the impact of mass tourism, I watched an interesting documentary called “The Last Tourist”.
(Note: The recommendations in this article are not sponsored.)