Andaman Discoveries Blog

Monday, December 15, 2008


"Off the Well-Trodden Rut" – A Travel Writer’s Impressions

Andaman Discoveries was happy to host Farang Untamed Travel magazine writer Jim Algie, who spent a few days with us in Kuraburi and in Ban Talae Nok this month. Jim provided us with the following excerpt from his forthcoming article:

If I live through another 100 reincarnations I never want to visit, or write about, the big glitzy beach resorts of Thailand again, which could be almost anywhere in the Andaman or the Costa del Samui, or Bali or Hawaii: take your pick and it’s mostly the same franchised, five-star shtick. For the last few years I’ve preferred to venture down the less-traveled routes of small hamlets and bed down in home-stays. Having heard and read many recommendations about Andaman Discoveries (firstly from a colleague at Farang Untamed Travel magazine, Kelly May, the virtual shepherd for this stray wanderer) I decided that for my first eco-tourism column, “Go Green,” for 2 Magazine in Bangkok, I would try one of their itineraries, binding the story together with the fourth mourning of the tsunami and some of the life-saver projects thrown to locals to keep their heads above the rising tide of red ink as the waves receded and international aid dried up.

It was a wise move. What I’ve come to relish most about community-based tours is that they open a gateway into rarely visited parts of the country, and traditional cultures, where locals are still welcoming and touts are non-existent. Sea-straddling towns like Baan Talae Nok rarely show up on tourist maps, and the sights like jellyfish farms, mosques in houses, and goats chewing up the greenery are not often seen in mainstream guidebooks or daily newspapers.

One of the most memorable aspects of home-stays is the interactions with the locals. No longer are you simply a voyeur; you’re a direct participant. That was the case when we careened through the mangrove forest on a long-tailed boat and Captain Ibrahim handed me the pole and the throttle hooked up to a string to navigate through the canals. Later on we went fishing on the beach, spreading out a net some 10-metres wide to drag it from chest-deep water onto the beach, snaring fish as we walked. It was a bit embarrassing to be out-fished by an eight-year-old boy, but I was out of my depth and he was right in his natural element.

In this friendly, Muslim village, any visitor ends up feeling less like an intruder and more like a part of the extended family.

Thanks to all the Andaman Discoveries crew for a fantastic voyage, Mai the translator for his running commentaries, and serenading us on the nature trail hike, not to mention my main boatman Ibrahim for not letting me crash the long-tail into a mangrove tree.

Jim Algie, Bangkok


Joe Staiano – CBT Professional

Joe with some friends in Ban Talae Nok.
Can one’s arm ever tire from returning enthusiastic waves from happy children? Can one’s smile ever subside in a land where friendliness and hospitality rules? Can one’s heart ever be so touched as to see communities that suffered through the tragedy of a tsunami exhibit such a sense of hope, of joy … of living? Community-based tourism consultant Joe Staiano pondered these questions after his visits to Ban Talae Nok and Tung Nang Dam with Andaman Discoveries in early November.

Joe has spent 18 years working in sustainable tourism in 60+ countries, and is in the middle of an eight-month volunteer and sustainable tourism project that has so far included over three months in Africa (Uganda, South Africa, and Morocco) working on various community tourism and sustainable tourism initiatives. Joe learned of Andaman Discoveries through our good friends at Crooked Trails, and immediately contacted us to plan a visit. Joe had a huge impact during his brief time here, providing invaluable advice and assistance as we prepared for the World Travel Market. He shared plenty of ideas and carefully documented his thoughts on ways we can be even more effective in the future. He even rewrote our mission statement!

“What a great opportunity to visit Andaman Discoveries, experience a village homestay, see the office operations, and assist in various ways. I am humbled by the hard work and dedication of the staff. It is easy to see why you have received so many prestigious awards in last two years! Breathe deeply and never forget to pat yourselves on the back each day -- you are positively impacting all those around you. Congratulations!”


Handicrafts – Fair Trade Holidays

The Phu Phiang group pose with their hand-made orchid cages in Tung Nang Dam.
Phu Phiang fair trade tours provide their guests with a glimpse into the real Thailand through “Crafts and Culture” journeys that benefit both visitors and hosts. In November they hosted a group of eight from Thai Craft UK, and made Andaman Discoveries a stop on their Thailand tour. The group a day each in Tung Nang Dam and Ban Tale Nok. It was a refreshing break for the group, as they were visiting as many Craft shows as they could manage during their short time in Thailand. “I liked the range of activities and the ‘hands on’ nature. The whole thing was an amazing experience,” commented Phu.

The into the village visits let the group experience the activities hands on, from making their own soap and Thai dessert to constructing their own orchid cages that will eventually be planted in the forest. The group appreciated seeing the handicrafts being made from start to finish, and was impressed by the women’s commitment to the program. For more information, visit the tsunami crafts section of our website.


Family-Friendly Cultural Experiences

Brioux Jubert takes a turn driving a traditional long-tail boat.
There is no minimum age to have a transformative cultural exchange. As proof, consider the Jubert and Mills families, both of whom came independently to Andaman Discoveries in November with young ones ranging in age from three years to 20-months old. The Jubert family spent seven days in Ban Talae Nok and in the end said “it has been a great experience with the family and all the children in the village. Both children of the family we stayed with have been older brother and sister for my children, it was fantastic!”

Lauren Mills strolls hand-in-hand with Assari.
Although understandably apprehensive about how such an experience might impact a young child, the Mills family also had a positive experience during their two days in village, and was pleasantly surprised at how well their daughter enjoyed the homestay. “It would have been ideal if we could have stayed an extra day to appreciate the whole range of activities and had more interaction with the local kids.” They especially appreciated their translator, who not only helped them connect with their host family, but also with members of the village during a discussion about the political situation in Thailand.


Community Investment – A Guest Donates Pink’s Salary

Pink, far right, with member of the Ban Talae nok youth group.
Julia felt a genuine connection with Ban Talae Nok during her September visit, in particular community centre manager and youth group co-coordinator “Pink.” Julia felt compelled to help, so she took the extraordinary step of funding Pink’s salary for the next year. Pink was positively overwhelmed. “Thank you Julia and Andaman Discoveries for helping me come to this point today. The youth group and I promise to work hard for the things we feel will benefit the community most. Although some might not yet see the benefit of the youth group, at least Julia has given us the strength to keep working.”

After the Tsunami of 2004, Pink had to abandon her education to find employment to support her family. When Andaman Discoveries started a community center in the village, Pink enthusiastically joined various projects and demonstrated strong leadership qualities. “Pink is a standout superstar,” commented tourism professional Joe Staiano. Wild Asia took note of Pink, too: “You have a phenomenal leader in Pink. Her work with the youth group is awesome. I’m sure with her as a role model, the [youth group members] will be become effective community leaders.” Pink is the force behind the Bamboo Savings Project and the recycling- and mangrove conservation programs.

Julia’s donation will pay Pink’s wages, enabling her to return to school and complete her education. It is a wonderful gift – not only does it provide Pink with a stable income, but also promises future opportunities. Both Pink and Andaman Discoveries are deeply touched by Julia’s wonderful gift.


Rough Guide Visit

Gail and Jeremy (center) get their hands dirty planting mangroves.
Jeremy Smith, author and editor of the widely-read environmental magazine Ecologist, is compiling a guide book of the top 300 eco-tourist destinations for the Rough Guide. He was nearing the end of his year-long multi-continent adventure in October when he and his partner Gail joined us for a three-night homestay in Ban Talae Nok. With his extensive knowledge in the areas of eco-tourism, self sustainability, and ethical consumerism, it was a great opportunity for Andaman Discoveries to gain new insights.

Jeremy and Gail had barely settled into their homestay before “Boy,” the family’s bright and adorable four year old child, started running rings around everyone! “We were made to feel like members of the community; everywhere we went we were greeted with smiles and waves. It’s impossible to go more than a few feet without someone inviting you to come and see what’s going on in their house that day. It’s brilliant!” commented Gail. The couple enjoyed the variety of activities, especially planting mangroves and the stunning sea views following a relaxing jungle hike. Batik making was another highlight, where laughter infused the hot wax drawing. Jeremy consulted on some possible new offerings for the soap cooperative, including using the wild mint found around the village. Jeremy commented that Ban Talae Nok was amongst the most beautiful places he’d ever been, home to some of the most open people he’d ever met. “It’s worth it for visitors to learn about the lifestyle, and to experience their friendship,” he said.

Unlike the hallmark short synopsis guidebooks for which Rough Guide is known, this will be full-length volume designed to give real insight in to some of the best places around the world where people can visit and make a difference to the local community, both ethically and environmentally. We look forward to the final publication.


New Destination - Koh Ra Ecolodge

The new Koh Ra Ecolodge looks over a pristine beach.
Our visitors can now mix some “sand and sea” into their village stay while still respecting the ethos of sustainable tourism. The new Koh Rah Ecolodge is a short boat ride away from Kuraburi, and was a huge success from the moment it opened its doors on Halloween night! Started by a locally-based NGO that has worked in marine conservation in the area for several years, their mission is to offer a sustainable alternative to Thailand's mass-tourism beach resorts. Koh Rah Ecolodge provides a venue for sustainability and conservation projects and workshops, and works to benefit the local environment and communities in the area.

Visitors and guests can enjoy walks and hikes through many varied habitats including pristine jungle, dry savannah forest, traditional mixed-agriculture gardens, mangroves, and beaches with rocky headlands. “We appreciated the soft beach, lush forest, delicious food, great company, and the opportunity for more genuine cultural interaction and learning,” commented Maren and Brian, who also spent two days with Andaman Discoveries in Tung Nang Dam. The Ecolodge is currently working to develop a "lifestyle tour" with a Thai-Moken village a short walk away that would include guided botanical walks to learn about the tradition plant uses of the Sea Gypsies. Other activities include sea kayaking, snorkeling, diving, and yoga. Guests may volunteer in the organic garden or help out with various sustainable-living projects such as solar-shower or created wetlands construction. Brian and Maren added “staying here for a few days gave us a sense of fulfillment -- environmental stewardship and conservation, cultural preservation, and natural beauty are rarely found in a place so welcoming to visitors.”


Phuket Special School – Spreading Compassion

Sally poses with some new friends at the Phuket Special School.
Since 1993, the Phuket Special School has provided a safe and educational haven for disabled, autistic, and deaf children from the ages of six to 21. The school aims to provide the children with a caring and stimulating environment to help them reach their potential, with the ultimate goal of helping them integrate back into society. Earlier this year Andaman Discoveries partnered with the school and in November we welcomed our first two volunteers from our partner TWIN UK.

Heather and Sally, both from the United Kingdom, met at the school for two weeks of volunteering. Despite the obvious challenges in communication, they were immediately impressed with how friendly and welcoming the students were. “I am really enjoying working at the school, everyone is so friendly and kids are lovely!” Heather reported during her first week. The pair spent their days teaching various classes oriented towards life-skills and vocational training using games and singing, and communicating with the children through sign-language and role playing. The volunteers were also treated to an afternoon of batik making with the children.

Wirach Klaharn, the director of the school, welcomed the volunteers eagerly. “Andaman Discoveries has a very good reputation, and recruits the right type of volunteers,” he said. Heather and Sally lived up to his expectations. “They were very interactive, and the children were very happy. The children miss them, and hope they can come back soon,” Khun Klaharn continued. We at Andaman Discoveries hope the same, and look forward to sending more dedicated people to this very worthy cause.

For more information about the program or to volunteer, please visit the Phuket Special School page on our website.


Wild Asia and Responsible Travel - More Honors!

Andaman Discoveries was highly commended twice in November by the awards committees of two of the world’s most prestigious responsible travel organizations: Virgin Holidays and Wild Asia. The judges for Virgin Holidays Responsible Travel observed that “this award recognizes how Andaman Discoveries is using tourism to benefit and empower the community – providing education, training, and economic opportunities – and helping it to share its culture through workshops for tourists to learn how to make handicrafts, cook and harvest cashews and rubber.” Equally impressed were the judges from Wild Asia, who gave Andaman Discoveries top marks in the areas of economic-, social-, and environmental principles, as well as for formal commitment to responsible travel. One of the judges said “the village economy is very much on a subsistence level, and yet the experience was rich in terms of people, environmental connections, and human stories. The experience taught me how people come together after life changing events.”

Virgin Holidays commended Andaman Discoveries in the category of Conservation of Cultural Heritage. The full articles appears in r:travel magazine, or can be found on the Press page of our website. Wild Asia recognized Andaman Discoveries for its overall commitment to responsible travel. For more information about their award, please visit their website.


Winner: Travel and Leisure Global Vision Award 2008

Andaman Discoveries won the 2008 Travel + Leisure Global Vision Award for Community Outreach. The award confers global recognition to organizations within the tourism industry who are dedicated to breaking molds and pushing boundaries while working with the environment around them. “Recipients of this award are considered to be the most progressive, forward- thinking visionaries who are setting new travel and tourism standards in areas such as cultural preservation and ecological conservation,” according to the judges.


SEED Launch – DEFRA Meeting in London

Sir Hilary Benn (left) presents Andaman Discoveries director Tui Chomphusri with the SEED award.
Demonstrating that our message of sustainable development is resonating up to the highest levels, the Andaman Discoveries team enjoyed a private meeting with The Right Honorable Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). The forum at Westminster allowed us to briefly describe our success at creating an effective model of ground-level change.

Sir Benn was very interested in learning about our work, and was particularly keen to hear from our Thai director about her experiences with Andaman Discoveries, showing that his interest really does lie with Thai people. The event also served to officially commence our partnership with the SEED Initiative. At the end of our meeting, Sir Benn presented us with the SEED award, which now proudly adorns the display area of our office in Kuraburi.


World Travel Market – Networking for Success

Tui and Mimi get ready to network at the World Travel Market.
Four members of the Andaman Discoveries team traveled to London in November to attend this year’s World Travel Market. The WTM is a four-day travel industry event that provides a unique opportunity for the whole global travel industry to meet, network, and discuss developments in the travel industry. Additionally, the event allowed us to honor our longstanding ties to UK. "Many of our visitors are British, so I feel honored to be in London," said Andaman Discoveries Director Tui Chomphusri, "and I hope that the travel industry can learn from our example – that responsible tourism should make a real difference in people's lives.”

L-R: Erik, Mimi, Senior Tourism consultant Nicole Häusler, Tui, and Bodhi at the Excel Centre in London.
The team enjoyed a productive week that included scores of meetings, commendation from the Virgin Holidays Responsible Travel Awards, a gala dinner hosted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (attended by HRH Princess Ubol Ratana), and an exclusive meeting with the UK Minister of the environment (see below). The team received valuable input from numerous travel agents and responsible tourism experts, including Xavier Font of Leeds Metropolitan University and Nicole Häusler (pictured) from the International Centre for Responsible Tourism in Germany.

This was the first time in London for most member of the team, and we allocated some time to explore the famous city and have fun! We watched fireworks over the River Thames in honor of Remembrance Day, took in a symphony, and marveled at the imposing Gothic façade of the Parliament building. We were also fortunate enough to meet up with some former volunteers, including Charlotte Johnson, whose early efforts were critical in pioneering Andaman Discoveries, and Ben Dwyer, to whom the handicraft program owes much of its current success. We also reconnected with several volunteers from the 2007 University of Birmingham study group.

That’s all well and good, but the highlight of the trip for Tui? Getting her first glimpse of snow!

We’d like to thank everyone who took the time to meet with us in London, the SEED Initiative for helping finance the trip, and Alex from POD for the use of his SIM card. Most of all we’d like to acknowledge the first-class hospitality of Tim and Sarah Daniel, parents of volunteer extraordinaire Olivia Daniel, who hosted us for a week at their beautiful home in Putney. Over the years Andaman Discoveries has been privileged to have such kind and caring people in our corner. Thank you – we couldn’t exist without you.

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