Andaman Discoveries Blog

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Geotourism Challenge – Thank You!

AD Supporters Turn Out in Force!

Thank you to everyone who commented on our entry in the National Geographic Geotourism Challenge. We were sincerely humbled by the overwhelming support -- over 80 comments so far, more than any other entry.

It is still possible to post online comments until finalists are selected in July 15. Once that happens, it’s up to the Changemakers Community (that’s you!) to vote and select three winners. Voting is from July 15 to August 12; and we’ll be sending out a reminder email to encourage you to vote.

The distinguished panel of judges, who will be choosing form over 500 entries, includes the VP of the National Geographic Society, a Noble laureate, the co-founder of Lonely Planet.

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Friday, May 22, 2009


Inside Ayutthaya with SpiceRoads

Experiences in Thailand
By Leslie Welshimer

Our smiling, energetic guide, Nee, was waiting for us when we got to our hotel lobby at 7:30 a.m. We were immediately whisked away from Bangkok in a comfortable van to Ayutthaya, about 60 minutes away.

Jesse and I were the only guests on a Monday tour. SpiceRoads requires a minimum of two people to operate the tour. We felt like we were receiving the kind of VIP treatment reserved for people in the categories of rich and famous.

Nee, SpiceRoads guide, describes Wat Yai Chaimongkol.

After hearing rave reviews about SpiceRoads, we knew we wanted to do a tour during Jesse’s two-week visit in Thailand. Which one to do? SpiceRoads operates tours throughout Asia, ranging from one day to multi-day adventures.

We opted for the one-day Historic Ayutthaya tour sure that Jesse, an architect, would appreciate the sight of the ancient city. The chance to see Ayutthaya Historical Park, which has been featured on the UNESCO List of World Heritage since 1991, was too good to pass up.

Ayutthaya was once Thailand's capital. The governance ended in 1767, when the city was sacked by Burmese invaders. The ruins illustrate the city's powerful history.

The first stop on the tour was Wat Yai Chaimongkol, recognized by a towering chedi. We were driven to Wat Phra Mahatat, known for the tree roots that imbed a Buddha relic.

The famous Buddha relic imbedded in tree roots at Wat Phra Mahatat.

From Wat Phra Mahatat, it was time to begin our 25-kilometer cycling distance. The start of the tour was smartly planned from Wat Phra Mahatat to avoid traffic. We cycled on peaceful, flat roads to the Old Royal Palace and Wat Chaiwattanaram.

Lunch was served at a scenic restaurant along the Chao Phraya River. After enjoying a river-side meal with our guide, Nee, we completed the remainder of the 25-kilometer distance with a leisurely ride with scenic views of rice fields. I felt like I was being given a view of the area that visitors miss when traveling by tour bus.

The ride took us to a ferry to cross the river. Ren, our driver, greeted us with fresh pineapple, watermelon and drinks.

Bang Pa-In.

Our day’s cycling concluded at the ferry, which brought us to Bang Pa-In, the impressive summer palace of the kings of Thailand. Bang Pa-In has a history that dates back to the 17th century. Today it is mostly used for state events and rarely used as a residence.

Strolling along the grounds of the summer palace provided a strong contrast from the stunning ruins seen earlier in the day. The summer palace is immaculate, with European influences throughout. The landscaping could easily be featured in a magazine for the perfectly manicured grounds.

Our guide, Nee, and driver, Ren, were exceptional. I had expected a guide to mostly just lead the way to keep us from getting lost while cycling. Nee went far beyond that.

Jesse, Leslie and Nee relax on the ferry after completing the 25-kilometer bicycle ride.

At each stop, Nee stepped out of the role of cycling guide extraordinaire into the role of Thailand history expert. It enriched our experience to have someone with us with such passion and knowledge of the places we visited. We wouldn’t have learned even one percent as much without taking the SpiceRoads tour. Nee’s love of Thailand, and her job with SpiceRoads, was contagious.

Ren also exceeded our expectations. We joked with him that he actually was holding about 10 jobs during the tour. He was friendly and charismatic, so in a way, he too was a guide and ambassador for SpiceRoads. He was ride support, following us in the van to ensure any mechanical needs were met. He was a chef and possibly a mind reader, because the moment the thought, “I want fruit and water,” passed through my mind, the van magically appeared with Ren holding a tray of fresh pineapple and ice cold water.

Ayutthaya is worth a visit on travels to Thailand. We felt like we were given a glimpse into the past and gained a deeper respect for where Thailand is today. The SpiceRoads tour allowed us to spend plenty of time at each place wandering by foot with the expertise of Nee, answering any of our questions. The tour allowed us to gain insight about the surrounding areas, pedaling on peaceful back roads of Ayutthaya.

I’ll be sure to look SpiceRoads up again on future travels in Asia.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Geotourism Challenge – One Day Left Comment

Comment Online before May 20 to spur AD to Greater Heights!

Thank you to everyone who has commented on our application for the National Geographic "Geotourism Awards.” The response has been overwhelming, and we thank you for supporting of Andaman Discoveries. If you haven’t had a chance yet, you still have one day left to comment on our entry -- the deadline is May 20.

Andaman Discoveries is one of more than 200 entries in the second annual Global Geotourism Challenge: Power of Place -- Sustaining the Future of Destinations. This is a collaborative competition sponsored by National Geographic and Ashoka’s Changemakers to identify and showcase innovators that directly or indirectly support good destination stewardship and the approach known as “geotourism.” Geotourism is tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place, including its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents. You can help Andaman Discoveries by commenting on our entry before May 20, and help innovators like Andaman Discoveries refine and improve ideas.

Entries can be openly discussed, commented on, and changed until judging begins on May 20. Comments from our friends and supporters will make a tremendous difference, as the judges take thoughts from the public into consideration. Also, entries can be listed and ranked by the number of comments received online.

So please visit to the Geotourism Challenge website and comment today! And please forward this email to a friend and help spread the word.

Thank you,
The Andaman Discoveries team

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Touched by Angels

The Return of Kelly May and Karen Spackman

Kelly May was christened “The Angel of the Andaman” in 2005 for her heroic relief work in the turbulent days following the tsunami. She joined Andaman Discoveries while the organization was still in its infancy, and led the charge in cultivating North Andaman community-based tourism from a concept into an Internationally-lauded reality. The team said a difficult farewell to their matron saint in late 2008; hungry for new challenges, Kelly then went on to manage an eco-resort in Koh Lanta for the high season, and is now focusing her long-term sights on teaching English.

In the meantime, Kelly has returned to Andaman Discoveries to facilitate several upcoming study trips and tackle some critical administrative work. “Kelly May is very special to the organization, and to have her back at this important time is like a gift,” said director Thamrong Chomphusri, who had no apparent qualms about sharing some of her responsibilities for a couple months with her former co-director. "It's great to be back. The progress that has been made during the past seven months is a testament to the hard work of staff and the villagers. A truly sustainable project shouldn't be dependent on an individual or outside assistance,” said Kelly of the organization.

We couldn’t be more grateful to Kelly for helping us out and sharing her observations. “During my time with guests in village I witnessed the progress the villagers have made. Hearing the host families welcome guests in English without any prompting and seeing all the homestay houses meeting the standard without AD having to assist is really inspiring. It might seem like little things, but it's taken four years to get here. Well done team, I've missed you!”

Karen Spackman also returned from a two-month leave in her native Scotland this month. Karen joined Andaman Discoveries as a volunteer last year, and quickly ascended to a full-time member of staff. When she’s not illuminating students from the front of a classroom, she’s responsible for volunteer coordination and community relations for Andaman Discoveries. “The Kuraburi community and the AD team made me feel at home from day one. My hope is to stay a year or more. I’d love to become fluent in the Thai language.” Karen said. We’re confident Karen will have little trouble achieving this.

Welcome home, Kelly and Karen! We’re fortunate to have you both.

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Scholarship Interviews -- Keeping Kids in School

Sponsor a Child Today

Students have a lot on their minds: mathematics, history, language, and science, to name a few. Wondering how to pay for a school uniform or transportation to school should not be among those concerns. That’s why Andaman Discoveries started a scholarship program as part of its initial tsunami relief work. “The scholarship helps me achieve my dreams,” said scholarship recipient Chanthip Sunsab of Tung Dap (pictured). Andaman Discoveries scholarships provide financial support for 129 underprivileged in the region children like Chanthip, allowing them to complete high school. The money from the scholarships helps offset expenses like school uniforms, transportation to school, extra books (Thai government supplies basic curriculum books), and extra tuition for classes like computer studies.

Because of the positive impact of this program, we hope to offer to up to ten more scholarships focused on conservation and sustainability this year. But we need your help in sponsoring more youth. “There is further need for new donors to support youth in our communities. Each year children start school with need for uniforms, transport and supplies to ensure their education is a success,” said Thamrong Chomphusri, Andaman Discoveries Director. If you’re interested in sponsoring the education of a student in the North Andaman region, please contact Andaman Discoveries to learn how you can become a donor, and read the full article for more details about scholarships and the recent round of interviews.

Students who receive scholarships come from a wide range of communities within the North Andaman region, including the twelve tsunami-affected villages Andaman Discoveries originally worked with. “The sponsorship helps me go to a further away school where the teachers have more time for the students. This helps my grades,” said Noparyj Sae-leab, a scholarship recipient.

A requirement of the scholarship program is that students must come for follow-up interviews and progress reports. Interviews are held annually with scholarship recipients to monitor their progress and discuss their goals for the upcoming year. We interviewed Each student was interviewed and asked to make a card with a message to their donor. The interviews included questions about their favorite, their goals for the next five years, and how they plan to achieve those goals.

The price of making a tremendous difference in a youth’s life is about 6,000 baht (about $170) per student for a one-year scholarship (grade K -9). A one-year scholarship for one student in grades 10-12 is 15,000 baht (about $425). Donors of scholarships receive regular updates, including grade reports and details from the interview. The scholarships support the students throughout their education.

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Photographic Memories

Italian Shutterbugs click with Andaman Discoveries

Francesco and Darinka (Italy) are self described “land gypsies” who have been traveling throughout Southeast Asia volunteering their photographic, video editing, and web development talents to worthwhile causes like the Tambun Farmstay program in Malaysia. They’d just directed and edited a short video to promote baskets made by disadvantaged women in Malaysia when they heard about the work of Andaman Discoveries from our friends at ThaiCraft. “It seems the job is tailored made for us!” said Darinka.

The couple spent a whirlwind two weeks with us in Kuraburi, two days of which they spent as voluntourists in Tung Dap village capturing riveting images of the scenery and daily life. They also traveled to Ban Talae Nok, Koh Ra Ecologe, and a nearby national park on photo tours. When their shutters fell silent they managed to edit several videos, making our video page sparkle while giving us a promotional tool in a new medium.

They alighted for northern Thailand and Laos at Songkran, and are planning a benefit walk through Italy in support of earthquake victims. We thank them for their wonderful work and great company, and look forward to the day they wander though the North Andaman region again.

AD welcomes volunteers with technical, marketing and business skills. If you have talents to share, please contact us.

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Team Andaman Gets in "Gear"

U.S. Volunteer Fixes Bicycles

There are many inspired ways to support Andaman Discoveries in addition to participating in a cultural tour, volunteering in the office, or sponsoring youth activities. Jesse Holgate of Seattle, USA, recently reminded us of this by donating his time and mechanical aptitude to fixing our fleet of bicycles!

Armed with an arsenal of tools, basic parts, and cleaning supplies, Jesse utilized his handyman skills over several days with some basic bicycle cleaning and repair. “A bicycle is one of the most efficient forms of transportation. It's good for the environment and the cyclist's health as well. I enjoy supporting groups like Andaman Discoveries that are making a difference in lives of local people,” said Tyler Welshimer of Welshimer Wheels, who kindly donated the parts.

The organization maintains seven bikes, which provide not only a convenient means of transport to and from the office and around town, but also to explore the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, bicycle service is tough to come by in these parts, and the equipment was in serious need of replacement parts, tuning up, and cleaning.

The bike repair project started with several hours scrubbing off road grit. Jesse then outfitted the bikes with kickstands, blinking rear lights, and several new sets of brakes. He also tuned all brakes and shifting, and pumped the tires to the proper air pressure. Jesse then gave a brief workshop on basic bicycle maintenance, explaining the purpose of the items he’d brought, like chain lube, chain cleaner, patch kits, wrenches, and the like. AD staff now has the tools and knowledge to keep the bikes maintained going forward.

After Jesse’s departure, four team members enjoyed a bike ride through peaceful back roads with a donated emergency kit in tow, which includes a pump, tire levers, spare tube, patch kit, multi-tool kit with a number of compact wrenches, screwdrivers that fit into a pouch. (Fortunately they didn’t need it.)

We’re all riding a little safer these days! Thank you to Jesse and Welshimer Wheels for your kind help.

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Paradise on Hold …

Surin Islands Close May 15

Undeterred by the economic downturn, guests from all around the world visited Koh Surin National Park this season. This gem of a park offers snorkeling trips with views of stunning coral reefs. Vibrant marine life joined swimmers splashing in the sea. Visitors escaped in the solitude of breathtaking nature trails. The culture of the Moken people was shared through tours to their village in the islands. Bliss was found in relaxation on the beaches with views of clear, turquoise water.

May 15 marked the end to another memorable season in the Surin Islands. Thank you to all who have made Surin a part of your travels. Andaman Discoveries will be available to help plan your Koh Surin trip next season; the park reopens in mid-November 2009.

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The Month in Pictures

Friday, May 8, 2009


Out to Sea - Turtles Clearing Hurdles

Thai New Year celebrated with turtle release event

A new year symbolically marks a fresh start, and that was the hope for some green turtle hatchlings this Songkran (the Thai New Year). Every Songkran the Mai Khao Marine Turtle Foundation sponsors a turtle release event at Mai Khao Beach on Phuket Island with sponsorship form the Marriott Phuket Resort. This year Andaman Discoveries’ team member Leslie Welshimer had the opportunity to release a baby turtle on behalf of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

At about noon on April 13, attendees gathered around a shaded pond with lively turtles. A 300 Baht donation, which will go towards protecting the turtle’s habitat, earned Leslie a red bowl containing a new friend: a lively sea turtle. “I couldn’t bring myself to place the small turtle in the water. He seemed far too sweet for the vast, wild ocean. My fiancé, Jesse stepped up to the plate, took the red bowl and gently placed our turtle on the sand. Before I could say goodbye, a wave came in and took him out to sea,” she said.

According to the Mai Khao Marine Turtle Foundation, during the breeding season from November to February, sea turtles return to the beach where they were born to lay their eggs. Their numbers have been increasingly depleted during the last 20 years. The local Mai Khao villagers dedicate efforts to protect the sea turtles. The villagers take the eggs to their hatchery where the baby turtles are protected from elements of nature and human exploitation. Local villagers also patrol the beach at night during the breeding season, to protect the turtles while nesting, and keep records of the number of eggs laid. Each year, the turtles are then released in a special ceremony during the Songkran festival (Thai New Year).

“Participating in an event to help raise awareness about the sea turtles that call Mai Khao home, was a great way to celebrate Thai New Year,” Leslie said.

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Thursday, May 7, 2009


Responsible Tourism Guide to the Mekong

Andaman Discoveries is first Thailand-based operator featured

Traveling to an unfamiliar place can be daunting, especially for people who aspire to do so ethically. Fortunately the Responsible Tourism Guide to the Mekong helps light the way for travelers visiting Southeast Asia and parts of China. The site includes details on places and activities that will bring life to ones travels while leaving the smallest possible footprint. Andaman Discoveries became their first Thailand entry this month.

One of the major challenges for a small organization like Andaman Discoveries is marketing and promotion – our budget is limited, and we are not priced to compete with mass tourism. We therefore rely heavily on a continued presence in responsible travel websites and guidebooks. This new listing helps spread the word about our tours and volunteer placements, while adding to the list of influential responsible tourism websites that already feature Andaman Discoveries, including, the world's leading travel agent for responsible holidays, as well as Wild Asia and the True Travelers Society.

The Responsible Tourism Guide to the Mekong website provides an overview about Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Guangxi and Yunnan provinces of China. In addition, the site includes details on ethical places for hungry travelers to quench their thirst and fill their bellies, unique accommodations to rest their heads and things to do to bring life to ones travels.

For example, when travelers visit two cafes in Cambodia, Café 151 in Phnom Penh and Joe-To-Go in Siem Reap, they are doing more than getting their daily caffeine fix. Profits from the cafes help raise funds for the non-profit organization, The Global Child, which builds and operates specialty schools and safe houses for gifted street children.

The Gibbon Experience, in Laos, offers travelers a chance to rest their heads in the treetops of the Bokeo Nature Reserve. Guests can sleep in tree houses by night and fly through the tree canopies on zip lines by day.

According to the website, it was “inspired by ‘The Guide to Responsible Tourism in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam’, a publication of the Mekong Tourism Development Project (MTDP). The Guide was funded by the Ministry of Tourism Cambodia, the Lao National Tourism Administration and the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism with loans from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) as part of a MTDP initiative to support sub-regional cooperation for sustainable tourism. The Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO) is charged with its distribution and promotion.”

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