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A Traveler’s Dilemma
April 4, 2011  |  by jess m  |  Koh Lipe, Places we love, Thailand

There is a real problem with trash here. Koh Lipe is one of the most beautiful places we have ever seen, and the contrast of tranquil aquamarine waters lapping at discarded beer cans and the occasional shard of broken glass is striking. In the main village, well out of the site of most of the tourists, the trash is centralized into heaps that are regularly set ablaze. Off a dirt path in the center of the island is an impressive dump of plastic and glass bottles. The map labels this area as a “recycling area”, but in all honesty there appears to be nothing but the massive pile of bottles there, with no system in place to accomplish the recycling.

This is not unique to Lipe. In Koh Jum trash disposal seemed to involve dragging the copious amounts of plastic water bottles from the hotel to an area of jungle, then lighting them on fire. A process we jokingly (and chokingly, through the putrid plastic fumes) referred to the “Thai Recycling Program.” And Langkawi was one of the most littered places we have ever seen.

Coming from San Francisco, a city with mandatory recycling and composting that effectively reduced our trash production to less than half of a white kitchen garbage bag a week, where we all carry stainless steel water bottles to avoid plastic, and even the take out cutlery is compostable, it’s a little hard to swallow. It’s easy to look around and turn up your nose, but the nagging fact remains. The trash is here because we are here.

Several years ago, it took six hours by longtail boat to get from the mainland to Koh Lipe. The island had one main village of Chao Ley gypsies, who make their living from the sea. If there were 1000 people on the island I’d be shocked. Then came a speedboat service that cut that time down to 90 minutes, and with it a flood of tourists and our insatiable appetite for beverages in bottles, long showers, and 24/7 electricity. In just three years, the half mile long North/South road (really a path, there are still no cars or paved roads on Lipe) went from having one restaurant on it, to having every available space developed with shops, bars, and restaurants.

When you talk to people from here, or who have been coming back to work here every high season, they aren’t sure if the change is for the good. Some of the money does go back to the people here it seems, and certainly there are jobs available on the island that weren’t here before. But much of the development is foreign owned, and many of the workers move here for the season and are not locals. Mostly people are fast to point out how beautiful it is here, and that it’s still not like Phi Phi.

Which is a good thing. Here and on the other islands, people have been holding Phi Phi up as the greatest example of tourism gone very wrong. Apparently indescribably gorgeous, it has been transformed in under ten years into a non-stop strip of parties, hotels, girlie bars, and tourists. Even after the 2004 Tsunami, which absolutely devastated Phi Phi, they chose to rebuild it in exactly the same way.

We try to travel to places that are quieter, more off the beaten path, but you can’t help but wonder how many more years it will take for Koh Lipe or for Koh Jum to turn out like Phi Phi. And it’s impossible to remove our selves from the role that that our presence plays in that change. We drink at least 4 liters of water a day, plus cokes, beers, the plastic bags that everyone wants to give us for everything we buy at the mini mart, the water we use to wash, the electricity we were so excited to find in our bungalow. The bars and restaurants we frequent all need bathrooms with plumbing (crude as it is in some places), and that sewage has to go somewhere.

How, as a local, do you turn down the massive revenue generated by creating a tourist playground? Even if the ramifications of the development outpace your infrastructure by at least 10 years?

And how as a traveler on a quest to find that next stunning place before it get’s completely “spoiled” can we decrease the impact and destruction that we bring just by showing up?

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  1. So, sad! On my last trip to Europe we were horrified by the BAGS of trash (mostly plastic) along the roads in Greece and Albania especially up in the mountains–seems to be a worldwide issue now days :-(

  2. Exactly. There is always a price for what we want. Some are willing to face the “cost” head-on, while most of us prefer to turn the other way and perhaps complain about the choices of others.

    I think head-on is better in the long run.

  3. Hi Ladies,

    Its a sad picture you paint. But it must be painted because without it we are all blind to the depth of this problem. The part that I’ve never been able to figure out, or stomach, is that so many of us seem to be blind-by-choice. Because we want the problem to be simple, assume. But it isn’t simple, and we all know it, yet we play this internal mind game to the hilt. Why? What is gained? Amen

  4. I think the change starts with you guys. Tourism probably isn’t going anywhere. But hopefully you two can bring some insight in how to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Much easier said than done; baby steps, I think. Show people how you reuse your bottles and use cloth shopping bags, if available. Good luck and thanks for sharing!

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