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5 Ways to Travel Sustainably in South East Asia


This last year we decided to explore South-East Asia, and more than ever before, we seriously fell in love with this part of the world. Through our travels in several South East Asian countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia we marvelled at outstanding natural beauty, met the kindest people and stuffed our bellies with delicious food. Unfortunately though, we also witnessed the devastating effects of pollution, over tourism and unethical practices which made us truly reflect on the importance of sustainable travel and how we all have a responsibility to travel more consciously.

The travel industry is unfortunately and undoubtedly one of the industries that has the biggest impact on the planet. Over tourism, carbon-dioxide emissions, exploitation, pollution, just to name a few, are all a result of more people having the means to travel and being more interested in discovering new parts of the world. More people travelling means more people taking flights, more pollution in the air and more garbage being produced and being dealt with even in communities that don’t have the infrastructure to deal with it once the tourists have left. It also means more plastic ending up in the oceans and seeing once untouched locations being swarmed by visitors, threatening fragile ecosystems.

What is sustainable travel, anyway? First and foremost it simply means to understand that your actions have consequences on the planet, local communities and the local ecosystem. We need to all start asking ourselves questions, such as: if I buy this plastic bottle, where will it end up? Can it be recycled? If I choose to travel on this airline, what is my impact in terms of pollution and emissions? How are the animals treated in this location I want to visit? Is it really ethical or are they only used for entertainment? The more questions we ask ourselves the more we will be compelled to search for answers and discover realities which we might not have imagined. We will also realise that we, as single individuals, have the power to reduce our own negative impact by choosing solutions which are more sustainable and eco-friendly. Every little thing counts, even the smallest action.

There are so many ways to be a more responsible traveller. Keep on reading to learn more about our favourite five ways to travel sustainably especially in South East Asia.

1. Say no to plastic bottles

Each year, an estimated 18 billion pounds of plastic waste enters the world's ocean from coastal regions. This number is so astonishing that we truly struggle to even grasp it. A great percentage of this waste is plastic bottles. Think of all the water bottles you buy during your holiday in a tropical country and try to picture where all these bottles end up. Most countries in South-East Asia lack the infrastructure to manage garbage, let alone recycling plants. In Bali, for example, garbage gets collected and stored in massive landfills in the northern region of the island. When the rainy season comes, a good portion of this garbage travels back to the beaches and the ocean through rivers. We have a real moral responsibility as visitors to these types of places to minimise our consumption of plastic in order to reduce the burden on the local community and the strain on the ecosystem.

Plastic bottles can easily be avoided, much more easily than you might think. In most South-East Asian countries water is accessed through big gallons (as tap water is not safe to drink). This means that if you carry a refillable water bottle you will be able to refill it in your hotel, in cafes and restaurants. We personally use a portable water purifier called The Grayl. The Grayl looks like a refillable water bottle but holds a powerful filter which purifies any type of water (beside saline (salt) water). You just fill the bottle with tap water, river water, dodgy well water (we actually did that, it was brown, the Grayl took care of us!), push the One PressTM down and the water gets filtered right there in a couple of seconds. We used the Grayl for the past year and our travels across the world and did not have to buy water bottles, ever.

2. Choose budget airlines

Travelling with local transport is our preferred mode, but realistically we cannot avoid taking flights. As in any situation, we have choices that we can make in order to be more sustainable. When travelling across South East Asia we choose budget airlines as they are often greener than their counterparts, for several reasons:

  • They tend to fill their aeroplanes, leading to an overall reduction in carbon dioxide emissions

  • They waste less food and packaging (especially plastic) as food is only bought by passengers

Researchers at Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology compared aircraft models, CO2 emissions and passenger numbers and discovered that low-cost carriers are often greener than their more expensive counterparts. The easiest way to find budget airlines across South East Asia is by using the Value Alliance website. Through their platform you can book flights to 160 destinations from 17 hubs across Australia, North Asia and South-East Asia, using all of the best budget airlines such as Cebu Pacific, Cebgo, Jeju Air, Nok Air, NokScoot and Scoot.

3.Eat and shop local

Eating local food and buying from local shops is a great practice for many reasons. First of all, you get to truly embrace and understand local cultures and customs through their food and their craft. So much can be learned and understood about a country and its people through food and the way they enjoy their meals. You are also supporting the local economy, knowing that your money is going directly to whoever cooked the meal for you or has personally created a piece of clothing. In many cases you will be able to interact and engage with people in informal settings, experiencing local habits and meeting new people. Finally, this is a great way to stay on budget, as undoubtedly local shops tend to have lower prices compared to foreign businesses. Some of our favourite local eats in Bangkok are Thip Samai for the best Pad Thai, Raan Jay Fai which is the only street food venue that have been awarded a Michelin Star and Tealicious, a small gem serving traditional local food. Some local eats to try in Bali are Warung Ambara, in Berawa, serving authentic Indonesian dishes at a ridiculous small prices and Cocomo Canngu, a cute cafe a few meters from the beach serving the best 'nasi goreng'.

4. Don’t support unethical animal tourism

Travelling sustainably also means travelling responsibly. Taking part in animal tourism comes with a lot of responsibility and it is important as travellers to do our research before visiting centres and locations with animals, to ensure these activities are actually ethical. In too many cases, animals are mistreated for entertainment. One of the number one examples are the ‘so called’ elephants sanctuaries. In way too many of these establishment elephants, who are inherently wild animals and therefore not accustomed to interacting closely with humans, are trained with forceful methods into being washed, fed or touched by people. Not to mention elephant rides, a shameful practice still in use in many destinations. In this article from PETA you can find out more information on why riding elephants in unethical.

Ethical animal tourism is possible and there are plenty of associations and companies who support wildlife while providing opportunities to experience magical animal encounters. In this article by Amazing Thailand you can find 7 ethical experiences with elephants.

5. Choose responsible tour operators

South East Asia is blessed with some of the most incredible natural locations on the planet. Locations with complex and fragile ecosystems, where unique and rare species of animals and plants thrive. Over-tourism and unethical practices have put in danger many of these locations and have been the cause of alarm in recent years, bringing Governments to even close some of them like Maya beach in Thailand and the Komodo National Park in Indonesia. As travellers, we have the choice to support and only use tour operators that offer responsible travel experiences. Check out this article by Gaia Discovery to learn more about ten of the best responsible tour operators in South-East Asia.

With hope that this article will help you enjoy South-East Asia in the best way, leave us a comment if you have any questions!

#responsibletourism #ecotourism #ecofriendlytravel #SouthEastAsia

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