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Tag: responsible tourism

River Wild Along Kinabatangan

As the sun peaks over the horizon and the mighty Kinabatangan river catches the first rays of sunlight, my three-year old son, Seth keeps his gaze steady scanning the river…

As the sun peaks over the horizon and the mighty Kinabatangan river catches the first rays of sunlight, my three-year old son, Seth keeps his gaze steady scanning the river banks in a hunt to find the herd of Pygmy elephants that were last spotted a day ago grazing at the river banks. Our guide and spotter Jamil knew how much Seth wanted to see elephants and readily agreed to the elephant spotting hunt when we set off from Sukau Rainforest Lodge just before dawn that morning.

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The mist lifted from the face of the river and the riverine forest came to live. Egrets took flight in the air and the colourful stork-billed kingfisher awoke for a catch. The forest echoed a symphony of tunes from the low hum of the cicadas to the chatter of playful macaques. Then, we spotted the majestic hornbill flying overtop before perching on a faraway tree. Truly, this was the best wildlife playground for any three-year old – especially, for Seth who is crazy over animals!

The mighty Kinabatangan river stretches 560kms, starting from the Crocker Range in southwest Sabah and ending at the Sulu Sea southeast of Sandakan. It is the longest river in Sabah and is incredibly rich in biodiversity. It is perhaps the most sought after destination in Sabah to spot wildlife – more notably the Borneo Big 5; the orang utan, Pygmy elephant, proboscis monkey, crocodile, and hornbill.

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The best way to enjoy the river and her wild inhabitants is by boat. Every morning and evening we set out on safari trips in groups no bigger than 10 people. Small vessels with very quiet electric motors were used to explore the river as we snake into narrow waterways and into mangrove forests. We had cameras and binoculars ready at all times.

Our guide and boatman with laser-sharp eyes pointed to a dark speck on the big tree and through the binoculars, we saw a wild orang utan having his morning snack. Another time, our guide steadied the boat and pointed to the glistening eyes of a small crocodile. I caught a glimpse of it before it swiftly disappeared into the water.

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Traveling with a three-year old toddler and a three-month old baby was an adventure on its own. One time while on an evening safari, we felt a light drizzle starting. Within minutes, the drizzle turned into light showers and I found myself hiding under a raincoat with Seth at my side and Enya, my three-month old on my lap hiding from the rain. We waited patiently for the rain to pass and soon after we were rewarded with a scene of swinging proboscis monkeys and long-tail macaques who came out to play after the shower.

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Back at the lodge, we explored the jungle by foot on the 1,500 feet boardwalk in search of insects and small mammals. We waited for the resident orang utans to make an appearance and to our delight, we sighted two different orang utans during our stay. Our meals were served on an al fresco deck overlooking the river. It was also where new friendships were made as we exchanged notes with other guests on the day’s findings.

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In the dark of the night, after dinner, adventurous guests were given the option to go on another safari treat. It was too good to pass and Seth was eager as ever for another wildlife spotting hunt. The gentle motor boat sputtered on the shadowy river and our boatman scanned the jungle with his spotlight. We saw a kingfisher, a green paddy frog and a family of proboscis monkeys retired for the night. Yet, the most spectacular sight was when the boat came to a halt and the jungle stood still. The star-studded skies twinkled above as we trace our fingers across the milky way. I looked down and little Enya was fast asleep, lulled by the peaceful harmony of nature and the gentle rocking of the boat.

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After three days and two nights in this beautiful riverine jungle, we found it hard to say goodbye. Seth turned me as we were just about to leave and said, “Mom, I don’t want to go home. Can I stay?” There was good reason to stay as we did not see the elephants. In my effort to convince him, I told him – we will be back next time and hopefully, we will be able to see the mighty beast.

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Getting to Sukau Rainforest Lodge:

Treat yourself to a fine holiday at Sukau Rainforest Lodge, a member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World. Fly into Sandakan airport and you will be transferred to the jetty where you will take a two-hour boat ride to the Kinabatangan River. This boat ride is a prelude to the adventure that awaits you. Wildlife spotting starts the minute you reach the river mouth. You will pass through small village settlements, oil palm plantations, mangrove and palm forests. The sight of proboscis monkeys is almost a guarantee.

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Heritage Suites, Siem Reap: Hospitality With Heart

Cambodia’s a developing country, where the gap between the rich and poor is vast and the slow emerging middle class is the very stratum of society that indicate the country’s…

Cambodia’s a developing country, where the gap between the rich and poor is vast and the slow emerging middle class is the very stratum of society that indicate the country’s economic progress. Travel ten kilometres out of Siem Reap, Cambodia’s vibrant tourist town centre and you will see the real Cambodia – wooden stilt homes, lack of proper toilets and roads ridden with pot holes.

Now travel back to the heart of Siem Reap and the reality can easily be forgotten. Five-star and luxury boutique hotels, restaurants that cater for any palate with international standards in mind, wine bars and even designer boutiques – but none of these places are patronised by locals. They are established to serve the growing stream of tourists that have been increasing since the tourism boom in 2002.

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Those who stand behind the counter and serve the food and drinks are local Cambodians. They are young people who travel out from the countryside to seek employment in hope for a better life. Alongside this boom, organisations have sought to do more for Cambodia through social responsibility initiatives. You don’t have to look hard and long before you spot another initiative that sounds something like this: “Helping local Cambodians craft a future” or “Alleviating poverty one bag at a time”. While all this is great, I can’t ignore the fact that many organisations have also jumped on the bandwagon for marketing gain. Jarring leaflets and posters stuck on walls, tacky and thick compendiums in hotel rooms and websites claiming that they can save the world. When staff are asked if they know of the hotel’s social commitment, they simply shrug their shoulders and hand me another leaflet.

That’s why when I came across a hotel like Heritage Suites and an organisation like Sala Bai, I’m duly refreshed to learn of their genuine commitment and sustainable efforts in helping people through practical ways. In the sea of copycats, there are genuine organisations that want to help and find a way to make their contribution more meaningful and lasting.

Heritage, Creating A Legacy

The luxury 26 room and suites boutique hotel is tucked away in Slokram Village not too far away from the buzz of Pub Street and the Night Markets, but far enough for a peaceful retreat. During the day, I hear children from the local school laughing and chatting and school bells ringing just behind the hotel’s compound walls and at night, along the street leading to the hotel, I watch families sitting out on their verandah enjoying a meal of rice, soup and vegetables. The hotel in all its luxury and top-notch service is set amongst a local Cambodian commune – the very thing that preserves its sense of place and community charm.

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The facade is that of a French colonial building curtained by palm trees. The hotel’s lobby, restaurant and bar sharing the same space, a lofty open hall with a tall ceilings supported by timbers and grand massive candle lights hanging over top. The arched window panes and large panelled mirrors at the bar facilitate the flow of natural light and magnify the spaciousness of the restaurant.

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The same simplistic grandeur follows through into the suites. My bungalow suite had wall-to-ceiling windows with thick curtains that turn the suite from a bright and airy space into a slumber wonderland. The decor is minimalistic with an emphasis on Cambodian art and modern furnishings. The hallmark of the suite is the private steam room and stand alone oversized stone tub facing the private garden and open air shower.

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Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed my suite, I wanted to understand Heritage’s stand on their community efforts. So I sat down for a chat with Magnus Olovson, the hotel’s general manager, a seasoned hospitality professional who’s been in the industry for years and leading in his game. “I’ve been doing corporate hospitality for so long and when I was given the opportunity to return to old fashion hospitality, I jumped at it”.

“What is old-fashioned hospitality?”, I asked. “It’s where I get to greet every guest by name and learn about their day. It’s like welcoming people into your home”. Just then, he spots a couple behind the thick glass doors alighting from the hotel’s vintage Mercedez. He politely excused himself to greet some guests that have just arrived from the airport. After a few handshakes, some jovial laughs and a warm welcome, he returned and candidly said, “My guests are important to me but my staff are so much more important. Without them, all this would not be possible”.

Magnus continued to explain Heritage’s partnership with Sala Bai, a hospitality vocational school that have trained over 1000 students in the last 13 years and given them job opportunities at world-class hotels in Siem Reap and beyond. “Look around, would you have guessed that they (the staff) come from really poor families? Look at them now, they are thriving and building a future of their own”.

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Dressed in crisp black and white uniforms and a perpetual smile, the staff at Heritage Suites are all hands on deck. During my stay, I was met with prompt attentive service with the genuine warmth of Cambodian hospitality. I have stayed in Cambodia long enough to know that good job opportunities are hard to come by and even harder to keep. Cambodians, especially women have to battle with ongoing issues like human trafficking due to severe poverty and the social stigma that women are better off staying at home instead of working and earning a living. And those who fight through those battles have the chance to emerge as Cambodia’s new middle class.

Hope For Cambodia

Such is the story of Kim Hiv, a sweet, pretty, small statured lady with a big bright smile. At 27 years old, Thy Kim Hiv is the F&B supervisor at Heritage Suites and have hopes to climb the ranks in the future. Just five years ago, Kim Hiv’s story was extremely different. A graduating high schooler with no plans or means to further her studies, she heard from her neighbour about an application into Sala Bai school. She knew nothing about hospitality and her parents were disapproved of her decision to waitress as the job was frown upon and carried negative implications.

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After some persuasion, her parents agreed to her application into Sala Bai and she underwent seven months of intensive hospitality training with an additional four months of practical training. For Kim Hiv, this was the ideal opportunity as her food, lodging and tuition fees were completely paid for by Sala Bai and a job was guaranteed after her training.

“Heritage is my first job and I have been working here for five years. I am very lucky to learn about Sala Bai and when I started working, I help pay for my sister’s school fees”. Her family is one of many families living below the poverty line. They are simple farmers slogging to make ends meet. “Now, I am able to give my parents money too!”, Kim Hiv added with a wide grin. Schools like Sala Bai give hope to people who have little to look forward to. Sala Bai’s efforts are realistic with a clear goal in mind, to raise people from poverty and to create opportunities for a better life.

But the model won’t work without the commitment of hotels like Heritage Suites, the Raffles, Amansara and other trusted hospitality names. Heritage Suites give amateur hoteliers a chance to be further trained on the job and allow them equal opportunity to climb the ranks if they so desire.

As with all NGO organisations, Sala Bai is dependant on donations and have been thriving since with strong donor partnerships across the globe. Heritage saw an opportunity to give back and so every year since 2013, the hotel organises an annual charity gala dinner and auction at their beautiful property. This year in May, the gala titled ‘Changing Lives’ featured a culinary feasts prepared by Thailand’s rising culinary star Chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn. The dinner was aimed at raising funds to help Sala Bai expand its new campus to accommodate more students. The gala was a glamorous success and Heritage raised a total of $15,000 in funds, which, for a property of its size, is truly remarkable.

Photo credit: Sala Bai

Photo credit: Sala Bai

Social responsibility can be a fad that fades off over time for those who jump on the bandwagon, but genuine organisations are those that go the extra mile because they believe in the cause that would outlast the organisations lifetime.

Claude Colombie, director of Sala Bai explained, “Our model very simple, in a country as poor as Cambodia, we need to find real solutions that help close the gap. We find the poorest of the poor, educate them and give them a job. That’s it! And this model has proven successful over 13 years, families who earn less than $500 a year now have a daughter or a son who earns half or more a month and are able to support their families”.

It’s incredibly remarkable what a door of opportunity can do for one life, one family, one community. At Heritage Suites, there are no garish posters that spell “DONATE” or leaflets in the room’s compendium. Instead, an unassuming bicycle with a simple poster at the entrance explains the hotel’s partnership with Sala Bai. Hotel guests can donate if they wish and donations help pay for school materials and bicycles for the students to get to their place of work. The truest and most sincere testament of Heritage’s commitment to social responsibility is in the people, people like Kim Hiv who live to tell her story.

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A Closer Look: Yea Or Nay To Elephant Rides

It was a thrilling experience as I sat bumping along from side-to-side on a tailor made basket fitted on the arch of the elephants back. The gentle giant paced along…

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It was a thrilling experience as I sat bumping along from side-to-side on a tailor made basket fitted on the arch of the elephants back. The gentle giant paced along sure footed as ever over the wide open plateau, passing through endless forest covered hills and down incredibly steep slopes. The hilly landscape of Mondulkiri, Cambodia’s eastern province is beautiful yet unforgiving.

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I dodged the occasional menacing branch that came head on as the elephant continued along the path where sounds of the rushing river roared. It was about 45 minutes into the ride and my bottom was starting to get sore from the bumpy ride. My knuckles were a certain white from the mighty grip I kept along the exhilarating journey. The adventure was just beginning, for the elephant, that is. Poun, my elephant was taken into the rushing river for a bath. It looked fun as he splashed around and enjoyed the free scrub by his mahout. All of this sounded rather picture perfect for a wildlife experience. But as curiosity warrants, I gathered some answers to some probing questions that make the Case of The Elephant Ride.

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You see having been involved in the business of sustainability, I have been trained to ask questions. Questions that most tourists would not ask. These questions helped me make informed decisions on whether tourism has leave a positive or negative impact for communities and the environment.

The Elephant and His People

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Poun belongs to Mr. Hong, a native Bunong (Pnong) man. The Bunong tribe are the indigenous peoples of Mondulkiri. They are animistic in their beliefs and therefore have incredible respect for animals, trees and all living creation. Mr. Hong bought Poun from a shaman when the elephant was 10 years old. There was no money exchanged, instead it was a barter trade – 30 bulls for 1 male elephant. Mr. Hong had to bring together livestock from a few families to ‘purchase’ Poun.

Mr Hong tells me that the shaman is the only person capable of luring the elephant from the deep forest. Poun was a baby elephant when he was taken out. He was intentionally separated from his mother and left to wonder. The shaman conducted some spiritual rituals and was successful in leading the baby elephant out of the forest into the village. Poun then spent many years with the shaman where more spiritual rituals were conducted and the elephant was finally tame enough for a human master. It was then that Mr. Hong ‘bought’ Poun.

Elephants are a big part of the Bunong culture and lifestyle. Mr. Hong considers him more than just an animal, in many ways, Poun is part of the village community.

The Elephant and His Work

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Since the age of 10, Poun has been used as a ‘transporter’ for Mr. Hong and his family. Poun would take them on his back into the deep jungles to forage for food, cross rivers and carry bamboo and logs. Poun did a marvellous job, according to Mr. Hong. The elephant brought them to places where otherwise would take days to get to. Undoubtedly, it was also hard work for the elephant – steep terrains and heavy loads.

Today, Poun is used as a ‘transporter’ for tourists. He works up to 3-4 hours a day with meal breaks in between. The labour is probably not as intense as before but he still gets growled at by the mahout. During my elephant ride, I was quite disturbed at how the elephant was coerced to walk and move. My mahout, a young lad held a hard whip made of bamboo with a hard rubber ball hanging at the end. He was constantly threatening to whip the elephant if the animal did not respond immediately to his loud grunts and growls. There were moments where I thought it absolutely unnecessary for the mahout to be as demanding as he was. I watched carefully to see if the whip did end up on the elephant. Thankfully, I witnessed no whipping, but the rude commands were unsettling. I am no veterinarian to comment on the state of the elephant, but I personally did not see any wounds or bruises.

Poun’s working environment has been such for the last 20 odd years. He is 33 years old now.

The Elephant, Money and Well-being

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Poun helps provide for the family. With every tourist that come and participate in an elephant ride, the family gets about $25. There are now 4 elephants shared among a few families and the money is divided amongst them. Mr. Hong said, “Since I started this ecotourism activity, my children can now go to school and I have motorbike to go around Mondulkiri and we can now buy more meat from the market instead of eating vegetables and rice only.”

It seems like a win-win situation for all. The elephant works and is allowed a fair amount of free time to wander, his master gets fed, his master’s family is happy and tourists are happy. But as I pondered on the situation, I can’t help but realize that all of this is misfitting for the magnificent mammal.

Elephants are made for the wild with the freedom to road, chew on any bamboo branch until his heart’s content. Elephants that are taken from the wild have little chance of reproducing, stunting the elephant population. Elephants are great not just for its size and mighty ears, but its tusks. Tamed elephants have their tusks broken or sawed off to avoid fatal accidents.

In this case, it’s a win-lose situation and the loser is quite apparent.


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After the rugged trip into the jungle sitting on the mighty beast, I have come to an unresolved conclusion. A definite yes or no is unfair and difficult as there are so many factors to consider. It is easy for me as an ‘outsider’ to judge, critique and assess the way Mr. Hong lives and how the mahouts treat the elephants, yet it is more complex to fully understand the heritage, tradition and culture of the Bunong people (or any tribe for that matter). In this case, the elephant is an important part of their livelihood and who are we to criticise when in other cultures horses are trained to show jump, bulls are put to fight and dolphins are trained to jump through hoops.

I was not completely comfortable with the grunts and growls offered by my mahout to Poun, but I also witnessed how these mahouts genuinely cared for the elephants. I cannot fault that the elephants are really part of the village community and I choose to respect the Bunong people’s culture and acknowledge that this (in fact) their way of earning moolah. Would I ride on the elephant again? Perhaps not. But I did enjoy the experience and chance to be so close to such a magnificent mammal.

** Whether you are planning to ride on an elephant in Thailand, Cambodia or India, I would strongly advise tourists to look up the tour operator or organization you are engaging with and read up before making an informed decision to ride or not.  Each elephant case is specific, individual and closely linked to a certain destination and its community.

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Whale Watching Done Right

Kaikoura is recognised as one of the best destinations in the world to whale watch. In fact, there is 95% chance of sighting whales because of the resident sperm whales…

Kaikoura is recognised as one of the best destinations in the world to whale watch. In fact, there is 95% chance of sighting whales because of the resident sperm whales who linger around the ocean canyons all year round. Kaikoura was a small quiet fishing village back in the 1980’s. The only strip of shops on the main road facing the ocean was the only commercial shoplots in town. It was a town where everyone knew everyone.

Then in 1987, Bill Solomon, a fellow Maori who lived off the ocean decided that the seas would bring new and greater wealth to the small town. Fueled with faith from a story of an ancient Maori legend named Paikea who rode on a back of the whale to a better life, Bill Solomon and his friends mortgaged their homes to start up a new business. They brought travellers out on inflatable boats and showcased the magnanimous ocean creatures that owned the seas.

Today, Whale Watch Kaikoura is one of the world’s leading and award winning whale watching tour companies in the world. The company’s philosophy is deeply entrenched in the Maori culture of respect for the environment and wildlife lending to the success of the company and the way they introduce nature to travellers. This was my second time whale watching in Kaikoura and I knew what to expect – a spectacular two hour ocean ride!

We set of in a large vessel bright and early in the morning. The waters were calm with gentle ripples of waves lapping in the horizon. The engines started, we buckled in and soon the vessel was galloping into the deep blue seas. I had taken a very light breakfast before the trip and had taken a sea-sick pill 30-minutes before we set off, still I wanted to be extra prepared in case my stomach churned and the uncalled for throw up landed on neighbour’s lap. Just to be on the safe side, I held onto the white barf bag throughout the trip.

In order to prevent hoards of people from rushing out to the open deck upon a whale sighting, the skipper reiterated the rules again. Anticipation mounted in the cabin as the vessel came to a gentle halt. We had only travelled 20-minutes into sea and behold, the resident whale Tutu greeted us that morning. Her massive body under the water’s surface with only about 10% of her body mass visible, still the sight was truly amazing. Tutu spouted several times and lingered around for 10 minutes before diving back in. The most opportune time for photo taking is when Tutu dove in and flipped her tail before disappearing into the deep blue. Cameras clicked away and for that split second, all onboard were hushed in awe of the grand sight.

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Then all that’s left is the blanket of sea. Everyone cheered and dispersed to other parts of the vessel to enjoy the warm morning sun. We were told that the Kaikoura ocean canyons go as deep as 1000-1500 metres deep, a world unknown to many, where the illusive giant colossal squid reside. The great white albatross glided by, its wing span unlike any other sea bird. Schools of playful dusky dolphins danced and swam next to the vessel teasing us as we captured those moments on camera.

A good hour and a half had passed and we headed back to shore. There was no doubt I’d go back to sea the next time I’m in Kaikoura. The experience, once again left a lasting impression of the vastness and grandeur of the great ocean. It is responsible tour companies like Whale Watch Kaikoura that make it possible for thousands of travellers to experience these beautiful creatures & share the same respect for wildlife in her habitat.

Enjoy a snippet of my experience meeting and greeting Tutu… and if you’re planning a whale watching trip anytime in the future, you will definitely want to check out some useful tips on getting the most of your experience.

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Are Backpackers Destroying The World Or Changing It For The Better?

Backpackers are predominantly known as budget travelers. They want to spend the least and get the most. They will stretch the dollar to the max and squeeze every cent just…

Backpackers in AsiaBackpackers are predominantly known as budget travelers. They want to spend the least and get the most. They will stretch the dollar to the max and squeeze every cent just to get an extra drink or a super discount. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that! After all, money is hard earned and bargains are great. However, backpackers have increased over the years with the rise of budget airlines such as Jetstar, Air Asia and Cebu Pacific. This means that more backpackers are hitting the road annually and the impact on the destinations are both good and bad. Obscure destinations are getting free publicity via travel blogs and shared photos, money is spent and job opportunities are created. However on the flipside, tough issues such as over development, siphoning of money out of the local economy and the erosion of cultures are becoming an apparent problem.

More than footprints_logoMartin Stevenson is the founder of “More Than Footprints”, a website written by backpackers, for backpackers. It hopes to debunk the glossy travel writing that sounds more like advertorials and to provide a platform for travelers to find real information and discuss real issues while on the move. Martin was and still is a backpacker – a nature of travel that he enjoys. He spent three years in Southeast Asia researching and writing ‘More than footprints? – How backpacking lost its way’, a fantastic read uncovering lessons learnt while he was on foot in Asia.

In this short interview, Martin shared with me some insights into the world of backpackers and the impact they leave on destinations they have trodden on. It left a huge reminder that all of us, independent travelers can do something – somewhere, somehow when we go on our next holiday.

Ardent Traveler (AT): What inspired you to write “More Than Footprints”?
Martin: When we think about un-sustainable tourism, we usually think about ‘mass’ tourism; big resorts and hotels on beaches. But over 20 years of backpacking, as I returned to places, I started to look at the development that was happening in ‘backpacker’ centres – places where mass tourists generally never set foot – and I started to wonder if backpacking might have a few problems of its own. I started to write about it and the articles and blogs became the book.

Martin StevensonAT: What was the most surprising thing you learned over the course of writing & putting together this book?
Martin: How much backpacking has changed. It’s not just the places that have changed; it’s the backpackers themselves. Twenty years ago you could pretty much guarantee that a backpacker would be young, taking time out from uni, and from nothern Europe or Australasia. Today they cover every age group, background and nationality. The couple flicking through their Lonely Planet are as likely to be in the fifties as in their twenties. With this change in the demographic, the way in which we need to promote sustainable, responsible tourism has also changed.

AT: Is there a reason why you chose to focus on backpackers instead of tour groups or luxury travelers and the types of damage backpackers are doing when they travel?
Martin: Lots is published about ‘mass’ tourism and its environmental, economic, political and social impact on destinations, but as I started to research backpacking, and tried to find some literature about it, I found there was very little being written. A handful of academics cover the subject, but most NGOs and sustainable travel websites focus on the package and all-inclusive industries. The work they do is important of course, but with backpacking’s ever growing numbers, we need an outlet for them to be discussing the issues too.

One of the most striking things about the research was that whenever I discussed the issues with backpackers, they recognised every issue I mentioned, but I was the first person who had ever talked about it with them.

AT: When backpackers say they are contributing back to the community by volunteering, do you think they actually leave a positive impact or it is more of a “feel good” gesture?
Martin: The voluntourism sector is a very worrying area. If a volunteer feels good about what they’ve done, that’s not necessarily a negative side-effect – if the project was beneficial for the people they were working with. The problem really lies with the organisations that these volunteers are paying to join. A volunteer with no experience cannot be expected to know a great deal about development practices, so they have to place their trust in the organisations and projects they join. There is nothing wrong with the desire to ‘help’, but there are some highly unethical projects and organisations out there who are happy to exploit this desire – usually at the expense of those communities they are supposed to ‘help’. Of course, there are also excellent organisations who genuinely benefit local communities. The problem is that most volunteers don’t have access to the information they need so that they can’t ask the right questions.

AT: There are huge numbers of backpackers exploring South East Asia annually because it is relatively cheap and your dollar goes a long way more. What does this mean to the destination and its people in the long run?
Martin: The popular image of a backpacker is a student who is watching every penny, and this is true, but there are hundreds of thousands of backpackers out there and together they spend a vast amount of money.

Over half a million backpackers will visit Australia this year, and they will spend over $3 billion between them. The question of whether this money benefits local people is perhaps the most important one facing backpackers at the moment.

Traditionally, backpackers have stayed in locally-owned hostels, eaten in locally-owned restaurants, and their money has tended to stay in local pockets, but as the wider tourism industry has noticed how much money backpackers are spending, they have started to move into the ‘independent’ travel sector. X Base, a chain of backpacker hostels in Australia and New Zealand, is owned by the same company that owns the Sofitel, Ibis and Mercure hotel brands. So in order for backpackers to be of economic benefit to Southeast Asia, they have to ensure that the money they spend is staying in the local economy, and not being syphoned off to a foreign bank account.

AT: What choices do you see that travelers can make to positively impact destinations they travel to?
Martin: It really all comes down to how we see ourselves when we’re travelling. If we think of ourselves as Marco Polo, we are going to have a hugely negative impact on the places we visit. But if we stop thinking of ourselves as adventurers (let’s be honest, what have we discovered lately?), and start to acknowledge that we are part of a new form of ‘mass’ tourism – mass backpacking – then we can start to look at our ‘combined’ impact. It’s a less romantic view of travel than we might like, but if we place ourselves at the front of a very long queue of people who are all doing the same thing (because we are all going to the same places, and using the same guide book to get there), then we can start to see our purchases and activities in term of multiplying them by the number of other people who are just like us and doing exactly the same things.

If I pick the smallest amount of coral out of the seabed as a souvenir, I can imagine that there are a lot of other people just like me doing the same thing, which means the end of the coral. A beneficial flip-side of that coin is that if we can travel responsibly, then we can have an equally positive impact.

AT: What are you doing as an ‘enlightened’ traveler to help make tourism more sustainable?
Martin: Ha! Makes it sound like I wrote the book sitting under a Banyan tree! Now that the book is out it’s a question of getting the information out too. Most of the readers I’ve spoken too were shocked by what I’d found out. The book was very well received when it went on sale but I realised that far more people would have access to the information if they didn’t have to pay for it, so the decision was made to give it away for free through a new website. We launched the site this week, and anyone who posts an article on the site gets the book. The writing isn’t just about sustainable travel – though there is a section dedicated to it – we also have guides, travelogues, and section for travel fiction (only the location has to be real!). So I’m looking forward to seeing the debate grow, and the information backpackers need coming out of our writers’ articles.

More than footprints_martin stevensonAT: In this day and age, travel blogs and social media have somewhat taken over traditional travel guidebooks. What role do you see bloggers playing in helping to create better destinations?
Martin: If there’s one thing backpackers do more than any other type of tourist, it is look to their fellow travellers for information. The discussions that backpackers have in bars on Changkat, on boats out to Full Moon Parties, and while taking photos of the sunrise at Angkor Wat, are the perfect medium to disseminate this information. A major problem though is that there is a new generation of backpackers every year who have never been to the Perhentians before and so assume that’s what it has always looked like. They don’t go back year after year and so don’t see the impact they are having, so they assume they aren’t having an impact. Because backpackers do over half their research online, blogs have a key role in making them aware that backpackers impact those places we visit just as much as mass tourists. Some backpackers do go back of course, and it always amazes me when I hear some guy on a beach somewhere say: “It was much better when I was here ten years ago, less developed.” Well, where does he think that development has come from? It was the money he spent ten years ago that paid for it!

Let’s Chat With is a new series of light hearted, down-to-earth, personal interviews with people I’ve met or connected with along my journey as a traveler. These are people who have piqued my interest and have an amazing tale to tell. I hope that my conversations with them will inspire you, challenge your perspective on life and feed that wanderlust within you.
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Treetop Jungle Retreat At Bandhavgarh National Park

Treehouse Hideaway Images of children climbing up into tree-houses in the summer months chatting away till the yawn of the sun, blankets laid on wooden floors as they watch the…

Treehouse Hideaway

Images of children climbing up into tree-houses in the summer months chatting away till the yawn of the sun, blankets laid on wooden floors as they watch the stars and web of constellations – this was a vivid image, one I watched on television and remained etched in my memory. But this kind of childhood was far beyond reach having grown up in urban landscapes. The only trees left to climb are concrete jungles with flights of stairs.

Hence the thought of retreating to an actual tree-house was a sublime idea, a childhood dream waiting to be fulfilled. Treehouse Hideaway is an exclusive safari experience in Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, India. This jungle throve is also a prime area for spotting the maharajah of the forest – the Bengal Tiger. Sitting on 21 acres of land the hideaway has five exclusive tree houses built on the five largest trees in this area; the Mahua, Pepal, Sal, Tendu and Palash trees. Privacy is guaranteed as each tree house offers fantastic views of the forest and some even overlooking the rolling Vindhyan mountain range.

Tree House (17)Tree House (21)

During the construction of each unit, the owners were mindful to keep as much land untouched as possible often clearing nothing more than pathways for easy access. Recycled wood from railway tracks and fallen timber were used to construct the treehouse matching each piece into a jigsaw puzzle of natural architecture. The tree house is spacious with an open balcony that is accessible from the bedroom or bathroom, a comfortable sitting area, writing desk and a huge inviting four poster king-size bed. Interior designs are intentionally organic with splashes of earthy hues and photos of wildlife to remind you that nature is really in your backyard.

Tree House (3)Tree House (24)

Spotting tigers is the major highlight for most visiting into this area. The Bandhavgarh National Park authorities recently put a restriction to the number of jeeps entering the park and pre-determined the routes for each vehicle. Although an inconvenience for naturalists and guides to guarantee tiger sightings, this ban has greatly helped lessen the level of human activity and impact in the park. Jeeps no longer crowd in huge numbers just to catch glimpse of a tiger, instead jeeps are evenly assigned to various routes avoiding congestion.

The Ghost Forest

In the summer when the sun is sweltering hot, the morning safaris are a pleasant welcome. Departing at 5.45am in the crack of dawn, our jeep enters the forest through pathways of eerie dry spindly bamboo branches. The feeling was as if entering a ghost forest keeping us at the edge of our seats. The cool dawn breeze swivels in the hair. But within 500m the sight changes as bright green leaves of Sal trees emerged in the background of brown hues. Young shoots just beginning to form giving life to the jungle, otherwise quite bare. I was told that after the monsoon between October to December, the forest transforms into a blanket of lush green foliage.

We soon caught sight of some jungle ‘commoners’ – the spotted deer, barking deer, sambar deer, wild boar, langur and macaque. These animals have grown accustomed to jeeps and gawking visitors as they go about their daily activity. At watering holes, birds are abundant with a mix of endemic and migratory birds. The eye catching ones include the Indian long billed vulture, Grey hornbill, the beautiful Green Bee Eater, the grand Indian roller and the stern looking Lesser Adjutant Stork. Bandhavgarh National Park is home to more than 22 species of mammals and 250 species of birds.

Bandhavgarh NP (8)Bandhavgarh NP (22)Bandhavgarh NP (29)Bandhavgarh NP (1)

Along the dirt roads, we noticed a gigantic silhouette, unlike any other mammal found in this area. As we approached the silhouette emerged into a grey bodied Asian Elephant with a man on it. A mahout, that’s what they call it. Obviously not belonging to this forest, elephants are used by park guides to spot tigers travelling at a very slow speed with little noise and interference. Once the mahout spots the tiger, he alerts the gate post and reports are churned out every morning and evening in preparation for the next safari ride.

Bandhavgarh NP (6)

Wildlife has its way of protecting itself; Vinod our naturalist tells us that in spotting tigers his sense of sight, smell and sound are completely focused on picking up different signals from nature. Barking deers would make short alarm barks whilst monkeys with screech and deer huddle together at the sight of the terrifying predator. Langurs and deer have a symbiotic relationship, the langur also called the ‘eye of the forest’ spots for predators from high and lofty trees whilst the deer with their keen sense of smell sniff their way out of danger. It is a common sight to see langurs and deer lounging together – for obvious reason, safety and survival.

Bandhavgarh NP (26)

Tree House Comforts

Returning to the treehouse after more than three hours of wildlife spotting, the staffs at tree house really looks into the needs of the guests, providing fresh cool towels to freshen up and refreshing lime juice for the dry throat. A generous spread of cereal, toasts, eggs, potato cakes and juices are served. Meals at the Tree House Hideaway are always generous but never too heavy, with a great mix of Indian flavours and organic greens bought from the local markets and a small portion from the resident veggie patch.
In the summer, pretty much the entire afternoon is spent relaxing at the tree house. The temperature rises to uncomfortable levels and the air is dry and arid. But the tree house remains a welcoming treat. Walking up the dainty stairs of my tree house, a family of langurs greet me as I watched them play among my great and grand Mahua tree house. A childhood dream fulfilled.

[info] How to get to Bandhavgarh National Park

  • By Air: Fly from Delhi, Agra or Varanasi to Khajuraho and drive (7-8 hours) to Tala park entrance at Bandhavgarh. Nearest airport from the park is Khajuraho. From the airport to the park, you will need road transfer.
  • By Rail: Nearest railway station is Umaria after Katni railway station, from there it is about 2 hours to the park. Alternatively, take the overnight train from Delhi to Umaria and drive (30 minutes) to the park.
  • Best time to visit: The peak season for Kanha National Park visits is the winter season, from October to February. During the summer months from March to June, tiger sightings are at its best as the grasslands dries up making it easier to spot wild animals. The park is closed from July to September during the monsoon season.

For more information on Treehouse Hideaway, visit http://www.treehousehideaway.com
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My Indian “Jungle Book” Experience (Final Part 3)

Shergarh Tented Camp Not far from Singinawa is another remarkable story of change makers who have steered away from mass tourism to create a unique kind of travel with a…

Shergarh Tented Camp

Not far from Singinawa is another remarkable story of change makers who have steered away from mass tourism to create a unique kind of travel with a focus on nature and people.

The making of Shergarh Tented Camp is a story that tugs at heartstrings. It is a story of love and passion resulting in a concoction of wildlife hospitality. Jehan Bhujwala grew up in the metropolitan city of Bombay having only the concrete jungle as his playground. He furthered his studies in geology and mastered in it but soon realized an insatiable longing to live life in the wild. He purchased a 21-acre land on the fringe of the buffer zone adjacent to Kanha National Park in 2001 whilst working at Kipling Camp, the first camp built near Mukki gate. In 2002 Katie, a British girl from a village close to Bath in the United Kingdom was so drawn to India after an extended backpacking trip that she decided to find a job at the same camp, and love struck.

At that time, Jehan was living in a tiny mud house on his property and had already started conceptualizing the idea of a tented camp. With extra hands and a like-minded partner, ideas soon evolved into reality and Jehan and Katie began building the camp. “This was not going to be any ordinary camp. With Jehan’s experience as a naturalist and my insight on travels after much destination hopping during my backpacking years, we both decide that this camp will honour and respect the environment and people living around,” explained Katie.

They adopted villages around the vicinity, hired local communities to help build the camp and fostered impeccable relationships with the villagers. “For many villagers, tourism was a foreign and new concept to them, especially when Shergarh Tented Camp was one first few properties established near Mukki gate. Today, they are like family.” said Katie. “We have incorporated local skills and techniques into the lodge as much as possible, such as their dry-stone masonry and mud-plasterwork, and have used local carpenters, masons, plumbers and electricians.”

Due to poor knowledge of sustainable agriculture practices, the 21 acre land was completely degraded and overused. Katie explained that the entire land space was filled with invasive and chocking eucalyptus trees, biodiversity was close to barrenness and the land was starved. The pair spent many months and years regenerating the land, chopping down eucalyptus for construction and firewood in the winters. Indigenous trees were reintroduced to the land and the beautiful waterbed that sits in the middle of the land continued to feed the trees.

We walked past the waterbed to reach our tents, and much to our delight, we saw egrets, commorants, kingfishers and bee- eaters basking in the water. Katie tells us that jackals and wild boars frequently roam the area and just at the entrance amongst the patch of tall green meadows, a jungle cat has made that his home. Katie recollects an incident when the name Shergarh meaning “Home of the Tiger” resonated. “In November 2008, a 5-year old male tiger strayed from the core forest and took refuge from (in?) the surrounding paddy fields”.
Shergarh Tented Camp (15)

Camp in Comfort

As we ambled into the vicinity of Shergarh Tented camp in Kanha, we were expecting high A-framed tents, foldable camp beds, make shift toilets and simple skinny mattresses, but what we found at Shergargh was a haven of comfort and simplicity. The rugged looking canvas tent is tied securely on concrete A-frame structure with a sturdy roof made of handmade clay roof tiles. The tents are incredibly roomy inside with a large king sized bed, bedside tables and a spacious permanent toilet, shower and open closet area. Just outside the tent, a few plush cushion mattresses and deck chairs are cleverly positioned to great views of the lake and the open skies as we watch the stars emerge at night.
Shergarh Tented Camp (9)

The tents take on names of indigenous trees in India such as Tulsi (Indian basil), Aam (mango), Jamun (blackberry), Imli (tamarind), Mahua and Neem. Many of these trees were re-planted around the property in their effort to revive the degraded land.

Shergarh Tented Camp (17)Shergarh Tented Camp (18)

Moving away from a tiger-centric approach

While it’s easy to take on a tiger-centric approach as tiger sightings are almost a daily affair, the couple knew that that would not do justice to the rich diversity in Kanha. Instead they have expanded their list of activities to include village visits, walking hikes and bike tours.

In October 2011, Shergarh will be offering bespoke bike tours from half day tours to 3-day tours. These cycle ‘tolla’ tours (tolla meaning village) will take guests off the beaten track from Kanha through villages and obscure towns to Pench National Park (approximately 200km) or Bandhavgargh National Park (approximately 250km). Exploring the Madhya Pradesh region on two wheels opens a new spectrum of experience for guests giving them a chance to interact with locals, savour chai at roadside stalls, weave through tall paddy fields and stay with local communities. For a more rustic camping experience, guests have the option of camping out in the open and cooking meals over fire and charcoal.
Shergarh Tented Camp (26)
Whether it is a lodge or a tented camp, conscious travellers are now looking for more than just a comfortable place to stay. I found myself searching for operators who are committed to preserving the destination and operators that can offer authentic experiences crafted through their commitment and understanding of the destination and the surrounding people. At Kanha, I found two champion operators who are investing time and resources to preserve the very thing that tourists come to Kanha for, a genuine ‘Jungle Book’ experience.

[info] How to get to Kanha National Park

  • By Air: Nagpur is the nearest airport to Kanha National Park. Other airports include Raipur and Jabalpur. These airports are all connected to major cities in India.
  • By Train: Jabalpur is a convenient rail route to head towards Kanha National Park.
  • By Road: Kanha National Park is well connected with major roads from Jabalpur (175kms), Nagpur (266kms) and Raipur (219kms). Kanha also has a good network of roads connecting to surrounding national parks such as Bandhavgarh, Pench, Panna, Achanakmar and Phen National Park.
  • Best time to visit: The peak season for Kanha National Park visits is the winter season, from October to February. During the summer months from March to June, tiger sightings are at its best as the grasslands dries up making it easier to spot wild animals. The park is closed from mid-June to October during the monsoon season.
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… read Part 1 and Part 2 of My Indian “Jungle Book” Experience

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