Thailand is a huge hub for tourists of every nationality and from every corner of the world. It’s one of the best marketed destinations in Southeast Asia, and for good reason — the transportation infrastructure is solid, the food is incredible, and the culture is accessible. It’s no wonder that backpackers, travelers, and digital nomads flock to Thailand. I myself have called Thailand home on and off for years because of the sheer amount of culture and history, as well as the vast number of responsible tourism opportunities.
Responsible travel means many things to different people, but in my book, any traveler visiting Thailand has the opportunity to take simple actions that aggregate to a huge difference over time. Despite being such a tourism hub, there is still a lot of poverty, social inequality, and loopholes that have allowed trafficking and other negative activities to remain. Travelers hoping to leverage the potential for travel to positively impact the places they visit can use this social enterprise guide to find the projects, programs, and activities that will make for a memorable — and responsible! — experience.
Responsible Travel in Thailand
Thailand is one of the most backpacked and well-traveled countries in Southeast Asia. This is the entry point to the region for the majority of backpackers, and ethical travelers can practice their responsible ethos the moment they step foot from the plane. Throughout Thailand you will find examples of most of the concerns that face the entire region. Thailand’s tourism industry is so well established, that if you’ve read about the activity in Southeast Asia, chances are you can find it here.
Among the most pressing responsible travel concerns are the ethical treatment of animals, namely elephants and tigers. But there are also issues with human exploitation and sex trafficking, too. Read in-depth coverage of each complicated topic in the GV Responsible Travel Guide to Southeast Asia. The short of it is this:
Riding Elephants: If you’ve long dreamed of riding one of these majestic creatures, think twice and research before your trip. Generally, responsible travelers should not ride elephants in the region. Elephants used to perform for tourists, or used in riding activities, are not treated well. Let alone, the process of “breaking” an elephant to make it fit for work and tourism is horrific. Mahouts are mistreated, too — this adds a human component that only compounds the ethical issues inherent in riding elephants. The good news is, there are social enterprises in Thailand and Cambodia both offering travelers safe and fun ways to interact with these majestic and smart creatures. Below we feature several incredible sanctuaries in Thailand offering animal interactions, and you can also research the best responsible experiences in Cambodia, as well.
Tiger & Wildlife Tourism: Steer well clear of this activity, particularly in the Bangkok area. An expose on the tiger temple near Bangkok found that the monks used older tigers to supply the black market with tiger bones and meat. Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai gets generally mixed reviews from responsible travelers: the animals seem well treated, but there are questionable ethics about breeding wild animals in captivity for tourism alone. Other animal tourism experiences — such as posing with endangered Gibbons, buying animal souvenirs, and more — should also be avoided.
Human Tourism & Trafficking: Two notable instances of this type of irresponsible tourism take place in Thailand (although there are many smaller incidences throughout the country). Be on alert for tourism experiences to the Karen Padaung Villages north of Chiang Mai. The Karen women wear rings around their necks — while beautiful, reconsider how you spend your money on a visit. These Burmese refugees are stuck in Thailand as a living zoo for tourists to come take photos. As an alternative, consider treks to hilltribe villages, an agricultural journey (to discover coffee, cotton, and more), and local homestays — all wonderful activities in Northern Thailand and are outlined in the social enterprises listed below. Also avoid the Ping Pong Shows in Bangkok, Phuket, and other areas. Illegal human trafficking plagues Southeast Asia, and by all accounts shows like these — and tourism demand — stoke the situation.
Responsible Travel Dos
Beyond the don’ts of ethical and sustainable tourism, there is another side to responsible travel, too. It comes down to taking a granular approach to exactly how and where to spend your money. Since responsible travelers know to avoid certain activities that compromise the safety of humans and animals, then it serves to reason they are also seeking experiences that have the opposite effect. Truly responsible travel is not just about maintaining a neutral travel footprint, but also seeking activities that actively benefit the people and places where you travel.
Spending money in the right places is a definite “do” for responsible travels. Seeking business and activities that lead to further sustainability is one aspect, but another is simply making a responsible choice for activities you already plan on doing when you’re in Thailand.
Use the vetted social enterprises in our database, most of them outlined below as well, to make sure your travel dollars go as far as possible on the ground. This guide includes businesses offering socially responsible tours, fair-trade souvenirs, massages administered by former female inmates, and more. Each business is a unique social enterprise operating with a strong social mission to use tourism as a force for positive change.
What is a Social Enterprise?
A social enterprise sells good or services and uses a portion of the profits to reinvest in the local community by addressing social issues, improving locals’ quality of life, conserving natural resources and the environment, preserving the community’s cultural integrity, and more. A great social enterprise offers a refreshing take on more common business ideals by holding its strong underlying missions above financial gain and investors. Instead, the common good is the primary focus and when a social enterprise succeeds, so too does the local society.
Empowering travelers to travel responsibly is the core mission of Grassroots Volunteering. Putting money directly into the hands of the local communities affected and impacted by tourism is a powerful way to make tourism a force for good. Supporting social enterprises while traveling is one way travelers can easily make a difference on the road — they make sure their money is not only staying local, but also being used to address local social issues. Responsible travelers often align with the social enterprise business model because it’s not only good for travelers to understand a deeper story of a new place, but by supporting these businesses responsible travelers leave a place better than they found it. Our “What is a Social Enterprise” post shares a deeper-dive into the social enterprise business model, how to locate these businesses, and why using social enterprises are a core tenet of responsible and sustainable travel.
The Best Social Enterprises in Thailand
- Akha Ama Coffee (Chiang Mai): What started as one village’s effort to grow and sell their own coffee at fair prices has become a small but growing number of coffee shops in Thailand. Buying a cup of this artisanal coffee directly sends funds back to a small village outside of Chiang Rai.
- Baan Unrak Children’s Village (Kanchanaburi): A delicious vegetarian café, internet café, used bookshop and handicrafts can be found at Bann Unrak Children’s Village which supports an orphanage outside town.
- Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (Sukhothai): Have an unforgettable and ethical experience interacting with rescued elephants on 600 acres — you can interact in a natural, chain-free environment.
- Cabbages and Condoms (Bangkok, Krabi, Chiang Rai): One of the first true social enterprises operating in Thailand, the restaurant uses its proceeds to fund a sexual health education and sustainability programs. The menu is quite nice and offers a huge selection if you’re looking for excellent preparations of classic Thai dishes, and a few Western ones, too.
- Courageous Kitchen (Bangkok): Offering three experiences a day — a morning market tour and cooking class, an afternoon street food tour, and an evening family-friendly cooking class — the Courageous Kitchen makes for a memorable way to learn how to prepare your favorite Thai dishes while also supporting the organization’s fantastic mission.
- Doitung Tourism Project (Doitung, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Bangkok): This is a social enterprise that focuses on providing economic stability to the people in Doi Tung, a rural area in Northern Thailand’s Golden Triangle. By supporting the coffee shop, boutiques, and guesthouses, you support the livelihoods of the people in the region
- Elephant Nature Park (Chiang Mai): Spend a day with rescued elephants or volunteer for a week with these majestic creatures. An elephant sanctuary run by Lek Chailert, Elephant Nature Park works to teach tourists and locals about responsible elephant care and practices.
- Folkcharm Journey (Loei): Located quite off-the-path, this is one of the most unusual tours in the country and perfect for those interested in crafts and hands-on workshops. Learn cotton-weaving from the ground up directly from the farmers in this rural province, whose work is crafted into beautiful cotton textiles and souvenirs.
- Freebird Cafe (Chiang Mai): Enjoy delicious vegetarian Burmese dishes, fresh coffee and smoothies or do a little shopping at a boutique. Freebird Cafe works mostly with indigenous people and refugees, offering language classes and other forms of support.
- HiveSters (Bangkok & all of Thailand): This Thai-founded and run social enterprise is a giant database of fantastic local tours all over the country. From food experiences to bike tours to adventure experiences, this database has something to offer most any traveler interested in a local experience directly impacting the lives of those running the tours.
- Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (Chiang Mai): One of the newer elephant sanctuaries in Thailand (opened 2016), this one is, by all accounts, doing all the right things by working directly with the hill-tribes in Thailand to provide sustainable alternatives and bring elephants home to the forest.
- Lila Thai Massage (Chiang Mai): Getting a Thai massage is an essential part of traveling through Thailand. Lila Thai Massage works with former female inmates to give them a legal vocation after being released.
- Local Alike (most cities): This online marketplace allows you to find curated travel experiences in local communities across Southeast Asia. Infuse money directly into local economies by booking tours completely designed and run by the locals who know their communities best.
- New Heaven Reef Conservation Program (Kho Tao): Learn to dive, level up your diving skills, or enjoy diving around Kho Tao at this dive school that also hosts a conservation program that teaches divers about coral reef ecology, research, and restoration.
- Phuket Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (Phuket): A tiny sanctuary dedicated to adopting gibbons that were kept in captivity with a hope of rehabilitating them and reintroducing the gibbons back into the wild. Visit their viewing platform in the Khao Phra Thaew Royal Wildlife & Forest Reserve to spot gibbons and learn more about their work.
- Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon (Chiang Mai Province): The King established the Station to eliminate opium growing among the hilltribe groups and now there is a gorgeous set of gardens, waterfalls, and more. Visit on a trip to Doi Inthanon National Park to help support this social enterprise.
- Wanita (Pattani): Women from the poorest provinces in Southern Thailand banded together to create product and industry that could positively affect their lives. Although there is not much tourism in the region, if you are in Pattani then stop by the shop that displays the food products, wickerwork, handicraft, and agriculture produced by these women.
- Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (Hua Hin): The foundation’s Elephant Refuge and Education Centre and allows travelers to spend one day at the center learning about the work and visiting all 450+ animals living there — elephants, but also monkeys, bears, and more. A high-end Elephant lodge is also available.
- Women’s Education for Advancement and Empowerment (Chiang Mai): Shop for lovely handicrafts created by ethnic women living in Burma and Northern Thailand. Proceeds from your purchases go towards supporting women living in refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border.
The database of social enterprises in Thailand is always expanding as GV Ambassadors map the world of projects and businesses that need support from responsible travelers. Wondering how we pick a social enterprise for inclusion? Make your time in Thailand a better force for good by visiting and supporting businesses committed to environment, social, and community welfare.
Interested in Volunteering?
Although volunteering in Thailand is not nearly as complicated a topic as in nearby Cambodia, where there are systemic issues embedded deeply within the volunteering industry there, there are still some issues, cautions, and things you should consider before booking a volunteer vacation in the Land of Smiles.
Every single volunteer should first understand the deeply nuanced issues within the industry and the range of potential concerns. Read “The Psychology & Ethics of International Volunteering” for a primer on the core issues and the key mindset you should take when preparing to volunteer. In essence, understand that volunteer programs should not compromise the dignity of local populations, and in many cases the projects should all be working toward an end-goal of independence of the communities from the need for volunteers, even if it’s at a point further in the future.
To pick the right volunteer program, assess the length of time you have to give and the skills you offer. For those with long-honed specialized skills — things like financial degrees, law, medicine, fundraising, and more — there is great need in a vast number or organizations.
If you have few concrete skills, consider visiting social enterprises instead, and using your trip as a way to learn more about the culture as well as specific organizations you might want to support. Avoid volunteering with children unless you have many months to commit to the project as numerous studies have found that short-term stints at schools and orphanages can have harmful longterm effects on the children.
All of that said, there are certainly a huge number of volunteer opportunities for volunteers of all skill levels and time commitments, so don’t let any aspect prevent you from researching and then assessing if you have the skills suited to a project that needs your help. Research independent volunteer opportunities in Thailand.
Additional Resources for Responsible Travelers
If you’re planning a trip to Thailand — or Southeast Asia in general — these travel resources are essential for travelers focused on sustainable and responsible vacations.
- The Responsible Traveler’s Guide to Southeast Asia (and Cambodia or Myanmar specifically)
- Review: Travel Insurance Options for International Volunteers
- 8 Behaviors of Socially Responsible Travel
- Should You Give to Child Beggars?
- How to Pack for Long-Term & Round The World Travel
- Travel Planning Resources
- ALA Free Travel Guides for: Thailand and Vietnam
- Lonely Planet Thailand
- The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook
Books to Read Before You Visit Thailand
Understanding a country’s history and culture is a fundamental aspect of responsible and informed travel. Plus, you’ll enjoy your travels so much more when you have context to wrap around your interactions and experiences.
- Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap
- One Fourteenth of an Elephant by Ian Denys Peek
- Fieldwork: A Novel by Mischa Berlinski
- Thailand – Culture Smart! by Roger Jones
- Bangkok 8: A Royal Thai Detective Novel by John Burdett
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