The Environmental Best Practices of a Small Ecolodge in Southern Thailand

By Willem Niemeijer CEO, YAANA Ventures | November 24, 2019

Adjacent to the rainforest of Khao Sok National Park in southern Thailand, YAANA Ventures has built a 20-key ecolodge dedicated to implementing the principles of responsible and sustainable tourism. The park, and its adjoining nature reserves, is home to an amazing array of wildlife such as elephants, tiger, hornbills, leopards, sun bears, otters, gibbons – 48 mammal species in all, plus 311 different species of bird, some 200 flora species per hectare covering 3500 square kilometers (1350 square miles) of mostly pristine forest.

In 1982 the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand built the Rachabrapah Dam in the southern end of the sanctuary. The dam created the 165 sq. km (64 sq mile) Cheow Larn lake reservoir. It submerged many valleys leaving tall limestone cliffs and peaks rising sheer from the water. In a tale of unintended consequences, the flooding created a visually stunning landscape akin to the Guilin Li River karst mountain water paintings made popular in China from the 15th century.

Cheow Larn Lake, part of Khao Sok National Park, is now a major attraction for ecotourists who combine hiking and wildlife spotting in the forest with kayaking and overnight stays in floating bungalows on the lake. Activities on the lake and in the national park are closely controlled by national park authorities. The result is a wonderful ecoadventure playground for hikers, kayakers, bird watchers, wildlife enthusiasts, and people seeking to commune with mother nature at its best.

Anurak Community Lodge, Surat Thani province, Thailand

Inspired and awed by the setting, our aim at Anurak Community Lodge since opening in 2016 has been to create a low impact ecolodge operating on the principles of conservation and sustainability. (The name "Anurak" in Thai translates as "conserve".) Our goal is to lead by example and not just respect the physical environment around us, but to honor local culture and contribute to the rural community in this remote area of Surat Thani province.

Indeed, many of the principles that have guided us in our modest but successful Anurak ecoadventure to date are transferrable and will hopefully motivate readers to implement changes in their own hotel operations – no matter the size of their hotel or its location.

Furthermore, being environmentally sustainable is increasingly good marketing, especially for an ecolodge in Southeast Asia.

Our guests at Anurak come for peace, nature, relaxation. They expect us to be responsible green operators. Our guests are typically educated, middle class Europeans, North Americans, expats in Asia, and millennial adventure seekers from large Asian cities. They seek an immersive nature experience as an antidote to urban life. They skew towards a younger age group due to the adventure activities available. Nevertheless, our older guests also enjoy simpler hikes and admire the stunning views of the forest-clad karst mountain landscape from the lodge's Hornbill restaurant.

Today, as you walk into Anurak Community Lodge it is a bit like walking into a small unkempt botanical garden. It is not for lack of care that the gardens have a slightly wild look about them. It is all part of Anurak's "Rainforest Rising" reforestation program. Within our lodge's total area of 23,000 square meters, we are in the process of returning about 1000 square meters of palm oil plantation back into indigenous vegetation cover. Our ultimate aim is to make the entire former commercial plantation indistinguishable from native forest in adjacent Khao Sok National Park itself.

In the last few decades palm oil, used as a biofuel and in food products, has become a major sector of Thailand's agricultural economy. However, palm oil trees consume large amounts of water, need vast amounts of chemical fertilizer which ends up in streams and causes harm to a healthy eco system. Palm oil plantations, like rubber tree ones, are sterile mono-cultures. Birds, insects and mammals prefer a diversity of species for a variety of fruit, leaves and habitat.

When we built Anurak, choosing an oil palm plantation to build on made environmental sense. By constructing on agricultural land, we didn't face the dilemma of cutting indigenous hardwoods to build an ecolodge. While the process of replacing the remaining palm oil will take time, a large number of palm oil trees have been removed from Anurak's grounds already.

The choice of building materials was important in the construction phase. Anurak's 12 villas on stilts that offer guests 18 spacious rooms and two safari tents – were designed and constructed from light, prefabricated materials. The various sections were pre-made in Bangkok and transported to the site to be assembled on stilt foundations, reducing the construction footprint to a minimum.

Once building was completed, Anurak's reforestation efforts got underway. We soon realized we needed advice. Accordingly, we are now collaborating with the Forest Restoration Research Unit (FORRU), part of Chiang Mai University, which has a project and nursery in neighboring Krabi province. FORRU has created a program of phased replanting for us. They recommend a variety of species and plan the density and sequence in which seedlings should be replanted.

In the 'Rainforest Rising' program guests choose from 17 different species of indigenous rainforest saplings to plant. By taking part, guests return home with the knowledge that they have helped the environment in a small way and helped offset their vacation's carbon footprint.

However, interaction with the natural surroundings doesn't stop there. Our back of house operations have been designed to uphold responsible and sustainable hospitality best practice.

As part of Anurak's Sustainability Management Plan, site infrastructure, policies and procedures are guided by our ethos of reduce, reuse and recycle. Guests and staff are encouraged to save energy and water. Single-use plastic, Styrofoam, cardboard plates, etc are banned. Plastic straws have been replaced with metal and bamboo ones. An onsite recycling station has been set up, along with a composting area. A gray water treatment filter system for laundry wastewater is currently being installed. That water will be used to irrigate Anurak's onsite vegetable garden and for our Rain Forest Rising project.

YAANA Ventures has also developed a hotel management platform that will go a long way in taking Anurak Lodge paperless. When fully implemented, by the end of this year, we aim to do away with restaurant chits, housekeeping forms and most of our paper reporting. Menus are printed on recycled paper. Worn towels, sheets and tablecloths are donated to charity, while damaged towels and sheets are converted into cleaning rags.

Beyond the physical environment, community relations are a vital part of Anurak's culture. Our 24 full-time staff are mostly recruited from neighboring villages. Through environmental awareness training and experience from working with the Anurak concept, they have become de facto environment ambassadors within the community. They spread the word about the benefits of simple, day-to-day sustainable practices that can be used at home as well.