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Environmental Impact on Phangnga Bay, Thailand

04/09/02 12:00AM By Ruth Page

John Gray is a sea kayaker and ecotourism expert, now wondering whether it's possible to keep even ecotourists from destroying the wonders they visit. A recent International Wildlife says that in Thailand in 1989, Gray discovered an eerie and precarious caveway that led deep into the heart of an island. He inched his way through in the dark, lying flat in his craft so he wouldn't be skinned by the shelly "ceiling." He emerged in a primeval sparkling blue lagoon.

Jurassic-age trees called cycads flourish on the sunlit cliffs. Egrets circle in the sky. The only sound in this dream world comes from a group of macaques playing in the trees. This is Phangnga Bay, where forty islands previously unknown to outsiders rise from melted-emerald waters. Some are just towers of rock, some have pristine beaches. Rain and waves have carved passageways in the ancient limestone of Phangnga. Some tops have collapsed, letting sun pour in. They become gardens of greenery.

Gray was stupefied to realize he was looking at a world probably unchanged in the last million years. His award-winning ecotourism company, Sea Canoe, always protects nature by controlling the number of tourists on a trip. Phangnga was such a magical treasure he set up ironclad controls to maintain silence and protect rocks, plants and water. He allowed only sixteen persons in at once fifty total per day. He hired locals and trained and paid them well; they were "well-educated environmental warriors." Such control was unheard of in money-mad Thailand. Sea Canoe's clients may not talk, smoke or touch the cave walls; they take no souvenirs. They are told to enter it as they would a temple. Prehistoric rock paintings at the lagoon show humans have paddled there for at least 3,000 years.

But Gray's discovery was too marvelous to keep secret. Word leaked out from Se Canoe clients and copycats sold trips cheaply to create mass market. Today, the silence is no more, most of the wildlife has left and as many as a thousand kayakers appear daily. There are traffic jams in the caves and boats jostle each other on the lagoon. Tourists break off bits of shell and coral, dump garbage in the water and walk on the fragile limestone. Then came the mafia a powerful syndicate with political connections. They gather birds' nests to sell for big bucks. Gray's operations manager was shot in the stomach, arm and knee; it took many blood transfusions and an eleven-hour operation to save him. Ho one was arrested. Gray risks his life daily, trying to protect Phangnga. Heartbroken, he is sorry he ever found the caves, the blue lagoon, the islands. The ancient treasure has been turned into a sort of Nature's Disneyland by the careless hoards of visitors.

This is Ruth Page, offering one more example of the greed and thoughtlessness of humans, destroying natural treasures that took millennia to evolve.

Ruth Page is a writer and former editor of a weekly newspaper and a national gardening magazine.
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