34 ways to travel greener

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First published 30th October, 2008

Every day brings more news about the catastrophic changes that are headed Earth's way. What's the use of heading off for a beach holiday if all the beaches are underwater courtesy of rising sea levels? Unfortunately there's some inevitable environmental impact in opting for a holiday in Asia, but luckily for you, we've put together a list of 34 ways you can try to reduce the environmental chaos you'll contribute to by tramping across Southeast Asia. Read on, and please leave your own suggestions at the end of the story.


Unless you're already in the region, a carbon-spewing international flight into Southeast Asia is close to unavoidable. There are, however, a few ways to keep the spewing to a minimum.

1) Catch the bus (or train) to the airport
Have your family and friends farewell you at the bus stop rather than the airport terminal. As long as you're not the only passenger on the bus, you'll be using a less-polluting means to get to the airport. As an added bonus, your friends and family will thank you for saving them a small fortune on airport-priced coffee, beer and airport parking.

2) Fly a carrier that uses new aircraft
According to the International Air Travel Association (IATA) aircraft made today are around 20% more efficient than those manufactured a decade ago. Ask your travel agent or check the airline's website to get an idea of how old their fleet is. Not only will you be doing the environment a favour, you'll also most likely be travelling in a safer aircraft.

3) Carbon-offset
It may be all the rage and getting tiresome to hear about, but the thinking behind carbon offsets is sound. Don't use your airline's offset programme, however: Use an online calculator to get an idea of just how much high-altitude spew you're responsible for, then find an offset programme doing work you approve of and send them the cash. Note that not all carbon-offset organisations are non-profit. One of the better regarded ones that is is Carbonfund. Their website also has a nifty little carbon calculator.

4) Catch the bus from the airport
Once you've landed in Southeast Asia, catch the bus into town. Bangkok, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Singapore all have airport bus or minibus networks -- use them.


Catch the bus from the airport

You'll be faced with a variety of options for getting around in Southeast Asia and luckily the region has good, affordable and comprehensive public transport.

5) Travel green
Southeast Asia is awash in low cost carriers (LCCs) who'll happily fly you 100km for the price of a family's worth of foot massages. While convenient and inexpensive, it's about as polluting as you can get. Thailand and Vietnam have comprehensive train networks, while Laos and Cambodia have bus and minibus networks. Use them. They'll often cost less than a low cost flight and you can take all the toothpaste, liquid and nail cutters you want into the cabin.

6) Train beats bus beats car
Generally speaking, trains are better than buses and buses are better than cars. Obviously if you're the only person on the train, or if you drive an incredibly small car that runs on olive oil, then the above doesn't hold, but otherwise, train is best -- and the food is invariably better on the train.

7) Two wheels good, four wheels bad
Motorbikes should be avoided -- especially the two-stroke variety -- but bicycles should be adopted at every possible opportunity. While it has no discernable affect on the environment, fluorescent lycra clothing should be avoided -- thank you.


Two wheels good, four wheels bad

Packing with a view towards saving the environment has the added bonus of tending to result in a lighter pack. A lighter pack means more space to fill up with goodies to take home.

8) Pack a cloth bag
Bring your own cloth bag and use it whenever you pop into a store to buy something. When the staffer proffers you a plastic bag, just say no. The staff will look at you like you just arrived from the planet Zork, but don't fret -- be comfortable in the knowledge that 7-eleven bag handles invariably break within a few blocks anyway. Amazon has a terrific World Food Programme bag that not only gives you a durable bag, but also provides a school year of meals for one child in need. How's that for value!

9) Pack quick-drying underwear and socks
Quick drying socks means there'll be no need to run an industrial-strength drier for three hours to dry the inch-thick hiking socks Grandma gave you. Better still, don't wear socks. Do wear underwear though.

10) Pack dark clothes
Dark clothes can be worn many more times before the stains become obvious. More wears equals less washes equals better for the environment -- even if not so good for the unfortunate sitting next to you (they do also tend to attract more mossies than pale-coloured clothes).

11) Pack a microfibre towel
These don't need the heavy washing and drying a typical beach towel requires. They're also compact and weight next to nothing, making for a lighter pack. Best of all, when you get home they make a great car chamois. These MSR packtowels on Amazon come in a range of colours and sizes.

12) Go solar
One of the reasons you're in Southeast Asia is probably the near never-ending sun -- so get something more out of it than just a tan. Solar products are available for all sorts of nifty purposes including this universal solar powered charger.


Pack intelligently

Large hotels are sinkholes of environmental degradation. Your best option is to camp, but given Bangkok's not known for its camping scene, you will need to stay in hotels and guesthouses as well.

13) Unplug, unplug, unplug
Not using the DVD, TV, kettle and iron? Unplug them all. Many devices pull a small current even when they're turned off and the only way to really stop them sucking out the power is to unplug them.

14) Going out? Turn it off!
If you're going out, turn everything off. It's simple really -- didn't your Mum tell you that?

15) Fan-cooled over air-con
Always choose a fan room over an air-con one. Look for accommodation that mimics local "traditional" sensibilities -- airy construction, tall ceilings and lots of windows. Avoid cinderblock, concrete rooms with no windows -- you don't need us to tell you that.

16) Use air-con judiciously
If you opt for an air-con room, programme it to switch off around 4am in the morning -- you don't need to be cooling down the room the last few hours before dawn.

17) Sort out the thermostat
Most hotel staff hanker for a life somewhere in the Arctic Circle and they set your thermostat accordingly. Don't be shy about bringing it up to 25 to 27 degrees Celsius.

18) Have the towels changed only when needed
If a dog slept on your towel, then put it in for laundry, otherwise, unless you're mud-wrestling every night, you can get by a few days without having your towels laundered.

19) Bucket beats all
The traditional Asian manner of bathing involves standing in the middle of the bathroom, ladling water over you from a massive ceramic vase (or garbage bin, depending on your choice of lodging). This uses far far far less water than a Western-style shower, so if it's available -- use it. Note: Don't get in the vase.

20) It's a shower, not a back massage
If you've got a Western shower, have a short one. See, that was easy.

21) Support green businesses
Stay at places that have good green credentials, such as hotels that use solar power, rain water, compost or recycle. There is a growing number of green-directories, but they tend to be rather US- and EU-centric in their listings. A couple that had a few Asian listings included Eco Club and I Stay Green.


Go without the creature comforts

Asia is famous for its food -- some of the best in the world -- so why do people insist on ordering Gordon Blue, cordon bleu, cardone bluw and Cordunblu -- if the restaurant can't spell the dish's name, rest assured they won't be cooking it too well either. Do your taste buds, your stomach and the earth a favour by eating local.

22) Foreign food be evil
Local food, meaning food native to the country you're travelling in, can carry with it a major enviromental plus -- it hasn't been shipped in from overseas. So wave a polite no thank you to smoked salmon, Vegemite and Doritos and instead savour prahok (fermented fish), local jams and prawn crackers. For drinks, steer clear of imported wines and beers, but remember some international beers are brewed locally (Heinekin in Thailand for example) and Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam all have nascent wine industries -- though we suggest steering well clear of Hercules Wine in Udomxai, Laos. There's a growing organic food scene in the larger centres in Asia, but it's still a novelty. If you're looking for some primers on Southeast Asian food, some of our favourites include Austin Bush on Thailand, Phnomenon on Cambodia (the blog is inactive, but the archives are priceless), gas•tron•o•my on Vietnam, Eating Asia on Malaysia and Lao Bumpkin on Laos.

23) Take a refillable flask
Many guesthouses offer complementary (or subsidised) water. Refill your flask every day from one of their sources. Make sure they're using glass bottles or have a water dispensing machine -- don't buy a plastic bottle just to fill up your flask. Make sure your flask doesn't contain BPA. There's a bunch of these available online, but one that really caught our eye was this all natural handmade tea and coffee tumbler, as you can make tea and coffee in it as well.

24) Purify your water
Tap water cannot be reliably drunk in Southeast Asia, so if that's what you want to imbibe, you'll need to treat it. Luckily there's a whole industry built on the premise of unsafe water, so you can browse their goodies here.


Stick with local food

It's not just about the health of the planet -- it's about your health too. Look after yourself and chances are you'll be doing the Earth a favour too.

25) Don't use malaria medication unless you really have to
While not strictly an environmental issue, tourists taking medication for malaria in areas where it is not a problem, or worse, not taking full treatments, are a major contributor to resistance in mossies. Get expert advice -- that is, probably not just from your local GP -- before deciding on whether you need malarials. You can read more about the need to take malarials here.

26) Use a green bug spray
Mosquitoes and other creepy-crawlies are a persistent problem, but fight them off with a herbal remedy rather than chemical warfare. Citronella is an effective mosquito repellent and can be purchased both as a spray and candles.

27) Don't use toilet paper
A couple of billion people get by without toilet paper -- and so can you. That spray gun stuck on the wall isn't for cleaning your shoes, it's for your butt. Remember, even if you're left handed, this is still a job for the left hand.

28) Don't use tampons
They clog up toilets and fill up bins. Look into alternatives like The Moon Cup, The Keeper and the Diva Cup. They're all reusable "menstrual solutions". See Keeper and Diva Cup for more information.

29) Don't use disposable nappies
We suggest this but also confess we would not commit to doing this ourselves: use reusable nappies if travelling with non-toilet trained kids. Landfill is much more of an issue in developing nations than the West.


Look after yourself -- and the planet

A few simple steps will help you have a relaxing holiday in Asia -- and one that will have a little bit less of an impact on the places you travel to.

30) Don't impersonate Marco Polo
You don't need to travel all over the country to have a relaxing break. Yes, you can save the environment by laying on one beach for two weeks rather than laying on 15 beaches on seven islands in the same period of time. Slow down, travel less -- both the earth and your blood pressure will thank you.

31) Don't buy a guidebook
Save a tree and use an online guide instead -- we hear Travelfish.org is alright.

32) Organise a clean-up
If you're staying on a beach somewhere where the locals don't already keep the sand clear of rubbish, you could organise a chain gang of tourists to spend a morning collecting refuse.

33) Line-drying rules
This is the norm in Asia anyway, but clothes driers are becoming more common. If a place offers laundry turnaround in a few hours, they don't get an unusual amount of sun, they're using a drier -- take your business elsewhere.

34) Buy sustainable souvenirs
Buy souvenirs that are produced locally, use sustainable methods and ideally, are marketed by locally owned businesses. Of course it's not always straightforward to find all that out, but there's a growth of NGO supported outlets for goods like these across the region. Unfortunately you'll still see ivory souvenirs for sale in Asia -- avoid.


Buy sustainable souvenirs

So there's 34 suggestions for travelling a little greener than you may have otherwise. We're sure you've got a few other ideas up your sleeve, so please feel free to add your suggestions below -- thanks!


About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and he spends most of his time in Bali, Indonesia.


Read 4 comment(s)

  • This is all good, if a little hard to remember all 34 points and perhaps a bit on the militant tree-hugging side for some (you know, like when you ask the vegan why and are told that 'eating a cow is like eating a baby - just look at those big eyes'.

    I'd just like to add a couple of comments and suggestions that are easy to do and/or light to carry but pack a punch.

    On point 18, it seems to me that no matter how often I do as I'm told and hang the towels correctly, the cleaners in Asia still take them away. It's infuriating. I've found that speaking to the cleaners directly, or to the english-speaking front desk, tends to have better results.

    On point 24, to purify your water, can I recommend the very light, very cheap and very effective steripen. It means you don't have to buy so many plastic water bottles. The steripen is not complicated, big, hard to clean like many others. It's just an electric spoon-type thing that sends out UV light and can be used to sterilize any sort of water (okay, within reason - stear clear of toilet bowls and Bangkok khlongs), including ice cubes in a cup at a restaurant. A good friend of mine recently used it in Thailand for eight weeks, drinking the tap water the entire time, without even a hint of traveler's tummy. Check it out at www.steripen.com.

    In the same league is the wind-up torch (like a dynamo driven bike light). I don't know how many batteries I've used/wasted over the years when my torch/flashlight has turned on in my bag. Which also happens to be highly annoying when you need the torch and it doesn't work, and expensive. Now you can get wind-up torches for about $10 that will never require another battery, never run out, never leak acid all over your shit, and never get thrown away with a estimated decomposition period of thousands of years.

    They come in all shapes and sizes, but the one I have is tiny, has a headband for reading, and provides about 20 minutes of light for 90 seconds of winding.

    I'm a complete convert to the wind-up torch. As I say, it's cheap, light, easy and I don't even have to give up on toilet paper to feel like I'm doing my bit!

    Posted by Dongphuvieng on 3rd November, 2008

  • Thanks for mentioning iStayGreen.org in your article.

    We are trying to help consumers make a difference for the environment when they travel. We have created iStayGreen.org as a dedicated "Green" web site with the focus of making environmentally friendly lodging easy to find and book.

    iStayGreen is the most comprehensive online booking site for "Green" lodging. There are 3,500 properties listed as environmentally friendly which have been awarded the Green Eco-Leaf Rating.

    The eco initiatives of the property are clearly listed. Users are encouraged to contribute "Green" Reviews and environmentally rate the hotels they visit.

    It's like Tripadvisor - Facebook - Travelocity all together in one site for the environmentally concious traveler.

    Posted by Richard on 10th March, 2009

  • This is all great stuff but please, what is it about the Hercules wine? I expect I will need to pass thru Udomxai in the new year and I'm now thinking I need to make it my mission to try some...

    (incidentally, the insistence by housekeeping on changing towels is not limited to Asia, it has happened to me plenty of times in Australia too)

    Posted by BVC2 on 19th July, 2009

  • kl;'lk;k'

    Posted by Erind is playing poker! on 7th November, 2011

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