A Little Story… The Origins of Chocolate and Effects of Responsible Tourism in Panama

A cacao fruit hanging from a tree at Silico Creek, Panama.
A cacao fruit hanging from a tree at Silico Creek, Panama.

Rain pelted darts of moisture into my skin as we stumbled off the bus into a huddle of quizzical faces. A slice of doubt entered my mind at their complete bafflement, but within moments the bus handler had hurled our luggage under the shelter and sped down the road, leaving Ana, my dad, and me at mile marker 25: Silico Creek.

Barely marked on the maps, Silico Creek is a blip on the tourist radar between Bocas del Toro and Boquete. My dad found this indigenous community while researching interesting things to do in the Chiriquí area and decided that we three would kick off our Panama adventure learning about the origins of chocolate through Urari. This small rural tourism organization is located at Silico Creek, which lies within the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca, a demarcated area similar in function to Native American reservations in the U.S.

From the start, our adventure echoed of the coffee farm Ana and I visited in rural Thailand to learn about fair-trade, sustainable coffee production. If there is one thing that interests me more than coffee, it’d be chocolate, so this journey with my dad and Ana would complete my deep understanding of two of the world’s biggest food commodities. Like coffee, eco-tourism circles bandy about buzz-ish words like “local,” “organic,” and “fair-trade.” Take a trip to the designer chocolate aisle at the grocery store and it’s a veritable test of each company’s ability to find marketable synonyms of these words. But I wanted to know the human story behind the chocolate, behind Urari’s small tourism organization, which was self-started and runs entirely by the community. It seemed like the perfect place to delve into my two great loves: supporting social enterprises and consuming chocolate.

In short, our weekend held promise. We were all intrigued by the chance to live within one of Panama’s indigenous communities … but first, I had to find the place.

I hesitantly questioned the group in Spanish. Smiles bloomed on their faces as they gave encouraging gestures toward the gravel path behind us, nodding as we set off into the drizzling rain.

Two hours later, we had settled into modest wooden hilltop bungalows, consumed hot chocolate, and found ourselves surrounded by members of the community—everyone asking and answering questions in tandem.

Sunrise from Urari's bungalows at Silico Creek, Panama.
The rain cleared for part of our stay and our first sunrise welcomed a gorgeous, crisp day of blue skies and chirping birds.

Building Sustainability Within the Silico Creek Community

A gorgeous and bright morning for our waterfall hike from Silico Creek, Panama.
Modest wooden houses line the hilltops with gorgeous views all the way to the Caribbean Sea.

Right away, our biggest hurdle was language … only a few members of the community speak basic English. As guides and members of the community learned that each of us had varying levels of Spanish, mine being passable to communicate, we defaulted to Spanish and spent three days in full immersion, with me acting as translator for Ana and my dad.

Immersion was the name of the game for this trip, so we immediately learned of the community’s history. Silico Creek is a settlement of indigenous people who moved to a fertile northeastern region of the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca in the 1960s. That first family expanded and the 500-person village now includes all the children, grandchildren, and extended relatives.

Urari, I learned, is primarily designed as the community’s homegrown solution to a lack of tourism and income. Much like reservations in the United States, indigenous peoples are given land and the right to operate freely, but in contrast to reservations in the U.S., demarcated regions of Panama are given almost full autonomy and therefore lack government support. This was not always the case though, and after years (decades … centuries) of politics and land issues, modern tourism and the development of a thriving economy is tough for rural communities. Many indigenous peoples operate on a barter system—an internal economy within the community. But the world encroaches on the edges of the reservation land, and land and money within the demarcation has become a commodity for the Ngäbe-Buglé.

As we learned more, I related it back to my time in Thailand studying coffee. Many issues surrounding the global production of coffee are similarly present in Silico Creek’s cacao plantations. Cacao is the primary crop grown by nearly every family, but they sell their beans to a nearby cooperative that, while paying “fairly,” does not generate enough income to support the community. In short, the current avenues for selling cacao outside of the reservation don’t offer livable wages even within their communal living system.

Hence a new focus on tourism.

And in this case, Ana, my dad, and I took part in homegrown tourism at Silico Creek, which means the locals shaped the interactions and the amount of their culture they would offer up to tourists like us. They formed Urari to run tours and overnight stays for foreigners interested in learning more about the Ngäbe-Buglé culture, as well as organic agriculture and cacao production.

Finding Grassroots Tourism in Panama

The largest initiative at Silico Creek of interest to outsiders is organic farming and the production of cacao—the plant at the beginning of all the world’s delicious chocolate.

We spent our first afternoon at Urari learning about the culture and people within the settlement, and just getting situated. As dark settled over the hilltop bungalows, however, we locals offered a cheery wave as the community descended to their homes just below, navigating with cell phones as flashlights since the community does not have electricity.

And then we spent an hour on small pleasures—my dad and I talked on our dark balcony, looking out at moonwashed treetops and discussed the day. Ana hunkered under the mosquito net and read a book inside. At least, she read until I ousted her at top speed to see a flickering tapestry of fireflies breaking up the dark near our bungalows. Until traveling, I had never seen a firefly, so I knew that was Ana’s fate as well. It was magical. Ana and I did a lively rendition of Owl City’s “Firefly” before we all turned in for an early nights sleep.

Gorgeous rolling hills and land we trekked over for our waterfall hike from Silico Creek, Panama.
Gorgeous rolling hills and land we trekked over for our waterfall hike from Silico Creek, Panama.

hiking in a sustainable community in Panama

We woke to the chatter of birds the next morning and the smiling faces of Eduardo and his family as they laid out a full breakfast spread—traditional bread, eggs, and fruit. The meal was hearty enough to get us through the strenuous waterfall hike on the docket for the day.

And boy did we earn that breakfast! The hike was muddy but fun and gave us the chance to chat with Arnoldo—our guide and brother to Eduardo—about the backstory of the Ngäbe-Buglé people, the community’s ultimate goals for Urari, and the impact of Panama’s varied political past on future of Panama’s indigenous peoples.

Oh yes, and we admired gorgeous untouched forests, small villages, rushing rivers, and a beautiful waterfall too.  :)

Our second day with the Silico Creek community ended as had the previous day: Many members of the community came to our hilltop bungalows to visit and answer questions. And frankly, to look at us. Ana was a minor celebrity with some of the children who had never previously seen a foreign child in person. Urari’s emphasis on fostering a connection between the tourists and the local community meant we always found new friends to chat with throughout the day.

A gorgeous day for the waterfall hike at Silico Creek, Panama.

The Humble Origins of Chocolate

Cocoa has a relevant importance in our people, it’s used to make traditional medicines and when used during spiritual evening ceremonies it serves to purify our soul. Special consumption overnight is an ancestral practice Silico Creek.

Silico creek elder

A steady rain drummed on our wooden bungalows our last morning at Silico Creek. The wet earth created deep mud through which we would trek to learn about Silico Creek’s primary cash crop: cacao.

Throughout our visit, our meals included two traditional concoctions of this delicious bean—hot chocolate and chocolate coffee. Although this was a treat for us, chocolate represents more than an occasional treat for this community, and more than simply a crop to sell. Cacao has a cultural significance to the Ngäbe-Buglé and it’s embedded in their spiritual ceremonies. It also happens to be a relatively lucrative crop, giving it even more significance to them in today’s cash-based society.

The plight facing Urari again reminded me of the days I spent visiting the Akha Ama coffee collective in Northern Thailand. It’s a tale of farming, and not a particularly unique one. But farmers have a tough road. Growing such trendy commodities as coffee and chocolate mean growers continually strive to meet international standards, keep the crops healthy, and find a fair outlet for their commodity. And while Akha Ama created a collective to directly connect their coffee to consumers, Urari sells the cacao to a cooperative, taking a small cut of the deep profits made from other parts of the the global chocolate trade. Instead of relying on selling their chocolate solely through the cooperative, which they have done since the 1950s, the families of Silico Creek plan to grow their tourism project and create a direct connection to tourists (and thus a win a slice of the $8.9 trillion dollars travel and tourism adds to the global economy).

Ripening cacao hulked from the tree branches on one of the cacao plantations at Silico Creek, Panama.
Ripening cacao hulked from the tree branches on one of the cacao plantations at Silico Creek, Panama.

We slogged through the dense overgrowth in borrowed rain boots and dodged the heavy cacao fruit hanging low from the trees. Arnoldo and a local farmer guided us throughout the plantation, explaining the history of the crop and the core processes and challenges of growing cacao. We even tasted the ripe cacao fruit—it’s syrupy-sweet like candy.

From the farm, we walked back to the village and sheltered in the home of a woman who processes chocolate throughout the day. Most of the community’s adults, children, and artisans collectively run Urari, and 75 percent of Silico Creek families are directly involved in producing and processing chocolate.

Our guides led us through the roasting process, grinding the beans, and finally a taste of the freshly pressed cacao: nose-flinchingly bitter. That liquid is then packed into bars and sold to tourists; anything not sold directly to visitors is instead sold to the nearby cooperative.

Again we saw how tourism was a profitable avenue for Urari. Beyond just tours, Urari planned to diversify the types of chocolate products it produced, creating more opportunities for direct sales to tourists. Their marketing message is soli: Buy high-quality organic chocolate directly from the source and support Panama’s indigenous people. (We bought two bars and my dad and I tried our hand at a delicious raw cacao dessert!)

Raw cacao seeds

pressing cacao into chocolate in a sustainable community in Panama

Tasting raw cacao

The Realities of Sustainable Tourism

I often talk about the benefits of local, sustainable tourism, of supporting the communities working to support themselves. Urari is a clear illustration of the concept. Your travels are richer are when you engage responsibly with locals.

That said, my threshold for getting off the beaten path is different from the average tourist because of my years on the road. Those three days at Urari were really my dad’s first venture into rural tourism, so I was interested in his reactions. He came away wowed at how different he now understood Panama—the place he spent all of his childhood. This tourism project gave him a way chance to see an entirely different side to the country.

Silico Creek hopes expand their initiative in the coming years. Right now, school groups from the states visit en masse several times a year to study agriculture and farming, but casual tourism from guidebooks and word of mouth is still in the early stages.

The basic wooden bungalows provided by Urari at Silico Creek, Panama.
The basic wooden bungalows provided by Urari at Silico Creek, Panama.

A delicious lunch of coconut rice, fresh avocado, and hearts of palm (and chicken for the meat eaters).
A delicious lunch of coconut rice, fresh avocado, and hearts of palm (and chicken for the meat eaters).

And to an extent, you can tell. The community has bare basic Western amenities. The outdoor bathrooms are spotless, but there is no electricity. Mosquito nets adorn the beds and you basically drop off the face of the earth while you’re staying at Urari—meals and activities are all arranged through the community and there is no easy access to the nearby towns.

It’s truly full immersion.

And it was great. My dad loved the three days. Although he was very glad for the hot shower in Boquete once we left, he loved having such direct access to the locals—a clear venue to ask questions and investigate his curiosity. This is what I have long loved about local-level travel and it was a success with all three generations of us on this trip—my niece (12 years old), me (29), and my dad (late 50s).

Our group takes a photo all together.
The three of us and our guides for the three days!

When you step off the path while traveling, you gain insights, stories, and interactions simply not possible ensconced in high-end hotels that bubble-wrap the raw and gritty reality of traveling. It’s these off-the-path adventures that shape my most prominent travel memories. In addition to meeting locals at the markets and striking up conversations with strangers in parks, it’s often by finding sustainable social enterprises that I am able to meet people and learn their story. I travel with a specific interest in social enterprise and non-profit work, and by seeking out these conversations I uncover so much more than is offered on the tourist track around a country.

And for those with just a week or two in a region, using grassroots initiatives allows locals to invite tourists into their communities on their terms and share their cultural, language, and customs. Sometimes travel to indigenous communities borders on zoo-like experiences (notably the Karen in Northern Thailand), but the face of modern tourism does not have to look like that. From Kenya to Thailand to Panama, there are indigenous people setting the terms of how they want tourists to learn more about their cultures and customs.

I asked the community the best way they would like support; Arcadio, one of the brothers noted:

Come meet Ngäbe-Buglé, our culture, and see the importance of growing cacao organically. Visit the surrounding nature and tranquility to enjoy the company of a large family in rural area.

Throughout three days of full immersion, we found new friendships, connected on a personal level with a culture so different from our own, and my family and I did it on terms set by the people directly affected by this tourism: the families that make up Silico Creek, Panama. And that, well, that’s the heart of why I love using social enterprises while traveling.

Quick Tips: How to Visit Silico Creek

Where: On the road between David and Changuinola at kilometer 25. Follow the full directions on their site; this project is best visited in conjunction with a Bocas del Toro trip since they are in that region, within the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca.

How: Their website is pretty basic and great for research, but for the smoothest experience book the a bungalow on Booking.com, then reach out to the Urari community directly to pre-arrange tours and such during your stay.

When: Urari is open to tourism throughout the year, though they have limited capacity to house tourists if a school group is in residence. We visited in June, which is off-season because of the rains, but that did not ruin the adventure by any means. Book via email ahead of time and they will arrange your stay, prepare for the activities you want (waterfall hike, cacao tour, cultural dance, farm-stay, etc).  We arrived five hours before they expected us, so of note is that they will try to meet you at the bus stop if you tell them of your arrival time.

Why: Urari represents Silico Creek’s self-started initiative to create opportunities and revenue to sustain their community. Grassroots, sustainable projects are a passion of mine and all three of us loved the chance to immerse in the culture, ask questions, and learn more about the people while funneling money directly to the people.

Tips: Accommodation is basic but the wooden bungalows are very clean. The bulk of the reservation does not have electricity (there is a small solar-powered station I heard about but never saw, so don’t count on using it). Pack wisely. Bring flashlights, mosquito repellant, warm clothes, rain gear in the off-season, and a sense of adventure. Only a bit of English is spoken at Silico Creek (the man on the other side of the email address speaks fluent English), so you should have at least basic Spanish language skills.

A fond thanks and warm thoughts to all the members of the Aguilar family who opened their homes and allowed us a glimpse into their lives and their culture. 

travel speaker volunteering

A Little Announcement…Meet My Book, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook

Volunteer Traveler's Handbook image
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Writing this book over the past nine months functioned as a perfect mirror for my own personal fears and vulnerabilities—my book about volunteering ended up with so much of me exposed in the process that the thought of publicly launching was overwhelming.

When I left the United States in 2008 on what became my open-ended journey around the world, I had no idea where my travels would take me. I did however, have hopes that traveling would act as a reset button on my life—that I would find a new focus beyond the acting industry I left behind in Los Angeles and the advertising background I studied in college. I had no idea that four years later I would write a book about volunteer travel, but my path has led me here, to announcing my new (and as yet only) book, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook.

Why did I think this book needed writing?

After years of volunteering and supporting local communities in each place I visited, I wanted to work on a project that would help others create positive change as they travel. The more I traveled, I affirmed my belief that there is good that can come when we all focus more on socially conscious travel—acknowledging that everyone cannot give, serve, and volunteer in the same way. Over the years, as A Little Adrift found more growth and success, other travelers emailed me with questions about how they could find ways to connect their travel experiences with small, grassroots organizations and local social enterprises all over the world.

And it felt good. And there was a need for this information in the community.

With those needs, and the countless emails I have received over the years as an impetus, I wrote The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. The book addresses the complicated facets of the international volunteer industry, and delves into the ethical issues related to working in developing communities. Through personal stories, and stories from other travelers and organizations, the book paints a clear picture of the ways people can pair travel and service. Sometimes this means through volunteering, but the book also offers ideas for short-term travelers who are perhaps not able to commit to a full volunteer project. On the whole, I wrote the book to address these core elements:

  • Foundational ideas about volunteering in developing countries
  • The interplay of ethics and development work
  • Identifying your motivations for volunteering
  • Picking either a volunteer tour, middleman placement company, or an independent organization
  • How to research and vet organizations to ultimately decide which jive with your personal ethical code
  • Managing your expectations
  • Pre-trip cultural research
  • How to navigate the experience once you’re there
  • All the nuts and bolts of travel like packing, safety, insurance, and visas

The book is a tapestry of ideas on the voluntourism industry. It weaves stories throughout the text to illustrate practical ways to apply the advice, as well as photos, resources, and ideas.

Why me?

In essence, I wrote the volunteer guide I wish I had before I left to travel. I made mistakes on my volunteer journey, I supported companies that were not working to better their community, but were instead purely profit driven. And in that same breath, I found wonderful grassroots businesses not listed in any guidebook that needed a hand in a way only I could lend. And I found friends and guidance along the way that shaped my views on development and aid work, the potentially harmful impact of naïve do-goodery, and the simple ways we can affect change.

I have traveled within and throughout communities all over the world, always looking for the simple ways I could lend a hand. My first international volunteer experience took place in Nepal, and since then I taught in Nepal, tutored children in Guatemala, built stoves, supported local causes, and found ways to integrate service into my travels through Southeast Asia with my niece last year. I don’t know everything, far from it, but I learning and understanding have underpinned each moment of my travels over the past four years. And with my meticulous nature, coupled with a lot of research, interviews, and questions, I gathered the information and perspectives I think each travelers need before they head out into developing communities.

Volunteer travel collage
Photos, each with its own memories and stories from my volunteer and travel experiences around the world.

This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

I put a very real piece of myself into this book. Across several continents, countless countries, and many months (and while caring for my niece) I spent long hours thinking about the best way, the right way to encourage other people to ethically volunteer. I had a lot of fears about the project—surely there were more books I should have read before writing, or if not that, I was no doubt going to grossly overlook fundamental ideas and challenges in the aid and volunteer industries. The fear monster was on full attack, usually in the dawn hours when no one else was awake; it was just me and the book staring each other down.

Volunteering is the easy word for this book, but really the subject touches on development and international aid policies, the ethics of “developing” these countries in the model of the west, and the tangible value and harm volunteers can bring to international projects. I care so much about doing the subject justice, with all of its nuances and hotly debated opinions, and for a time, this made it a struggle for me to overcome my fears.

That struggle, though, made it better. The concern made me ask more questions, interview more people, and ask for guidance from a diverse range of opinions within the realms of sustainable tourism, international development, and, ultimately, volunteering.

Actually, as Neil Gaiman noted in his keynote speech (that my friend Mike so graciously pointed me to in my moments of angst) the launch of my book is like standing naked in front of my entire community and baring a part of my heart and my soul because there is risk, there is potential failure and I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t admit that failure is a scary prospect.

But as I noted above, I felt the book needed to be written. And that overrode the fears.

volunteer travel

I think the sum total of this book can create positive change. I believe this is the truth. And I believe this is an immediate core focus for my life and my personal journey, to spread this positive message. I also think any new traveler, veteran traveler, and even arm-chair-occasional-two-week travelers will find value in the message—will find a way to use this information to travel with a more grassroots mentality of supporting local communities.

It took many months and many people (editors, designers, my partners in the book collective, family, and friends) to complete the project and hone the message down to its core components. But it says everything I want it to say. And now I’ve said nearly everything I want to say; I am happy with the results and there were are no words to do justice to the feeling of looking down at the cover and seeing my name in print for the first time.

Thank you! (And now I need your help)

I believe in the change we can create with the right information and the right focus, and I am so happy/excited/terrified to launch my new book into the world. The book is for sale at all major online outlets, and if you or someone you know is interested in this prism through which they can see the world—through local level service and volunteering, I would love for you to pass on the book, share it on Facebook or Twitter (the volunteer book’s permanent landing page is here).

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And if you buy it (thanks!), let me know what you think. There are likely things I overlooked, or ideas that will morph and change over the coming months and years and I am eager and open to feedback. Further, I would love to hear your story if you have your own experience volunteering or serving communities anywhere in the world; share it with the community in the comments, or send me an email.

Since I launched this site in 2008, I have grown to deeply value and appreciate the community of travelers who find their way here. I could not have made it to this point in my journey without the support of fellow travelers, readers, and friends. To all of those I have met along the way, for you feedback, guidance, shared stories, and encouragement, simply, thank you.


akha ama coffee

A Little Story… A Journey to Find What Sustainable Coffee Really Means

There is a textbook definition of the word “journey”: an act or instance of traveling from one place to another. Within the framework of our collective consciousness as people, however,  the true meaning of a journey lies within ourselves. The word can imply the growth of very specific ideas and understanding within a set time frame; or perhaps a long and hard-earned internal challenge, met through overcoming emotional obstacles and hurdles. There is always a change on a journey. More than the simple act of moving from one place to another, the journey morphs the journeyer throughout that move into a different place—either mental or physical, and occasionally both.

Mountains around Chiang Rai, Thailand
Panoramic views from the back of the bumpy pickup truck as we headed to Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Two years ago I met Lee, a coffee shop owner living in Chiang Mai, Thailand but originally from a small hill-tribe village about four hours away. Lee is on a long journey, but it’s not a voyage of distance. He runs Akha Ama Coffee, a fair trade coffee shop. It wasn’t until I met Lee, and went on a Coffee Journey with him that I came to a deeper understanding of  what it means when something is sustainably produced with a mind toward fair prices paid to the people producing the coffee, ie., fair trade.

Words like “organic” and “sustainable” are buzz-ish and trendy, plastered liberally on our foods, clothes and consumables. Regardless of how much they actually understand these labels, people feel good about supporting something positive out there in the world.

Words like “organic” and “sustainable” are buzz-ish and trendy today, plastered liberally on our foods, clothes and consumables. Regardless of how much they actually understand these labels, people tend to feel good about supporting something positive out there in the world. That’s the assumption, right? I use these words in my blogging and with regards to my volunteering, and have heretofore felt confident in my apt usage and understanding of the concepts.  During my travels I looked for ways to support social enterprises, or rather for-profit business operating with an underlying social mission: businesses like Lee’s. On the trade winds of my physical journey, I gained a deeper, more profound understanding of what these catchphrases mean—both literally and to the people affected by the “fair” part of “fair trade.”

Through my friendship with Lee over the past two years, I began to look more closely at how Westerners perceive the impact of our actions when we consume something innocuously labeled as sustainable and fair trade. What does that mean? As a writer who has ever emphasized the need for each traveler to begin understanding how intrinsically linked we are on this planet, I found myself humbled by where I myself was apparently situated on that continuum.

From organically grown coffee plants to a hand-brewed cup of coffee, Akha Ama Coffee takes the beans on a sustainable journey the entire way. That’s the Akha Ama logo replicated in latte art!

In 2011, I first came to Chiang Mai, Thailand and took up residence as a nomadic expat—I lived there, but for just five months. I landed in Chiang Mai knowing other travelers and expats living in the city, but I was acquainted with few locals. After finding a place to live and dispensing with other practical matters, my first order of business in any new place is tracking down a decent coffee shop—not only because locating caffeine and fast wi-fi are integral parts of me feathering my nest, but because I’ve found with experience that this is the best way to meet new people.

This is how I initially found myself at Lee’s Akha Ama coffee shop. His name is known in the local expat community, and with good reason: he is young, charming, and the kind of character who seems to attract a bevy of fast friends. To no surprise, I bonded quickly with Lee. Getting to know him better, and experiencing that gradual break with sonder that tends to happen in new acquaintanceship, however, was how I discovered that Lee’s story—the unspoken history underpinning his actions—is what really makes his personal journey stand out.

Lee is the face of Akha Ama Coffee, and organizes a biannual trip that takes a dozen people to his family’s remote village, where the coffee Lee sells and markets at his shop is grown. Lee calls these trips a “coffee journey.” That’s not hubris, either—the technical basics of making coffee are rather simple and can be covered with a quick overview (such as the two-hour trip through the Finca Filidefia plantation in Guatemala I took a few years ago). Lee’s trip, on the other hand, is a three-day journey toward understanding just what goes into a cup of sustainably grown coffee. It’s about the journey his village is taking toward operating as a sustainable, fair trade farming cooperative, and the human story and struggles behind each cup of coffee.

Lee Akha Ama
Lee explained how the high-quality Arabica coffee beans are grown, and how crop rotation promotes higher crop yields without the use of pesticides.

I took my first Coffee Journey with Lee during those initial five months I lived in Chiang Mai. Having cherished the experience and come to call Lee a friend, I returned with my niece Ana in tow to again make the journey over New Year’s weekend as we welcomed 2012. Ana knew Lee only as the nice guy from the coffee shop at that point. I shared with her his powerful story, and by the time we departed, she knew that Lee not only sold coffee, but was the front-end funnel for a community coffee production collective.

The Akha Ama Coffee Collective represents 14 families from the Maejantai village area that have joined together under one brand to increase their ability to control, market, and command fair prices for the coffee they grow. They formed the collective so each family could bring in more money and thus assure themselves fair wages with which to obtain education for their children and modern conveniences.

akha coffee beans
Lee’s mother spread the recently husked, wet coffee beans in the sunlight so the beans were thoroughly dry before villagers bagged them and trucked the beans to Chiang Mai for roasting.

The coffee journey to Maejantai village is not a cushy, high-end tour, nor is it intended to be. Participants sleep in homes graciously offered by one of the 14 families,  and they eat family-style meals replete with hand-picked greens grown on the surrounding farms. For Ana, I knew this trip would be unlike anything else she’s experienced. Going into it, I hoped her existing friendship with Lee would give her a unique window through which she could view and understand the paths and choices people make to change their lives when they are given far different circumstances than the ones Ana experienced in her suburban American life.

Our journey began in Chiang Mai, early on a Friday morning during coffee harvesting season. Participants arrived at the coffee shop with enough gear for a weekend, and piled into the back of the yellow songthaews (covered pickup trucks). With our thighs squished tight and shoulders wedged against one another, sheer proximity made a surprisingly effective safety harness against the bumpy ride outside of town and eventually into the mountains surrounding Chiang Rai. Hours later, with just a quarter-mile of jolting progress up the mountain remaining, children from Lee’s village began chasing after our truck. Seeing Ana’s young(er) face among the coffee journey participants excited and fascinated the kids, and their huge smiles and waves were our first welcome to Maejantai.

Shaking the pervasive red dust from my hair, face, teeth and eyes, I trooped upstairs with Ana to introduce Lee’s mother, the business’s namesake. (Lee belongs to the Akha people. In the Akha language, “ama” means mother.) Lee’s mother reserved a special hug for me, one of the few participants making a repeat journey. It touched me that she remembered my face from last year.

Woman returning from a day at work, Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Mai, Thailand. The sweet faces of children in the Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Lee’s Back Story

Political issues and cultural differences have resulted in limited financial advancement opportunities for hill-tribe communities over the years, but Akha Ama aims to fill that gap. Lee forged a unique link between the village and mainstream Thai culture.

As his mother welcomed us and prepared tea for the group, Lee launched into his back story: the tale of  how Akha Ama came into existence. The Akha people, who share a common language, have nonetheless been scattered throughout Thailand, China, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar) over the past several hundred years as the result of civil wars and demarcation disagreements. These hill-tribe groups have largely been separated from rapid Westernization, owing to both the isolation of the regions in which they’ve settled and the fact that they generally don’t speak the main language of the countries in which they live.

When Lee grew up, his mother urged him to leave his village and gain a formal education in nearby Chiang Rai. He became the first and, to date, only villager to obtain higher education. Lee studied Thai and learned English from passing tourists. Gradually, as he discovered the value in community-sourced projects, he began plotting a way to help the Akha farmers and villages in his region. Lee’s mother supported his idea and was the catalyst in bringing together the 14 families that today make up the Akha Ama collective.

There is always strength in numbers, but the collective succeeds also because the 14 families are working together toward sustainable agriculture that not only produces an organic crop, but avoids the use of expensive, harmful pesticides as well. New methods of crop rotation are the key to sustaining these eco-friendly products in the long-term, and the collective has implemented processes that will take years to fully bear out. This is the foundation on which the families formed Akha Ama, and out of necessity, it is a gross simplification of Lee’s story.

Before the farmers in Maejantai village formed the collective, they had only one means of making money—sell their coffee beans at the going rate to whomever was buying. Lee forged a unique link between the village and mainstream Thai culture, however, and at that point Lee and his family saw an opportunity to see the beans completely through the process. Consequently, farmers could see more monetary returns on their time and effort. Political issues and cultural differences have resulted in limited financial advancement opportunities for hill-tribe communities over the years, but Akha Ama aims to fill that gap.

Lee’s village may be remote, but the influence of Western culture and advancement has taken root even in Maejantai. Villagers must pay for their children to attend a nearby school, and the demand for conveniences like cell phones have necessitated a move toward a more monetary-based system in the villages. Akha Ama’s goals are both social and economic: to not only grant villagers control over what they produce, but to funnel the money back into the community as well.

akha ama coffee
Lee’s sister displayed traditional Akha clothing in the coffee fields nearby.
The small Akha Ama coffee village in the mountains near Chiang Mai, Thailand.
A beautiful sunset over Maejantai village high in the mountains north of Chiang Rai, Thailand.

The Coffee Process

The fields are about a 45 minute walk from the village at a slow pace. On the last turn, the path opens up to this beautiful valley filled with coffee and tea plants.

Understanding the political side of Akha Ama is just one part of the Coffee Journey. Hands-on participation in the labor-intensive process of making coffee is just as much a component of the experience, and was no small part of why I wanted to bring Ana along. Throughout the three days, Lee took us through each stage of the coffee process—from picking the beans out in the fields all day, to drying, husking, processing, bagging, storing, and transporting them. Once Lee is back in Chiang Mai, he roasts the beans, packages them, and sells them through Akha Ama and a handful of other coffee shops in Thailand.

On the second day of our Coffee Journey, Ana and I walked for 45 minutes to Lee’s family’s coffee fields, where he explained how the plants are grown and harvested. Then he handed us each baskets and instructed us on how to properly twist and pluck the ripe coffee cherries. Ana enthusiastically joined in the picking, and by lunchtime our baskets were filled with shining red and yellow cherries.

At lunchtime, we ate a plentiful lunch on huge banana leaves. Right after, we headed back into fields for round two. It’s hard to say at which point, for Ana, that the fun of plucking and twisting gave way to an understanding and appreciation of the work that it really is. As our baskets filled, Lee and other villagers eagerly replaced them and encouraged us to continue picking. After several hours, my hands and arms cramped with the small, repetitive tasks. Ana continued to work respectfully, but it was clear that the “game” aspect of this all was gone.

Ripe red and yellow coffee cherries.  Serving up rice for the coffee journey participants. A family-style lunch with delicious vegetables and rice.

Ana listens closely as only a child can as Lee explains our task. Maejantai village, Thailand.  Picking coffee ripe coffee cherries.  How cute is she?! Ana is pretty proud of her basket of bright red coffee cherries from the Akha Ama coffee fields.

Mind you, none of this was exactly miserable—far from it, since the weather was a perfect mix of cool breeze and warm sunshine. The reality of the task, however, of picking all day for your survival and livelihood, had sunk in for our rag-tag group of 20 or so participants. While we worked, Lee’s family gathered vegetables and prepared dinner for our group. Feeding twenty ravenous people is no small task, either!

And as it happened, on this second Coffee Journey, at the end of our long day in the fields, Ana and I joined the group around a large bonfire under a sky filled with more stars than Ana had ever seen in her life and welcomed in the New Year with new friends, new realizations, and perspective shifts on what it takes to live and enjoy life.

The realities of processing coffee continued unabated the next day as we watched Lee’s sister sort through the coffee berries, discarding the under-ripe berries we unknowingly plucked. A machine then separated the beans from the husks, after which the families took these wet coffee beans to huge tarp-covered pallets so to dry out in the cool mountain air.

Dry beans are then bagged and stored until they are ready for the journey to Chiang Mai, where Lee roasts the beans, bags them, and either sells them or grinds them for coffee.

Lee's sister sorts the coffee cherries.  The machine used to remove the soft outer layer from the coffee beans.  Lee processing coffee cherries.

coffee beans drying

The Realities of Sustainable Crops

At its most basic, fair trade means that the people at the beginning of the process — the community growing your coffee, chocolate, cotton — have a shot at fair profits and fair opportunities. Without this equality, the harsh reality is that communities in the developing world are forced to sell their goods for whatever someone will pay.

Lee’s village is beautiful. The people and smiles were open and welcoming from the moment our feet hit the compact, dusty red earth. Our welcome was genuine and each villager we met was willing to open up to a group of strangers in the hopes that we would take away an understanding of all that lies behind the Akha Ama brand.

There are people behind that logo. A community of children, mothers, and fathers exist behind each package of coffee Lee sells in his shop. The money from each sale is a tangible investment in a remote community living on a faraway hill-side. Ana watched the young children in Maejantai play games around her, using their imaginations to fuel epic staged battles between good and evil that echoed the games her little brother regularly plays back home. I didn’t have to point out the similarities. Anyone can see that they exist—our common humanity is as clear as day.

Our Coffee Journey lasted three days; Lee’s coffee journey is ongoing.  As the face and front-end of Akha Ama, Lee is actively working to promote the brand as a sustainable, fair trade, organic coffee brand. Only through talking with Lee and then visiting his village’s collective did I realize the lengthy and expensive process that goes into legally using many of these buzzwords. When he conceived of Akha Ama, Lee embarked on a process that could secure the future of his village for generations. Beyond farming, there are few viable economic opportunities for such a remote community. In recent years, the lure of modernization has taken much of the youth out of the village and into the big cities. But with money, an operation, and something to back and believe in, Akha Ama is changing opportunities for each family of the Maejantai collective.

Over the years, news stories have indicted the idea of fair trade as flawed and unable to substantiate on a large-scale. We hear discouraging stories like the scandal that came out of Victoria’s Secret in late 2011 when one of their suppliers of certified fair trade cotton in Burkina Faso used child labor to pick and plant, contravening established fair trade rules. It’s easy to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and give up on the whole idea, given the negative press.

Through meeting Lee, and visiting Akha Ama, however, I was able to put a face and an experience on the entire process. At its most basic, fair trade means that the people at the beginning of the process—the community growing your coffee/chocolate/cotton—have a shot at fair profits and fair opportunities. Without this equality, the harsh reality is that communities in the developing world are forced to sell their goods for whatever someone will pay. Too often, that means selling below costs just for the sake of having some money in pocket.

Maejantai village; the children and their families work towards a lasting future for their community.
Motorcycles ferry the heavy bags of coffee cherries back to the village.

This is not to say that the process is without flaws; far from it, actually. At the end of the line, we consumers remain completely removed from the true back story and from the people and lives involved in the products we buy and use. But Akha Ama’s story, with Lee as the charismatic and affable face of this operation, is but one example of social enterprises and fair businesses operating around the world so communities can better themselves—create a future for their children. It may not be perfect, but it’s a whole lot better than the alternative.

What does Fair Trade Coffee really mean?Further, Lee’s story opened my eyes to the human effect our purchasing habits have on the entire global community. By lifting the common consciousness, by seeking out the simple ways to support and give back in everyday life, we will be able begin lifting up the global community. It’s usually a small thing to tweak our buying habits. For myself, a habitual purchaser of coffee and chocolate, my new-found awareness has led me to seek the chance to support companies making an extra effort. I will spend more to ensure that the root communities behind our goods are treated with respect. Stemming from my physical journey to understand coffee came a new journey to match my actions to my belief in our shared humanity and the common good.

To Lee, thank you. The Akha Ama Coffee shop was my refuge in Chiang Mai, and the community of expats and locals you have assembled in the coffee shop are a testament to the goodness and possibilities that are out there if you look for them.

This post blends time and space and represents the sum of the two Coffee Journeys I took with Akha Ama; the photos from each journey are interspersed. For more photos, enjoy the additional photo gallery and Quick Tips information.

Quick Tips for Visiting Akha Ama Coffee

Where: 9/1 Mata Apartment, Hassadhisawee Rd, Soi 3. The coffee shop is in the Santitham are, just off the Northwest corner of the moat in Chiang Mai, Thailand: directions.

When: The Coffee Journeys take place twice annually and sell out months in advance. Lee is open with his story, however, and you can support Akha Ama Coffee by visiting the shop, buying coffee as souvenirs for family,  and supporting their efforts to grow the Akha Ama brand.

Why:  Because Akha Ama is a social enterprise (a for-profit business operating with an underlying social mission) worth supporting–it’s a community grown initiative and empowers the Akha villagers to support themselves and their families for years to come.

Water's Impact on Our Lives

A Little Photoessay… Water Runs Through Every Place I’ve Visited

Water runs through all of us, and all over the world. It’s impossible to fully grasp the importance of water on our lives. In honor of the importance of water, I offer up this photo essay on the importance of water to my travels. It’s a piece that looks at the most beautiful places I have visited. The people affected by water and how it impacts their.

Call it an ode to water.

World Water Facts

  • We drink between 2-3 litres of water per day, but we use 3,000 litres per day when considering water used in food production.
  • Meat production is a huge culprit for hidden water waste. 1 kilogram of beef takes 15,000 litres.
  • Reducing the amount of food you waste and throw away is one of the easier ways to reduce your water consumption.
Two women use their longyi to protect their modesty as they bath on Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).
Cleansing water: two women on Inle Lake in Myanmar bath right on the canal thoroughfare, taking not only food from the river, but the mechanics of daily life as well.
Small Mountain Hut
Mountain Waters: High in the Himalayan Mountain range, the clear, gushing streams harness energy, help process foods, and offer life to the communities living off the land in rural parts of Nepal.
Boy Swimming and fishing
Life-giving water: a Tharu boy from southern Nepal fishes for food, or maybe just for fun, in the placid river.
On the road in Croatia
Stark Waters: The dry, barren earth and gray mountain range stand in contrast to the deep river I viewed out my bus window when making my way through rural Croatia.
monk temple luang prabang, loas
Convenient water: glancing over the low wall around the temple compound, I spotted this young monk filling buckets as monks cleaned and washed all the white temple walls.
Connor Pass, Dingle, Ireland
Epic Waters: Clouds shadows create a vast, open and almost lonely space from Connor Pass, on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. The turbulent Atlantic waters in the distant are a severe contrast to the serene valley and peaceful lakes.
Sikh Holy Golden Temple
Sacred Water: The Harmandir Sahib, also called the Golden Temple, houses the most holy text in Sikhism. The temple complex and water dominate the center of Amritsar, India. All religions are welcome to come worship God in the temple, and many people take a dip in the shallow, cleansing waters around the holy temple.
The Harbor
Busy Water: Sydney Harbor in Australia bustles with activity as boats, both large and small, zip right by the Sydney Opera House. The boats are likely rushing to avoid the storm that rolled in 10 minutes later and let leash a torrential downpour of rain.
That's my Nessie face!
Mythical Waters: Pretending I am Nessie the Loch Ness Monster, I strike a ridiculous pose in Fort Augustus, Scotland. Part of me secretly hoped I’d see Nessie in this photo when I looked at the image ;-)
The Dead Sea from Jordan
Salty Water: The Dead Sea is one of the saltiest bodies of water on earth. Life cannot flourish in the water and when standing on the shores, earth’s lowest spot on land, pretty white salt crystals cover the rocks and tint the water an impossible shade of aqua-green as it laps at the knobby rock surface.
View along the way!
Misty Water: Morning dew sits over the tree canopy in the Bokeo Nature Reserve in Northern Laos, the sun is just rising and hasn’t yet burned off the water so the forest looks mystical, like the setting for a fairy tale.
Snorkelers in Key West, Florida
Fun Water: Snorkelers in Key West Florida float over the shallow reefs, seeking out coral fans and colorful reef fish in the variegated coastal waters.
12 Apostles on the Great Ocean Road in Australia.
Pretty Waters: Australia’s Great Ocean Road is a slowly changing seascape of beauty. As the strong Southern Ocean waves erode the limestone stacks, the views  will continuously change as time passes; my pretty views back in 2009 will be long forgotten by 2509.
Stari Most at Sunset
Historical Water: The Neretva river flowing under Stari Most, a bridge in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has witnessed history and tragedy unfold. Stari Most stood in Mostar for 427 years before it was bombed and destroyed in the Croat-Bosniak War in the early 1990s. After the war ended, UNESCO and international organizations worked with the government to accurately build and reconstruct the bridge that stands today.
Soup in China!
Food & Water = Life. Without water, we have no food.

It wasn’t until I left the confines of the United States that I began to witness the wealth and resource disparity present on our planet. And by disparities, I mean disparities in all terms of wealth. After traveling, I began to appreciate my education more because I saw how hard so many others worked for theirs. My food was plentiful, and I never knew hunger. I had a shower every night, and clean tap water flowing out of my faucet. I spent summers running through my sprinklers, then cooling off with a glass of lemonade flavored Kool-Aid.

I never knew how much I had at my disposal. Water is a shared resource, and though renewable, clean water is increasingly taxed out by our usage.

Thank you for reading this far about the waters I’ve seen throughout my years of traveling. As a part of World Water Day 2012, I’d like to end by noting that the two easiest ways to help the global water shortages are to conserve water usage and eliminate food waste. Ana and I are working on being particularly conscious of our food and water use this week as we consider how our personal choices affect the planet as a whole :)



Review Feynan Eco-Lodge in Wadi Rum, Jordan

A Little Immersion…Humanizing the Travel Experience

Our pickup truck bumped and jostled down the unpaved path, the driver weaving around the deep pits and pot-holes by rote, each piece of this desert clearly as familiar to him as the lines on his darkly tanned hands. For twenty-five minutes we plodded a slow path through stark and open plains, the raw and honest surrounding beauty of Jordan’s Dana Biosphere Reserve.

With a minimum of movements, our Bedouin driver gestured deep into the Feynan Valley and with squinted eyes I was able to make out a desert colored structure sitting at the base of the valley and blending in naturally with the miles of pale orange sands surrounding our truck.

chitwan national park conservation

A Little Conservation… Elephant Ethics at Chitwan National Park

Royal Chitwan National Park is a crowning jewel of Nepal, and it’s also one of the country’s most successful conservation projects. It’s a notable place not only in Nepal, but on the world stage, too—Chitwan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and therefore under international protection. During my month of volunteering, I had only heard good things about Chitwan from the young monks; I was eager to explore all Chitwan could offer a self-proclaimed responsible tourist like myself.

My friends and I had taken a boat through the National Park while scouting tigers in the wild, we ate delicious food, and we rounded out our weekend in Chitwan with a ride through a local Tharu village. Piling into the back of a jeep, we observed village life while the wind sent sticky heat across our skin. In addition to seeing the Terai villages, our end goal was Chitwan’s Elephant Breeding Center, where I planned to learn more about Chitwan’s elephant tourism industry, with a real hope that I could uncover how it differed from that of Thailand’s circus-like, deeply abusive, and state-sponsored elephant tourism industry.

Morning at the river as the first tourist boats were heading into the National Park to explore.

Chitwan’s Elephant Breeding Center

Elephants in Asia are a sticky subject fraught with hard questions. Is riding ethical or can they be tamed humanely? And what role do breeding centers play in the equation? In conservation, many breeding centers effectively revive endangered populations. But the elephant population in Chitwan is not endangered, and it’s growing on its own through the park’s successful anti-poaching measures. Instead, the Breeding Center breeds elephants for use in the National Park—both for tourism and for anti-poaching patrols. That begs the question: Are those motives enough to rationalize an elephant breeding program given there are still no proven humane ways to break an elephant?

Even before arriving, I had  reservations about the purpose of the breeding center—I knew I needed more information before I would fully understand the ethics of riding elephants in Nepal.

Consider that as of summer 2019, by establishing a new breeding center in Cambodia (and banning elephant rides at Angkor Wat), many conservationists hope to stop the ongoing poaching of the last of Cambodia’s wild elephants—because locals do use them for logging and work, and without a viable path toward using elephants, outright banning elephant tourism in the country would cause far worse side effects … for now. So although the dream would be just the responsible elephant experiences in Cambodia were left, the breeding center there is a larger step than any other Southeast Asian nation has yet take.

So what does Cambodia have to do with Chitwan? Well, like Cambodia, the elephants are currently playing a vital role in the maintenance of the park. That’s not enough of a rationale for many, but if you believe that the answer about breeding elephants at Chitwan is black and white, then you are missing all the shades of grey that make up the reality of this world. Eliminating elephant use in regions where humans depend on it is a wicked problem, and it’s prevalent across many countries in Asia. Don’t know what’s meant by a wicked problem? The short of it is that this a complex problem without a single solution. It’s easy to say no riding elephants ever (and that’s my stance in every other country in the world), but if that elimination wipes out the last remaining bengal tigers in the world? Or means the extinction of the one-horned rhino. This is not a thought experiment; that’s what’s at stake at Chitwan National Park.

So, let’s get back to the breeding center.

The Breeding Center in 2009

As part of my packaged tour, our guide shepherded us along to learn more and to see the newest elephants. The prize animals at the breeding center were twin baby elephants, just three months old. It seems like it’s cute, but not a big deal. According to our guide, however, these twins are the only surviving elephant twins in the park’s history. And they are just the third set to be born here, period. Twin elephants are extremely rare all over the world and have dismal survival rates. Considering the extremely long gestation time for elephants (22 months!), the momma elephant who carries the twins has a long road to travel before birth.

When we arrived, the twin elephants lopped along at a goofy pace as they followed their momma back to the breeding center—they had left with the mahouts in search of breakfast. And while I wanted to celebrate the birth of these adorable elephants, it was hard to see the mother elephant march back into the compound bound in chains. I wondered when those cute twins “need” chaining.

A few minutes later, we met another set of elephants, both about two-and-a-half years old and both were feisty! They trotted over to our group as soon as we walked into the compound. These two guys were frisky and playful. And they knew precisely what they wanted—any and all food hiding in our bags. One of them even walked straight up to me with his trunk extended and tried to taste my camera! I assured him that the crackers in the other hand were tastier, and he then pushed and nudged me until I had surrendered every single piece of my food I had hidden in pockets for them.

rare twin baby elephants
A mother elephant with her rare twin baby elephants brining home breakfast.

The Breeding Center Today

Back in 2009, the number of chained elephants saddened me deeply and I wasn’t sure how the breeding center played into Chitwan’s larger conservation goals. Today, the breeding center is one of the handful of remaining places in Chitwan that still chains elephants—this practice is really changing elsewhere in the area and has seen a perspective shift among some private tour operators and private elephant owners.

In the years since my visit, a large percentage of private tour operators around Chitwan have worked with elephant advocacy groups to make changes to how they breed and break elephants. As of 2017, many captive elephants at places outside the breeding center were allowed to roam unchained and in packs, as they do in the wild—bull elephants are still chained for protection of people and other elephants, but the life of captive elephants has seen years of continual improvement.

Inside the breeding center, life hasn’t changed much, according to reports from A Little Adrift Readers. Elephants are still chained at the center, and the official Chitwan breeding center has resisted some of the more sweeping changes other elephant camps are implementing to counter the extreme cruelty done to elephants in captivity used for tourism and work.

Outside of the breeding center, however, there is a changing tide of opinion. Local tour operators are truly willing to find creative solutions to how they can balance their twin goals of a humane life for the animals while still using tourism to further conservation. The Chitwan breeding center is a skip for ethical tourists as of 2019 because of it’s cruel practices—I recommend using lodges and safari companies embracing the new styles of elephant tourism and conservation. The Nepalese government has been slow to embrace the changes, but the seeds of ethical tourism are firmly planting in non-governmental facilities at Chitwan, and you can have positive, ethical elephant interactions.

Should You Ride an Elephant at Chitwan National Park?

The short answer is no, you should not ride an elephant as it has taken unspeakable cruelty for that animal to be broken to the point that it will accept human riders.

The long answer, however, is maybe. As the final activity during our tour of Chitwan, our guide announced that tours end with an elephant ride through the jungle to spot wildlife. After all of my effort in Laos to not exploit the elephants, the jungle ride defeated the purpose. Even more tricky than breeding elephants, riding them is met with a lot of opinions. In Thailand, it’s a clear no-no and not a responsible tourism practice; in short, you shouldn’t ride an elephant when traveling there.

In Nepal, however, I tend to float in the other direction, as do several prominent responsible tourism websites. In Chitwan National Park, the elephants are primarily used to allow tourists to see endangered one-horned rhinos.

Additionally, park rangers use elephants to penetrate deep into the forest where they could never go by car, and where it would be dangerous to enter on foot. These anti-poaching elephants roam free from chains in separate quarters from the elephants used for tourism, and these types of elephant rides successfully protect the world’s remaining Royal Bengal tigers, vultures, and other critically endangered animals. For several years in a row, there wasn’t a single rhino poached. That changed in 2017, but the fact is that the elephant anti-poaching measures work. Chitwan has the lion’s share of Nepal’s more than 600+ one-horned rhino (at one time, there were fewer than 200 in the world). No system is perfect, but rhino and tiger populations are increasing in Nepal, and that’s a conservation win for the entire world. This is where the wicked part of the problem emerges, because Nepal uses elephants for both tourism (a no no) and for important conservation work (ethically ambiguous).

Chitwan National Park elephants

elephant riding in nepal

Effects of Riding an Elephant at Chitwan

Chitwan National Park uses elephants for two parts of its tourism industry: elephant safaris to see a one-horned rhino, and elephant baths. As of 2019, both of these activities are still offered, but there have been positive changes for government and private owned elephants.

  • Elephants perform a maximum of two safaris per day, down from five. Mahouts report the animals no longer have sores on their backs and are generally happier. (A reader reports that there has been a backslide here, and that they are back up to five, which is disheartening).
  • Metal hooks and prods are now banned and are no longer used in most aspects of the elephant-handling process. These are banned, that is a fact, but you may see them in use—avoid supporting that behavior.
  • Some private companies offer elephant walk-alongs rather than elephant rides—check that the one you use is not just doing the elephant walks in between the elephant’s duties with safari rides.
  • Private companies have decreased the use of chains, instead allowing all but aggressive bull elephants to wander more freely.
  • With the help and influence of conservation groups and activists, private groups are looking for new ways to train elephants. Two elephants have been raised so far using rewards-based training (instead of breaking the elephant through fear and beatings)—it’s been rocky but private lodges at Chitwan National Park are among of the few places on earth testing more harmonious ways elephants and humans can work together ethically.
  • Tiger Tops is the only place truly endorsable as an ethical option in the park—give them your money if you hope to support an industry in Chitwan that does not rely on elephant rides.

So again, should you ride an elephant? No. But should we ban or boycott elephant use at Chitwan for both tourism and anti-poaching efforts? Also no. There is a clear right answer we need to get to: not cruelly breaking an elephant’s will so it submits to a lifetime of captivity. But like in Cambodia, progress is slower than we might like, but it’s progress all the same. Chitwan is headed in that direction, and it’s happening a lot sooner than countries facing similar choices in Southeast Asia.

Where we’re at right now might be the best we could hope for at this moment in time in the conservation/ethical debate about elephants in Nepal. It’s seeing more progress most other countries on this front, and travelers demanding new forms of elephant tourism are moving the needle on how business offer these types of tours.

So what’s a traveler to do? Chitwan National Park offers options for tourists who want to use their tourism dollars to support businesses committed to implementing ethical, responsible tourism practices even when it’s more expensive and it bucks trends. Tourists can now vote with their dollars and help effect change that way. I understand some people boycott Chitwan altogether, but I believe tourism effects the most change when it’s used to funnel money into projects and people committed to enacting positive new policies in the world. Use your money to encourage more local providers to treat their elephants humanely, to offer ethical interactions that bring in tourism dollars without compromising the welfare of the animals in question.

My sticky situation here is that elephants shuttle tourists to the rhinos, which provides invaluable funding for anti-poaching measures. I believe this is a rare instance where a responsible tourism industry can include a ride on an elephant as a means of supporting responsible tourism—for now. It does not mean I think you should ride one—if you’re reading this then you’re ready to make the ethical choice to put your money in the right hands when you visit. And you should visit, because Chitwan needs money and support to continue its important conservation work—work that is conserving critically endangered animals in the national park. Work that employs very poor mahouts who have no other livelihoods.

There are few alternatives to raise the profile of the one-horned Indian rhino. These rhinos are extremely dangerous on foot, and the elephant ride is one of the few ways tourists can view the rhino without risking dismemberment. And I am not exaggerating. One of the Chitwan guides had returned home from the hospital the day I visited because of a wild rhino attack. For our journey, a rhino we spotted was unperturbed by the three elephants circling him in the large, grassy area. He munched the grass for several minutes, and then he stood perfectly still, almost like he was posing for a mini photo-shoot for us (he was more tolerant than the Indian cow debacle!)

Should You Participate in Bathing Elephants?

In addition to the elephant safaris, elephants participate in a bathing ritual twice a day. Back in 2009, mahouts used metal prods on the elephants, but today that practice is banned. Instead, it’s an activity that you have to decide for yourself where you stand. Perhaps you skip the elephant safari, where the saddles are problematic and painful for elephants, but believe this is a lower-key option. Even the most highly touted elephant sanctuaries in Thailand allow some form of elephant bathing (and other highly-touted ones even ban that), so consider if it’s a halfway point in the ethical debate for you—a way to see these majestic creatures in a more natural way.

riding elephants at chitwan national park
Elephant bathing is one of the activities you can undertake with at Chitwan National Park.

Final Impressions: Chitwan National Park

It was a lovely trip and one that I highly recommend to travelers visiting Nepal. We had no major issues throughout our visit. In fact, the whole trip was documented well by one of the doctors volunteering in a community near our village of Pharping. Lip, a Malaysian doctor, was such a fun addition to our ragtag group. He took a picture of absolutely everything he encountered, meaning we were all happy to look back and remember certain moments, and add to it that he had just completed his own Vipassana Meditation course, and he was a veritable chatterbox. Fellow travelers Jess and Regina also joined our group of Pharping volunteers. Jess was spunky and fun; she had just received her certification in the US and was a newly minted doctor. Regina is Portuguese and also a doctor volunteer in the medical clinic in Chapagaon.

After my months on the road, it was fun and a relief to travel with three doctors! My cousin and I had a bevy of questions for them, naming symptoms and questions from our illnesses endured these past months on the road. Despite being sure we had issues, our doctor-friends cleared our symptoms and told us to wait it out until we rejoined the developed world in just a few weeks.

Side Note: This Conde Nast Traveler article is thoughtful read for those more deeply interested in the true challenges elephant tourism presents. The article describes some of the cultural implications of elephant-human interactions in Asia (Cliffs Notes: It’s been happening since before Christianity so it’s a bit much for Westerners to dictate it must end in one fell swoop.), and details the work of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and Asian Captive Elephant Working Group to create a more sustainable link between elephants and tourism.

Quick Tips: Visiting Chitwan National Park

Staying Healthy at Chitwan

As far as health concerns went throughout Chitwan, all seven of us took anti-malarial medicine because of the parks tropical climate and proximity to India. Until this point, I had opted against malaria medication, even though it was recommended for all of Southeast Asia and India. Because it was dry season in SEA, I took a calculated risk. Instead, I used strong DEET repellant and wore long pants in the evenings. And while that worked well, I figured only an idiot would refuse to take anti-malaria medication while all the doctors in the group were doing it. I already had a three-month supply from the U.S. travel clinic I visited just before my trip, so that was plenty for my cousin and I to take recommended dose of Doxycycline every day (and for four weeks afterwards).

We also all had travel insurance that would cover us if we needed immediate transport from the very remote National Park back to Kathmandu for medical treatment—this is important since there’s a lot that can go wrong in the jungle.

Exploring Chitwan was amazing. I highly recommend that fellow travelers build this into any trip to Nepal. It’s a gorgeous region of the country making important strides in conservation and environmental preservation.

What to Pack

Chitwan is a wet, humid, and forested area. It’s also blazing hot and there may be power outages at night, when nary a fan or breeze moves the stagnant heat. Pack clothes for hot, sunny days during, and pack lightweight clothes that cover your limbs in the evenings to prevent mosquito bites. And absolutely pack DEET repellant,  quality sunscreen, and a hat. A full travel packing list is here. And don’t forget your Nepal travel adapter so you can charge all of your electronics.

Where to Stay

Most travelers stay in Sauraha. If you want to put your money where your ethics are, head to Tiger Tops Elephant Camp—a private elephant camp leading the way with the most humane and ethical elephant practices. I also recommend Eden Jungle Resort and Lodge; it was lovely and remains highly rated by other travelers in the years since my visit. If you’re feeling more spendy, then Landmark Forest Park Hotel is a great choice.

Choose a Tour

This post more clearly outlines all the information you need on How to Visit Chitwan National Park.

Additional Reading

Throughout this piece I linked to other resources and points of view on the questions ethically supporting elephant tourism in Nepal. The best ones for those in search of additional reading include this one, this one, and this one. And it’s always good to refresh yourself on the best practices of responsible tourists.

The best guidebook. Use the Nepal Lonely Planet to organize your wanders; it’s the one I used during my months there, and it proved useful!

Nepal Travel Guide

A guide to everything I learned while backpacking Nepal. From Kathmandu to Pokhara—and a lot in between—here’s where to go, my favorite places, and everything you should know before you go.

You are welcome to leave a comment below. All comments that engage in civil discourse will be approved; hateful accusations against others’ opinions will not.

chitwan national park canoe

A Little Adventure… Exploring Nepal’s Wild Outdoors at Chitwan National Park

When I first booked my trip to spend three days at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Royal Chitwan National Park, I had visions of trekking through the jungles to spy on tigers and dodge wild rhinos.

Turns out, the adventuring at Chitwan doesn’t go quite that far.

I did see one of the rare one-horned rhinos, and I learned that it wasn’t the tigers and snakes to fear, but rather the park’s wild elephants. Tamed elephants appear docile at times, but our guide informed us that a wild elephant might charge you and attempt to rip your limbs apart by a particularly gruesome process of stepping on you with one giant foot, and then grabbing an arm with its trunk to then wrench your body apart.

And I learned this in my first minutes in the park!

early morning canoe ride on the rapti river
Early morning canoe rides on the Rapti River in Chitwan National Park.

Our guide had such a way with words when he delivered his welcome speech to our group, as we sipped tea in the dining room and learned the outline of our three day tour. My time these past weeks traveling in Nepal were wonderful, and that includes meeting the other volunteers in the nearby communities. Our group, which included medical volunteers at the local clinics and hospitals, decided to book an eco-friendly tour to Chitwan together. By traveling in a pack, we solidified our friendship, but we were also able to negotiate a steep discount on the transit and guide required to visit and explore. Tourism is big business in all of Nepal, and Chitwan is no exception. We arranged a full tour, including bus transport from Kathmandu to Sauraha, free pickup from the bus station outside of Sauraha, and transport all the way to our resort. It was handy, although it’s a cinch to do independently as well (details at the bottom).

As I’ve mentioned, there are four teaching volunteers at the monasteries near Pharping, including me and my cousin. Then we met the doctor volunteers from Chapagaon when our mutual volunteer placement company (and what a debacle it proved to be!) brought the doctors into Pharping to see the monasteries and prayer rituals. The seven of us trooped south to Chitwan for a weekend of elephant safaris, jungle walks, a canoe trip, and tours through the small indigenous villages of Southern Nepal.

canoe ride at chitwan national park

tharu people in Chitwan National Park, Nepal

Chitwan’s Wildlife & Conservation Successes

Like visiting any national park, there is great potential for wildlife sightings, but no guarantees. And in the region, Chitwan is actually the best place and chance of spotting any of the most rare and interesting animals. But animals don’t much love tourists, so it takes an act of god to see one of the endangered bengal tigers living in the park. 

I have a small obsession dating back to childhood with tigers, and I would love to see this majestic animal in the wild. But even more than that, I would love to see it thrive and population numbers rebound, so I wasn’t going to bemoan the animal’s survival instinct, which keeps it far from tourist paths.

That said, it’s possible—rare but possible—to sight them on the daylong jeep safaris. And some travelers report more chances for a tiger spotting at Bardia National Park, instead. But also, tiger sightings can occur, and at increasing frequency in Nepal now that numbers are rebounding, so I was cautious about seeing them, too since I was on a walking safari!

But even without the tiger spotting, the other animals are beautiful and it’s a region of Nepal offering unique activities quite unlike sightseeing in Kathmandu or the Valley, and entirely unlike the Pokhara area, too. Nepal is leading the region in conservation and in the last decade—strong anti-poaching measures have seen the populations of the tigers swell to more than 120, and the endangered one-horned rhino numbers well over 600 across the entire country. Add to that unique flora and fauna, beautiful birds, a smattering of leopards and sloth bears, and a resident population of elephants, and it’s a no-brainer to visit on any trip to Nepal. It’s hands-down the best safari experience outside of of driving around the Serengeti.

Where to Stay Near Chitwan

our boat of people for our walking safari in Chitwan National Park
Our group happily crossing the river in a dugout canoe!

We had organized everything ahead of time, and as such we stayed at Eden Jungle Resort and Lodge in Sauraha, which home to all of the budget and backpacker lodging. It would have been lovely to stay at one of the more remote luxury lodges since they have deeper access to the national park and far less commercial development. With a bit of budget, I would have hands-down stayed at Landmark Forest Park Hotel, which is just outside of the backpacker area. I would have also opted for a jeep safari instead of the walking safari.

But for a backpacker budget, Eden was perfect as a spot that covered food, board, and a guide. The lovely staff fed us delicious food and the resort organized the entire weekend flawlessly. Our group had a personal guide who showed up each morning during breakfast and then traveled with us through the National Park and among the different activities. We had booked three days of sightseeing, with travel days on either side to and from Nepal. You really need at least two days to truly enjoy the nature and beauty and culture.

Exploring the Local Culture

Our arrival day in Chitwan, that afternoon we needed a low-key activity and our guide rounded us up and took us on a walk through a Tharu village. The Tharu people are an ethnic group in south-western Nepal who are native to the Terai region, which is a plain region that encompasses Chitwan, as well as other areas. Once the Park received UNESCO status and government protection and conservation, the villagers formed settlements along the border. Across decades now, the Tharu have maintained these villages and live in a remarkably similar traditional manner to their previous generations—a feat for any culture with the number of tourists that visit the park.

Many cultural anthropologist attribute the strong ties to tradition culture to the fact that Tharu never followed the larger trends in Nepal to seek work overseas. Tharu stay within their communities, rarely even venturing into other Nepali communities. Through these isolationist tendencies, they have a strong tie to the land and the customs of the ancestors. The houses of the Tharu people seemingly emerge from the ground like the stalk of a strong and abundant plat. The homes have clay walls and thatched roofs, both features that allow the homes to stay cool in the dense summer humidity.

Wildlife Safari in the National Park

We started out our first morning in Chitwan with a canoe ride and jungle walk. One of the women with us, Jess, was particularly freaked out by the prospect of a jungle walk after our guide’s pep-talk about the danger of wild elephants and rhinos, but she decided to stick out her fear and join the activities anyway. To skip the jungle walk, she would have missed the leisurely early morning canoe ride down the Rapti River, which was truly beautiful. We all boarded a wooden dugout canoe and floated along the riverbank, peering into the jungle. Then we disembarked and walked back toward town through the jungle, looking for wild animals.

Over the years, I go back and forth about bird-watching safaris. If there aren’t many birds, then my eagerness for bird spotting wears thin. On the canoe trip, there is an element of bird-watching, but it’s in such a serene and peaceful setting that it’s always engaging. Since you leave in the early morning, many animals are active and villagers are on the river, too.

local kids fishing in the waters
Three young boys fishing in the shallow river waters.

And as you look into the forest, there are opportunities to spot wild elephants and rhinos. During our ride, we spotted a number of beautiful species of kingfisher birds coasting across the water, egrets waded through the shallows. We also passed by groups of local children clowning around in the river, they were entirely unconcerned with our canoe full of tourists.

Our jungle walk was peaceful and uneventful. We spotted on rhino resting among the trees. The guides do make a dramatic adventure, however. Our perhaps he truly did hear things in the jungle. It was hard to determine. But he picked up a big stick for protection and indicated that the seven of us should tighten our single-file line on the narrow paths. Either way, our guide made us acutely aware that we were in the jungle, a place a bit more dangerous strolling through New York’s Central Park. Although we didn’t spot the big game animals on the walk, we did spot fresh footprints from a leopard, several deer, and a few other animals that could probably have killed me if they ever happened upon the seven of us gently tiptoeing through the jungle.

boy fishing in the early morning
A young Tharu boy in the river seen on one of our boat rides.

Bathing the Elephants

Among the highlights at Chitwan National Park is the chance to play with the elephants. After our jungle walk, we stopped near a cafe for drinks and a sunset on the river. Nearby, a group of elephants took their daily baths in the river, and tourists are allowed to join the mahouts, the elephant trainer. The mahout would command the elephant to tip us at various points, and to generally play around a bit in the water. After the frolicking session, we then moved into the shallow water to rub our elephant, ours was named Lakshmi. They have thick, coarse skin filled with wiry hair, and the elephants enjoy being cleaned.

It was a fun to interact with the elephants on this level, without some of the whiffs of exploitation that come with riding elephants in parts of Southeast Asia. Interacting with the elephants at all is a sticky subject and one that has few hard and fast lines. While some groups claim that elephants should never be ridden or used for tourist purposes, in Nepal, I tend to see that the National Park’s conservation efforts hinge on tourism. This tourism draw in the name of conservation isn’t present during the canned tourist experiences in Thailand. It’s complicated, but I discuss the elephant issue here, as well as the National Park’s Elephant Breeding Center that you’ll visit on many tours of the area.

Suffice to say, I write about sustainable and responsible tourism, and in my estimation there is a case to be made that elephants at Chitwan serve a needed larger conservation goal for critically endangered animals living in the park. I understand those who draw a hard line that you can never ethically blend elephants with tourism, but I simply came to a different conclusion and I don’t see the issue as black and white.

elephant bath time
The ethics of elephant riding and bathing are complicated.

A Glimpse of Tharu Culture

Having toured the villages the day before, on our second day at the National Park our guide arranged for us to watch a traditional Tharu dance performed by a large group of the middle and high-school children from the community. The dancers were all male, and the Tharu young’uns spent thirty minutes shaking every limb of their bodies while dancing to beating the rhythm on their clacking sticks.

Although I was an Irish dancer for years, I recognize that I could not sustain that level of movement and dance. The dancers had skill and charisma that kept us captivated throughout the performance.

By the end of the second day, we had spotted leopard tracks, bathed elephants, spent hours peacefully spotting animals from the river, and even sipped beers as the sun set. It was a lovely way to spend the day. The next day we would set out early to visit the Elephant Breeding Center, which plays a large role in supporting the funding and tourism industry that keeps Chitwan National Park afloat.

Should You Visit Chitwan National Park?

one-horned rhinoceros live in the national park and Nepal is one of their last habitats left in the world.
A proud one-horned rhinoceros, an endangered animal protected by the efforts at Chitwan National Park.

Tourism is the main industry supporting the park’s conservation; it’s quite literally the way that Nepal funds the rangers who protect the park from poachers. In that way, tourism is the best way to keep the conservation happening. That said, the two- or three-day packaged tours sold from Kathmandu are canned tourist experiences. You will run through a set of activities everyone does, from a jungle walk, an elephant experience, a cultural show, etc.

Do I think you should do it? Really depends on what you are looking for in the experience. It’s well organized and tourism is big business, so you’ll do the things they promised. Because tourism is big business, the likelihood that you will see tigers (which roam at night and shy from touristy areas of the park) is very, very low. You have a great chance of seeing the rhino, and you will learn about an indigenous culture, the Tharu, who are only located in this region of Nepal. You also can easily do add this stop into a route around the country that includes the park, ie. Kathmandu > Chitwan > Pokhara.

Think about your own expectations and what you want out of your travels. You will not be remotely hiking through a wild jungle, you will be learning about conservation and the park’s breeding programs, with fun activities thrown in there, too. If you are looking for wild and remote, save those expectations for your trek of the Annapurna circuit.

Quick Tips: Visiting Chitwan National Park

Ultimate Guide to Chitwan National Park in Nepal — home to wild elephants and some of the last remaining tigers and white rhinos in Asia. This is one of the best nature experiences in #Nepal. 

#TravelTips #TravelGuide #Asia #Wanderlust #Bucketlist

What to Pack

You are visiting a very wet, humid, and forested area. Pack clothes for hot, sunny days during the daytime, and lightweight clothes that cover your limbs in the evenings to prevent mosquito bites. To that end, you should absolutely pack strong DEET repellant and quality sunscreen. A full travel packing list is here. And don’t forget your Nepal travel adapter so you can charge all of your electronics.

Travel Insurance

Chitwan is in a remote area of Nepal, you need travel insurance that will cover you if you need immediate transport from the National Park back to Kathmandu for medical treatment—this is important since there’s a lot that can go wrong in the jungle.

Where to Stay

The Tiger Tops Elephant Camp is a private elephant camp leading the way with the most humane and ethical elephant practices in Chitwan. I also recommend Eden Jungle Resort and Lodge; it was lovely and remains highly rated by other travelers in the years since my visit. If you’re feeling more spendy, then Landmark Forest Park Hotel is a great choice.

How to Get to Chitwan

Sauraha is the town outside of Chitwan and it is from here that the vast majority of tours are run. This is where the guesthouses and resorts are too. Nicer resorts are on the outskirts of Sauraha, but all of the budget and backpacker accommodation is in this town. To get to Sauraha, buses run directly from Kathmandu and Pokhara and each take between 4-6 hours in general. Buses are prompt, so arrive with time to spare in the morning or you will miss the bus out of Thamel. Tours also pack tourists on other shuttles and they also leave in the morning. There is an airport just 10 km outside of Sauraha in Bharatpur and it’s ideal if you are feeling spendy—flights run daily from Bharatpur to both Kathmandu and Pokhara, though less frequently in low season. The Wiki Travel page for Chitwan is a good resource for updated and additional information.

Books About Nepal

Use the Nepal Lonely Planet to organize your wanders, it’s the one I used during my months there, and it proved useful! If you’re keen on cultural reading, I’ve read a ton of books about Nepal and from local authors. Arresting God in Kathmandu is a beautifully written account by a Nepali author, while The Violet Shyness of Their Eyes: Notes from Nepal is a more traditional travel narrative that is also well done and is a classic recommendation—you can’t go wrong with reading either before or during your trip to Nepal.

Nepal Travel Guide

A guide to everything I learned while backpacking Nepal. From Kathmandu to Pokhara—and a lot in between—here’s where to go, my favorite places, and everything you should know before you go.