Phuket’s Kayaking Expert and Entrepreneur
In 1983, John Gray (a.k.a. Ling Yai (big monkey) or Caveman) of Phuket’s John Gray’s Sea Canoe left a lucrative media career to start sea kayaking tours to follow his life’s passion for “Mother Earth” in Hawaii, Tahiti, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. After seven years and an Emmy award, “Ling Yai” was drawn to Asia when the Philippines Tourist Board asked him to produce a documentary on Puerto Princesa’s Underground River, A string of coups in the post-Marcos years killed the production but led to Caveman’s interest in South-East Asia. His motto is “Asia is where we win or lose “Mother Earth.”
After the next five years and a few lessons wiser, he was drawn to Asia and started his sea kayaking company with USD 28 and a lot of elbow grease (hard work)!
What are your thoughts about tourism development in Thailand?
“In 1989 Phuket was still a beautiful island. With proper planning, Phuket could still be that way, but greedy leadership produced really bad community planning. In Phuket, contractors just build where they want. There should have been a master plan.”
“I blew the whistle on urban development in 1992 when I saw the one and only high-rise go up in Old Town, but Governor Wiwat and Dr. Chamniern (now with IUCN) were the true heroes. They argued with the City Council until we won Old Town “Historical Heritage Distract” status.” This basically saved Old Town as a tourism destination.
“Outside of Old Town, Phuket is a classic example of non-planned development. That said, there are still idyllic spots in Phuket – but you need a Khiri guide to find them!
Also, the non-violent and peaceful military coup was actually a good thing for Phuket – something like Elliott Ness and The Untouchables cleaning up Chicago in the 20’s and 30’s. The government cleaned up the beaches and the streets behind them. Visitors should not be afraid to come to Thailand and Phuket.”
Where are the undiscovered places in Phuket?
“Phuket is now a metropolis but there are still some secrets. I like kayaking from Rawai to Nai Harn, below a Buddhist temple. Another good personal trip is dolphin watching (NEVER in a dolphinarium) Hornbill Island and a paddle in the thick mangroves on the way to Cape Panwa.
In Phang Nga Bay I have my secret spots. Ironically one is near the horrible tourist trap called James Bond Island. Another Phang Nga Bay perfection is so top secret GPS are not allowed. In the limestone karsts of Phang Nga Bay – out of reach of humans – gibbons still reign supreme, calling out to one another from the mountaintops.”
“Khao Sok National Park still looks like it did 30 years ago. If you get into the higher elevations and more inland, there’s still undisturbed jungle.
Koh Tarutao has the best coral reefs, beaches, sea caves and tranquility – there are no developments except the National Park bungalows. The Moken people who live there are very environmentally aware and their villages remain unspoiled. The Moken of Myanmar live in villages inundated by their own trash. However, we are helping Thai Moken to teach their Burmese cousins how to take better care of their environment.”
How can tourism make a positive contribution on the islands?
John Gray wrote a paper for world’s first Ecotourism Conference held in Auckland late 1992, submitted – didn’t expect much – and went to the week-long event. His paper was never posted – until the last day. “Earth First Can Be Good Business” was the closing keynote.
Twenty-three years later, ‘Earth First’ lives on in Phuket. Caveman combines his love of sea kayaking and conservation with his feeble business acumen. “I wanted to create a sustainable business model that helps local people develop a village economy based upon environmental awareness. The concept does work, especially in Taveuni, Fiji where my Lavena village project won a Tourism For Tomorrow award on their own.
Phuket is no longer a village, Thai ‘entra-manures’ copied our idea once it proved successful. But they never fulfilled the copy. The standards of my company means staff get proper training, honest wages and tasty yet healthy food for both staff and guests. John Gray Sea Canoe imports top quality SOTAR inflatables custom-made in Grants Pass, Oregon. With our highly trained and experienced guides paddling the SOTAR’s we’ve turned on thousands of guests to the basic science of this remarkable bay with spectacular evolutionary enlightenment.
And nature education is the entertainment ‘hook’ – it’s impossible NOT to be curious amid south Thailand’s marine environment.
Ling Yai chose tourism for his educational model because travelers are more open minded when they are on vacation—they (can) build environmental and cultural awareness much better on a kayak adventure than back home in the office.”
How can travelers see the islands in adventurous ways?
The Hong by Starlight kayaking tour gets rave reviews on Trip Advisor like “Once in a lifetime experience! 5-star unforgettable! Best day of our trip!” Kayaking is a good, clean, eco-friendly way to enjoy nature.
“Phuket still has great nature and a beautiful ocean so snorkeling and diving are always great options. But our real adventures, our purpose, are the overnight trips – 2, 3, 7 and 10 day trips. Most of the time we start from a National Park Bungalow or boutique resort and set off for the rarely visited magic spots of Thailand and Southeast Asia most tourists will never know. After all, that’s why we go sea kayaking.”