London Sunday Times - July 28, 1996
Travel Section - Page 1&2
Hollow Victory by Mark Ottaway
You pick up sea lore pretty fast paddling around the
coast of Thailand. The chaps with guns, for instance, usually AK-47's or
pump action shotguns, are birds' nesters. The good fishing spots are close
to those cliffs that seem to have shining white saucers embedded in their
base. What sound like sea gulls are sea eagles. And, if you venture where
quite possibly no human has ever ventured before until this decade, then you
can hear a leaf fall.
I was in Phang Nga Bay, between the thriving beach resort of Phuket and the
mainland province of Krabi. It is about 20 miles across and its most
striking feature is its islands, scores of them, all with dreaming spires of
limestone karst, some nothing but rock rising sheer from the sea, others
with low-lying land as well, beaches, villages and more surprising features.
The most famous, and, as is the way of things, by now one of the least
interesting, has been dubbed James Bond Island because it featured in The
Man with the Golden Gun.
When I first saw rock formations such as these in Chinese paintings, I
assumed anything quite so improbably romantic had to be an artistic
convention. But they really do exist as mountains and islands, from Guilin
in China (the original inspiration for the painters) down to Langkawi in
Malaysia. What is more, many of them are honeycombed with caves and tunnels.
Which is why Bond's villain holed up in one. And why I was paddling a canoe
around them. Like a lot of vaguely anorakish things (including anoraks
themselves), canoes make perfect sense. As a way of seeing the world they
are favoured by no less a connoisseur than Paul Theroux. They are marine
bikes, silent and efficient translators of renewable energy into forward
motion. They can get you just about anywhere, to more places than you would
John "Caveman" Gray came to Thailand, not quite literally, in an inflatable
canoe in 1989. A dedicated kayaker from Honolulu, he had flown in with his
canoes and some fellow enthusiasts to investigate rumours of lost worlds
among the islands of Phang Nga bay. He found them.
Just how these hongs, or lagoons, came into being is still unclear. That
they are caves whose roofs have collapsed is one possibility. In their most
dramatic form they have sheer walls a couple of hundred feet high, chimneys
of vegetation and wildlife, inside islands with equally sheer outer walls.
Some such are probably still waiting to be discovered. Yet, others have
perfectly obvious entrances where the wall between them and the sea has
either collapsed or eroded into large natural archways.
It was the hongs in between these extremes of accessibility that Gray and
his canoes brought to light. What he discovered was that many caves, some
starting as quite insignificant-looking holes in the cliffs visible only at
low tide, but which became torturous winding sea passages and hallways 100
yd or more long, lead to previously unsuspected hongs.
Each would have their particular windows of opportunity (usually, but not
necessarily, for an hour or so at low water), but once this has been figured
out, a canoe is with a touch and a reasonable resistance to claustrophobia
could slip through into them without undue difficulty. What made then even
more exciting was the likelihood that these were places no humans had ever
Locals had always given a wide berth even to what, in retrospect, can seem
some pretty obvious entrances, ones through which light could sometimes be
seen from the open sea. Superstition, lack of economic incentive to enter
them and plain fear (until recently there were the lairs of saltwater
crocodiles) all played their part. So the likelihood seems slim that any
swimmer might have worked their way through long dark cave systems that no
traditional craft could have navigated, to some of the really obscure hongs
before Gray discovered them.
Word of such places having got out, the problem now was how best to protect
them. The story of SeaCanoe, the company that Gray subsequently formed to
take tourists into them, was one we mentioned earlier this year in our
report on British Airways' Tourism For Tomorrow Awards, of which it was a
regional winner. In brief, the concept was ecologically rigorous
commercial exploitation from which local people (and that meant local, not
city fat cats) should be the financial beneficiaries.
I was on a three-day journey, traveling by motorized mother ship. We would
launch canoes on arrival at a new island, explore by canoe and on foot, eat
on board and sleep in tents on the beach. I didn't know the first thing
about canoeing, and though it sounded vaguely daunting when I signed up (not
least because I was under the impression that we would have to paddle
everywhere), it turned out to be as strenuous or as relaxing an adventure as
one cared to make it.
We were lowered gently into the business, to the extent that, like people
who go on SeaCanoe's day trips, we ventured into our first hong as
passengers on a two-person canoe. Only later did we start traveling solo,
and even then all passages into and out of hongs would be in convoy with
To emerge into a hong is a bit like having the sort of sudden readjustment
to all the senses that happens to the ears when they pop. You begin your
journey where the sea laps restlessly against the outer walls of the island.
At this point you are usually under an overhang (unless it has recently
fallen) where high seas, or different sea levels in bygone ages, have eaten
into the limestone.
Such overhangs are where the mostly Muslim fisherfolk like to shelter from
the heat of the day waiting for their nets or traps to fill. Their wives are
usually with them, their faces usually painted white. Their long-tiled boats
are gaily caparisoned at the bows with ribbons. They welcome company; the
chances are that they are from the same villages as our guides.
They give us crabs and other tidbits for lunch. The walls against which we
lap and bob are palimpsest of molluscs, mostly oysters. They snack off
these, leaving the half shells like shiny white saucers at the base of the
cliff face, which towers above us, stalactites so thick and gnarled that
they seem more like extensions of the limestone, which combined with roots
and trees (some of these hanging precariously upside down) in a natural
tower block for as far up as the neck can raise the eyes.
The sounds chance to splash and echo in the caves, some of which are briefly
so low that we have to lie on our backs and pull ourselves along the ceiling
by hand. Where there are no such squeeze holes between us and the world
outside, we often have darting birds and bats for company. On either side of
these narrows, and, indeed, for almost all our subterranean journeys, the
ceilings can be high and beautiful and unclaustrophobic, with great
stalactites and cascading curtains of crystal that, depending upon the
triangular and ever-changing relationship between them, our torch beams and
our eyes, shine, shimmer or glow translucently like waterfalls or, as our
guide suggests helpfully, angels' wings. For some reason, I am reminded of
pictures of aurora borealis. Then, blinking at the light, deafened by the
sudden silence, you emerge in the secret garden, the new planet almost, that
is a hong. The silence is brief. The insects in here are synchronised.
Cicada-like creatures (one of such piercing power that we refer to it as
"the boiling kettle") deliver walls of sound every 5 to 10 seconds. House
rules are: no talking (save necessary whispers); eating, drinking, smoking
or littering in hongs. We lie on our backs - the virtually indestructible,
uncapsizeable inflatables that we use to enter them (but not for open sea
exploration) are ideal for this - and gaze upwards.
The ingenuity of the multifarious plant life is incredible. That anything
can grow on these sheer sides is wonder enough, so it has a tendency to be
bonsaied. Some trees appear to spring ready-formed from solid rock, even
from the tips of stalactites, where it is impossible to imagine room for any
root system. Others have put out surface roots that have probed and groped
like octopus tentacles along the rock face until they find a hold. Many have
split the rocks in this endeavor, their roots holding the bundled fragments
together like a rope net, that will release its load when the plant dies,
thus creating new opportunities in a new rockscape for its successors.
"Monkey-ladder" vines twist down to the mangroves on the hong floor. Leaves
spin down and gently tap the water.
Hornbills occupy the high ground, their boisterous calls echoing down to us
as they bluster across the sky. To be honest, at first I had thought these
were monkey cries. Then there were monkey cries. But we never saw the
monkeys. I was a touch disappointed that there was not more wildlife. But it
was unreasonable to imagine (as, perhaps, I secretly had) that a small
unravaged spot of our planet could be as the whole planet might have been
had we not been there. So I got excited by chitons instead, "living fossils"
that compete with other molluscs for a living at the water's edge.
Not all hongs were so chimney like, and not all had their surface covered by
water. Some one could stroll around in, some of the more accessible one had
a sufficiently large ratio of floor area against the height for flocks of
sea birds to sweep into them. Others were like canyons. We paddled down one
for about half a mile, which was pretty uniform 10yd wide, winding between
sheer walls at least 150 ft high. Trees growing out from either side would
occasionally meet high above our heads.
Not all our exploration was in hongs. We took rigid canoes, easier to paddle
but easier to capsize, on longer forays. We flew across coral gardens
(though the organism-rich waters of the bay are, for the most part, rather
murky). We learnt about fish traps (used in spring tides when traps would be
swept away, but prawns get swept into them). We became adept at cracking
open soft-shelled crabs. And we had a bit of luck with bird's nesters.
Some islands have caves that are the nesting grounds of Aerodramus
fuciphagus (aka the edible-nest swift). The Chinese believe that a soup made
from its nest improves male sexual performance. The nests, which re made
entirely of spittle, fetch up to US$2,500 (&1,650) a pound, which at 34 to
50 nests a pound means $50 a nest and big bananas.
The prudent bird's-nester, therefore, rides shotgun to market, sleeps
shotgun in his caves at night, and does not welcome visitors. On the other
hand, it was the beginning of the season, friends of our crew had just
acquired the concession on a choice cave along our route, and we were to
deliver some essential supplies.
You can always tell caves where nesters are or have been at work; they
usually debouch into thin air somewhere high up a cliff (birds are not daft
enough to nest at walk-in sites) and bamboo poles and lianas will be leaning
against or hanging from them. The nesters will trust nothing else, their
greatest scorn being reserved for synthetic ropes.
The islands on, or rather in, which we soon found ourselves seemed almost
entirely hollow (an embryonic hong?) with the nesters camped at the bottom
of the cave system about 20 ft above the sea in an incredible Wendy house of
many levels, cantilevers and suspension mechanisms (metal hawsers, it
appeared, were okay), all contrived to wedge it in midair beneath a rock
They took us on a stroll through their subterranean domain, which was
lightly carpeted and aromatised with spongy bat droppings. What at first I
took to be a susurrus of sea motion turned out to be bats at the top of one
of the highest caverns, which, in general shape ad size, bore comparison
with a cathedral. This was full of bamboo trunks that looked as if they had
been held in an upright bundle in a giant fist, like pick-up sticks, and
then allowed to fall randomly at an angle against the walls up which they
formed rat runs for the nesters.
The birds, whose front door was on the other side of the island high above
sea level, were currently out feeding up for their salival exertions. They
have to make two nests. The first our friends would promptly remove. The
second would be left in peace, indeed watched over, until the young had
flown. The nesters know just how far you can push a swift.
Our meals were sensational (our cook paddled his canoe everywhere with a
lure trailing from his big toe to keep us in squid). We spent the nights
camped on some wonderful beaches with, inevitably, great cliff faces behind
us and sea eagles riding the thermals. West-facing beaches seemed to have
been deliberately chosen so we had grandstand seats when the sun went down.
At night the skies were so bright and clear that the jets gliding down to
Phuket airport seemed like alien spacecraft and ours the reality.
I want to add one more thing about SeaCanoe, not mentioned in the awards,
nor directly connected with my experience; on the other hand, it had
everything to do with it. Caveman Gray is that special creature, a practical
dreamer. He wanted to create a company that was not only environmentally
beyond reproach but morally so also, in a country where uneducated workers
are often cruelly exploited.
One of our guides casually let drop that he had driven the other guide to
the hospital in a coma some months before. He had had a brain hemorrhage. I
looked at the young man from a fishing village, the picture of rude health,
and asked, "But.?" "Oh, we have brain scanners in Phuket," I was told. His
head was opened up that evening , necessary brain surgery was performed, and
he was fully restored. So I asked, as I ask in every country: "Who pays for
something like that, the government, the patient.?" He looked at me,
surprised. ".Why, SeaCanoe, of course."
Getting There: SeaCanoe operates a variety of canoeing trips in
Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. The three-day "mini-expedition" from
Phuket that Mark Ottaway made costs US$500/&332 (from Phuket) and operates
from November to August inclusive. A longer six day trip costs US$900. Day
trips to the hongs, only booked locally, cost $100. There are also
year-round hotel-based "Discover Krabi Nature Expeditions"; $440 and $660
for three or five days, respectively, which include jungle trekking as well
as paddling the spectacular Krabi coastline. SeaCanoe does not have a
British agent. Any competent tour operator to Thailand should be able to
incorporate a SeaCanoe journey in its package. Certainly Asia World Travel
(01932-820050) can. For direct bookings or more information, the e-mail
email@example.com, fax 00-66-76-212-172, tel 212-252, and
http://www.johngrayseacanoevietnam.com is the web site.
From the Caveman: "My apologies for this timely
personality profile, but it exemplifies SeaCanoe's principles and ideals.
While it is true that I am "the Founder" and developed the "Tidal
Technology" that allows all this to happen, we all know that an effort like
this is never the work of any one individual.
There are many folks who also deserve credit for SeaCanoe's success - let
them be known before you proceed. All these folks are heroes who have placed
their lives on the line, not only for what SeaCanoe stands for, but for a
stronger, corruption-free and democratic Thailand - and for a properly
managed Phang Nga National Park. Aside from the assault on the caves,
corruption-based unenvironmental practices devastate the National Park (and
most of Thailand's national parks.)
For example, illegal trawlers pay the Mafia corruption to fish in the Park,
and the Mafia passes some of this corruption on to "officials" to look the
other way. Longtail fishermen say that since this started, their shrimp
catches dropped from 100K a month to 5-6K. When we started, we were told
that the Park controls its own islands and they would protect the caves in
cooperation with us. Ever since, the TAT and the Park have begged off their
environmental responsibilities by claiming that "There isn't any law" - all
that is required is a Park regulation and a high user fee of B500 to support
enforcement. Is the inaction the result of incompetence or corruption? Take
OUR TEAM Soonthorn "Mut" Sagulsan - An original partner and SeaCanoe's
Mut grew up as a fisherman on a local island. Mut is as honest and loyal as
the day is long, and is currently in a safe house where he lobbies senior
government officials on his mobile phone for volume controls and
professional standards, and against Mafia-style extortion.
Simon Warren - A "Thai fisherman from Cardiff, Wales", Simon is an
original partner in charge of overnight trips. Featured in our video
"Adventure in South Thailand", Simon is fluent in Southern Thai, knows the
nuances of Southern Thai kayaking better than anybody, and is a personable
and diplomatic leader.
Panwong Hiranchai - A lifelong seaman, Pan is our Day Trip Operations
Manager, which allowed Mut to develop his administrative and government
relations duties. Pan has fire in his heart for SeaCanoe's ideas, and for
Thailand's future. He believes so strongly in Thailand that he took three
bullets in an assignation attempt related to our fight for responsible
management of the Park. Despite a death threat in public and eight witnesses
to the broad daylight shooting, as of November 4, the Thai government has
not arrested the shooter.
Our Staff - The day after Pan was shot, everybody turned up for work
and performed their normal guide duties. Not one guest had a clue of the
tragedy that had befallen us the previous day. When I asked one guide why he
did this, he said "John, do you forget that SeaCanoe is my profession, and
will be for my children, too?" He actually used the word "profession".
Our Friends - Although Thailand is riddled with corruption and the
Bangkok Post still backs up the Mafia claims that the Park's islands are
"bird nest rich" (the previous concessionaire freely admits that there have
never been any swallows in the caves), there are plenty of decent, honest
and capable Thais. Many have come to our support because they understand
that the Kingdom is at a crossroads. I'm sorry that we cannot mention names,
but you know who you are.
Every year in Phuket' s Phang Nga bay, thousands of
tourists are paddled through dark holes in limestone rock with some of the
most beautiful lagoons in the world. In the nine years since they were
discovered, the giant roof-less caves that are Thailand's hongs have drawn
more and more visitors. Hushed, they marvel at these self-contained little
worlds, guarded by towering walls of limestone, and the rhythmic rise and
fall of the tides that open and close the small entrance tunnels. Little do
most of the visitors know that while they gaze up toward the sky, the man
who most likely found the hong they're in, and then marketed it as an
ecotourism destination, is now glued to a computer screen, fighting to send
many of the boats back home. John "Caveman" Gray says copy cat companies
have mushroomed, and the hongs are being visited by many more people than
their delicate ecosystems can stand.
John Gray gets passionate about a lot of things. About Thailand's hongs: To
me these places are a sacred as the Emerald Buddha." About rural
development: ".rural development has been my thing since I was a kid. I made
some observations as a teenager that are still part of our rural development
policy today." About the company he founded and its potential: "You see, my
vision for Thailand is to have about 20 sincere kayaking companies operating
in villages up and down the coastline here - sea caving just happens to be
the one that we did here, but there can be mangrove paddles, surfing,
wildlife tours, there's dozens of different options." And about the
competitors he says are riding on the back of SeaCanoe's success: "Our
operations manager just counted between 16 and 18 companies; it's just a
floating market out there."
Gray lay the foundations for the business in Thailand in 1989, when he
paddled his kayak into unexplored dark tunnels, convinced they'd lead
somewhere worthwhile. As the tunnels' end, he found daylight, and the
unbelievably beautiful hongs -giant open-roofed time capsules, locked away
from the rest of the world for millennia.
When he founded his company, SeaCanoe Thailand, he paddled into territory
that was just as new, setting up a ground-breaking model for eco-tourism
enterprises owned by local people. There's been light at the end of that
tunnel too - the bright spotlight of international media attention and
world-class environmental awards, too numerous to list.
But, the hongs, and to some extent the company, are facing the same
problems. Over-use of the hongs by some other operators, and some
mistreatment, means the environment itself is under threat. It's a
complicated conundrum; as complicated as the character of the man who's one
of the chief players on the board.
For, if life is a jigsaw puzzle, then John Gray is an object less in putting
together the bits that don't seem to match. At first sight, the man is a
mass of contradictions. He's an academic, and a journalist. He's a sporting
daredevil who's happiest when he's paddling through monstrous Hawaiian
waves, but uncompromising about others' safety. He's a committed
environmentalist and a successful businessman - albeit one who believes
money is humanity's most banal pursuit. As well, he's a trainer, a husband,
a father, and, perhaps most of all, a missionary - environmental, that is.
The puzzle pieces come together to make a man who's uniquely suited to the
job he made for himself in Thailand; exploring the hongs in Phang Nga Bay,
and forming the company that lets local people make a living showing them to
His working day is just as complicated. When he's not tied to a computer
(and he says that's 20 hours a day) he's working with staff at the company
he founded, SeaCanoe Thailand; judging the risks of tidal flow while he
explores an unknown limestone tunnel looking for a hong; campaigning for
more government protection for those very same hongs; explaining the
principles behind the operational rules to local people wanting to start a
Sea Canoe franchise; planning trips to other operations in Vietnam, the
Philippines or Fiji; or breathing fresh air into academia (he's also
Visiting Professor of Ecotourism at Srinakarinwiroj University).
The picture that is John Gray began to form in California in the 1950s,
when, as a more than slightly adventurous child, he swam into sea caves on
the coast. "I see a cave, even a land cave.you know some people get afraid
of dark small places, but I just go, wow, that looks interesting." He says.
At 12 he learned to scuba dive, and had his certificate in his hand before
California brought in minimum age requirements. Then came family diving
trips to Mexico - 90's style traveling in the 50s and 60s.
In many ways, I see my folks as the first modern Eco-tourists,' Gray wrote
in an academic paper.".somehow the entire Gray family learned Spanish. We
bought a camper and a trailered boat, and explored Mexico on our own."
The family looked for remote beaches and fishing villages, and Gray learned
the real value of things he took for granted back home: safe drinking water,
electricity, antibiotics, rural cultural networks and true friendship.
"Three times, I was in villages when the lights went on for the first time,"
Ten years later, Gray was a scholarship student at prestigious UCLA, and
went back to Mexico on holidays. That decade had brought more than a
sprinkling of lights.
"Consumerism and advertising hit Mexico like a storm," he wrote. "Inflation
consumed buying power before it was created, and socials ills such as crime,
theft and official corruption, turned charming village societies into
ruthless money-grabbing machines."
At one beach in particular, the impact was devastating. Last time he'd
visited, it was owned by a family of shy peasants, and the only access was
by boat. Now, there was land access, to a fancy hotel, but the reef had been
a casualty of the movie, Catch 22, that had been filmed there earlier.
"It was gone, blasted out to make a movie and sludged over by hotel
construction. Even worse, the family sold out for $200. Before, they were
poor but sustainable. Now, they were landless beggars."
Mexico left him asking questions about the price of development that he's
still working hard to answer today.
The years between saw him move to Hawaii, where he became a medical
and later, a journalism lecturer. He also met the surf, and started a love
affair with kayaks. Crazy as it sounds to the world at large, Gray then
mixed the waves and the kayaks with the kind of sea caves he'd loved as a
child. Sea caving in kayaks in Hawaii meant paddling into these dark caverns
and playing with the waves. It's a sport best left to the experts. Inside a
cave, in the dark, a wave that looks small on the outside can pose a huge
Inn 1983, Gray founded a kayaking company in Honolulu - Pacific Outdoor
Adventures. The Thailand connection came later, in 1989, as Gray began
exploring the tidal caves that lead to the hongs. Although these caves don't
have Hawaii's waves, the tides pushing water through small openings create
currents that are just as dangerous for the inexperienced.
"The current moves as fast as a mountain stream, complete with sound effects
echoing off the cave walls. I body surf Waimea Bay, but I could not swim in
many of these caves," Gray says.
While he was exploring, his partners in Hawaii were dismantling the company.
Gray went back to Hawaii to find himself left with nothing. His decision to
start his SeaCanoe venture in Thailand was backed by his appetite for the
new, a set of principles about rural development and local ownership that
he'd been working on since Mexico, bookings for three, two-week expeditions
- and no money.
He says he started SeaCanoe with the 700 baht refund from a plane ticket,
and kept going because he was determined to prove that business and the
could work together. Running it was the only way to prove it was possible.
"If I sit in my ivory tower and declare to the world via a publishing house
that a business can thrive by putting the environment first, nobody would
believe me," he says.
SeaCanoe follows all those principles - 90 percent of the money it generates
goes back into the local economy; its employees are paid salaries that are
well above the local average; staff are encouraged to improve their skills;
the environment comes first. Franchise arrangements enshrine these
principles in copywriting and marketing agreements. SeaCanoe will help
franchisees with set up costs including boats - but the funds must be paid
back from operating costs. Gray says they learned from experience that
offering free shares meant they weren't valued.
But if it reads like an environmentalists' bedtime story so far - that's
where it stops. Gray says some copy cats have hijacked the company name,
riding on the back of the overseas promotion that the company worked so hard
to build up. He says some are cutting costs, some are damaging the hongs,
and far to many people are coming in.
According to Gray, it's commercialism with no regard for education, or for
the delicacy of the caves. Some operators, he says, allow people "to get out
and play and have sing-a-song sessions so they can hear themselves echo off
"People should conduct themselves as they would going into a temple. You
know, to me, whether you want to call it God or Buddha, whoever it was,
these are obviously special and sacred places. And even the Thais don't have
respect for their own national treasures. And I'm deeply hurt and offended
by the attitudes of our copycats."
Gray believes the caves shouldn't be visited by any more than 42 people a
day. And, he says, as the discovers and developers of the hongs, the rights
should be awarded to SeaCanoe, not to the companies who followed in its
wake. He says it's not a case of a Westerner wanting exclusive rights to a
Thai attraction - SeaCanoe is Thai majority owned. "It's not my company it's
Thai-owned company - so we're talking about a group of Thais who I trained
and they respect and love these sites and they resent what's going on as
much as I do.
"In an honest, ideal world, they'd say, 'okay, SeaCanoe originally developed
this experience, they took it to its capacity, they operate in a responsible
manner, they're the only folks that should be allowed to go in there."
"I developed a unique way to observe these environments without leaving even
a footprint. Even one kayak should go in with great respect and concern, but
it's a floating market now - let's put a turnstile there."
Paddler Magazine - November-December 1998
The Official Magazine of the American Canoe Assn., circulation to 200,000
Paddle People : Sea Kayaking with John "Caveman" Gray
"The lanky, gray-ponytailed gringo stood out in the sea
of suits and evening dresses in a fancy ballroom of Bangkok's super-luxe
Shangri-La Hotel. He appeared to be an old hippie who never got around to
leaving Southeast Asia."
Perhaps he knew someone who knew someone who got him into the high-toned
cocktail party. The man wasn't paying a lot of attention to the officials
speeches. He was speaking loudly enough to border on rudeness to his own
small audience of rapt listeners. In truth, his words were more important
than the officialese being intoned into the microphones.
I soon learned that he was John Gray, a commanding figure in contemporary
Southeast Asian environmental issues. His height, his passion and even his
outfit, which was similar to a karate gr--- but of gray Thai silk instead of
white cotton created a presence. It is appropriate that he dresses up in a
warrior uniform of sorts, for the man is a fighter. His usual chariot is a
yellow sit-on-top kayak, his lance is a paddle and his enemy is everyone who
threatens the region's coastal ecosystem.
In a heartbeat, Gray will rail against short-sighted and corrupt officials,
against bad long-term choices made by desperate villagers, against hit-man
logging tactics, against push-net fishing boats that deplete local marine
life, against shrimp farms that flush toxic effluents into the sea, and
against non-sustainable development of all sorts. He is messianic in his
belief in stroke-by-stroke tourism, and a modest "industry" to support it,
as the salvation of his adopted region - and perhaps the world. "Southeast
Asia is where we will win or lose the planet," he maintains. "I'm committed
to make sure that it's all still here in a hundred years."
Gray grew up with Sierra Club blood coursing through his veins and remains
an idealistic savior of mangroves, an advocate of sustainable village
economies and an Eco-tourism pioneer. After moving to Hawai'i in 1983 (1),
he introduced sea kayaking as an alternative to the high-impact tourism
which afflicted America's 50th state, but it was too late there. So Gray
moved on to Thailand, settling in 1989 on sun-blessed Phuket. There,
paddling amid the karst islands that rise like primordial stone sculptures
from Phang Nga Bay, he discovered water-filled caves and fissures in the
limestone that are navigable by canoe - and earned himself the nickname
"Caveman". The light went on and he started SeaCanoe with four boats and
$28. Now, SeaCanoe's yellow kayaks ply the waters not only of Thailand but
also the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos and the South Pacific, and a paddling
school specializing in warm-water tropical kayaking also has been
From the beginning, Caveman trained locals - many of them displaced
fishermen - to become guides through karst islands, coastal mangrove
channels and deep canyons carved by tidal rivers. SeaCanoe teaches them
about respectful, responsible travel while drawing on their knowledge of the
seacoast and their culinary skills for trips.
Paddler Magazine - November-December 1998
"A canoe across the water leaves no trace" is one of several SeaCanoe
slogans. Once an operation is in place, SeaCanoe turns ownership over to
From a traveler's viewpoint, SeaCanoe is about immersion both into
spectacular waterscapes and into the culture of the people who live in
Southeast Asia. Most SeaCanoe trips are at least three days. The company
reluctantly offers day trips from such popular tourist locales as Phuket and
Krabi, but Caveman doesn't especially like them. "They're a mess. No one has
time for anything. We do them to maintain a presence because we've now got
imitators, but I don't recommend a day trip," he says forthrightly. On
longer trips, such as through the scattered islands of Thailand and Vietnam,
travel between islands is on a big escort boat.
Caveman, of course, was as much in his element at the party with crystal
chandeliers over his head as he is with benign waters underfoot. After all,
he is often called upon to address groups that meet in posh hotels - and the
awards heaped upon his environmentally friendly company tend to be handed
out in fancy ballrooms.
(1) Gray moved from Southern California to Hawai'i in 1970 at the invitation
of Hawaiian-blood environmental and cultural activists. In 1983, he resigned
his Journalism Lecturer and Cancer Research Center Communications Director
positions at the University of Hawai'i to found the predecessor of SeaCanoe.
(Sunday Times London; 12/27/98)
(Copyright Times Newspapers Ltd, 1998)
The Eco lobbyerBy Mark Ottaway
The breathtaking hidden lagoons of Thailand are under
threat. MARK OTTAWAY meets the man risking his life to save them
Like any other business, travel has its share of heroes and scumbags, with
the majority of operators vacillating somewhere in between. John "Caveman"
Gray is not only a hero, he has been recognized as one - a fact that could
end up costing him his life. His story encapsulates much of what is
wonderful and appalling about Thailand.
Caveman is the founder of Sea Canoe in Phuket. We told his story in these
pages when he won a British Airways "Tourism for Tomorrow" award in 1996. A
dedicated kayaker from Honolulu, he had flown in with his canoes and some
fellow enthusiasts to investigate rumours of lost worlds among the towering
limestone karst islands of Phang Nga Bay. And he found them: hollowed out
"hongs" or lagoons with sheer rock walls, chimneys of vegetation and open to
the sky, but reachable only through caves and tunnels at low tide.
It was a discovery that must have inspired the topography, and hence the
plot, of Alex Garland's bestseller, The Beach. That such spots could exist
below the flight path of Phuket airport is incredible. It is likely that
before Gray arrived nobody had ever set foot in some. The locals certainly
knew of many, but regarded them as the preserve of spirits and, until very
Being the sort of chap he is, Caveman's first thought was how to preserve
these places. Responsible commercial exploitation, he concluded, was the
only answer. Sea Canoe, a good-guy company to end all good-guy companies,
was the result: owned by local villagers and deeply committed to staff
welfare, research, the local environment and responsible and sustainable
tourism, in other words sharing these wonders with you and me.
It was all in marked contrast to the cronyism, exploitation of people, and
environmental rape and pillage that is more characteristic of Thai business
methods. For a while it seemed that Caveman - a larger than life character
and, that rare combination, a practical dreamer - had pulled it off.
Environmental awards and international acclaim flooded in, from the American
Society of Travel Agents and the Smithsonian Magazine, the Pacific Asia
Travel Association, and, only this year, Best Inbound Tour in the Thailand
Tourism Awards presented by the prime minister.
But there had been problems almost from the beginning with what Gray calls
"Eco pirates", the copy-cat and copy-name operations who made a nonsense of
the behaviour codes and numbers limits to which he was committed, and which
he believed made the need for some form of proper resource management in the
islands and the national park in which most were situated ever more crucial.
Such was Caveman's reputation and transparent honesty that he managed to
the most obvious riposte: that he was trying to corner the market for his
own operation. But for him these were sacred places and he was asking the
type of questions that foreigners in Thailand can be rash to voice.
"It is a disgrace to the Kingdom that Phang Nga's sea caves/hongs are not
afforded management controls similar to the Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha,
let alone a 'normal' temple," he wrote in a paper setting out the arguments
for volume controls.
"If Thailand does not tolerate mass-tour groups of several hundred people
going into temples, if Thailand does not allow tourists to climb the walls,
if Thailand does not allow temple visitors to break off souvenirs, or to
laugh, shout and sing, if Thailand does not allow temple visitors to disrupt
the lives of the residents, if Thailand does not allow temple visitors to
urinate and smoke in holy temples, why does it allow these practices in what
are certainly some of the world's most sacred natural sites?"
He campaigned against the corruption which was allowing the local mafia to
trawl in Park waters, pointing out that the legitimate low- tech catches of
villagers had dropped from 100 kilograms a month to five or six as an
apparent result. These are cowboy waters, birds' nesting is also big
business here, and long-tailed boats with chaps sporting AK-47s or
pump-action shotguns are common enough sights. Kayaking was a visibly
booming addition to the local economy and soon attracted demands for
protection money. Sea Canoe, with its staunch "no pay-offs or back handers"
policy, alone refused to pay, arguing instead that payments should be made
to the National Parks to finance the policing of environmental controls. But
it was being squeezed at both ends, undercut by the cowboys, leant on by the
Mafia and generally out on its own.
The events that led to the shooting of Panwong Hirunchay, Sea Canoe's
manager, last month began with the management of the a local hotel company
on Phi Phi Island demanding an entrance fee for canoes visiting caves (not
hongs) on that island. Threats to Sea Canoe staff followed and then Panwong
was shot. After the shooting, by an unknown gunman, letters appeared in the
Bangkok Post supporting Sea Canoe's stand against the hotel company. Many
Thais see the case
as symbolizing the battle between old corrupt Thai politics and its more
open and democratic practice.
Caveman tried to raise these matters at a recent Parliamentary hearing which
ironically turned out to be more concerned with a ruckus about the filming
of The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio on Phi Phi Island. By this time Caveman
had received a death threat himself, mailed from Phuket on November 11. A
"program" is Thai travel industry-speak for a project and the lurid but
chilling message read:
"Dear Khun John - next program is 'The Last Meal of the Cave Man'.SOLONG AND ADIOS."
"Given the salutation and style," says Caveman, "I have little doubt as to
the author. Since Panwong's shooter is still free, I do not take this
lightly." He and a number of his senior staff now communicate with the
outside world only by mobile phone, and he has taken the precaution of
depositing documents with friends that he hopes will nail his killers, and
high-level connivance in the over- exploitation of Phang Nga Marine National
Park, if the worst happens.
*Panwong was released from hospital after three weeks and is expected to