What is the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Thailand?
Most people imagine sailing in a longtail boat on crystal clear water towards a white, sandy beach. Or visiting a beautiful golden temple, a symbol of complete purity. However, some may think about the grungier side of Bangkok, the poor air quality, infamous traffic jams, and flooding problems.
These are very contrasting images of Thailand, leading to the ultimate question – “is Thailand a clean country?”
Thailand is generally a clean country, but it is not as clean as other countries in the region, such as Japan and Singapore. Thai people practice good personal hygiene and clean their local communities. However, the country’s lack of effective waste management systems contributes to a poor record of plastic pollution in the ocean.
That’s the short answer. However, we must note that cleanliness is subjective. The idea of what’s clean and what’s dirty will vary from person to person.
This article aims to dive deeper into Thailand’s cleanliness – offering reasons why it can be considered a clean country. And considering whether Thailand’s idyllic islands and ‘picture-postcard’ image are accurate representations. So, let’s find out.
Is Thailand a Clean Country?
Overall, Thailand can be deemed a clean country. A large part is due to personal hygiene and cleanliness being very important to Thai people on a cultural level.
A great example is the number of Thais you see wearing masks in Bangkok. This is not only in response to the city’s air pollution but also to prevent disease transmission.
The recent pandemic has now normalized mask-wearing. However, Thailand has been at the forefront regarding sanitation and preventive measures. Their “mask-wearing culture” goes back long before Covid came into existence. Pre-covid, Thai people wearing masks in closed public spaces, such as the BTS Skytrain, was a common sight.
Even before the pandemic, Thai people were not just wearing masks due to the pollution. They were way ahead of the world regarding sanitation and preventive measures.
Thai people’s emphasis on personal hygiene goes beyond face masks. They will bathe or shower two, three, and even four times a day during summer. Whereas foreigners, in comparison, may not bathe themselves to such extremes when in these hot climates.
The Thai are also committed to maintaining the cleanliness of their homes and their local areas. In a typical Thai home, you are expected to take off your shoes and wash your feet before entering. They are also strict on cleanliness inside the home, particularly during meal times.
Major cities and urban areas like Bangkok and Chiang Mai are typically clean and developed. This is due to the cleanliness of the local people living there. City people are known to have good discipline. For example, they would clean up the trash left after the 2020-2021 Thai protests in Bangkok.
On the other hand, Bangkok does have a long-standing reputation for being a dirty city. It might not be as clean on a general level if you compare it to Singapore, Tokyo, or Kuala Lumpur. However, like any other metropolis home to 10 million people, slums, pollution and littering are to be expected. Bangkok has its fair share of cleanliness compared to other countries in the developing SEA region.
Public transportation, such as the BTS and its platforms, are immaculate and modernized. At the same time, areas like Lumphini Park, located in the heart of Bangkok, add to the clean image of the capital and its people – and by extension, Thailand’s image.
Check out “Is Bangkok a Clean or Dirty City?” to learn about the truths and misconceptions of Bangkok’s cleanliness.
Another factor that contributes to the cleanliness of Thailand is that most of the tourist sites are well-kept.
Wat Pho, one of the most famous tourist attractions, is a good example. When it comes to cleanliness, all the temple staff members are committed to ensuring that the temple’s vicinity is always spotless. Other religious places are also neat and tidy, as Buddhist monks usually sweep, wash, polish, and clean during their free time to find inner peace.
Whatsmore, modern attractions like the lavish ICONSIAM shopping mall is always kept in pristine condition. Even outdoor markets such as Chatuchak Market, which attracts over 200,000 every weekend, are clean and comfortable.
Are Thailand’s Islands Clean?
The outstanding natural beauty of Thailand’s tropical island requires no debate. They are truly stunning and picturesque. However, they are not as flawless as you may think.
The reality is that these exotic islands may actually suffer more cleanliness problems than Thailand’s big cities. It may be hard to imagine, but it starts to make sense when you consider their lack of infrastructure.
Let’s look at some of Thailand’s islands’ issues and what is being done to make them cleaner.
In 2017, a huge floating mass of garbage and debris was found a few kilometers off Thailand’s coastline and holiday resorts.
Known as ‘garbage island,’ this continuous 10-kilometer stream of trash contained non-degradable plastics, foam boxes, plastic bags, drinks cans, and bottles, weighing hundreds of tons. All brought together by the wind and tide.
According to the local authorities, the first garbage island may have come from debris going into the sea due to the heavy floods in Thailand’s southern provinces.
In the same year, a second floating garbage island was discovered by the snorkelers off the island Koh Talu in the Gulf Of Thailand. (Source)
Apart from being unpleasant on the eye and dangerous to swim in, these floating masses of trash pose a threat to wildlife and cause environmental damage to shallow coral reefs around the islands.
And, of course, they risk polluting nearby islands if they end up on the island’s beaches if they drift to the shore. To prevent this, authorities spent around ten days removing the debris from the first garbage island. (Source)
Inadequate waste disposal facilities and increased single-use plastics (such as straws, plastic bags, forks, and spoons) from the tourism sector are attributed to these problems.
Problematic Plastics in the Ocean
Thailand is one of the largest contributors to ocean waste in the world. Only a handful of countries, including Thailand, contribute to 60% of the eight million tons of plastic that enter the ocean annually. (Source)
We also now have research to suggest that the majority of plastic enters the ocean from a small geographic area, and that over half comes from just five rapidly growing economies—China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. These countries have recently benefited from significant increases in GDP, reduced poverty, and improved quality of life. However, increasing economic power has also generated exploding demand for consumer products that has not yet been met with a commensurate waste-management infrastructure.Ocean Conservancy (Source)
Koh Samui, an island well-known for its breathtaking view, is facing an ongoing crisis of trash build-up due to the lack of adequate incineration capabilities. (Source)
Nearby islands like Koh Tao and Koh Phangan had also suffered from similar problems, with rotting piles of garbage dumped is not an uncommon sight to see on the island. This plastic pollution not only has an environmental impact but also impacts future tourism.
Increased Tourism = More Pollution = Decreased Tourism
Thanks to the international fame of Thailand’s tropical islands, many of the popular beaches in the country – such as Pattaya, Phuket, and Hua Hin, get packed with visitors. While it is suitable for tourism, the aesthetic quality of many beaches in Thailand is being compromised.
A prime example is Phi Phi island. The constant footfall has put pressure on its infrastructure, worsened the aesthetic aspects of the beaches, and compromised the underwater areas and coral reefs.
Maya Bay, in particular, has taken the brunt of such problems. One of Thailand’s premier tourist hotspots (thanks to the notoriety gained from Leonardo Di Caprio’s movie ‘The Beach,’ its coral reefs have faced massive damage due to the stream of boats passing through the site.
Fortunately, action has been taken to address this problem. Maya Bay is closed to boats between February and September as a way to recover the marine ecosystem and the coral reefs in the area.
Dirty Beach Water
Pattaya, the famous tourist beach, has also fallen victim to Thailand’s pollution problems.
In 2019, residents near the Na Jomtien beach complained about foul smells as the stagnant water stench rose to their beachfront condominium buildings. The residents from those condominiums claimed to the local media that they had frequently witnessed wastewater being thrown directly into the sea area, particularly when heavy rainfalls happen.
Due to the traffic congestion and wastewater pollution, many were worried about the possibility of contamination and health hazards. As a result, the number of beach visitors declined.
In response to these wastewater treatment issues, government officials confirmed that they planned to raise the water treatment capability from 20,000 cubic meters to around 63,000 cubic meters per day. (Source)
Check out “Can You Drink the Tap Water in Thailand?” to learn about the cleanliness of Thailand’s tap water.
Efforts To Make Thailand Cleaner
As seen above, Thailand faces many problems regarding plastic waste management and water pollution. The Thai government and its authorities are attempting to solve these issues to keep their local communities clean and continue being a popular tourist destination.
Here are some of the actions being taken to keep Thailand clean.
Nationwide Ban On Single-Use Plastics
The government banned single-use plastic bags from 1st January 2020. This was in support of the campaign for a complete ban by 2021 to reduce the debris and waste found in the sea.
According to Varawut Silpa-Archa, the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, the country reduced plastic bag usage by 2 billion (approx. 5,765 tonnes) in 2020. As a result, Thailand dropped from 6th to 10th among the world’s countries that dump the most waste into the sea. (Source)
This initiative was reinforced by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), which announced in April 2022 a complete ban on foam containers and single-use plastics in all 155 of Thailand’s national parks. The fine for anyone taking such items to a national park can reach up to 100,000 THB. (Source)
This ban and penalty introduction have solidified efforts to protect the country’s natural beauty.
Ocean Clean Up Movements
In 2017, Thailand joined an initiative called “Upcycling the Ocean” in an attempt to clean its seas. Through this program, local fishermen work together to remove the plastic found in the waters. (Source)
The country’s commitment to this initiative extended far beyond removing the waste from the seas. In the project’s 2nd year, the plan expanded into recycling the collected waste into reusable materials.
Ten tons of PET waste bottles were collected from Rayong and Samet Island coastal areas and later turned into 50,000 polyethylene terephthalate t-shirts in 2017 as part of the initiative’s plan. (Source)
Non-profit and volunteer groups:
Several NGOs and volunteer groups also play their part in protecting Thailand’s natural beauty and environmental resources. Such as:
EcoThailand Foundation aims to “engage the youth of today to protect the planet of tomorrow.” They do this by educating local children, adult groups, and businesses in the Thai Gulf about environmental sustainability. The group has also helped create artificial reefs and release turtles to restore the country’s marine life ecosystem.
Trash Hero is a global volunteer network operating in 20 countries, including Thailand. Their goal is to drive change by motivating and supporting local communities to clean and prevent plastic waste.
Here is an interesting Trash Hero TEDx Talk doing just that:
Trash Hero arranges weekly beach clean-up meetings all over Thailand. Also, they organize the selling of reusable bags and bottles so that people won’t have to purchase single-use plastics. It is estimated that the bottles alone have replaced 12 million plastic bottles in the country.
Clean the Beach Boot Camp (CCBC) is a local movement that has taken a unique approach to keeping Thailand’s beaches clean. They appeal to visitors and tourists by offering free beach workouts so that participants stay behind and clean waste from the beach afterward.
Clean the Beach Boot Camp claims to have removed more than 1.12 million pounds of trash cleared over six years, proving that it’s not only the Thai locals who are committed to keeping Thailand clean.
Generally, Thailand is a clean country, but some areas are more so than others. And these areas might be different from where you would first assume.
Thai people are conscientiously clean regarding personal hygiene, and they play their part in keeping the main streets of Bangkok clean. However, Thailand has cleanliness problems due to poor waste management and water treatment, which leads to polluted islands and oceans.
Thailand’s increased demand for consumer goods and popular tourism industry exacerbates the problem. But the country is trying to improve the systems and keep its ecosystem healthy.
Both government and local organizations, as well as international NGOs, are working together to solve the environmental issues Thailand is facing. This is so that the country improves its plastic wastage reputation and remains a clean and attractive tourist destination.
As a visitor or expat in Thailand, it is also possible for you to do your bit. The next time you go to a 7-Eleven or a local food stall, you can refuse single-use plastic by saying no to straws “mai ow lawd” or plastic bags “mai ow toong.”
And if you fancy cleaning a beach while cleaning your conscience – join the Clean the Beach Boot Camp! With locals and tourists joining forces, Thailand can bring those pristine and beautiful views seen on the postcards back into a reality.