Thailand Canoe Tour Operator Dave Williams Shows Quality and Knowledge Make Good Eco Tourism

Dave Williams was set to be a successful businessman in the United States when he took a trip to Thailand, 18 years ago. His visit made him realise there was more to life than climbing the corporate ladder. Jeremy Torr reports.

Dave Williams is a man who understands the great outdoors and just how fragile it is.

Dave Williams is a man who understands the great outdoors and just how fragile it is.

Phuket, 18 December 2010. Dave Williams is a lifelong naturalist and animal lover, dedicated paddler, serious beard-wearer and very genuine bloke.

He wasn’t always that way. Back in the early nineties he was a model executive in an established American company. “I was in middle management, living the American dream. I was working for my paycheck every week, and the future was all planned out,” he remembers. Then he took a trip to Thailand, to check out the paddling and birdwatching and it all changed.

“Now, I am following what I realised is my dream,” he says. “It’s no longer about the money, that’s not what it’s about.”

What it is about is two things: offering seriously well organized and rewarding canoe, rock-climbing and trekking trips around remote areas in south-west Thailand through his PaddleAsia company, and secondly - making sure what he does is of minimal damage to our world.

“Just being here impacts the environment,” he admits. But he makes sure whatever he is offering, by water or land, involves the absolute minimum of motor transport. Customers walk, hike, canoe or mountainbike to wherever they are going to, unless it is absolutely necessary to use a bus or plane.

Nipon is one of Dave's top guides. He has as broad knowledge as his smile

His life is now completely dedicated to offering holidays to regular and repeat customers, and to putting together qualifying courses for Duke of Edinburgh style award programs, mostly for the higher level participants from schools and groups from all over Asia.

He is, as he admits, a bit choosy about who he takes. He says he doesn’t want anybody along who doesn’t have the same values as he and his team of guides. As he very succinctly puts it: “one sourpuss can spoil it for all the others.”

This approach has ensured that for the last 12 years he has built up his business steadily, and now has a staff of seven offering his special brand of eco-tourism. Despite the fact he doesn’t really like the phrase.

“Everybody today seems to be touting themselves as an Eco-Tourism company. But the big guys just do the same as before, internal combustion assistance included. They just visit “green” destinations but still use as many cars and buses,” he says.

Williams says this makes it harder work for the really green, little guys like him but he carries on doing the same thing anyway. “We also do bird-watching and long-trail hiking, and for those you really have to know your country. It’s so easy to get lost that you have to go back again and again to research the really green routes that don’t do any damage,” he says. “One of the trips we offer is a 340km mountainbike ride coast to coast across Thailand. You won’t find that on any other tour operator’s itineraries!” To date, PaddleAsia is the only multi-day expedition tour operator in the region, something Williams is very proud of.

One of the key differences about PaddleAsia is the way Dave makes sure every single customer gets to see the places that bigger operators seldom go to.

"We haven't sold out to the one-day, bus trip market yet - and we don't intend to," he smiles.

Still a keen paddler, Williams started paddling in 1978, and has plenty of experience in both very serious whitewater and sea kayaking. He has paddled most of the dangerous rivers in Colorado, and almost 370 kilometres of the Grand Canyon. Closer to home, he has paddled extensively in Thailand and in the rivers of Laos.

His current right hand man (and woman) are guide Nipon and wife Moo, who both help in the business. “Nipon is a great guy and so good with the wide range of people and skills we get,” says Williams. Nipon, from Phatthalung province, has a degree in tourism from Ratchapat University and the typical warm Thai approach to people.

“Nipon is an intelligent and knowledgeable guide who dramatically improved our understandings of the culture, wildlife and locations,” enthused one customer.

He still keeps up with the other sports he offers visitors in the area, riding hardcore mountainbike trails, rock climbing and archery. “I just like what this area has to offer,” he says. A lifelong student of natural history, ornithology, biology, botany, paleontology, and Eastern Philosophy, he loves the outdoors – but realises how fragile it is.

“We are small by design,” he says. “This minimises our impact, and also has the advantage we can adjust and bounce back if customer numbers change.” In his early days in Thailand, Williams worked for a few other outdoor tour operators, and says that was a valuable learning experience. “I learned how not to do it, back in the early days,” he laughs. But now, he says, he is doing it as right as he can, with the environment firmly in mind at all times.

“I do it this way because it’s my life,” he adds. “I am following my dream, so we can all feel good about what we do.”

Contact Dave at