Traditional cruises are almost all the same: thousands of guests mill around a floating city, eating questionable oysters and getting shepherded to iconic locations like Venice and Santorini. It’s a tired model, but it is rarely questioned by those who want to enjoy an easy, all-inclusive floating vacation.

Yet, cruise travel is the source of many travel-related issues. It contributes to the ever-growing problems of overtourism in coastal destinations, which are being trampled to near-death. But cruise ships do more than bring too many visitors to saturated spots, they also dump human waste into harbors and kill the culture of small towns that have to change entirely to meet the expectations of swaths of foreign visitors.

Fortunately, cruises exist for ethical, intrepid travelers who want to experience traveling by sea in a more meaningful way, enabling the discovery of popular destinations like Thailand from an entirely unique perspective away from the crowds. Small-ship cruising in Thailand’s Andaman Sea offers just as much beauty and culture as Phuket or Koh Samui, but the beaches of Koh Yao Yai and Koh Rok Noi are all but empty. On board Peregrine Adventure’s Panorama II for its Cruising the Thai Islands trip, passengers get to experience firsthand why small-ship cruising is the best way to see Thailand.

What is small-ship cruising, and what happens during a trip?

Like any cruise, small-ship cruising brings passengers on shore to port locations, but the details between and during those stops differ greatly, starting with what takes place on board. The Panorama II maxes out at 48 passengers (rather than several thousand), even though the ship could fit more than twice that. This enables passengers to form friendships with essentially everyone on board, staff included, creating an experience that feels extremely personal (a solid option for solo travelers).

Photo: Patricia Sofra/Peregrine Adventures

On the ship, activities on board range between planned Thai cooking classes to impromptu late-night dance parties under the green glow of nearby shrimping vessels. Most of the time spent on board is either eating or relaxing, with much of the actual movement of the ship taking place at night as passengers sleep. At dinner, local guides (who are with the group for the duration of the trip) prep passengers for upcoming water or shore activities with lessons about the culture and ecology of the people and environments of the Andaman Sea, equipping everyone with the knowledge needed to be the best tourists possible. The small size means plenty of time for additional questions, too.

These same guides are experts at gently leading passengers through the towns visited during land excursions, offering the kind of nuance that massive crowds could never internalize. One of the most memorable stops is to meet the Moken people, a seafaring ethnic group of Austronesian origin who live a semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer life (despite assimilation attempts from Thai and Burmese authorities). This visit near Koh Surin Tai requires a great deal of sensitivity, given their existence as an ethnic minority, and thus could not be done with a group any larger than the Panorama II’s. The guides ensure Moken stories are the focus during the visit, and keep the whole experience to a minimum to avoid annoying the locals.

Who cruises on small ships and why?

Photo: Patricia Sofra/Peregrine Adventures

Being able to drop anchor close to beaches and towns that can’t accommodate vessels any larger than the Panorama II makes for a more intimate experience, which is a huge draw for those who choose to travel this way. They don’t risk being rushed through a standard activity built for thousands of passengers at once; instead, small-ship cruisers can spend time in places like the Baan Talay Nok village, which was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, getting to know the people affected by the tragedy and with enough time to see and ask firsthand how they’re recovering. Even an activity as frivolous as looking for monitor lizards on Koh Surin Tai is more delightful when not being rushed along for fear of missing the call to head back aboard.

Photo: Patricia Sofra/Peregrine Adventures

Small-ship cruisers tend to be on the more active side, with lengthy shore visits and ample water-based activities keeping people busy throughout the trip. Curiosity is a hallmark characteristic of small-ship cruisers, and even those of varying age and physical ability tend to be enthusiastic about what’s in store.

Impact matters, for the planet and for people

Photo: Patricia Sofra/Peregrine Adventures

Efficiency allows giant cruise ships to move as many passengers as possible through the same areas over and over again, contributing to overtourism and sacrificing both the environment and the lives of locals for the sake of the bottom line. This is not to say that small-ship cruising isn’t concerned with their profit margins, but there’s no question that 48 people are going to damage a snorkeling spot far less than 1,000 or 10,000 people would, and food waste will be more limited when the focus isn’t about cooking as much as humanly possible.

Photo: Patricia Sofra/Peregrine Adventures

In fact, Peregrine Adventures focuses quite a bit on food, particularly how and what the locals eat, involving passengers in this experience as a form of cultural immersion. In Baan Talay Nok, locals show visitors how they prepare food, inviting them to help open coconuts and cook sweet treats over the fire. This supports the local economy, teaches techniques to avoid food waste, and is a delicious experience overall. There’s nothing efficient about it, but it does end up being beneficial to locals and travelers alike.

When sailing through the white-sand beaches and limestone cliffs of the Thai islands in the Andaman Sea with Peregrine Adventures, there’s a huge emphasis on being low-impact. This is accomplished through small group sizes, which means smaller vehicles and supporting boutique accommodations and local restaurants, rather than chains. It’s a lot easier to be a responsible traveler when someone else has done all the research for you and can show you how it’s done. And it’s a lot more fun to explore Thailand’s southern islands when you know you’re doing everything you can to keep it as beautiful as how you found it.