words of an over-opinionated travel addict

Category: Asia

What They Don’t Tell You About Backpacking Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is easily one of the most popular backpacker destinations in the world. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s beautiful, it’s easy to navigate, and it’s cheap. So I thought, I’m a pro at the hard way of traveling (my first real trip being in rural East Africa), so why not breeze my way through Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, and learn about some new cultures and people? Reflecting on the past 7 or so weeks of travel has put a lot of things into perspective for me. Clearly, I had expectations for this trip and what it would teach me, but l ended up learning something entirely different than I anticipated. But for the purpose of this blog I will be reffering specifically to the month I have been in Southeast Asia. It is beautiful here – the scenery, the temples, the history and culture, the people. That being said, it is commercialized. It is difficult to feel like many things are truly authentic, and to me, everything seems to have been exaggerated (or created) for tourists. Let me explain. The places I’ve been have been fun, beautiful, and I enjoyed them immensely. But I have had very little interaction with locals since being in India. I’ve had a great time, making friends with travelers from all over. I’ve been on busses, boats, trains and planes – all of which crammed with tourists. I look around me and see Europeans, Australians, Americas. Very rarely have I even seen or interacted with Thai or Loatian people beyond market places and restaurant employees. Every cultural activity I have tried to observe or participate in has pretty much backfired and left me confused and disappointed. One time that specifically sticks out in my mind is in Laos. At dawn in Luang Prabang, we crawled out of bed to sit on the curb and watch as the monks went around accepting food offerings. This is called the Alms Giving Ceremony. But instead of feeling like I was apart of something, or like I was watching something religious and important, I was swarmed with Lao women trying to sell me packaged foods to give the monks. I refused, and later saw the monks throwing it all out because they weren’t respectful  offerings.

I’m between a rock and a hard place. I am excited to see westerners out exploring the world. What I am not excited about is that if I were to generalize the backpackers I have encountered, it would be as drunk and destructive. When I walk down the street, shop owners should not be trying to get my attention by yelling “Cheap beer!!! Cheap beer here!!!!”. When I try to book a Ha Long Bay cruise, I shouldn’t have to actively search out a boat that doesn’t identify as a “party cruise”. And when I do find one (sort of) I shouldn’t be out on the bay in beautiful scenery, trying to relax, listening to the loud music and drunk yelling from the boats around me all through the night. People don’t seem to realize that when they are out in the world, they are representing their home countries. Is this really how you all want others to think your home is like? What this trip seems to be for most of the people around me is a giant frat party. For example, I have not been to Vang Vieng, Laos, but in recent years the Lao government had to shut down a majority of the town because too many tourists died due to tubbing along the river while too drunk. Why are backpackers here so stupid? I mean really, would you ever swan dive into a shallow river while drunk without a decent hospital around for miles at home?! And the tubing has just picked up back where it started again, according to some people I have met. Not to mention this type of tourism does more harm than good to local economy. According to the UN, (more info here), out of every $100 spent on vacation in developing countries, only $5 goes back into the community. This is due to travel agencies, hostels run by forgeiners, safari companies, etc. And it is becoming harder and harder to participate in responsible tourism at this rate, especially because most of these backpackers don’t even realize they are doing more harm than good to the places they are visiting. And it’s not just their fault – locals don’t even seem to realize its happening.  

Currently, I am in Vietnam, and it has been nearly impossible to have any hotel or travel agent arrange a public bus ticket for me, as they all insist that we are only able to ride the tourist busses (for 3x the price). When asking directions at reception to the public bus station, we were flat out told tourists can’t take them (but we did). And don’t even get me started on the taxis – we nearly got into a fist fight with a driver (in a government regulated taxi) who rigged his meter, and took us the long way on purpose. This is all because we made it this way, through an endless cycle of throwing our money around and encouraging this kind of behavior. In relation to this, there’s voluntourism. Volunteering is okay – if done the correct way (more on that later). But in Cambodia, more ‘orphanages’ are actually not what they appear. Parents are often paid a small fee to pull their kids out of school to send them to these places, where tourists come to ‘teach English for the day’, take Facebook pictures with the kids, and leave. Every day. This was created specifically because westerners come in and think that they know more than locals. What makes us think that we have any right to show up and teach? Are you a licensed teacher? Do you know the local language or any local cutoms? Who do we think we are? We seem to think that we come in and help out for a day or a weekend, and change a kids life. Let me tell you something: you can volunteer in the same place for years, the correct way, and still not change anyone’s life. A good friend told me, “you can only do what you can, for who you can, for as long as you can”. The best thing you can do for developing countries, is to educate yourselves on responsible tourism and where to put your money while traveling, not by attempting to solve the world problems by teaching a child the abc’s (which no doubt they already know backwards and forwards).

When I say that my favorite thing about this trip so far has been India, people laugh at me. One person even accused me of liking to be around dirt and poverty….because why else would I like it there? I liked it there because it was real. It wasn’t catered to me. The things I did and saw were not massively exaggerated for tourists, to suck the money out of me. There were some things, in markets and shops, of course. But the actual lifestyle of the people there? They didn’t care who I was or how much money I had – but they were happy to see me, and happy to share their culture with me, with no price tag or exaggeration. Stephanie left India saying she was excited for Thailand, that she didn’t really like it so much in India. But now, weeks later, she says India is her favorite place in comparisson. Because it wasn’t this commercialized, and travelers around us were a lot more aware of, well, everything. And I get it. I’m on vacation. I’m not working or studying or volunteering. I am supposed to enjoy sightseeing and relaxing. But I look around me, at all the college kids with their backpacks and their beers, and I feel sad. And I know I am only one of few here who feel like this. But I like to think that that’s because I cared enough to dig deeper, to try harder, and to not take the easy route. Most of them will return home, back to their real lives, and be happy that they explored. But they won’t feel moved, or changed, or broken – because they won’t have learned anything deeper about themselves or the world around us. And I’m sad for Southeast Asia, because they never get a break from us.

This feeling I have, as well as a factor of other things, has lead to a change of plans for the last few weeks of my trip. Stephanie is having a change of heart, and has decided to return home a little early. She is leaving November 1st (this Sunday) and I am flying to the Phillipines to do two weeks of volunteer work for an organization doing work in the slums of Manila. Volunteer work any less than 3 months (although 6+ is better), has been proven to actually be more harmful than helpful. I like to think of myself as being very aware of unethical development work, but it has been hard to find the time to research reputabule organizations. However, I have managed to find one. Smokey Tours in Manila gives slum tours to outsiders to promote awareness. I know what you are thinking, as slum tourism is controversial in itself. But Smokey Tours is locally run, providing jobs as guides to people who grew up in the slums, and 100% (let me repeat: one hundred percent) of profits go to the actual slum community for feeding programs, medial aid, and education. Due to the limited amount of time I have, I don’t want to be too involved and do any damage, so instead I’ll help out behind the scenes. I’ll be staying in a hostel in the city and helping with office work, as they need help with social media as well as developing a better Volunteer Program (something I know quite a bit about)! They also have a few training sessions for new guides going on while I am there, so I’ll be joining a few tours to help with the English. If I can, I’ll spend some time in a slum family’s home for my own stimulation and education (I’m not expecting to move mountains in such short time), but that is completely up in the air.

From there I’ll fly to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to spend 2 nights before flying home on November 17th. My trip is winding down, and I am having mixed feelings about it all. I realize how negative this post sounds, but I don’t mean it to be. I have loved a lot of things here, and don’t regret it for a second. And what I do know is how much of a learning experience this has been, and what it’s taught me about myself: the kind of person that I am, and the kind of person that I want to be. 


Good Morning Vietnam!

Our last few days in Chiang Mai were great. Steph and I rented a motorbike and drove up the nearby mountain, stopping at temples and walking through cute local villages as we went. It was a truly magical day, especially when it ended at a Cat Cafe: literally a coffee shop with 15 or so cats running around freely to play with.

From Chiang Mai we ventured into Luang Prabang, Laos via slowboat. Geographically, it didn’t make too much sense, but it was cheap, fun, and we got some beautiful scenery! It started with a bus ride to Chaing Rai to visit the weird and unusual White Temple, then to Chiang Khong (the Thailand/Laos border) to spend the night. Along the way, we met 2 Danish travelers who we quickly befriended and traveled with for the following week or so. The slowboat took 2 full days, but luckily we had great weather and good company! On arrival in Luang Prabang, we spent a few days enjoying the seemingly endless night market, exploring the Kuang Si Waterfalls, and believe it or not – bowling! It’s apparently the thing to do after all the bars close at 11:30. On a more somber note, I’d like to give a shout out to the kitten we found wandering alone without its mother way too young. We fed her a can of tuna, gave her some love, and sent her on her way. Unfortunately, we saw her the next day dead in the road. So rest in peace to the beautiful baby kitten who stole out hearts. I loved Lao. I’m very disappointed I didn’t have more time there, and would love to have explored more of the countryside. It was beautiful and unlike Thailand and Vietnam, it was a colorful and wonderful country and I hope to go back some day.

Steph and I separated from Danielle after this. We went off to Vietnam, where we spent some time in Hanoi venturing into temples, museums, the Hao Lo Prison, and enjoying yummy food. We then spent 3 days on a HaLong Bay cruise with other tourists. The first day we jumped from the top of the boat into the bay, and although we aren’t really drinkers, enjoyed the “free” beer provided to us from 8-10pm with some new Danish friends we made. Apparently, that’s where all the fun people are from, the next day, we woke early to kayak the bay, trekked 2 hours up a mountain on Cat Ba Island, and swam on from the beach on “Monkey Island”. We stayed clear of the monkeys this time though!


So far, I love Vietnam. It is chaotic, real, full of history, and the people are amazing. This evening i approached a woman selling seafood on the street. I picked out my (still living) food, and she cooked it in a small pot right there on the road. Her other customers watched as I perfectly broke open the crab and with my bare hands, worked out and devoured every bit of meat inside. While none of us spoke, it was a great moment for me in which I really felt apart of something. Next on the agenda is Mai Chau, Vietnam for one night in a village. The more popular tour is to Sapa, but we wanted to do something a little less crowded. Tomorrow we take an early morning bus ride on the local, public bus. After a night there, it’s back to Hanoi, where we fly to Hoi An for the full moon lantern festival, and some time at the beach! We play to stay there for the last 6 days of our time together, to enjoy it and relax rather then nonstop moving. We are ready to relax a bit


One more kitten shout out. The news from home is that my poor baby Poa has a bladder infection and was in the emergency vet all night :(. He returns home today and they say he will be fine, but nonetheless I am really upset that I am not there with him.


In the next day or two I will be posting a blog about my reflections so far, what I think the reality of traveling South East Asia is, and what I would have done differently it. It’s not meant to be offensive to other travelers, but it’s my true feelings. Once I am officially done sorting all of those feelings out, it will be posted.








At 6am every morning, the monks participate in the Alms Giving Ceremony, where the locals all offer them home cooked meals. It is all that the monks eat.





Fish, turtles, eels, frogs. Yum. Hanoi, Vietnam.




Monkeys, Mud Baths, and Mealworms

The instant we arrived in the blue city of Judhpur, we knew we would love it. It was my favorite part of India by far. It’s known as the blue city because it is actually blue! Traditionally, homes painted blue were to signify the Brahmin people. However, as time went on, everyone else got in it! The streets of Jodhpur are narrow and winding, and you can feel the character of the city from all over. However, it’s most famous for the massive fort – Mehrangarh – that over looks the city. We started our adventure here by zip lining! The 6 zips go throughout the fort, and were so much fun. But the best part was our guide, Dheeraj. During most of our time in India, the 10 day Ganesh festival was being celebrated everywhere. But Dheeraj invited us to his neighborhood that evening to witness the celebrations for ourselves. So later that day we headed over, and were greeted by swarms of children. Dheeraj’s mother served us delicious chai, and we spent most of the evening with her and the other women. We ate, danced, and worshipped Ganesh. Every night the neighborhood had different events for the kids, and that night was basically a beauty pageant – and those kids went all out! The celebrations were the highlight of my trip, and I’m forever grateful for Dheeraj and his family’s hospitality.


At the celebrations 


Costume contest!

From there we continued through some of Rajasthan, onto Pushkar where we road camels, shopped til we dropped, and had delicious falafel sandwiches on the road. Then to Jodhpur’s sister city, Jaipur. Jaipur was fun, but a lot of our activities were soon forgotten when we hit the first real snag of our trip. We ended our day with a sunset visit to the Hindu Monkey Temple, which was exactly what it sounds like. We walked up hills and down winding roads, with hundreds of monkeys. The temple itself was incredibley old and home to the monkeys and locals who lived in the surrounding villages. On the way back, as I fed some baby monkeys some peanuts I bought from a local, one of the older monkeys got jealous. Long story short, poor Stephanie was in his line of fire. And so off we went, running down the mountain with blood dripping from her arm, leaving a trail of toilet paper (a futile attempt to cover the bite), and a swarm of Indian children. Thankfully we weren’t far, and our rickshaws driver (praise him) sped us off to the hospital where we were treated like royalty. Our driver helped us in every way possible, and we walked out with a well bandaged wound, 5 different medications, a tetanus and a rabies shot, as well as strict instructions and our doctors personal cell phone number…all for free!
Now, we are in Thailand. Bangkok was everything I expected it to be – a big city, and a party scene. We spent most nights on the famous Khao San Road drinking cheap beer and eating street food. I even tried a few fried bugs! It was a nice change from India, though I do miss the chaos and the unexpected. Being surrounded by 711s and other tourists is both comforting and annoying to me at the same time. We did meet back up with Danielle though, and the 3 of us took an overnight bus to Chiang Mai, though not without it’s problems. We got stuck in major traffic on the way to the station, missed the train that we already had tickets for, and were forced to buy completely new tickets for the next train. But, guess what? This train only had first class seats available…we all cringed as we swiped our credit cards, now having paid triple for 1 journey. But we arrived safely, and so far Chiang Mai is lovely! Today we spent the day at one of the many elephant parks. We chose the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, because it is one of two options here that does not encourage or participate in elephant riding. The other option was more expensive, so off we went! We were picked up bright and early and sat on what is essentially benches in the back of a pick up truck for the 2 hour journey to the jungle, most of which on a dirt road up a winding mountain. Upon arrival, we changed clothes and went into the jungle, where 2 large female elephants and one baby were hanging out. One of the elephants was even pregnant! There were more elephants farther in the jungle that was spent time with as well. The males tend to be more aggressive, so they roam free and come back to the base a few times a week for food and for mating. This left us with the females and the babies – no complaints there. All of the elephants besides the ones born there were rescued from an elephant riding camp, and since they can’t return to the wild, roam the large jungle sanctuary and get treated like royalty by tourists like us. They see no cages, and when the babies grow up are free to roam off into the jungle with the males and come and go as they please. After lunch, we bathed them in the river, joined them in a mud bath, and then cooled off in a water fall. 
Next up we go north to Pai, Thailand, for about 2 days. This was never part of the plan, just something we recently learned about through the backpacker grapevine. From there the plan is to take a slow boat to Luang Prabang, Laos, for a short stopover before flying to Vietnam.


        The Mehrangarh Fort, view from our hotels terrace.



Making friends in Jodhpur. We were told to take them home, but I think one international pet is enough!



Grand Palace, Bangkok



Scorpians, grasshoppers, and mealworms on Khao San Road


Giant beer tower for 3, Khao San Road in a nutshell




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