words of an over-opinionated travel addict

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. 


1 Comment

  1. Your blog on Asia is amazing as well as interesting You draw a beautiful picture of the places you've seen and apparently it's been an education as well. The beautiful and the ugly. You have remarkable insight and I can't wait to discuss everything further with you when you get home. If you do decide to do any volunteering in Manila, I hope it will be a rewarding experience. Your pictures are absolutely beautiful! Love you, Nonna.

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