You can dress it up how you like, but travelling is basically being on holiday for a really long time. As noble and as liberating as your intentions may be, you can’t pretend that your actions don’t have consequences on the world around you. An encounter with a local village in Laos challenged us to think a lot more about how we travel, the way we present ourselves to the rest of the world, and how to encourage others to care about travelling responsibly too. This is not meant to seem preachy or like a big old rant, and of course we are not perfect. There are many things that, if I was to travel again, I would do very differently. However, we were surprised by how many people treated South East Asia like it was their personal party service, there to please them however they liked. In short, it’s not. Here’s our top tips on how to travel responsibly.
Beware of voluntourism
I feel strongly about this one precisely because I have been a voluntourist. It was 2011, I desperately wanted to travel to Morocco and experience Marrakech, and I was flat broke. Volunteering in Morocco was the cheapest way to get what I wanted – and if I was helping others at the same time, it was win-win, right? Not really. Volunteering abroad is not a bad thing, but when it’s more about you than the work you’re doing then maybe you should question your motives. Before choosing a charity to volunteer with, it’s important to look at how sustainable their projects are for the people they’re trying to help. Is your work providing skills and tools for local people to learn, innovate, improve on and in turn rely on themselves? Or are you taking work away from those who need it most by being there? I painted a school in Marrakech; it looked lovely and I was particularly proud of my lion. But that school was repainted once a month during the summer by a slew of volunteers, and whose opportunity were we taking away by doing it for them? Anyone in the world can paint. If you’re not a qualified teacher, are you really the best person to be teaching a group of children for whom a good education could mean the difference between barely getting by and changing their lives? Put in a little extra research and you will find plenty of amazing charities carrying out sustainable and important work, that you can work with safe in the knowledge that you aren’t doing more harm than good.
Reduce plastic waste
Plastic waste is one of the biggest pollutants left in South East Asia, wreaking havoc on oceans and air quality. It’s near impossible to avoid entirely when you can’t drink water from the taps, but there are ways to reduce your plastic waste.
- Buy a BPA free water bottle and look for purified water tanks in hotels, bars, restaurants and train stations to refill from.
- Plastic straws are another huge source of traveller waste after plastic bottles. 99% of the time I reckon you don’t need that straw and it’s easy to ask a bartender not to provide one.
- Ask your cashier at the supermarket not to bag your items, especially for the packet of chewing gum and two bananas which you can carry yourself. I’ve not yet figured out why every shop’s policy is to give you a plastic bag for the tiniest item you buy, but ask them not to and voila! Waste reduced.
Don’t give to begging children
Whilst travelling, you will become acutely aware of your wealth compared to many of those who live in the country you’re in. Even if you’re travelling on the tightest budget, the very fact you’re there means you’re exponentially better off. The sight of vulnerable children with barely any clothes to wear asking you for the smallest amount of change will break your heart. It’s right that it should: it’s injustice before your eyes. However, there are more effective ways to give your money. Gifting your change to a child creates a culture of dependency that is difficult to break. Parents will be tempted to not send their children to school if they can make more money begging. Children are more vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking when on the streets. By a certain age, they’ve missed their chance for an education and so rely on begging to survive. A giant catch-22 that your best intentions contribute to. There are plenty of charities fighting to improve conditions for the most vulnerable in society, providing training and opportunities that will transform their conditions in the long term. Again, this requires a little more research, but if you care then make sure you give what you can where it matters. Read more here.
Get to know local prices
‘Tourist prices’ are an infuriating aspect of travelling, but it’s important not to become complacent in paying them. Although no one wants to see a wealthy tourist haggling the last few pennies of a price with someone far more dependent on the income, paying over the odds for anything when you’re travelling plays havoc with the local economy. The more you pay for any goods or services, the more you CAN be asked to pay. Prices are driven up, and competition continues to drive them up until local people can’t afford anything and international tourists are less keen to visit a place, creating a vacuum for those working in the industry. Most places you’ll travel have fluid costs on goods and a healthy bartering system, so make sure you ask for the ‘best price’ before you settle.
Think before you say ‘yes’
We travelled to Muang Sing in northern Laos after reading a blog about visiting the minority villages there. There are 9 distinct minority people groups living within Muang Sing, each with different traditions, cultures and ways of life. We jumped at the chance to share in a way of life completely different to ours, put the Laotian phrases we’d been learning to the test and experience a place where we had no familiar point of reference. We read up on how to act, how to dress, and what to expect. We were excited to be shown the crafts and production methods unique to each village, and hoped that like the bloggers before us we might be invited to stay with a family. What happened was a complete surprise. We visited two villages in the end, and were greeted with a similar reaction in both. In the last, before we’d parked our motorbikes up, Ryan was inundated with elderly women trying to sell him opium. On refusing, they smiled, as if understanding that of course… He wanted weed instead. We don’t do drugs and so turned down both offers, and at that point, things changed. The women became aggressive and the children in the village, who’d all gathered around us too, became violent. They began shouting at us, then hitting us, then pulling our bags from us. After I bought a bracelet from another woman in a failed attempt to reconcile the situation, we said thank you, goodbye, and tried to leave as the children pushed our bikes, trying to make them tip over. It was the worst moment we’ve had whilst travelling by far. The slaps and kicks may not have been the most painful I’ve ever received (though they did hurt) but the ferocity of the anger felt towards us was shocking. Something had hardened those children against us, something which turned the whole village against us as soon as we refused to buy drugs. That something, we feel, is the legacy left by those who came before us. People who heard there were drugs and evidently trampled all over the villagers’ culture, taboos and respect in order to get them. All this, despite being in a country with severe punishments for drug use, where everyone is certainly not doing it, and where the drug trade you’re buying in to has dogged the country’s journey towards stability, contributed towards violence, trafficking and exploitation, and has led to the disappearance and deaths of tourist. Between the writing of that blog and now, any chance of experiencing Laotian minority culture in those villages has been lost – because if we weren’t going to buy drugs, they saw no reason why we’d even be there. Whatever your reason for travelling, it shouldn’t be at the expense of those whose country you’ve been allowed to visit. I found it interesting that during the same summer in which the U.S and Europe hotly discussed the movement of people and the erosion of national culture, here are young westerners doing whatever they want in South East Asia because they have the money, and therefore power, to get away with it. Much of the hostility we face whilst travelling is due to how others like us have behaved. Be wise.
It’s true that in many South East Asian countries, youth culture is stepping in a different direction from tradition and you’ll be dressed no differently to a local twenty-something if you’re wearing the same holiday clothes you wear in Spain. In others, however, you will stand out for the wrong reasons. Wearing shorts with half of your butt cheek hanging out (you know the ones I mean) may not be what a deeply conservative woman, who has a very different world view from me and you, wants to see – and could cause offence. I’m not talking about oppression or objectification of the female body here, as neither of those I agree with. I’m talking about showing respect to the people of the country you’re in and their way of life, taking a step back and realising that there’s a time and a place. Other travellers and local people will provide the frame of reference for what you should wear. Although you can only take a certain amount of clothes when travelling, don’t worry- there’s plenty of markets selling all you need should you want to adapt your wardrobe.
Support local businesses
Supporting local businesses is not always easy when you’re travelling, as foreign investors snapped up whole swathes of land in South East Asia decades ago and can offer cheaper drinks and rooms. Entire Cambodian islands are let out to corporations, and the majority of tailors in Hoi An are not actually Vietnamese owned. But, where possible, look for cafes, bars, restaurants and hotels that put money back into the local economy. Largely by accident, most of our favourite places to eat and drink whilst we’ve travelled have been locally owned and used locally sourced ingredients. We’re trying to make more of an effort now to seek out indigenous initiatives. It’s a small amount of energy for us but makes a big difference to another’s livelihood.