It’s been over a month now since I’ve left home and looking back I have already seen and done so much, but luckily time hasn’t gone too fast, like I feared it would.
It’s funny how your perception of time shifts when you aren’t caught up in the slip stream of life, but out exploring the world and doing things you want to do, not what you feel you have to do. Everyday i’m catching myself a little more lost in the moment, which is exactly where I want to be.
Despite having only limited time at each destination, my travels in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia & Vietnam have met all my expectations and then some. I have certainly witnessed some once in a lifetime moments.
From my day with the Elephants in Chiang Mai (as per my post http://mytravelust.com/2013/08/15/not-just-another-elephant-trek-in-thailand/ ), to cooking up a storm with a Laos chef in Luang Prabang, to witnessing sunrise over Angkor Wat in Cambodia, each of these experiences has once again highlighted the value of travel.
Among the travel joys I’ve encountered on my trip so far, I have been surprised that not all of my feelings about travel and tourism have been positive.
There have been several moments where i’ve found myself despising tourism and the impact it’s having on some of the local communities and cultures, and reading more about it all only heightens my concern that the commercialism of the industry is overtaking previously authentic customs.
Take the traditional giving of Alms in Luang Prabang, Laos as an example where i honestly felt ashamed to be a tourist.
The giving of Alms is a tradition in various religions, but in buddhist culture (according to Wikipedia) the act of alms giving assists in connecting the human to the monk or nun and what he/she represents. In Luang Prabang monks rise at dawn and form a procession from oldest to youngest and collect food offerings from the towns people, however the tradition is endangered.
It became evident upon my arrival in Luang Prabang that the local people (along with UNESCO) are trying to protect the heritage and customs of this beautiful city. There are signs outlining do’s and don’ts all around town pleading with tourists to be respectful of their culture, particularly when it came to the monks and the Alms ceremony.
Requests for tourists to watch from a distance, not to use flash photography, stay lower than the monks and ideally just observe the tradition (and not actually participate) were plastered on notices in every hotel and store.
There is however a great contradiction occurring with hotels and tour companies selling ‘alms packages’ where tourists are given a pot of rice and are lined up on the street, amongst the locals to offer the monks food.
I had heard accounts of the monks getting sick from rice given by tourists, and tourists getting so close to take photos that they interrupt the procession and break the monks meditation.
We’d also heard from locals that the monks had talked with authorities about cancelling the morning ritual, as it had become so commercial, with the government responding that actors would be hired to do the ceremony, if they didn’t! What the?
So, for now the monks continue their tradition. Every morning at 530 am they take to the streets collecting food offered to them for their monasteries and while I was excited to witness the ceremony, I was also mindful of the do’s and don’ts, so I was interested to see if everyone else would be.
The next morning at 5.30am, we were sitting quietly on the opposite side of the street to where the monks would be making their way toward the monastery. We ensured we were well out of the way, and that our camera flashes were off. Then, one by one, mini van after mini van pulled up. Tourists climbed out with rice baskets in hand, mats laid out along the road and their guides talking them through the Alms process. Then, flash flash flash… The cameras went off with people posing, waiting for the arrival of the monks.
I was already feeling anxious.
As the sun started to rise, the monks in their orange robes started to appear and tourists who had previously been standing back or sitting down jumped up and got within a metre of the procession, not only blocking the view of people like us, sitting down out of the way, but getting so close that they we’re clearly being disruptive. I was witnessing all the DON’TS that the signs were pleading for people to take into account.
Yes, like every other tourist I would have loved to capture a great photo of the monks, but I wasn’t willing to be one of ‘those’ tourists to do it.
For the remainder of the procession I tried to take in as much of the tradition as i could. I took my photos from a distance and I focussed on the locals and their faces as they gave their offerings. After the last monks had passed I left feeling so torn about tourism and the affect it was having on this and other traditions around the world.
As you know I sell travel for a living and i also love photography, especially travel photography, so I know that this completely contradicts what I do and love, but it did make me think….
It made me wonder how many other traditions or cultures are being destroyed by tourism and our craving to see the sights & get an amazing photo that will get you likes on Facebook or Instagram.
It also made me consider what I could do to lessen my impact as i travel around the world. I still want to be able to interact with ancient cultures, see the iconic sights and get some great photos along the way, so how can I do it responsibly?
The answer for me is always (ALWAYS!) respect local customs and then do my research to choose organisations (as best I can) that support responsible tourism. People who are working within their communities to preserve these traditions or seeking out locally operated or not for profit expats who are running businesses that are truly making a difference.
Since the Elephant encounter in Chiang Mai & the Alms ceremony in Luang Prabang I’ve also visited Cambodia, and made an effort to seek out experiences that not only gave me a genuine cultural experience but also supported the local community.
Haven restaurant in Siem Reap, and the Children’s development organisation i visited (coming to my blog soon!) we’re both examples of these choices and knowing that our visit was giving something back to the community made it all the more worthwhile.
I am so grateful that i have now witnessed some of these experiences first hand so that for the rest of this trip, into the future and when I’m arranging itineraries for others, I can make educated decisions about what we see, how we participate and exactly what organisations we visit. Plus i can reiterate the absolute importance of respecting the local culture.
I’m sure once i start looking there will be plenty of amazing examples of organisations who are allowing you to have an authentic cultural experience whilst ensuring the preservation and support of the people, customs and environment that we spend so much time and money coming to see.
So please… think about all of this when your planning your next trip. I promise you, it’ll be worth it!