Respecting traditions in a world looking for that perfect photo!

Watching the Alms giving ceremony, from afar.

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.

The don'ts of viewing the Alms ceremony in Luang Prabang...
Tourists getting WAY too close to the Alms ceremony!

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!

Observing the locals participate in the morning giving of Alms.
Observing the locals participate in the morning giving of Alms.

Chiang Mai (Thailand) to Luang Prabang (Laos)… How NOT to do it overland!

It’s taken a day or two to recover and let my rattling bones settle, so only now am I ready to write about our journey through the North of Thailand and into Luang Prabang, Laos.

The South East Asia backpacker route is a buzz of eager foreigners escaping reality for weeks, months or even years on end.

‘Where have you been?’ ‘Where are you going? And ‘How long are you on the road’ are common opening liners when you meet someone new. Travellers tell about their epic journeys so far and are always keen to share their travel tales and do’s / don’ts they’ve picked up along the way, which is why I found it disturbing that we DIDN’T hear the next hot tip until it was too late… Much too late!

 

Tip #1 in getting from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang… Avoid the fast boats!!

 

When Swanny and I discussed the overland travel option from Thailand to Laos by boat, along the Mekong, I was picturing a big wooden, sun drenched boat where I could kick back, relax and let the world pass me by. Wrong!

It was supposed to have been a 3 day journey which would have been fine, but when we were presented with a fast boat option we thought… ‘Why spend 3 days travelling when you can spend 2!’ Especially when we had heard so many amazing things about Luang Prabang. So, with little debate we made the seemingly logical choice to take the fast boat. Wrong!

 

It became evident we’d chosen the road (and river) less travelled as soon as we started our trip….

Collected by minivan with an assortment of other travellers it became apparent we were the only ones (out of 15!) to have chosen the speed boat option. Then the tales of capsizing, boats flipping at high speeds, and a river full of obstacles started. (How had WE not heard about this? We were travel agents too!)

We ignored the chit chat and told ourselves ‘It can’t be THAT bad or they wouldn’t sell it! Right?’ Wrong!

Firstly, the 7hr mini van ride takes you to the Thai border town of Chiangkhong where an overnight stay is required. The only highlight, was a visit to the beautiful white Buddhist temple in Chiang Rai, Wat Rong Khun. The glitter sparkled and reflected off the temple, and it reminded me of snow glistening in the sunshine.

 

Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai.
Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai.

The ‘hotel’ in Chiangkhong was hideous and nameless (not a good sign).

I’ve stayed at some dumps in my time, but this takes the cake. Wooden planks for a mattress, a mouldy bath/toilet/shower combo, cold rice for dinner and stale bread for breakfast. Awesome!

Yuck!
Yuck!
It was only 6pm when we arrived, and there was no WAY we could have fallen to sleep naturally, so the only option…. Beer!
Beer, the only option!
Thank you Chang!

In an attempt to drown our sorrows and make the most of it, we headed off to the one and only bar. An English pub called The Hub Pub.

Set up by an Englishman (Alan) who holds the Guinness World record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe, by bicycle!

A long neck or two later Swanny unleashed her ‘Rapping Travel Agent’ You Tube clip on them all and managed to score a spot on the wall for her autograph.

The rapping travel agent! Kel Swan
The rapping travel agent! Kel Swan

Haven’t seen it? Check out her link: The Rapping Travel Agent

Anyway, the beer did the trick and we managed to have a reasonable nights sleep before hitting the road (and the boat) to Luang Prabang.

I left the hotel with mixed emotions. On one hand i was glad that we didn’t have to endure another nights sleep in seedy accommodation, but on the other I was a little anxious about the boat trip ahead of us.

We made it through the Thailand and Laos border crossing without any dramas, and it again became obvious that our choice of transport wasn’t popular. There were literally a hundred or more backpackers (identified by the uniform of backpack, hiking boots and khaki pants of course) arriving into Laos that morning and exactly 5 of us were taking the fast boat… FIVE! (Not great odds!).

It was at this point that I caught a glimpse of the speed boat for the 1st time. What the??

 

What the? WHY had i not seen this photo at the time of booking?
What the? WHY had i not seen this photo at the time of booking?

Basically the ‘speed boat’ was a traditional long tail wooden boat, with a juiced up engine that runs off LPG Gas! The passengers in the picture were wearing helmets and life jackets and seemed to be sitting in a 40cm x 40cm section of floor space. Ummmmm??

My gut instinct was screaming for us to run away, but we couldn’t. It was too late. We were en-route to the boat and besides, there were other people doing it (including locals), so it reallllllly couldn’t be that bad….Could it?

Yep… It IS that bad!

There are literally no words for the journey itself so let me paint you a picture.

– Imagine sitting in a convertible with the top down. The sun is fierce and its about 35 degrees celsius at 10am. (And there is no option to put the top back on… there is no top).

– You don’t have a seat, just a small square of wood that is also the floor. Your knees are bent up around your shoulders (or ears, depending on how tall you are!)

– You’re wondering why the locals are wearing motorcycle helmets, but no one gives you one.

– You’re humming along at about 80km per hour (maybe faster) with the wind howling through your hair, but the road isn’t smooth, it’s bumpy. Very bumpy!

– Oh and did i mention the road was in flood and full of debris like logs, rubbish, a rouge washing machine or two and rocks the size of small houses to dodge and avoid? Well… It was.

Now, when you’ve taken all of that in. Close your eyes and imagine it.

Now imagine it for 7 hours!!!!

Your only reprieve is the music blasting through your ipod to drown out the engine noise, the 6 short pit stops (literally) of about 5 minutes each to swap over the gas bottles (that also sit way too close to comfort) and a quick lunch break at a riverside ‘Bistro’, that served cold fried rice, warm coke and a had a hole in the deck for a toilet.

That was our journey.

Our boat... before the other 5 people got in!
Our boat… before the other 6 people got in!
The helmets that the locals carried and wore with them... Ours we're handed to us about half way!
The helmets that the locals carried and wore … Ours we’re handed to us about half way!
The face of fear!
The face of fear!
The boats!
The boats!
Needless to say the first glimpse of Luang Prabang as we rounded a corner was triumphant. Yes, our legs and asses were completely numb. Our faces & shoulders red raw from the sun AND we had to carry our bags up a small cliff face to reach the road, but we made it. We’d survived!!
Arriving into Luang Prabang! Pheeew
Arriving into Luang Prabang! Pheeew

The rest of our evening was a complete blur as we waited for our bones to stop aching and the hum of the speedboat to stop ringing in our ears, but as fragile as we were, Swanny and I still managed to have a laugh about it. (We had to laugh otherwise we would have cried).

We’ve since heard stories that the overnight bus was just as frightening and that the slow boats can be a pain in the ass too (no pun intended) but now that i’ve made the journey and lived to tell the tale, My #1 tip for travelling overland from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang… Don’t! Pay the $100 and fly.

 

Kate xx