From avoiding elephant rides to following temple etiquette and finding responsible volunteer placements, here are some top tips on how to be an ethical traveller in South East Asia.
Travelling to South East Asian countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, The Philippines and Singapore can be extremely rewarding. Experience exotic landscapes, sparkling temples, religious festivals and authentic local food. Whether you’re travelling alone or in a group, exploring the region will give you a fascinating insight into different cultures. You’ll get the most out for your trip by understanding local customs and travelling as responsibly as possible, so here are some top ethical travel tips for South East Asia.
Acknowledge your western privilege
Understanding western privilege when you travel will make your trip even more humbling. Perspective is everything. With the exception of Singapore, which is a rich and global financial hub, South East Asia is mostly made up of developing countries. That means living standards can vary, so if you end up in a hostel that’s not up to UK standards, instead of getting hysterical and perhaps complaining to the owner, take a deep breath and remember that the country you’re in doesn’t have the same infrastructure that the UK has. As American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson once said, “Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up”.
Whilst travelling in South East Asia, you may also experience more aggressive sales techniques than you’re used to. Whilst on a business trip, my Dad visited the famous Taal volcano (pictured right) in the Philippines. After his boat tour, a Filipino boy placed a plank in the water for my Dad to get back onto land, even though he could have safely jumped from the side of the boat. The boy then proceeded to get frustrated with my Dad for not paying him the equivalent of around £15 for use of said plank.
Be firm but polite in these situations and remember that tourism is likely a key source of income for local people. Try to put your money into back into local businesses rather than big international tourism companies and while it’s usually fine to haggle, pay the going rate for tours and services.
Respect religious beliefs
Religion is a part of daily life in South East Asia and many people have strong spiritual beliefs. You’ll come across a range of religions from Buddhism to Islam, Hinduism and Jainism. Read up on the countries you’re visiting to find out about their religious beliefs and learn how to dress and act appropriately. This can mean removing shoes and covering your shoulders before entering religious buildings, not showing affection in public places and respecting no photo rules. If you plan to take part in religious festivals and rites, research how to do so respectfully.
Avoid animal attractions
From tiger temples to snake farms, animal tourism is big business in South East Asia and it’s an industry steeped in abuse. Captive elephants in Thailand, for example, are put through a barbaric process called Pujan when they’re young, whereby they’re forced into a tiny crushing pen and subjected to beatings, sleep deprivation and starvation. Mahouts (trainers) believe that this torturous practice is necessary to break the elephant’s spirit and make them submissive enough to be used in tourism. Any elephant you see in South East Asia giving rides, begging or performing was probably put through this barbaric process. It’s best to avoid animal experiences altogether or visit well-known sanctuaries such as the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand.
Look for ethical volunteer placements
There are thousands of volunteer programs in South East Asia but sadly, not all are ethically run and can do more damage than good. Take ‘orphanage tourism’ in Cambodia, where children are routinely hired from their parents or trafficked into the country to fill orphanages for paying tourists to visit. Then there are building projects that take jobs from local people and unskilled volunteers taking on teaching or child-care roles that they’re not qualified to do. Look for ethical volunteer placements through organisations such as grassrootsvolunteering.org or research NGOs and charities that work with local communities like All Hands.
Reduce your environmental impact
As climate change becomes a bigger issue, we should be aware of our environmental impact whilst travelling. Noise and light pollution, for instance, might sound like a by-product of urbanisation but in reality, commercial parties/raves targeted at tourists are partly to blame. To reduce your environmental impact, try off-setting your flights by donating to forestry projects and taking public transport to get around South East Asia. Coral reef damage is a huge issue, so look for eco-friendly tour and diving companies. Remember to avoid single-use plastics and dispose of your waste properly, as plastic is ravaging the beaches in South East Asia.
Understand local customs
You’ll have a much better travel experience if you try to understand local customs. South East Asia tends to be more conservative than the West, so it’s best to dress modestly and avoid, for example, getting drunk and showing affection in public places. In many countries you’ll be expected to remove your shoes before entering buildings and it’s always a good idea to learn a few words of the local language so you can at least say hello, please and thank you.
Be aware that while Western culture tends to be more individualistic, South East Asian countries are often centered around community. Several generations of a family may live and work together, caring communally for children and elderly family members. Do some research on the places you’re visiting and ask locals, such as your hostel owner, for advice if you’re unsure how to behave.
At the end of the day, the aim of travelling is to have fun, explore other cultures and, perhaps become a better person. However, the bottom line is you’re a guest in someone else’s country, so treat South East Asia as you’d want a tourist to treat the UK. As the great eastern philosopher Confucius once said; “Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.”