Travelers' on the other hand what are they like? They usually will tell you, with an air of superiority, that they aren't tourists. They've had 'real' experiences, maybe they smoked opium with a hill tribe, or they've eaten street food (though I am still not sure Phad Thai cooked on Khao San really counts), or maybe they've even had amoebic dysentery or if they are really lucky scabies. 'Travelers' are hard core, they stay in $3 a night hostels and can live off of $5 a day. 'Travelers' look down on 'tourists,' who of course have too much money to have had any 'real' experiences.
I guess I am just tired of this perspective. Perhaps it was the half a day I just spent in Van Vieng, a place that for me sums up almost everything bad about tourism. Just about every real 'traveler' who as earned their stripes in SE Asia has passed through this place. And I imagine (just as I do about Cancun) at one point Van Vieng was a pretty cool place to hang out. But most backpackers would have you convinced this is the highlight of the SE Asia circuit. “Why?” you might ask. The answer can be summed up in three bullet points...
tubing on the river
Now I am not so old that I don't like to party, and I feel like I have done my fair share of it. I also feel like I am a pretty adventurous and fun loving person. But I also think of my self as a culturally aware citizen of planet Earth. And from everything I have read about and experienced in Laos, semi-nudity and drug use aren't high up on the list of how to be a culturally aware, sensitive, sustainable traveler. And though I enjoy a night out with friends I would prefer to experience a different culture while traveling and enjoy a party when it isn't offensive to the local culture.
What bothers me is all these experienced travelers who wax on about how amazing Laos is, how fantastic all the people are, how beautiful the culture is (and I am sure they will go home and talk about all their really amazing interactions and experiences in SE Asia) don't see how tubing/doing drugs/wandering around in the bathing suit all add up to the erosion of the very thing they say they love.
One might defend all these poor youthful backpackers by saying that the Lao people make all these things possible and that if they really found them so offensive they could just stop providing the services. Well that is a pretty un-capatilist perspective as this is is a huge source of income for the Lao that work in the tubing/drug industry in Van Vieng. Imagine, a pancake lady can make 10,000 kip a pancake selling them to all the stoned travelers, maybe she only sells 2, that is more than $2, double the average wage of more than 70% of the country. You think anyone that has the ability to make money off these dumb drunk tourists... ooops I mean travelers isn't going to do it? They would be stupid not to. Just like most people presented with an easy source of income the Lao exploit it even if it is eroding their culture and exposing their kids to Western culture at its ugliest.
I'm sorry if this all sounds harsh, but just imagine if a group of tourists showed up in your hometown, got really drunk, dressed offensively, did a bunch of drugs, all the while your kids were playing in the street. How would that make you feel? And what would you think of the people that were doing it? Now add a couple more things to that image. Backpackers are notoriously stingy (sorry, anyone in the tourist industry will back me up on this one) so now they are nickel and diming you at every turn, stealing hotel soap, extra bread from the included breakfast, never tip, and generally are only looking out for their own benefit. Yet these people who reluctantly part with their money will also exhibit incredible material wealth their $200 backpack. These people are wandering around with a couple $1,000 dollars on their back while fighting you for a $1 a night discount on their room. Can you even imagine what the Lao people must think?
Now contrast that with our original image of the bumbling tourist, does he look so bad?
My point is that as travelers we are representatives of our respective countries and cultures, we have a great duty to our hosts as well, we should be respectful as we visit their homes, walk softly in their countries. No one likes a rude guest, everyone appreciates the person who arrives with a gift, cleans up after themselves, acts graciously, and remembers to say thank you. And now with all these amazing NGOs and social projects we have a chance to maybe leave a place we visit a little bit better than we found it.
I guess maybe not thinking that Van Vieng is cool might make me 'uncool' in the eyes of some really awesome hard core world travelers, but the thing is I don't really care. The more I live in this world I realize that my friend V's grandfather is right, life isn't the number of breaths you take it is the number of moments that take your breath away. You may be able to blow your mind in Van Vieng, but tubing isn't going to take your breath away, nor is partying with a bunch of 18 year olds on their gap year, nor is smoking opium or getting ripped on happy pizza. But watching laughing kids play in the river or people planting rice in the shadows of Karst peaks might just tighten your chest with the intrinsic beauty of simplicity. Too bad all those kids were too busy drinking Lao lao on the river to notice the beautiful world that was passing them by.
Because I think it would be wrong to slag off travelers (who are most of the time just tourists with less money and bigger egos) and not give suggestions, I'll give you my perspective on how I think we could all be better tourists/travelers/guests.
The first thing is not to travel beyond your means. You are working with a ratio of time versus money. What happens to most long term travelers (were talking over a month here) is that you think you have more money than you do and end up just scraping by towards the end. This is NOT the way to do it, you want to go home with money in your bank account. Good advice: take the amount of money you think you need, now double it. When you are scraping for money you end up cheating a lot of people, not to mention yourself because you may not be able to do what you want to do. I am not saying that being on a budget is a bad idea, I have had some very memorable experiences being on a budget, but there is a difference between budgeting and scraping by. Money gives you flexibility, it will get you out of tight situations. Another good rule: if you can afford a beverage other than bottled water you still have enough money to tip.
Yea, so tipping is a BIG F'N DEAL. Round up! If your bill is 17000kip you can afford to leave 20,000. That $0.30 means a hell of a lot less to you than it will to your server. Don't drink your big beer lao and then roll your eyes at me when I suggest a tip. Imagine if your 3,000 kip makes it possible for your waiter's kid to go to school, how would that make you feel?
So how do you save money/budget? Eat on the street (not in the tourist strip you idiot) walk around until you find a bunch of locals, check out their plates and point at what looks good, then gesture the number one and point at your chest. Congratulations, you've just saved yourself $2. Now stop drinking those damn fruit shakes. Stop eating pizza, sandwiches, pancakes, chips. Stay in a room with a fan not a/c. Find a friend to share a room with, or stay in a dorm. Walk everywhere you can, or explore the public transport, how are the locals getting around? Now do it yourself. Interact with some local people, that is why you came all this way isn't it? Or maybe you just came to talk to more people like you?
Personally, when it comes to budgeting what I've figured out is that I like certain things to be nice and other things I am not that fussed about. I spend extra money on a nicer hotel because that is my home, but I don't really care if I have to survive off street food to save some money. So you figure out what is important, pay more for those things. You might have to have money for beer, but you can stay in a total dive and eat pb&j for weeks on end. Just make sure to be friendly and polite to the owners of your dive and maybe offer to make them a sammie. Did you know that if you offer someone food they might want to have a conversation with you and BAM, you've had a unique incredible local interaction.
Learn the language, talk to the locals and they might SMILE at you. A genuine smile from someone is like a ray of light blasting you in the heart. Learn, hello, thank you, how much, and how to count to ten, it maybe the best thing you do on your trip.
Try the local food, not that watered down shit they make for westerners. Eat Thai food that makes your eyes water, eat Som Tham with balls of sticky rice, crouch on a plastic stool in Saigon and slurp pho, eat at the damn taco stands, there will always be time for spaghetti bol at home.
That is the big lesson, if it is the same, if it is comfortable and normal then why travel? Get out of your comfort zone, try something new, that is why you left home in the first place.
Read a book about the place you are visiting, learn the history, try to understand why this place is the way it is. What is growing in the fields? why do people dress that way? What do they believe? What are families like? Start paying attention, what makes this place different from your home? Write your thoughts down, draw pictures, think about it. And don't just take a million photos and think that is sufficient to 'capture' the place. Put your camera down, take a deep breath and think about how each of your senses are stimulated by this different place. What does Oaxaca smell like? What is the exact flavour of pineapple when floating on the Mekong river? What does Bangkok sound like at four in the afternoon? How does your skin feel under the sun while sitting at Angkor wat? Absorb your travel experience, immerse yourself in it. Take a moment to think about how you might put it to words and then do, write yourself a postcard about a simple detail you've noticed, and really mail it to yourself, when it arrives it will be like a little piece of magic, you may treasure it more than anything you purchase.
Find a local supermarket, or street market, stare at everything, try a new fruit, look at what is and isn't available, and wonder how the world works with out readily availalble peanut butter.
Research local projects and NGOs that are trying to make the local people's lives better and participate. Spend a bit more on a fair trade product, even if you buy the cheapest thing in the store you are making an impact. Buy fewer things, but things that you know will leave a positive mark on the country. And buy from women, when money is put in women's hands it goes to kids and food. Men just aren't as reliable.
Learn local customs, learn what is offensive and don't do it, dress like a local, check out a temple/wat/church/mosque and pray, leave an offering, and thank the local gods that you have been so blessed to have the freedom to travel.
See you on the road.