Americans have long had a reputation for being the worst travelers. The stereotypes are: we speak too loudly, are rude, and have a sense of entitlement. I have found this to be true in many cases, especially when alcohol is involved. However, the world is getting smaller all the time, and now that wealthy westerners aren’t the only ones visiting other countries, I would argue we are no longer the worst! Unfortunately, it’s not because Americans have become better travelers, but because others have exceeded our bad behavior. This is why, this week, I’ve decided to point out some sensitivities in Thailand of which travelers should be aware. My wish is, if you visit, or come to reside in Thailand, you will make an effort to be the best possible ambassador for your country.
Respect the culture: Thailand is full of ancient temples and relics. The oldest temple in Chiang Mai (my home) is Wat Chiang Man, and was built in 1296. That’s nearly 500 years before the United States came into existence! What people must remember is, these places are not just tourist attractions, they’re Buddhist temples, not unlike your church or place of worship. Travelers have been known to scratch graffiti into ancient structures, or to take photos of themselves exposing their private bits with Buddha statues in the background. This is extremely disrespectful, and illegal. A gay couple from San Diego was arrested in Thailand for showing their asses (literally) at Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, in Bangkok. They were eventually sent home. Once they were back on U.S. soil, they made fun of the incident, showing no remorse what-so-ever. This type of disrespect in unacceptable. Keep in mind, there are also strict laws pertaining to taking Buddha statues and images out of the country. Check the Thailand Ministry of Tourism’s website for specifics.
Leave only footprints: If you’ve ever seen the movie, “The Beach,” you may remember how Leonardo DiCaprio made his way to a perfect tropical paradise. It was the basic plot of the movie. The beach scenes were shot at Maya Bay on Phi-Phi Island (pronounced pee-pee for you middle school kids). Unfortunately, the popularity of the movie made Maya Bay a tourist hot spot. At one point, the small beach was receiving up to 6,000 tourists per day. This played havoc on the environment, destroying vegetation and coral beds, forcing underwater inhabitants to live elsewhere. The Thai government recently shut down tourism in the area to allow the coral beds time to heal. The original shutdown was supposed to last three months, until it became clear much more time was needed to reverse the damage. Now, it may be closed up to five years. There are many cases in the news daily of tourists destroying the natural environment, and even catching and eating protected species. So, when you visit, do your part to ensure generations after you have the opportunity to see the beauty of Thailand. Don’t take anything you didn’t bring with you, and don’t leave behind anything you did.
Educate yourself: While visiting Thailand, you will have the opportunity to take part in activities which sound ever-so fun and exotic. One of these is to ride elephants, or go to elephant shows, where they paint, play soccer, and perform various other amazing feats. Before you participate in any of this, please go online and do some research into what elephants have to endure while training to entertain you. It’s not pretty. Elephants are smart, sensitive, and develop close bonds with each other. The more I learn about them, the more I care about their well-being. Elephants that perform, basically have their spirits broken as babies through a process called, “the crush.” You can do the research yourself, and let your own morality guide you. There are elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, which I encourage you to visit. There, you can feed and wash elephants, and see them interacting in a safe and healthy environment. The same goes for visiting any tiger parks … do your research!
Don’t be a looky-loo at a human zoo: When considering taking part in a tour to visit the hill tribes, keep in mind, the actual tribe members may see very little of the money you pay for the visit, depending on the tour company. These people have a vibrant culture, and you may recognize some tribes by the rings they wear around their elongated necks. Some tour guides treat their villages as human zoos. They take you to a market area and allow you to spend a couple of hours buying handmade trinkets, then you pile back on the bus and move on to the next place. However, there are some companies that provide more meaningful encounters, where one can spend time in an actual village and get to know these people. It’s a debatable topic, whether these people are being exploited or not. They make a little money from selling their wares. Just keep in mind, these are people and not paid actors. If you visit them, treat them with respect.
People are people: When visiting Thailand, respect the Thai people. I mentioned earlier Americans are known for being entitled, loud, and rude. This is where that comes in. In my meager three years in this country, I’ve often witnessed people from the west treat Thais in ways they would never treat anyone from their own countries. Some men, especially after a few drinks, treat all Thai women like whores. I’ve seen people berate taxi drivers, cashiers, wait staff, and trinket sellers – talking down to them from their pedestals built on western money. It’s disgusting. Most of the time, a Thai person will just let it go. They let insults from foreigners wash over their shoulders like rain water. It’s part of their culture to avoid conflict. I hate to break it to you, but you are not superior. Thai people are generally good-hearted folks. They take care of their families, and treat their elders with more respect than anyone does in western countries. They work hard, and do more with less, than the masses back home who choose not to work, and instead live off of the government. That person you’re screaming at because they won’t sell you a T-shirt for $2.50, instead of $3, is probably supporting his or her whole family on $300 a month. When you finally do push that quiet Thai man beyond his limit, or you decide to raise a hand to one of them, I guarantee the result will not be in your favor. When you fight one Thai person, you’re going to end up fighting every one of them in the area. So, before you start raising your voice, or treating someone with disrespect, remember it’s their country, and you’re a guest. Besides, you’re on vacation! Don’t let the little stuff get to you!
So, these are a few sensitivities for you to consider. Of course, it’s all common sense, but failure to use common sense is most often the issue in the first place. Please, do some research before traveling to a foreign country, and let’s stop being “ugly Americans.” I would love to hear about some of the experiences you’ve had with “bad travelers!” I wish you all safe, happy, and courteous travels!