With golden temples, sweltering jungles, white sand beaches and diverse cultures, it is little wonder that Southeast Asia draws travellers in droves. However, as with travel in any developing country, it’s particularly important to stay responsible whilst there.
Riding an elephant? Buying that snake whiskey souvenir? In Southeast Asia, concerns on responsibility can pop up in the most surprising places. To make sure that you have an enjoyable trip without the a moral hangover, here are some tips.
1. Keep Wildlife Wild
For many travellers to Southeast Asia, the possibility of seeing wildlife up close and personal is a massive draw-card. Unfortunately, where there is animal tourism, there can be exploitation. Take the animal circuses you see advertised in the big cities, with elephants playing soccer and monkeys dressed in clown clothing. Or the ‘Tiger Temples’ in Thailand, where tourists can have their pictures taken with big cats, which may or may not be drugged.
If you are an animal lover keen to see Southeast Asia’s stunning fauna, it is mighty important to ask the question, how can you do so without hurting the wildlife you came all this way for?
First, a good rule of thumb is ‘look, don’t touch.’ If someone’s offering the opportunity to hold or handle wild animals, they’re putting both your safety and the animal’s safety at risk. In addition to this, the fact that they have this animal likely means that it was separated from its mother at a young age and is living in unnatural conditions. Orphaned animals are particularly fragile and should be treated with particular care as not to add to the trauma they have already suffered.
Next, avoid any shows or venues that force animals to perform unnatural acts. Consider whether the owners are really thinking about the wellbeing of the animals, or just of their own wallets.
Lastly, don’t purchase souvenirs such as snake whiskey, tigers teeth, crocodile skins and other products which may come from poaching or forcing animals out of their habitats.
Free the Bears: look for companies that understand how to treat animals right!
The good news is that there are reputable organisations in Southeast Asia that have animals’ best interests at heart. These include the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, the Primate Centre in Ninh Binh, and the Free The Bears rescue project near Luang Prabang. These exist not for tourists, but for the animals. Check reviews before you go, and talk to other travellers who have already been.
2. Don’t be a Litterbug
Many countries in Southeast Asia are yet to develop a waste management system that can keep up with demand, which means that cities, towns, and rural families currently have to take care of rubbish themselves. One way for them to do this is by burning; the acrid smell of burning garbage wafts through even the smallest village in Southeast Asia.
Think before you buy, what will become of the waste once your snack is done?
Cut down on your own environmental impact by monitoring the trash you leave behind. Decline plastic bags when you’re at the market, carry a reusable water bottle, and try to buy products without unnecessary packaging. Those picture-perfect vistas in Southeast Asia look so much better without litter framing the view!
3. Spread the Love
Travel is as much about giving as it is about getting, so make sure the benefit of your travels reaches as many places as you do. Whilst tourism can be a fantastic tool for development, it’s not that effective if the money only goes to one place. Share the love by eating out at different restaurants, buying souvenirs from different market stalls, and kicking back in different bars.
Each purchase benefits a difference family, try to buy from various locations
If booking a tour, find out how responsible they really are – do they practice what they preach? Ideally they should support local operators that offer safe, responsible and community-focused products and services.
4. Respect the Local Culture
One of the greatest allures about Southeast Asia is how vastly different its cultures can be from our own. Why is that statue of Ronald McDonald bowing to me at McDonalds?
There are more than a few things to surprise travellers once they get here. However, the cultural differences can make for big cultural misunderstandings. Part of responsible travel is knowing how to respect the locals, so it is incredibly important to research the customs of the places you visit. Equally, bring an open mind.
For example, in Buddhist countries it is extremely offensive to touch someone’s head or point your feet at someone (especially a statue of Buddha), public displays of affection are a big no-no, and visitors are expected to dress conservatively. Knowing these cultural intricacies means that you can plan accordingly, for example bring clothes that will cover your shoulders and knees. Having a local guide can also be an invaluable resource in these situations.
Remember that most South East Asian countries are culturally Buddhist
Above all, the easiest way to travel responsibly is to do your research and share your experiences. A Google search on the countries you are visiting can alert you to issues that were not originally obvious, and save a lot of heartache later. Travel with knowledge and you won’t just experience difference, but you’ll make one as well!