You might be surprised by the title of this post. How can someone who loves to travel find downsides to backpacking in South-East Asia? Isn’t it popular because of the amazing food, scenery and for being the best place to have a gap year ‘finding yourself’ experience…? 100% true and therein lies the problem, it is too popular. Now, I did enjoy my trip to Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam a hell of a lot but here are the parts I didn’t like as much.
32.1 million tourists visited Thailand in 2016. So it isn’t surprising I met every type of traveller imaginable on my trip. Free spirited bohemians, the I only travel off the beaten path sorts, 24hr drunk full moon partying frat boys on summer vacation. (I grew up in England so that stereotype formed entirely thanks to American high school based TV dramas, but it seemed to fit perfectly). Now don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed that aspect of backpacking in South-East Asia, making friends as I went and being uber social. But in hindsight I feel like I missed out on the countries themselves because of the hordes of tourists and the impact tourism has had on the many beautiful landscapes.
I have to talk about Maya Bay, the beach from The Beach… it was disgusting. Over 5000 tourists visit per day, paying 200 baht each to step foot on the once pristine bay. I don’t know what that money is spent on but I can say for sure it isn’t cleaning the beach. Not that it should need cleaning in the first place. It is estimated that the parties on Ko Phangan produce 12 tonnes of rubbish per day. Thailand lacks the infrastructure to effectively deal with this sort of waste disposal. So most of what isn’t landfilled finds its way into the sea. I hated my time in Maya Bay as did my friend Connie and we really regretted going. Pollution in the rest of Thailand/Vietnam wasn’t any better and it depressed me to think that partying westerners were so much to blame for the problem.
Unfortunately it is impossible to not come across some form of animal cruelty while backpacking in South-East Asia. I don’t know if that is because attitudes are different there but I do know that a lot of it is tourism driven. Elephant rides and Tiger Kingdom for example. I purposely didn’t experience either and whole heartedly recommend you don’t either. I volunteered at this elephant and dog sanctuary on recommendation from a fellow backpacker and can vouch for its authenticity. There are no chains or rides. The elephants can come and go as they please although they tend to hang around as they know they’re going to be fed.
I lost count of how many children I saw dressed in traditional costumes shouting ‘picture, picture’ with parents nearby waiting for payment. I have always been told not to give money in these situations. It encourages people to use their children to beg. It is very difficult though and it made me feel pretty ruthless. However, I do think it is the best way to respond. That way you also avoid scams, like children asking you to buy them milk formula for baby siblings. They take you into a shop and later on return the formula to the shop, receiving a cut of the profit.
PRESERVATION OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES
Maybe this is because I am used to National Trust levels of security when it comes to castles etc. But the security and respect for ancient ruins was pretty low, from what I experienced, in Thailand and Vietnam. Even UNESCO world heritage sites like Ayutthaya were not patrolled or regulated in any way. You could easily take a bit home with you if you really wanted to which is bonkers… I’m sure some people do do that! And that depressed me! So much history and heritage uncared for, it seemed such a waste.
In 2014 close to 200 million people lived under the $2 per day international poverty line in Thailand… I can’t find a more recent figure so hope the statistic has improved. But from what I experienced there I’d say it was not particularly likely to have improved much despite how rapidly the country has developed economically over the last four years. The wealth gap was obvious and took a fair while to get used to.
You will realise a trend emerging. A lot of what depressed me about backpacking in South-East Asia is directly linked to ignorant tourists… I don’t want to come across a hypocritical as obviously I made mistakes while there, like going to Maya Bay. But I didn’t litter or vandalise while backpacking in South-East Asia which, unfortunately not all tourists could attest to. While in Paradise Cave in Phong Nha National Park I saw someone place both his hands on a stalagmite and rub it. This may seem innocent enough but there were warnings literally everywhere. Don’t touch the stalagmites, the oils in your hands stop them growing. Thousands of years of growth stopped because of this idiot. It was infuriating.
And, I think I’ll leave it at that. I am not trying to put you off backpacking in South-East Asia, seriously! My aim with this post is to make people aware and prepared for what it is like. Then you can do it better than me. More consciously, ethically and sustainably. I hope it has worked. I would love to go back to South-East Asia one day and include visits to Myanmar, Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos! It would be interesting to see how tourism has affected those countries. Also, having learnt from my trip around Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, hopefully I could travel them better!
Have any of you ever been backpacking in South-East Asia? If so, were you as surprised as me by the impact of tourism on the natural and social landscape there? I’d love to hear about your experiences too.