Mindful Travelling: Travel Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia

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There are so many things to do whilst travelling in South East Asia. Thanks to Instagram many places have become more and more popular but some aren’t always necessarily the right choice. Here is a guide with the best travel tips to Southeast Asia to help you see a backpackers’ top destination, mindfully.

Post wrote in collaboration with Hannah from @thatwanderlustboho.


Travel Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia


1) Dress and behave appropriately

When travelling through Southeast Asian countries you will most likely end up visiting many temples. Please remember that these temples – also the ancient ones – are religious complexes for the locals and you should be dressed & behave accordingly, also when is not strictly specified.

Dress Appropriately, Travel Tips for Southeast Asia

Photo by: @thatwanderlustboho

How to dress respectfully?

It may be required to wear clothes that cover the shoulders and fall below the knees, and please respect these rules, even though it may be very hot and uncomfortable at times. If you don’t have appropriate clothes on, carry a scarf to cover your shoulders. It will come in handy. Also, don’t embrace each other in religious sites, keep it PG.

Thai Temple, Travel Tips for Southeast Asia

Photo by: @thatwanderlustboho

Asides from religious landmarks you can wear whatever you are comfortable in, in most places in S.E Asia. However, showing any skin in a small minority of places can acquire the odd ‘look’ from both males and females. Some people are not used to seeing bare arms, legs or chests. This may be something to keep in mind while travelling. Always respect the culture and remember you are a guest in their home.

DON’T

  • Wear shorts or vests to a religious sight
  • Take selfies with your back to Buddhas
  • Wear shoes inside a temple

DO

  • Cover shoulders and below the knees when visiting religious sites
  • Consider getting a scarf to cover-up

2) Show respect when visiting traditional villages

Southeast Asia is filled with traditional villages and rural areas where you can see how locals really live. From the ‘Abatan River Community’ in the Philippines to Thailand’s ‘Ban Na Ton Chan’, from ‘Kyaing Tong’ in Myanmar to the ‘Brunei fishing village of Kampong Sungai Matan’ in Malaysia, chances to visit them are countless.

Some of these villages, however, are more controversial than others. I.e., have you ever heard of Huai Sua Tao village?

It is better known as “Long Neck Women village“. I’m sure you know now.

Traditional Village, Travel Tips for Southeast Asia

Photo by: @nomadiclio

Huai Sua Tao in Northern Thailand is home to about a dozen long neck women, known for wearing coiled brass rings to elongate their necks. To put things into perspective, you should know that these women are not actually from Thailand, but refugees from Myanmar who moved to Northern Thailand to escape war and poverty.

As our friend Lio pointed out in his post, places like this may be seen by many as “Human Zoos”, but at the same time these women want tourists to keep coming as it’s their main source of revenue and they would have no other job opportunities – nor have land granted from the Thai government – otherwise. If you decide to visit, please, treat them with respect, ask permission to take photos and treat them as human beings.

DON’T:

  • Invade their privacy
  • Take photos without permission

DO:

  • Treat these people with respect
  • Ask them before you take a photo
  • Spend some actual time with these people

Photos by: @nomadiclio

3) Know how to interact with children

Whilst exploring the streets and attractions you may come across children begging or asking to take selfies with you for a small price. People connect more with children than adults and so feel obligated to help the children by giving them money. Their families are also aware of this hence why it is such a problem.

Travel Tips for Southeast Asia, children

These children are put to work from a very young age, sometimes not long after they learn to walk. This means they are missing out on an education and forced to deal with experiences no child should have to endure. Children begging are at risk from many dangers including physical or emotional abuse, abduction, rape, and human trafficking.

DON’T

  • Give money
  • Take selfies with them
  • Encourage this in any way
  • Follow children anywhere, it could be a scam or worse – dangerous!

DO

  • Donate pen & paper
  • Speak to them, it’s great for them to learn English and meet new people
  • Support local organizations that help put an end to the cycle of poverty

4) Be responsible when it comes to animal tourism

For many people, seeing animals such as elephants and tigers (to name a few) would be a dream come true. Sadly, a lot of these people are often unaware of the whole picture when it comes to animal tourism. In S.E Asia alone, animal tourism has become increasingly popular and many tour organizers are taking advantage of this.

You’ll often see tours advertising elephant riding and tiger selfies, some even go as far as stating they are sanctuaries or ethical when in fact they are deceiving tourists. These activities are cruel so researching is very important. Animal tourism is a huge industry around the world so below we have listed some animals that are increasingly at risk.

Elephant tourism, Travel Tips for Southeast Asia

Photo by: @ourkindlife

Elephants

This is probably one of the most important travel tips to travel to Southeast Asia mindfully.

Elephants are one of the most endangered species in Asia and their population is rapidly decreasing. Their population has declined by an average of 50% in the last 75 years. It is estimated that only 20,000-40,000 are left in the wild. It is believed that over 70% of baby elephants found in tourism were most likely poached from their natural habitat, often meaning their mothers were killed.

Animal tourism, Travel Tips for Southeast Asia

Photo by: @thatwanderlustboho

The amount of tourism in Thailand alone has resulted in a 30% rise of elephants held in captivity. That number is largely increasing due to the lack of knowledge when it comes to elephants and animal tourism as a whole.

A quick glance behind the scenes:

Elephants used in tourism are often captured from the wild. Many baby elephants will endure the “Phajaan” which means the breaking of an elephant’s spirit. This cruel process enables its captor to gain control of the elephant resulting in the elephant being forced to carry tourists, preform tricks and so on. Elephants often face abuse and neglect their entire lifetime or until they are no longer fit for use.

DON’T

  • Ride elephants. Ever! (if riding elephants is allowed, it’s definitely not ethical)
  • Visit elephant shows, the circus’ etc
  • Visit unethical zoos, sanctuaries, etc (quick research can help decide where is ethical and where isn’t)
  • Touch If you see chains, rope or an elephant hook/spear – leave and write a review to warn others

PLEASE DO NOT CONTRIBUTE TO THIS

DO

  • See elephants in the wild
  • Support elephant organizations
  • Raise awareness, and doing your research
  • Visit ethical sanctuaries with zero riding
  • Visit ethical national parks

Photos by: @ourkindlife

Tigers

Another highly endangered species but thanks to conservation efforts their numbers are slowly growing. There are currently an average of 3,900 tigers left in the wild and the majority of those are found in S.E Asia. Although their numbers are growing they are still largely at risk.

What happens behind the scenes

One country, in particular, has become very popular for its tigers and sadly not for good reasons. Many venues in Thailand have been known to exploit tigers by allowing tourists to take selfies with them, and see them up close. Here is a report by World Animal Protection:

The suffering behind the selfie

The main welfare concerns witnessed by our investigators at these venues were:

  • tiger cubs separated from their mothers just two to three weeks after birth
  • young cubs presented to tourists and mishandled hundreds of times a day, which can lead to stress and injury
  • tigers punished using pain and fear, to stop aggressive, unwanted behaviour. One staff member told our researchers that starvation is used to punish tigers when they make a ‘mistake’
  • most tigers were housed in small concrete cages or barren enclosures with limited access to freshwater. 50% of the tigers we observed were in cages with less than 20sqm per animal, a far cry from the 16-32km they would roam in a single night in the wild
  • one in ten tigers observed showed behavioural problems, such as repetitive pacing orbiting their tails. These behaviours most commonly occur when animals can’t cope with stressful environments. “ – World Animal Protection

Did you know that a few years ago a tiger tourist attraction was raided and shut down? What they found was heartbreaking. Fifty tiger cubs were found frozen and waiting to be sold for soup medicine.

DON’T

  • Take a selfie with a tiger
  • Touch or hold a tiger/cub
  • Watch shows/circus’ with animals
  • Visit unethical zoos/sanctuaries etc

PLEASE DO NOT CONTRIBUTE TO THIS

DO

  • See tigers in the wild
  • Support conservation organizations
  • Visit ethical sanctuaries and national parks where #tigerselfies are NOT allowed
  • Raise awareness

Whale sharks

chapter by @joyoushapes

Whale sharks, also known as gentle giants, are the largest fish in the ocean. They can be as large as 18 meters in length and they can be found in the tropical ocean. Even if they are huge, and the name “shark” could sound scary, they eat only plankton and small fish and they are harmless to humans.

Usually encounters happen on very shallow water, this is the reason why many people join snorkelling tours to meet these beauties. Tours with whale sharks are becoming more famous thanks to social media, but we should be very careful in how we choose a tour and ensure it’s a responsible and ethical one.

A very popular – yet unethical – whale sharks tour is in Oslob, Philippines.

While people swim with the whale sharks, the guide/s have been known to hit these magnificent creatures to make them move! And, these creatures are fed every day because of the tour, so they have stopped migrating.

This behaviour can lead to the extinction of the already endangered species, as they will no longer be able to feed themselves because they have become dependent on tour feeding times.

This tour is very chaotic, a huge amount of people get in the water at 6 am trying to see the whale sharks. It has become dangerous for these animals, but also for people because crowds + water + animals = very critical mix. Please avoid any such tour. 

DON’T

  • Feed them or visit
  • Touch whale sharks
  • Take pictures with flash
  • Visit them at the aquarium and unethical places in general (if you want to spot them, find a tour where you can see them from the boat, without interacting with them. Check through the internet)

DO

  • Visit ethical places where they do NOT feed them
  • Go on tours where you are not assured you’ll see whale sharks, they are nomadic animals, how can you expect to find them always in the same place?

Other at-risk animals

When backpacking S.E Asia you will no doubt encounter animal tourism of some sort. Another animal that is at risk in S.E Asia is the monkey. Monkeys are often abused and forced to put on shows for tourists. Unfortunately, animal cruelty is a worldwide issue and so we will try our best to raise awareness. Below we have listed some popular animal activities that you should research beforehand:

  • Camel riding
  • Horse riding
  • Donkey riding
  • Any sanctuaries/zoos
  • National parks

Always avoid: Street vendors with parrots, monkeys, snakes, etc
Always check that the animal looks fit and healthy. See how the animal is treated by the owner. Research sanctuaries and zoos. Don’t visit national parks that allow vehicles to crowd around any animals.

And lastly, always be observant of any animal neglect/cruelty. Be sure to leave negative reviews if you, unfortunately, experience any of the above. 
Some places that have a bad rep and to be cautious of:

  • Donkey rides in Santorini
  • Elephant ride in India, Thailand, Indonesia, etc
  • Horses and donkey taxis in Gili Islands
  • Pinawalla Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka
  • Camel ride in Jordan

“With animal tourism becoming more and more popular World Animal Protection found that 75% of wildlife tourist attractions are having a negative impact on wild animals.”

5) Do your research

When backpacking, doing research is essential if you want to travel mindfully. Below we have listed some important factors to consider when carrying out research:

  • Check the website- what’s their story? Do they support local communities, organizations? Are they ethical/sustainable/eco-friendly? Do they give back? 
  • Always read reviews- once you’ve checked a website always read reviews on a third-party platform such as Trip Advisor. Do the reviews support the website’s claims?
  • Talk to backpackers- have they been there? What was their experience?
  • Spontaneous trip? Be observant, raise awareness if you see something that may be wrong.
  • Boycott anywhere that- allows animal selfies, touching, handling or provides “entertainment”.
  • Don’t be naive.

Doing research is also crucial before booking any accommodation. Always check recent reviews for any signs of bed bugs before making a reservation.

6) Haggling

Bargaining in Southeast Asia is common practice pretty much anywhere. Depending on the country you are in, vendors will start with prices that are usually 2 to 4 times higher than the ones applied to locals. Expect this to happen mostly in touristy areas, in night markets, and with taxis and tuk-tuks.

Tuk Tuk, Thailand

Even though haggling is often necessary, remember to be respectful and try to offer a fair price. This tip may seem obvious, but while it’s true you should not pay more just because you are a tourist, please do not haggle over very small amounts.
We’ve seen people haggling over a 50-cents price difference, and even though backpackers do need to stretch dollars, you should remember that such small amounts make no difference to you while it does for them. Accept the deal if you think it’s fair, walk away if you think they’re trying to rip you off, but always be respectful.

DO

  • Negotiate prices wherever is necessary
  • Check average prices before to have an idea of what is a fair price.

DON’T

  • Be disrespectful, offering prices that are too low
  • Haggle over very small price differences

Photos by: @thatwanderlustboho

7) Be aware of the risks

Travelling in Southeast Asia is a lot of fun; however, you should never underestimate its risks. Here we listed some of our best tips to avoid any problems:

  • Always wear a helmet when driving a bike
  • Consider having travel insurance as hospital care is very – VERY – expensive in these countries.
  • Research beforehand if you need any specific vaccines for your destination. Some of the vaccines recommended for travellers to East and Southeast Asia are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid, cholera, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis, rabies, and polio. Check always with your doctor before to book any flights.
  • Be careful while petting dogs on the way. It’s common to see backpackers dealing with rabies shot after getting bitten by dogs on their trips. The same also applies to monkeys and other wild animals.

Thanks to @thatwanderlustboho, @joyoushapes, @ourkindlife and @nomadiclio for helping us create this post.


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3 thoughts on “Mindful Travelling: Travel Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia”

  1. I love that you’re sharing this vital information. In regards to animal welfare, I’m currently traveling in Africa and I think the issue isn’t addressed or discussed in relation to here very often and I’m having trouble myself finding good resources about how to determine whether the animal experiences available are ethical or not. The most hesitant one being a lion walk and feeding for cubs aged 1-2 years old in Zimbabwe. There aren’t any negative reviews and it states that the cubs are part of a breeding program which releases them into the wild after they’ve reached 2 years old because that’s supposedly when they become a danger to people. I don’t know how to go about researching this and after hearing about all of the abuse of tigers in SE Asia I just don’t want to contribute to an organization which might be abusing animals.

    Reply

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