In Defense of Tourists

Tourists get a bad rap.

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These are people regularly dismissed by the superior ‘travelers’ as gawping, wide-eyed cattle being ferried ignorantly from photo-op to photo-op.

Even the adjective form, touristy, is synonymous in many minds with overcrowded, overpriced, unauthentic and banal. No place wants to be called touristy.

But what, really, is the difference between the tourists and the ‘travelers’?

What people attack when they attack the idea of a tourist is often the most cartoonish straw-man; the nightmare tourist. The inconsiderate, vapid and lumbering oafs who spend most of their time complaining and moaning about minor discomforts and passively, or actively, damaging the places they attend. But this is the nightmare example. It’s what ‘tourist’ has come to mean, in the vocabulary of a ‘traveler’, rather than an accurate representation of typical tourists.

Consider another character; a person that exists (I’ve met one or two) and you probably have encountered one every now and then if you travel regularly. But we rarely mock this specimen, who is just as damaging to the idea of ‘travel’ as the nightmare tourist.

The nightmare ‘traveler’.

Snobbish and superior in manner, the nightmare traveler goes to astonishing lengths to distance themselves from the ‘tourists’ and takes every opportunity to inform anyone unfortunate enough to blithely walk into earshot of their ‘traveler’ credentials.

I met someone on a night out in Siem Reap who claimed to have no interest in Angkor Wat at all. They described it, with a look of sheer disgust, as a ‘tourist trap’. This is obviously a ridiculous statement but his intent was obvious. Distance himself from the ‘tourists’ and attempt to highlight his hard-core ‘Traveler Master Race’ credentials by disregarding a 1200 year old wonder of the ancient world as being touristy. Now, besides striking me as someone with astonishing insecurity issues, this person represented all that can go wrong when you begin to wish to not merely be someone who enjoys travelling, but be someone who is a ‘traveler’. It’s a slippery slope that leads, ultimately, into being a titanic prick

I mentioned in my ‘about me’ that I don’t consider myself a traveler, although I fit a lot of the criteria that people who are travelling often consider to be indicative of a ‘traveler’. I often travel alone, I usually stay in dormitories and I rarely use organised tours or tour groups. I travel pretty often and sometimes for longer than the average ‘tour’. Does this alone spare me the awful fate of being pronounced TOURIST!? If I stay one night in a hotel during my visit have I devolved disgustingly, shedding my master-race ‘traveler’ shell to reveal the putrid, stinking tourist inside? How about if I split my stays half and half? How about if I take one tour to see a popular sight during a one month trip?

It seems strange to me that avoidance of certain methods of travelling allows one to take on the honourific title of ‘traveler’. When people call themselves a ‘traveler’ are they simply trying to tell us that they don’t often stay in hotels? I don’t think so.

So what’s the difference?

I stumbled across the little graphic on ‘Land of Travel’ website which claims to elucidate the difference for us. Turn off your bullshit detectors now or they may overload.

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Smugfest ’15

I could go on and on about how self-congratulatory and vague this is but I’m going to try and avoid a rant.

I see what it is getting at. It’s trying to suggest that being respectful, open minded and conscientious are important parts of traveling. But why does it feel the need to split up people who ‘travel’ into groups like this? And why is an ‘experience’ superior to an ‘observation’?

Some things you just have to observe. The idea of experiencing a public landmark, for example, just conjures up bizarre imagery of someone rubbing themselves sensually the metal struts of the Eiffel Tower, desperately trying to have a deeper, more emotionally satisfying experience of the tower rather than just looking at it and, well, observing.

Likewise, I have never in my life seen a tourist sit down to a meal of local cuisine, stare at it creepily for an hour before packing up and leaving the food uneaten. Some things you experience, some things you observe. This counts for everyone, whether you travel by coach with 40 other people or whether you travel using the hand-crafted, wind-powered unicycle you bought in a remote part of Bangladesh.

The graphic also suggests that immersing yourself in the culture is something that is always good. To an extent, I agree. But there’s nothing wrong with standing out. We all stand out. You might think you’re not standing out but if you’re in a suitably different cultural surrounding then you always will. It’s not even just about how you look, it’s how you behave. Subtle clues and ticks will always give you away as not being local. So what? It’s nothing to be ashamed of, in fact, it’s the whole damn point. You know where I don’t stick out? On my sofa at home. We should applaud the tourist who is taking that risk, leaving their comfort zone and sticking out unashamedly.

So here’s the problem I have with calling myself a traveler. Firstly, it sounds like an occupation. I already have an occupation and it’s not travelling. Unfortunately. Doubtless there are people out there who are, legitimately, travelers. That’s what they do, whether in employment or not. I’ve met some so, for sure, travelers exist.

Secondly, I like a bunch of stuff. I love music. I enjoy books and movies. I like playing sport. Travel is just another thing I enjoy and I feel no inclination to have that interest projected above all others by calling myself a traveler.

Thirdly, and I suppose this is the point of the article, I’m not comfortable with this splitting off of ‘tourists’ and ‘travelers’. It seems really condescending to ‘tourists’. Some people have no choice but to travel in the aforementioned, more controlled and directed, style. Maybe they have families, they have health issues. Not everyone is lucky enough to be capable, financially or physically, of travelling alone. For example, the amount of times I’ve heard people mocking the large groups of Chinese tourists you often see while completely ignorant of the fact that, for many Chinese people, this is the only way they can get a VISA to travel. Should they all just stay at home because it doesn’t fit with your ‘traveler’ archetype? Some people prefer it. Should we berate them for their choices? If they’re not hurting anyone I don’t see why they’re more apt for judgement than anyone else just because they decided to book their trip with Thomas Cook rather than hostelworld. After all, it’s not like lone travelers have a spotless record of respectfulness and . For sure, excessive tourism can be damaging. But anyone travelling is, usually, just as much a part of that as someone who has cultural integrity. Talk to anyone who has worked in a hostel (myself included). The ‘tourist’ – ‘traveler’ distinction is a spectrum, like so many things. We all fall somewhere upon it, maybe in a different place at different times. What links everyone on the spectrum is that they enjoy travelling.

So that’s what I am and, I feel, most of us are. We are people who, among other interests, enjoy travelling. Nothing wrong with that at all.

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Angkor What?!

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After a wonderful stay in Malaysia, I flew from Kuching to Siem Reap, Cambodia. A funny little town; it serves primarily as a stop-off point for people visiting the Angkor compound. At the start of the 20th century the temples were re-discovered and the village of Siem Reap gradually grew as the temples attracted increasing numbers of visitors

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I’d been warned that Siem Reap was extremely touristy (Not that that is necessarily a bad thing. More on that next time) with little to offer in and of itself other than being a convenient jumping off point for Angkor. Actually, I found it to be a very nice place to stay. It helped that the hostel was amazing (Big up to Luxury Concept Hostel; neither luxurious nor conceptual, you are, however, certainly a hostel!) In the day there are some wonderful restaurants, relaxing bars and the pub street transitions into a small but vibrant night area later on. You need a good place to relax after making your way around Angkor all day.

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I made the foolhardy decision of taking my first day in the Angkor complex by mountain bike. I’d been told it was a big place but I severely underestimated the size of the area.   And my ability to ride a mountain bike in 35 degree heat. My logic was that it’d give me more freedom to explore some of the more undisturbed temples without worrying about my driver waiting. Turns out, if you do go to more temples in this manner, by the time you get there you find yourself exhausted, stumbling around the ancient ruins like some cretinous, sweaty Khmer ghost. I managed it, sans camera due to further idiocy, but it was more of a whistle stop tour.

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The best way to do it is, without a doubt, get yourself a tuk-tuk. Preferably a driver too. It seems a little less…intrepid. It’s also true that you’re a little less flexible. But it’s totally worth the trade off, assuming you’re visiting when it’s hot.

Which is all the time.

It costs you like $8 more than just hiring the bike and you can split the cost between more people if you have a group. The guy will wait for you at the entrance/exit of each place you want to go and gives you plenty of time to look around.

The compound itself is really quite something. Strangely, the most famous temple (Angkor Wat) was actually the least impressive, in my opinion.

 

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The vista as you approach the water-enclosed compound is iconic, of course, and the towers look great through the wilderness. But the inner parts of the area are less interesting and, overall, it serves mostly as a nice introduction to the later Angkor Thom (Yorke?) and Ta Prohm.

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The Bayon temple was my favourite. Intricately designed, you find yourself getting lost incredibly easily. The architecture is almost fractal and you quickly lose your sense of place and direction. The large faces on the upper towers are still very clear and visible, while the lower areas are coated in smaller carvings. At one stage every inch of every building in Angkor would have had similar carvings. An insane amount of labour. In fact, I learned that the amount of stone used to build the compound was far in excess of that required to build the pyramids and was transported a huge distance to the compound. The place would be a massive project even now, I imagine, so it’s incredible to think of the time and energy spent on creating this place at the height of the Khmer Empire so long ago.

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The temples don’t feel too ruined either. I mean, they are literally ruins. But after spending so long in China I find myself constantly assuming places are going to completely lack authenticity; reconstructions surrounded by food carts and public toilets. But the site has only the most minor of compromises allowing for tourists. A few wooden steps for the steeper temples and the occasional scaffold to hold up dangerous rooftops. But nothing to ruin the atmosphere too much. Also, as mentioned, the place is huge so it doesn’t take much to get away from the crowds if you so wish. You can easily find a temple for yourself to peruse if you’re so inclined. Just watch out for spiders.

Next stop was Phnom Penh (Pronounced…pphhhffff). More on that later.

 

Welcome…to Bako Park

Dun-derr-dun-derrrr-duhduhderrr-dederrr-derrrderrrr...

-John Williams

I’d just arrived at the pier a couple of hours outside Kuching. The ferry to and from Baku park is run by a closely knit group of men who live on the outskirts of the park in the village of Kampung Bako. Their livelihood revolves around ferrying tourists from the mainland out onto Baku National Park, which is only accessible through the village by boat. Obviously, for them, it’s not great if they have to take a day off. As such, the torrential rain and choppy ocean was a cause for concern. As they were huddled around under a canvas it was obvious that they were, five minutes before the first boat was due to leave, deciding on whether or not to go ahead or not.

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Many people were with guides, who were understandably keen to reassure their customers that their jungle trek would not be preceded by either a short, sharp encounter with a crocodile or a slightly more lengthy but equally unpleasant underwater experience.

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Ultimately they decided to go ahead, which I was thankful for, I was pretty excited to get going. Already it felt like much more of an adventure than KL. Proper Borneo-y!

Four of us clambered into the boat and set off down the river. The route took us around the rocky headland of the park into the flat northern area where we could land.

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It felt pretty sketchy. I’ve got to say. That being said, these guys care about their boats and, I would imagine, their lives so I’m sure there was no question in their minds that it was fine. And it was fine, ultimately. I didn’t notice how rough it was for the first 10 minutes or so, I was enthralled watching the park come into view. Thick with vegetation and covered in a wispy haze, it filled me with childish excitement. It’s still a national park, after all, but it felt like heading somewhere really isolated.

The two women sat in front of me began to express themselves as to how they felt that they would really rather the boat hadn’t been allowed to launch, how they were disinclined to die right at this moment and that, perhaps, the speedboat driver ought to seek medical attention for his presumed psychological deficiencies. Quite directly. The tour guide constantly reassured them, telling them that it was always like this and it was no big deal. When we finally pulled up to the jetty and the two women got out I turned to him and asked “Is it really always like this?”. His face said it all!

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I was so happy when we arrived. It was just what I’d hoped for. For sure, Bako Park is in no way the most isolated, most exposed or even most beautiful area of it’s kind. But it was Borneo and it was jungle. It was grey and misty, absolutely pouring with rain and we’d just taken the dodgiest boat ever to arrive in the rainforest. This was exactly what I’d been after.

First we had to report to the HQ. I was encouraged to see the sort of dilapidated buildings that look like they’re constantly mere weeks away from being swallowed whole by the surrounding environment. The sight eased my fears that I’d see the ugly ‘Hilton’ monolith stretching up once I’d got to the park itself.

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Unfortunately, many of the longer trekking routes were closed due to the weather. Disappointing, but certainly sensible and I can’t bemoan the staff their disinclination to spend each evening fishing tourists out of rivers. Speaking of, it was unbelievable to me just how many people were woefully unprepared for the visit. The worst culprits were a CHinese group and a British couple. I know, for a fact, that the word ‘Jungle’ doesn’t translate to ‘Shopping Mall’ in Chinese. But you’d think so looking at the high-heel clad visitors. Their guide met them at the HQ and much eye-rolling was had.

The British couple were the worst though! Immediately upon arrival they checked out the beginning of the trek (emphasis on the fact that it was called a trek, not a stroll) and began complaining to the staff, “You can’t expect people to walk there! This is your park, you should make sure people can enjoy it!”

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There are no words.

Sigh. Oh the entitlement.

For starters, it’s definitely not his park. It even says ‘Bako Nature Park’. It’s not like ‘Bako Unnatural Park feat. Concrete Paths’. They were literally wearing flip-flops and had no water, no food. To a jungle trek in Borneo.

I signed in for the longest day-trek I could and set off.

Strangely enough, most of the wildlife I planned on seeing turned out to celebrate the start of my way. The proboscis monkeys, other less penis-y monkeys and a lot of bearded wild boar arrived just as I was setting off and quickly became surrounded by people eager for a photograph. I felt like some kind of shit, poncho-wearing Dr. Doolittle! Afterwards I learned that they rarely head that close to the HQ and likely had been driven there by the poor weather. Funny how these things can turn into advantages.

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The trek itself was great, though occasionally more challenging than I expected. Most of the route was flooded to ankle/knee deep. But, once again, I really enjoyed the fact that it wasn’t just a paved path. You were hopping over gigantic roots, paddling through temporary pools which appeared suddenly, fed by a multitude of rain-water streams. It was still raining heavily and I was keen to just power on through to the sea-stacks so I didn’t take many photos on the way there.

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The rainforest felt alien. You were constantly surrounded by organic material; you walked on roots as you heard animals swinging overhead and the vegetation was so thick it was often almost pitch black. I also felt crushingly aware of my own ignorance with regard to the life around me; it was clear that I was surrounded by species of fauna and flora that were interesting and hugely different to anything I’d ever seen. But I kind of blundered my way through it all and felt a little undeserving. We can’t all be Zoologiststs I suppose. Nothing would get done!

(Says the Philosophy Graduate…)

 

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When I finally arrived I managed to fashion a waterproof SLR case out of a plastic bag under some shelter. The beach was totally deserted, as expected. A nice spot to wander around, but the rain continued and I was conscious that the route back wasn’t going to be getting any easier, as the paths were becoming more and more waterlogged. So I headed back.

Overall the trek took me about five hours or so. A lot of that was purely due to the weather though. I’d love to go back after the rainy season and tackle a longer route sometime. A great experience.

 

Right now I’m in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Spent today in the Angkor complex, hopefully should get some photos up here soon.

Take care all.