Over the past month, I've traveled throughout Southeast Asia to Hong Kong, Singapore, Laos (Vientiane), Cambodia (Siem Reap), and Thailand (Bangkok). I have learned and felt so much in these places. As much as I've enjoyed my travels, this question kept popping up into my head, "What are the ethical drawbacks of tourism? First though, here's a brief snapshot of what I learned in each place:
- Hong Kong- The first time I traveled to a totally unfamiliar context by myself. Resulting from 100+ years of British colonialism, Hong Kong is a blend of the East and the West. Unfortunately, out of all my travels, Hong Kong was one of my least favorite places because 1) I decided to walk 30+ miles over 2 days in a pair of white converses- terrible idea and 2) People were not the friendliest. Case in point- on the subway I was sitting next to an older (mid-60s) lady who slapped my thigh and yelled at me when my foot accidentally brushed against her calf-eek! It was still a good trip though, thanks to the dim sum at the Michelin- star eatery Tim Ho Wan AND the highlight Hong Kong-getting to nom on Hello Kitty dim sum.
- Singapore- one of the cleanest and neatest places I've ever been to. It's so efficient. The airport has security lines for designated gates. There is a security line for gates 1-5 and then another security line for gates 6-10, and so on. Thus, there are no hold-ups in the immigration line. Even within security lines are several officers who guide people throughout security. All this makes for one quick airport check-in process. Singapore was one of my favorite places. I owe that largely to my gracious host John, who's one of my friends from college. He was born and raised in Singapore. As someone who thinks about topics of multiculturalism/interculturalism/identity on a regular basis, it was so neat to see a society that lives rather harmoniously between the different Chinese, Indian, and Malay cultures. You see this throughout the physical Singaporean landscape too. For example, one of the most famous Hindu temples in Singapore is located in Chinatown. My favorite experience in Singapore was going to a dinner with John's middle school friends. Here, the ethnic composition of John's friends mirrored that of the SIngaporean population. Over a home-cooked meal of delicious chicken curry, we talked about social issues and policies within Singapore. I now understood the beauty of traveling with a local guide.
- Vientiane- Out of all the places I've been to, Vientiane had the best food hands-down. Between fresh fruit smoothies, sticky rice, and crispy baguette sandwiches, I ate so well. I liked Laos because it had sort of a sleepy feel to it. Since I stayed with Joanna, another friend from college, who is currently living there, I felt I got a better taste of the local flavor (no pun intended). Whizzing through the streets of Vientiane on the back of my friend Joanna's motorbike was also fun, albeit scary at first. One of the most impactful experiences during my travels was going to the COPE visitor center. Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history because of the US's involvement in the Secret War. There have been over 20,000 people either killed or injured because of unexploded bombs (UXOs) that have remained after the war ended. COPE is a non-profit doing incredible work creating prosthetics and orthopedics for individuals who have lost limbs from the UXOs. I couldn't help but think that so many people don't know about the US's key role in this. I felt a mix of frustration, disappointment, and sadness learning about UXOs. On a lighter note, It was fascinating to see Korean influence in Vientiane. There seems to be a number of Korean restaurants, cafes, and shops throughout Vientiane Aside: throughout my travels, K-pop played everywhere. The hallyu (Korean Wave) is real. When I struck up a conversation with Korean cafe owner, he said he came to Vientiane for a vacation and ended up liking it so much that he's been living there the past twelve years. He told me that he feels that he can never got back to the hustle and bustle of Seoul. Given how much I enjoyed the more quiet feel of Vientiane, I got where he was coming from. Laos also was one of my favorite places. My two favorite places I visited happened to be places where I was visiting/staying with friends. Coincidence? I think not, haha.
- Siem Reap- Angkor Wat and the other temples (Bayon, Angkor Thom, etc) were sights to behold. It's incredible to think about how the Khmer Empire created those towering structures in the 12th century. The views of the temple came with a price though- it was so hot. I didn't know it was possible for me to sweat that much. As much as I enjoyed the temples, the city of Siem Reap was so touristy, but more on that later.
- Bangkok- the last stop in my March travels. After going to Vientiane and Siem Reap right before Bangkok, I couldn't help but compare and contrast the similarities and differences between the architecture of temples of the three places. Compared to Vientiane and Siem Reap, Bangkok was far more Westernized. I was surprised to learn that Thailand was the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized.
During my travels, I kept thinking about my own privilege. How as an American passport holder I had tourist access to so many countries. I was hyper-aware of my privilege in Siem Reap, which was probably why I out of all the places I visited, was where I felt the most uncomfortable. Siem Reap is a very touristy city. As soon as you step foot outside, dozens of tuk tuk drivers will follow-you and call out asking if you need a tuk-tuk. By Day 2 of Siem Reap, I found myself avoiding eye contact with any tuk tuk driver and fully empathized with a guy who wore a shirt saying "No tuk tuk driver, today or tomorrow". I was staying near Pub Street, an area of restaurants with "authentic" Khmer food and bars with "authentic" Cambodian Apsara dancers. There were brochures in many stores warning against scams and discouraging giving money to children because that would keep them out of school and in the streets. Siem Reap's economy seemed so dependent on tourism, which made me wonder-Is tourism the modern form of colonization? I thought of this question again when I overheard a conversation amongst an an older American tourist group. In an all-too familiar Texas twang I heard a lady say, "I wish Siem Reap wasn't part of the tour. It's really hot and all we're going to see are temples, temples, and more temples". As an American, I felt embarrassed upon hearing this. The Angkor temples are holy religious sites that have such a rich history. It's a privilege for tourists like us to be able to see these places that are so sacred and meaningful to others. Her statement, most likely made of ignorance than malice, still seemed like a abuse of that privilege to me.
As much as my travels have been an incredible experience- one of my largest takeaways is heightened awareness of the privileges I possess. I'm left with the question of - how can we make sure this privilege is not abused?