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Traveling — stepping outside your own culture and comfort zone — tends to come with a side dish of ethical and moral decision-making. Maybe you’re concerned about the environmental impact of a Caribbean cruise, or you’re fretting over what to wear in a conservative country like Egypt. Maybe you’re wondering how to help poverty-striken children in Cambodia without doing more harm than good. As a perpetual traveler, I deal with these issues on a regular basis. Yet never have I felt my conscience tugged at as deeply as when I was traveling through Laos.

Perhaps this has to do with the fact that tourism is in its infancy in Laos — and so every tiny impact that foreign travelers make is still measurable. Perhaps it’s because this sparsely-populated, land-locked nation was such a complete mystery to me, and there was no prior knowledge to soften the blow of the misdeeds I saw here. Perhaps more than anything, this is a nation that still has a beautiful innocence to it, and my instinct was to protect that.

Tak Bat in Laos

While the true effects of foreign influence and mass tourism on a country like Laos are incalculable, two situations stood out to me, and stayed with me long after I received my exit stamp from immigration. The first was watching the abhorrent behavior of tourists at the Tak Bat ceremony in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Tak Bat in Laos

In my previous post about The Sights of Luang Prabang I touched briefly on this beautiful ceremony and its religious significance. This morning alms procession, known in Luang Prabang as Tak Bat, is a beautiful ritual that takes place at dawn all across Laos and greater Southeast Asia. As I wrote there:

Monks float through the quiet streets, collecting offerings of sticky rice from the devoted. It is a form of meditation for the monks who are living out their vows of poverty and humility; and an act of respect and gaining spiritual merit for the Buddhists who participate.

Sounds beautiful, right? Well, sadly, shots like the ones above and in my previous post are quite a challenge to capture. In reality, the scene looks a bit more like this:

Tak Bat Controversy

Yes, tourists behave badly at the Tak Bat ceremony in Luang Prabang. Despite pleas in guidebooks, in magazines and blogs, and on signs around town (how embarrassing for us that these are even necessary?) people continue to show an appalling lack of respect.

I rose before sunrise to watch the procession. I packed my telephoto zoom lens, covered my shoulders with a shawl, and made my way into town early so that I could stake out somewhere discreet. At first I delighted in walking through the quiet streets as the sun rose, but soon grew uncomfortable as more and more vendors approached me to purchase rice for the monks. While I can understand how it would be thrilling to participate in this ceremony — and I have a genuine interest in Buddhism — I am still not a practicing Buddhist and thus I believe it would cheapen the experience for me to take part. Not to mention, I had read countless signs around town urging tourists not to buy sticky rice off the streets to give to the monks — it is low quality and makes them ill.

I walked to Wat Sensoukaram, a spot I had staked out the day before, and settled in on the sidewalk across the street from where the monks would be proceeding. I quickly realized I wasn’t the only one with that location idea, as tour buses unloaded large groups into the middle of the road. The anticipation in the air was high when the first saffron blur appeared in the distance. I took a few discreet photos and then put the camera down and watched in horror as the scene in front of me unfolded. It was, to put it bluntly, a circus.

People flocked to the monks with cameras blazing, like a swarm of spiritual paparazzi. They conversed loudly. They jogged anxiously from one spot to another to get the best shot. They even went so far as to stand directly in front of the monks, forcing them to break their meditative stroll and walk around the intruding lens. Those participating handed iPhones to each other in order to capture their moments of “spiritual merit” for the world to see. I felt a little sick, a bit baffled, and majorly embarrassed.

Tak Bat Controversy

Watching this sacred ceremony is a privilege. Participating is about practicing a religion, and gaining spiritual merit — not taking Facebook profile photos or buying enlightenment for the price of a bag of sticky rice. And observers should be held to the same high code of behavior. As someone passionate about photography I understand better than anyone how tempting it is to do anything for that perfect shot. But the line has to be drawn somewhere. And if getting a great photo comes at the expense of disrespecting a culture and showing a lack of regard for others’ sacred practices — well, that’s not a photo I would want hanging on my wall.

So, is it possible to observe Tak Bat in a respectful way, without degrading a centuries-old tradition? I believe so, but be forewarned that other won’t and that as I’ve said before, you will likely walk away feeling more frustration than spiritual enlightenment. In my opinion, a good guideline is you should never step foot off of the sidewalk opposite the street from the monks, never use a flash and generally conduct yourself as you would in any religious setting. You can find more tips (and beautiful photos from those who followed them!) here.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I walked away from Luang Prabang with my head held high, knowing that I had conducted myself in a way that I could be proud of among a sea of people who didn’t. I arrived in Vang Vieng feeling preemptively guilty — I knew there was no way I was walking out of that town feeling morally superior.

Vang Vieng Controvery

Tubing down the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng may just be one of the most controversial activities in all of Southeast Asia. This post gives a pretty clear picture of what goes down, down on the river. But in summary, it’s a moronathon of cheap buckets of whiskey, readily available drugs, loud DJ sets, half-naked people and inner tubes.

So. What happens when you create an all-day, every-day rave culture in a quiet, small town deep in the jungle of an already conservative country? Bad things.

Vang Vieng Controvery

First of all, people die.

According to official reports, 27 foreigners died last year. A shocking number as-is, though the true death-tally may be much higher. Anyone who does not die on the spot is rushed to the nearest true hospital — four hours away via bumpy roads in the capital of Vientiane. In reality, it’s not a stretch to guess that nearly one backpacker per week dies in Vang Vieng. More here.

But, callous as it may sound, travelers are not the only ones suffering. The way tourism has developed in Vang Vieng has had a devastating effect on the local community.

Vang Vieng Controvery

Locals once used the river for bathing, fishing, and relaxing with family. Today, the animistic-leaning Buddhist locals stay far away from the Nam Song — they figure there must be some pretty evil spirits in there for so many young people to have perished in its waters. It’s hard to imagine they would enjoy the river much today anyway, lined as it is by a series of 12 bars each heaving with bikini-clad, bucket-toting partiers nodding along to LMFAO.

At least the river is fairly secluded. Unfortunately, the party bleeds back into the town once the river bars close, and at sunset there is a mass migration of drunk, stoned and inappropriately dressed people shuffling back into the town. The locals have a phrase for this, and it translates to, “the zombies are coming.” It is a Laotian parent’s worst fear that their child will go down to work at one of the bars on the river.

Backpackers outnumber locals fifteen to one. The tradition way of life in Vang Vieng is over, and trying to go back is a lost cause. The economy here is now so deeply tied to the tubing that the local people have little option but to continue forward despite the emotions betrayed by their grim faces. I have not been surprised at all to read that as tourism develops around Laos, communities have expressed strong convictions that their town will not become “the next Vang Vieng.” I can’t really blame them.

Vang Vieng Controvery

I participated in the debauchery in Vang Vieng (well, not all of it). I had a pretty great time, and I admit that I would even go back. But my time here was also tainted by guilt. As I sat at one of the bars along the river, sipping mindlessly on a mulberry mojito bucket, I watched a gaggle of kids scampering and playing behind the bars. My stomach turned as I thought about the impression these young children must have of Westerners. In town, we sit like zombies watching reruns of Friends and Family Guy on big screen TVs. On the river, we strip practically naked and take part in an orgy of sex, drugs, and techno music. Deep in an isolated community in an already isolated country — this is likely the extent of their exposure to the outside world. And what an impression we have made.

I’ve participated in my fair share of hedonistic holidays — I’ve rang in New Year’s Eve at the Full Moon Party and traveled to Honduras to take part in the uninhabited-island rave that is Sunjam. It’s fair to assume that those events have negative impacts on the local communities as well. But the Full Moon Party is once a month, and Sunjam is just once a year. The locals have time to recoup and recover in between — in Vang Vieng, its relentless.

Personally, I felt the resentment coming from the Lao people. Every interaction I had with a local person (with the exception of the bar boys down on the river) was laced with a bit of shame on my end. And on theirs, they seemed pretty reserved and quietly frustrated — certainly not the typical smiling Southeast Asian stereotype. And who can blame them?

Innocence is bliss, as the saying goes, and I enjoyed following the crowd this time in Vang Vieng. While I was far from the worst-behaved there, I definitely could have dressed more appropriately or forgone the river altogether. But while I can’t say I’m proud of myself I also can’t say I regret it. Vang Vieng was my guilty pleasure.

Vang Vieng Controvery

Responsible and ethical tourism is not an uncomplicated issue, and there are no easy right-or-wrong answers. Yet we all owe it to this beautiful country to take a hard look at our own actions when visiting and think about the way that they impact everyone and everything around us. Tourists can behave badly in Laos — and in Vang Vieng, I was one of them.

I want to know what you think. How do you feel about the way tourists are acting at Tak Bat in Luang Prabang and while tubing in Vang Vieng? Am I a hypocrite for disapproving of one group yet joining in with the other?

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33 Comments...
  • Dad
    July 25 2012

    I think I already commented on this in your original Vang Vieng post

    • Alex
      July 26 2012

      Well, not on the monk debacle!

  • I love your open and raw honesty, Alex….I, myself, have still yet to travel the SE Asia circuit, because I’ve chosen to start my travels in Europe, (although, hopefully later this year I’ll be headed that way ),but I’ve read post after post after post about monks being assaulted during daily alms rituals, and the hedonistic mayhem that has become Vang Vieng….I’m sure, after witnessing it all for myself, I’ll feel equally as conflicted 🙁
    Tiffany @ theUnimaginedLife recently posted..The Ultimate Swiss Train Challenge. Part 2.

    • Alex
      July 26 2012

      Yes, anytime we travel through a culture so far from our own we are definitely subject to lots of emotional conflict! I’m sure you’ll love Southeast Asia though, there’s lots of enlightenment along with the rest of it!

  • steve mckee
    July 25 2012

    Hey, Alex:
    Welcome to the real world of compromise and shades of gray, with little that is black or white. I’m glad you addressed the fact that the you understand that the very presence of YOU adds to this entire problem, no matter how much or how well you find and observe boundaries. Also good that you admitted that, yeah, well, you kinda-sorta liked some of it and you think that, twist-your-arm, you’ll likely return, maybe. That adds greatly to the ambivalence.

    • Alex
      July 26 2012

      Yes, being morally superior is definitely harder than being morally ambiguous! But… it can be much more fun 🙂

  • TammyOnTheMove
    July 25 2012

    Great post! I am glad you posted the photo of tourists taking shots of the monks. It is really eye-opening I think. I personally find this way of behaviour very disrespectful as well. You can see how uncomfortable the monks look. I have been wanting to go to VV for ages, but delayed it because of what it turned into. I really want to see the surrounding countryside, but not drunk and misbehaving backpackers. Maybe I am just too old for this. 🙂 I think unfortunately as long as these attractions are mentioned in the likes of Lonely Planet there will be even more tourists in future, trying to out-do each other with their shots…
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..A field trip

    • Alex
      July 26 2012

      Actually, I was really fascinated by Lonely Planet Laos, which took a fairly disapproving stance against tubing. I was surprised because their target audiences certainly overlap. But maybe they are just trying to soften their impact?

      If you want to see countryside… just go anywhere else! Vang Vieng is an anomaly and a few kilometers in any direction will bring you can to bucolic rural areas.

  • Jeff
    July 26 2012

    It’s nice to see you conscious of your impact as a tourist both positively and negatively. The monk walk actually reminds me of a temple stay I did in Korea. The temple wanted to renovate their brochure and website so they had professional photographers following us around during every activity including meditation.
    Jeff recently posted..The Olympics

    • Alex
      July 26 2012

      That seems a bit crazy! Did they ask your permission or warn you that it would be happening? I think I’d be pretty disappointed had I been expecting peace and meditation.

  • Amanda
    July 26 2012

    Great post Alex! I have also definitely struggled with many ethical decisions while traveling, and it’s hard because there’s some places and things that I feel have been ruined by tourism, yet I am there myself… I think using good judgment is the most important thing. While I too felt guilty about tubing it’s way better to go tubing and not get blacked out and stumble home in a bikini! The problem is some people take it way too far.

    • Alex
      July 26 2012

      Yeah, I definitely did have my limits to my “bad behavior” tubing. I didn’t actually drink that much and I definitely had my clothes on when I was in town. Of course those clothes were skimpier than anything I’ve ever worn off the beach in Southeast Asia…

  • Savvy Scot
    July 26 2012

    I think moderation is also the key – tubing is fun and it provides tourism, jobs and adds to the economy. Disturbing Monks and interfering with religion is just wrong! I don’t think you are a hypocrite
    Savvy Scot recently posted..Mission Failed..

    • Alex
      July 26 2012

      Well I appreciate your input. I do agree that tubing causes jobs, but from what I’ve read the people in those jobs tend to fall victim to drug addiction/alcoholism and its the worst nightmare of their families. So its kind of still hard to feel good about that part of it!

  • Grace
    July 26 2012

    Such an interesting and thoughtful post (as always).

    Tourists behaving badly is pretty much a theme everywhere, but it does seem to be worse in places like Laos due to the total lack of government regulation and the huge gaps in income/education between tourists and locals. The real problem has to do with the country, not the tourists (who are equally obnoxious everywhere, but are constrained due to outside forces in other places).

    However, I also think that in general tourism is a big boon to the economy. Working in a tubing bar may be a bad job (and lead to addiction problems), but all the people visiting create other jobs as well: guesthouses, restaurants, everyone who makes the materials required by the bars (suppliers of food/furniture etc). Tourists in a poor place like Vang Vieng cause a huge influx of wealth, raising living standards for the entire community (though as this tends to increase social stratification, it does have problems too). I can see why the local government, desperate as they are for cash in a place like Laos, would not want to interfere with any of the tourists’ pleasures (and honestly, if VV was a lot more subdued and regulated, the number of wealthy white tourists willing to trek all the way out to the middle of nowhere would be much smaller).

    Really it all comes down to the issue of poverty (and its companion/cause bad government).
    Grace recently posted..Having a Life That Looks Like a Catalog

    • Alex
      July 27 2012

      Hey Grace, thanks for this comment! You are right, the government regulations, or lack thereof, have a major impact on places like this. I’m not arguing that tourism in general is a bad thing. Especially in Vang Vieng though, it seems as though the locals feel they have “created a monster.” They are deeply unhappy with what is going on but are completely financially dependent on it. I doubt they would feel the same way if the tourism was based on, say, adventure sports. But there will always be party hotspots and they are usually fairly contained… just unlucky for the locals who happen to live in the eye of the storm.

  • Diana
    July 26 2012

    Who can blame you for tubing in Vang Vieng, especially if that’s THE THING to do. As far as the question of you being a hypocrite – well, we all at one time or another. 😉

    • Alex
      July 27 2012

      Very true! Especially when it comes to ethics situations… for example I’m a major animal rights supporter yet not a vegetarian. Some might call that hypocritical…

  • Diane
    July 27 2012

    I think it’s human nature to behave badly. Whether it’s as a tourist in a faraway land or at home. While it wasn’t disrespectful exactly, I did encounter some loud tourists in Venice. My husband and I were on a quiet gondola ride on a Venice canal and all of a sudden, I hear a woman, who is hanging out of her hotel window calling to someone down below, “Do you have a big bathroom??? We do…” My husband and I still joke about our “serene” gondola ride. And she went on and on and on….
    Diane recently posted..Awkward expat story: When the French pharmacist talks about your vagina

    • Alex
      July 27 2012

      Haha, while that is funny in retrospect I’m sure it wasn’t as funny at the time… especially considering the price of those gondola rides!

  • Daniel McBane
    July 27 2012

    I heard about the disrespect of lot of the tourists at the Tak Bat ceremony, so I didn’t even bother to check it out.
    Ok, that’s a huge lie. The truth is, the ceremony takes place hours and hours before my day even starts so I missed it. But from the stories I’ve heard and the pictures I’ve seen, I’m not upset about that. It would have just resulted in me being annoyed with the human race as a whole and I have plenty of those days as it is.

    I did end up seeing a much smaller version of the ceremony in Muang Ngoi from the window of my hotel room completely by accident, when I just happened to wake up early. I watched for a few minutes still half asleep, then went back to bed. Thinking back, I didn’t see a single tourist near them.
    I guess everyone gets their fill in Luang Prabang and can’t be bothered to get up early again, especially not for a procession that’s made up of only four or five monks.
    Daniel McBane recently posted..Dear Hawkers in Goa: I WANT NOTHING!!

    • Alex
      July 27 2012

      Ha, yes I’ve definitely just given anyone who isn’t an early riser a great excuse to skip Tak Bat!

  • Tejaswi
    July 29 2012

    EXCELLENT POST ALEX (TRULY HONEST). When people visit place where monk’s & saints live. It is a courtesy to maintain calm. I am from India and I’ve seen tourists visiting temples often try to take a snap (WHEN PHOTOGRAPHY IS PROHIBITED). The locals think they are disrespecting the deity. This is indeed an eye-opening post by you.

    • Alex
      July 29 2012

      Thanks Tejaswi! I appreciate your point of view from another place where it sounds tourists often behave badly.

  • Jenna
    July 29 2012

    This post reminds me of my visit to the Sistine Chapel. One of the most magnificent pieces of art in the entire world, and the guides/guards make it very clear that photography is not allowed. As soon as the *huge* crowd files in people start taking pictures like crazy (and with their flash on, which is why they are prohibiting photography in the first place). It’s heartbreaking to see and frustrating to think about the damage they are doing for a picture I KNOW is of incredibly poor quality and worthless to everyone who will look at it from there on out.

    I am sure there are many ways I took have behaved badly. I appreciated this very self-aware post though, as it made me want to be more careful and self-aware when I travel. Terrific job Alex.
    Jenna recently posted..A Question for (past/present) Food Servers and Restaurant Owners

    • Alex
      July 29 2012

      Ugh, the situation you describe at the Sistine Chapel would make me cringe. Just buy a postcard! I admit I am the first to break the no camera rule but not when its going to cause damage or disrespect.

  • Nemo
    July 29 2012

    it’s so sad that people can’t comprehend how to behave in cultural situations and they take their photos in an obnoxious way just so they have something to put on Facebook or elsewhere.
    When I was in Thailand, I never took a photo of a monk because 1) I didn’t know if I could or not and 2) I didn’t want to invade their privacy by being a typical tourist and just walking up to them on the street.

    I did however, take a sneaky picture of an armish family once in america, very sneaky though….I don’t think they noticed….I hope they didn’t notice!
    Nemo recently posted..New Zealand: How to get a IRD Number

    • Alex
      July 30 2012

      I have taken photos of monks, however like you with the amish family I have tried to be super sneaky about it so I don’t disturb them. I am sometimes extremely shy to take candid photos of people but I try to remember that I have been on the other side of the camera when people are taking photos at events like St. Patrick’s Day Parade or Halloween and I don’t mind it. But in this case, its a sacred ceremony so I think the rules are different!

  • Hannah
    July 30 2012

    Ah, things like this make me so sad too. It’s so important as travellers that we always act with the greatest respect. I am so glad that you shared your experiences and encourage people to be more aware of their actions.
    Hannah recently posted..The truth shall set you free

    • Alex
      July 31 2012

      Thanks Hannah. I’m sure after meeting you that you travel with the utmost sensitivity 🙂

  • Corrie
    April 11 2013

    As an American-Lao, I was floored to see your photos of the river tubing. Something so obvious, of western culture that has imposed itself. I think perhaps when you’re out of your element, not quite sure of customs and behaviors it’s easy to feel safer/comfortable being around something familiar. It’s quite sad to see. And has made me reflect and want to consider all things, when i travel. Why travel if you’re not there to experience the culture of where you are at. Observe it, respect it and not make such a footprint in someone elses backyard. There’s some social responsibility we have when we travel to not be disrupted and the river tubing gives such a bad name to westerners to act inappropriately.

    • Corrie
      April 11 2013

      The tubing would not be there, if travelers didn’t par-take.

      • Alex
        April 11 2013

        Corrie, you may be reassured then to hear that the tubing has been largely shut down 🙂 As of summer 2012 reports are that all the river bars were torn down in preparation for Laos’s hosting of the ASEAN conference. Who knows if it will just pop up somewhere else or fade away entirely…

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