A few months ago, a couple of guys (henceforth referred to as morons) were arrested in Thailand for undressing in front of a sacred temple. They were duly detained, held for a week and then promptly deported. They had faced jail time and, frankly, they probably should have been more severely punished. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in Southeast Asia knows well that local residents treat temples and other religious centers with incredible reverence and respect and, in turn, how important it is for foreigners to treat these sites with that same level of respect. While reconciled, this incident sparked in me not only outrage, but further thought on how we travel in the 21st century and how, increasingly, some of us are losing sight of the true value and importance of the travel experience.
The world is not your Instagram studio
For many years I have sadly noticed that far too many travelers treat the world as if it is a theme park; an enlarged version of EPCOT there for their amusement. I don’t know why it is that parts of our brain turn off whenever we leave home, but such is the case for far too many travelers. Whether it’s the tourist I saw in Paris try to pay for a meal in US dollars or those camera toting visitors in Luang Prabang who all but harassed Buddhist monks for photos, the behavior is shocking to me. It exposes a couple of unfortunate personality traits: a lack of self-awareness and a complete lack of empathy for other humans. I have always said that one of the great benefits of travel is that we as individuals become citizen ambassadors. We learn from others but we also share our own lives and experiences with the people who live in these foreign countries. We represent our nations, for better or for worse, showing the world who we are and what we value. That is something to take very seriously and yet, increasingly so, it is an almost forgotten consideration. Desperate to get a winning Instagram photo, travelers today seem to be touring the world to capture certain moments instead of understanding that it’s the entire trip that has the most value.
Travel is not a right, it is a privilege and it comes attached to it certain responsibilities. It’s our responsibility to research places we want to visit, to learn more about the local cultures and to learn how to behave in these places. No matter your religious beliefs, you wouldn’t be happy if a guest to your community went out of their way to treat places sacred to you in a way that is rude or even blasphemous. That’s what happened with those two guys in Thailand. We’re not talking about wearing shorts into a temple instead of pants, no, we’re talking about the premeditated and aggressive plan to treat a very important place with violent disrespect. That’s not acceptable anywhere in the world and frankly, it should be a wake up call for those of us who find value in the travel experience.
Travel to learn and grow
Travel is all about us because it changes us in one way or another. Most times travel is an educational, enlightening process, whether we intend it to be or not and whether or not we realize it. Travel snobs may tilt their nose at someone who just wants to go sit on a beach in Mexico for a week. But why? They’re getting as much out of the experience as someone trekking through the Andes gets, but in different ways. Both are experiencing trips that give them pleasure and even the beach bathing tourist will learn about the location and grow as a person, whether they realize it or even like it. They have no choice. No matter what we do, travel always changes us, always makes us better people and always has lessons to teach. The trick is to realize all this and to capitalize on it.
Travel is almost by definition a selfish act, and that’s fine. We travel to relax and enjoy ourselves, but we also travel to grow and evolve as human beings. At least, that’s the goal. While travel is a selfish act, we shouldn’t travel selfishly. That may sound like semantics, but there is a clear distinction between the two concepts. It is our duty to travel in a way that is respectful and which does no harm. I don’t necessarily mean sustainable travel, although that would be nice, no, instead I mean that is imperative to open your eyes, ears and heart when you travel. Talk to other people, learn from them and in turn, share your own thoughts and background. Had those two morons in Thailand done that, they never would have disrespected the local culture in such a dastardly manner. Had they spent time chatting with a local resident, taking a moment to learn about what they value, then their experience would have been much different. Instead, they traveled around Thailand in a bubble of their own construction, selfish in almost every way and without thought or concern for other people. That’s not why we spend time and money to see the world, that’s not what travel should be about. It’s not about capturing the best pool selfie, it should always be about personal growth and education but also in an even exchange of ideas. It’s very much a give and take and an all too rare instance when we can affect real and positive change in the modern world.