I’ve visited Bangkok numerous times, though this last visit was the first time I made it to Wat Pho. If you’re unfamiliar, Wat Pho is one of six temples in Thailand classed as the highest grade of the first-class royal temples. The temple, one of the oldest in Bangkok, is home to the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand, including a 46m (+/- 150 ft) long reclining Buddha. Often Wat Pho is also referred to as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.
Long story short, Wat Pho and the Reclining Buddha are important to Thai Buddhists. In fact, the temple complex is sacred. It’s not uncommon to see locals, or Buddhists, pray at various places with the complex – especially at the king-size Reclining Buddha.
Common sense tells us to respect the area and symbols as we would our own churches, temples or mosques. On the day I visited Wat Pho a small group of three tourists decided it was a good idea to stop the flow of visitors – literally stop them – while they took turns laying on the floor in the Reclining Buddha pose and then snap selfies. If the selfie-takers weren’t satisfied with their ‘pics,’ they’d retake the photos until they were pleased. To top off the outrageous behaviour, they took time to post their ‘clever’ images to their social media accounts.
If I had not witnessed the ridicule with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. If the vast population did not own smartphones and if social media didn’t exist, it’s highly probably the sort of behaviour I saw wouldn’t take place. That’s not to say mobile phones or social media are to blame, because they’re not. People are to blame. Phones and social media encourage the distasteful acts.
A number of popular destinations around the world experience bad behaviour from visitors. It’s not uncommon to see angry rallies in Venice, attacks on tour buses in Barcelona and plans to limit visitor numbers in Dubrovnik. From Venice to Amsterdam, Hvar to San Sebastian, locals are becoming increasingly vocal and vigilant about the negative impact tourism is having on their homes. Who can blame them?
On Rialto Bridge I witnessed a young Venetian’s date ruined when two tourists burst onto the scene with no regard to who or what was around them. Their loud voices carried into the night like a crowd cheering at a football match. The young male Venetian took his stand and let the two female tourists know in no uncertain terms Venice belonged to him and they were not welcome. The moment was so intense even I backed away and I wasn’t part of the conflict.
It’s easy to say common sense and respect should rule the day. What does that mean? Below is a list of some key things tourists can do to make destinations better for locals and ultimately yourselves.
1. Go Somewhere Else. If you’re planning on visiting a destination that is up in arms about tourism, consider going somewhere else. Our world is vast and our travel choices are many. Perhaps choose Utrecht instead of Amsterdam or Siena over Rome. Going elsewhere will likely improve your holiday experience. Chances are you’ll also experience fewer visitors and lesser known destinations tend to be less expensive. I’m not a typical tourist by any stretch of the word. In fact, I’m more of a traveler than a tourist. When I travel the road less traveled, I often find a place more interesting, I’m more at ease and it’s more rewarding in the end.
2. Avoid The Must-See Sights. In fact, avoid the guidebooks that lead you to the hot spots all together. If ever I see a headline that reads something like “10 Things You Must Do in Hong Kong,” it is a cue for me to avoid every one of the places on the guidebook’s list or blogger’s lists. If you do a little research and talk to the locals you’ll learn of better places to visit at a similar site elsewhere. What’s more is you’ll have a much better experience because there are far fewer people visiting it. Besides, creating your own journey and personal experience in a destination is better and more memorable. Create your own story that is yours and yours alone.
3. Forget High Season. An obvious way to get the most out of your travel is to avoid the time when everyone else goes. I’ve always visited Venice during the off-season. When I’m exploring Venice at night with my camera, I often have the island to myself except for St Mark’s Square. The shops and restaurants operate as normal in off-season. The added bonus – the hotel rates are less expensive even at high end accommodations. I love it and I also love that the manager of UNA Hotel Venezia meets me at the water taxi welcoming me back with a hug.
4. Leave Your Home and Customs At Home. In Bali, once, I challenged a London friend to leave London behind for two weeks. I knew he couldn’t stop himself from saying, “In London, we …….” Each time he’d start, I’d cut him off. Toward the end of his time in Bali all I had to do was glance at him. It was sort of a game with my friend, though you can’t expect your habits, customs and way of thinking to be the same wherever you travel. Do you think Parisians really want to hear (or care) how you eat breakfast at home as opposed to their way? If you think Parisians do, I want to hear all about it. The same is true everywhere. Open your mind and your heart and embrace the diversity you’ll discover along the way. You’ll grow when you leave home behind.
5. Don’t Ask For International Chains. As I travel around the world I notice homogenized cities. More and more I can count on finding Starbuck’s, Gap, Levi’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Swatch, Disney, Lancome and more. Kuala Lumpur looks the same to me as London despite the cultural differences. Why would you travel 6000 or more miles to visit the same stores you can find at home? I’m an avid shopper but if I shop when I travel, I want something local and something I can find nowhere else. Think about it – do you really want to buy an imported item? Instead consider spending money on regional products in local shops.
6. Learn A Few Words Of The Local Language. Even if you can’t correctly complete a proper sentence in Arabic, at least try. If you can attempt to converse with the locals in their language, they’ll love you for it even if they chuckle. Additionally, the local might be more accommodating to your question if you attempt their language. The old trick of pointing and talking loudly really is an insult. Trust me, speaking loudly and slowly while asking your question to a local will not gain your foreign friends.
7. Put Your Selfie Sticks Away. In fact, forget selfies all together. I’m sure locals take their own selfies, but when you obstruct a passageway for your own narcissistic reasons, you’re not projecting a positive image of yourself or where you come from.
8. Be Respectful. Wherever you to, abide by the local laws, respect the local customs and dress appropriately. Locals sometimes feel outnumbered by tourists and oftentimes they are. People in destinations like Venice are becoming increasingly angry that some tourists are disrespecting their hometown. Don’t be that person. Ultimately, give the locals one less thing to complain about. Try being a traveler instead of a tourist. You’ll be a better person for it.