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August 15, 2016
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DOWN SOUTH | I’m Sorry for Being a Spoiled Traveler

Right Motorbike For Vietnam Road Trip

This post first appeared on my travel column Down South on Interaksyon.com last July 2, 2016. I refined it a bit and added more photos. Please, I would love it if say something about this.


“I’m not comfortable taking their photos,” said T. We were on our way back to the dirt road where we parked our rented motorbike. We waved goodbyes to the rice farmers whom we shared a brief moment of fondness and unadulterated laughter.

Our encounter was the welcome unpredictability traveling is known for. A few minutes ago, we saw them beyond the tall shrubs fencing the road. Some were bent in a muddy, weeded-out field, while others relaxed in a semi-concrete shed. Bundles of rice seedlings were half-submerged in murky water. Gloom hovered above us all, threatening to pound the already-soft earth with more water.

It was July: the planting season of the tangible and the intangible—the growing of rice and the planting of the stubborn hope that the erratic and sometimes maddening monsoon rain would not drown the crops.

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“Why?” I asked.
“Maybe because they’re working, and here I am a tourist, watching and taking photos.”

This was not the first time that discussion on appropriateness and ethicalities of our ways surfaced. I did and do not think though that what we were doing was poverty pornography.

Despite coming from an agricultural nation, I had never planted rice. Rather, I grew up measuring my height, my smallness with the corn and okras of my Papa.

Private moments like this, which may sound boring for others, are the most priced and precious for us. Our Thailand trip, in retrospect, was not the pursuit of the extraordinary and the unfamiliar, rather we retreated to the most ordinary of things, to solemn walks and rides.

To photograph the moment was the initial reason: the lushness of everything, the kind that only appears after a good rain, got me. So we decided to drop by before continuing our search for a waterfall that we would not ever find.

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Seeing T, a tall farang, and a woman that could pass as a local, I believed, was a fascination for everyone. As an amateur photographer, the muddy water, the green, hopeful seedlings, and the feet disappearing in the water struck me as perfect elements for a good photograph.

Removing our sneakers and socks and getting into the muddy field was a random decision. A farmer’s daughter, I got the hang of sowing seedlings into the watery earth in no time. But it was no easy task.

For the farmers whose very lives depend on their fields’ yields, it was pure hard labor. Although I was with T with his concern, I would like to believe what we had was a moment, if not of fleeting happiness, then of laughter.

It has always been like that.

Moments and parcels of and from different places composed our travels. And we were not, in any way, delusional that what we experienced represent the places’ entirety.

In Chiang Rai, we sought the familiar and the provincial.

On our first night, we went to Central Day Market, marveled at the colors, bought a lot of street food, and headed to “Chiang Rai Beach.” Landlocked, Chiang Rai having a beach was a fascination for us. So we followed Google Maps and ended up in a murky Kok River, a tributary of the much wider Mekong River.

While mosquitos feasted on us, we sat on a trashed flood control concrete and indulged in street food bounty.

Private moments like this, which may sound boring for others, are the most priced and precious for us. Our Thailand trip, in retrospect, was not the pursuit of the extraordinary and the unfamiliar, rather we retreated to the most ordinary of things, to solemn walks and rides.

“We spoiled tourists changed their ways.”

Chiang Rai is known for Wat Rong Khun—more known as White Temple for the farangs. Despite drawing inspiration from Buddhism, the sacredness and spirituality found in equally crowded religious sites in the country could not be felt in this white structure. It was a place of confusing excesses. It was too kitschy for my own taste. The holy ubosot, the prayer room, was as odd as it was telling. Spiderman, Doraemon, Michael Jackson, oil, and many others I could not name and did not know made it to the supposedly sacred walls of the ubosot.

How to make heads or tails of the sacred? Hollywood is as worshipped as the intangible supreme being? The walls inside where a wax monk sat in solemnity in the middle made me feel like that. What was running in Chalermchai Kositpipat’s head when he created this place, which he open for everyone for free? Opened in 1997, too young for a landmark yet Wat Rong Khun has singlehandedly become the image of Chiang Rai.

But we refused to accept such singularity.

So we found ourselves asking vendors selling bamboo shoots the way to Doi Chaang, the biggest source of Thailand’s coffee. Our conversations, or attempts of having one, were reduced to pointing directions. Left. Right. Straight ahead. Terimah kasih.

The farther we traveled away from Bangkok, the harder it was to communicate; yet the kinder and more genuine the interactions were.

Traveling, at times, is a land of counterfeit friendship and kindness; yet traveling to places we have never been to, places that are in-between popular destinations remain true to themselves. If there is one thing that I wish would not be spoiled is the place’s genuineness, be it favorable or not to travelers.

Novices seen in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Novices seen in Chiang Mai, Thailand

On our way up to Doi Chaang, we stopped at random destinations we found beautiful. A lake. Rolling hills that any moment would utter a word of, for silence. Cornfields. And yes, coffee farms.

While motorbiking around a local community, we spotted an old woman still wearing Akha’s headdress, and another one wore a pha zin. There were no tourists around except us, and I assume these two women, seen in two different instances, wore their tribe because they simply did. Not because they represent a coffee company.

Traveling, at times, is a land of counterfeit friendship and kindness; yet traveling to places we have never been to, places that are in-between popular destinations remain true to themselves. If there is one thing that I wish would not be spoiled is the place’s genuineness, be it favorable or not to travelers.

Not because there were tourists around that would take their photos for a few loose change. Like what happened to the long-necked women in other northern parts of Thailand.

“It was like a human zoo,” said a European woman in her 50s who bought an elephant from a local in the Karens Elephants Tour of Ruammit Village, the place we found instead of a waterfall.

She was talking about a Kayan tribe somewhere in northern Thailand, where tourists paid a visit for a photo of, a photo with long-necked women. The people running the guesthouse we bunked for three nights warned us about it as well.

But who and what caused these tragedies, if they can be called such?

Before I left them to take photos of the elephants, I heard her talking to T about the Westerns’ introduction of coffee culture in Thailand.

With a self-deprecating tone, she said, “We spoiled tourists changed their ways.”

Our eight nights in Thailand provided us a glimpse of what tourism can and cannot do. And as a traveler, I ask myself, which side am I? Am I part of the problem? Or the solution?

If I intentionally become one of those spoiled travelers, what else can I do but utter sorry to myself and promise myself to be more conscious of my acts when traveling.

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Jona | Backpacking with a Book

Hi, I'm Jona! I write stories and poetry and take a lot of photos, which I'm too lazy to upload. If you want to receive some photos that I don't share here on the blog, please leave your email here. I'm crazy about cats too. Feel free to browse through BWAB, and I would love it if you say hi! For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at backpackingwithabook@gmail.com For more stories about BWAB, check here. Connect with us through

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29 Comments

  1. verushka says:

    Fantastic read. Makes you think what type of Tourist we actually are. I prefer doing the non touristy stuff and see life through the eyes of a local.

    • Seeing things from the eyes of a local is also tricky, Verushka. Some locals are learned on what the tourists want to hear. And what kind of locals are we talking here? Their point of view varies, depending on their economic status in the society. Except for these concerns, it is refreshing to hear locals saying a thing or two about their own place.

  2. Jen Morrow says:

    Good article, I like the slow travel approach, too. However, I think there is a balance of being a tourist that can afford things, and a tourist that demands change that is negative to the local environment.

  3. Ami says:

    There are quite a few deep insights into what you say. Thought provoking post and a well written one too. Am now in an introspection mode. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Sona Sethi says:

    Slow travel can be real fun too! I am yet to experience that kind of travel. The only slow travels I have done is to remote beaches where there is absolutely nothing to do.

  5. Indrani says:

    We need to check ourselves on this… reckless tourism can only cause harm. Very well written and thought provoking.
    While supporting locals livelihood we must take care not harm nature.

  6. Elena says:

    You have amazing writing skills! The read was very enjoyable. Thanks for sharing!

    Elena | http://www.inspiredtoexplore.com

  7. Paola says:

    I often ask myself, especially in those countries, if it’s fair to tour around and be spoiled . In some case, anyhow, we are giving the possibulity to local people to work with tourists and gain money. What I don’t accept is the mistreatement of animals.

  8. Gabi says:

    “Our Thailand trip, in retrospect, was not the pursuit of the extraordinary and the unfamiliar, rather we retreated to the most ordinary of things, to solemn walks and rides” This should be the anthem of travellers, this little phrase is the essence of travel as I see it. I love your writing style, this article is terribly beautiful and never fails to convey the genuine images of the place. I enjoyed it big time.

  9. Alberto C. says:

    Very good article, and you’re so right in all you say. When I travel I want to think of myself as a traveller rather than a tourist; it’s sad to see what reckless tourism can do sometimes, in spite of all the benefits it can bring as well.

  10. Janine Good says:

    Great piece and different perspective to tourism. Slowing down can provide more of an outlook on a destination and I wish my time in Thailand could have been as reflective as this.

  11. Responsible tourism has become the need of the hour. And somehow all of us need to follow it religiously everywhere. A very thoughtful post 🙂

  12. Joanna says:

    In some ways, tourism has brought a lot of good to communities. I have visited Cuba last year and that is the perfect example of how tourism made people’s lives better. Because of tourism they can earn extra money by renting their rooms and they can hope for a better future. Sure, the state still takes about 80% of those money, but with what they remain they can still have a better life that before. The difference is that they work for it, they don’t pose for photos.

  13. I’m very sorry that tourists would pay money to see the long-necked women. I consider that to be treating a human being like a circus act. I don’t think there’s any way to be 100% sure I am not behaving like a spoiled tourist. I just try to be kind to everyone I meet and do the best I can.

  14. Blair Villanueva says:

    It’s been a while since I went to very rural places, but when I do, I like blending in with the locals and learn their ways. I try myself now to be a tourist in rural areas. At least in this way, it minimizes the gap.

  15. Christina says:

    A very interesting article that is causing me to pause and think about the type of activities I participate in while traveling. It is definitely important to do your research beforehand and make sure you are doing your part to be a responsible tourist. Hopefully, posts like these will be a lot of people thinking and reconsidering how they conduct themselves while traveling.

  16. enjoyed reading your piece a lot. This is a beautiful place and your photographs capture it very well. 🙂

  17. Photos of people are the real storytellers, but I also have a very difficult time bringing myself to take unsolicited photos of a random person. Too bad for us all. I keep imaging that I should get a telescopic lens, but I just haven’t gotten there yet.

  18. Samantha says:

    I think that tourist has changed people’s ways in many countries. For example, when I lived in South Korea, it is not necessary to tip but some places expect you to just because tourist have done that so often. I think you should only have to tip if the service is good, sometimes the service is not good and I don’t want to tip at all.

  19. Carmy says:

    That’s a thought that will be with me today. Do we tourist change things for the worse?

  20. Pier says:

    This was a really unique perspective on traveling, and the title definitely caught my eye! Being a traveler and tourist definitely changes our perspective, thank you for touching on that. This article actually had me stop and think!

  21. Inka says:

    I think you have the right idea, to us not from Asia a Rice field is like a Magical Haven, where as to them a pine forest would be the same thing. I guess when we travel, we have to find a balance of being considerate and fitting in rather than standing out. There are a lot of Tourists with there big ass Cameras strapped around their neck with the newest outdoor clothing. These are the types we as Backpackers get compared to. However even though the locals complain that the tourists have changed them sure, but is that not everywhere, we adapt to welcome other nations. I think it is all a way of compromise not showing of your wealth and typing to just be there.

  22. Lala says:

    Great to read your perspective on tourism. It’s great that you acknowledge you haven’t experienced the places entirety but you certainly have seen more than a regular tourist. I like to think of myself as a traveller rather than a tourist.

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