I find it odd to write about this. Who am I to say that these are the characters that make a good traveler? After all, I am a flawed traveler myself, who bend rules once in a while—not wearing shoes when advised to wear one, for example. But with the boom of mass tourism, I feel that there is a need to remind ourselves that indeed there are responsibilities tied in the label “tourist,” “traveler,” “backpacker,” and what-have-you.
What separates a responsible traveler from an irresponsible one? There are many factors to consider, but I think the following are the fundamental qualities of a good traveler, especially in Southeast Asia.
Recently, I revisited places where I started my years-long affairs with places. Sadly, they are not as beautiful, as clean as before. They are marred by trashes. And I know, most of these garbage come from my fellow Filipinos, who do not have basic travel etiquette at all, whose main reason of traveling is to take selfies and brag on Facebook and Instagram that they have done this and done that, that they have partied like crazy at Bantayan Island; that they have camped in Sirao Peak; that they have visited the famed Kalanggaman Island—because doing these make them the coolest humans on Earth. Excuse me, leaving their trash makes them despicable. Foreign travelers are not excepted as well, those who travel to get drunk and stay drunk and leave the empty bottles wherever they want.
During my revisits in Kawasan-Kanlaob river system in Alegria and Badin (Cebu) and Kabang Falls in Budlaan (Cebu City), I have noticed quite a number of vandals on the rocks. Aren’t photos enough to tell the world that they have been to these places? Is there still a need to immortalize their names on beautiful boulders? Doing so does not make them an immortal, it makes them look stupid.
There is the tourist rate and the local rate here in the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia. Even in my own country, I often get the tourist rate. A local pays P15.00 while the tourist pays P100.00 for a ten-minute motorbike ride. I do understand that there are standard rates imposed by the government. For example, there is no way you can haggle the entrance fee in Borobudur Temple (Yogyakarta, Indonesia) or the museum’s entrance fees. It is unethical to haggle the produce of small-time vendors in farmers’ markets as well. But I haggle on accommodation and transportation. Why?
I haggle to break the misconception that all travelers are rich. I haggle to let the locals know that I am on a budget. I haggle to let the locals know that I want to be seen as a fellow Filipino, not a money-generating machine. I haggle in Southeast Asia to let other locals know that my peso’s value is way lower than the US dollar’s.
I have encountered travelers who start their day drunk and end it drunk. They camp on beaches with loud music on, shout like they own the place, and get wasted all day long. I could not understand this behavior. If they want to get wasted, doing it at home is safer and more convenient. But it seems like they need an audience of their wild and unwanted state.
Sadly, there are places now considered as party islands: Bali (Indonesia), Gili Trawangan (Lombok, Indonesia), Boracay (Philippines), and Koh Pangan (Thailand). Well, the thing is this type of traveler is not my kind of humans. They are way too self-absorbed and cocky.
My affairs with places started in mountain climbing. And I have noticed some brag about their branded shoes, their North Face, their Pantagonia, their outdoor equipment yet slugged through the trail. No amount of expensive gear can make you faster. Every time I am tempted to buy expensive stuff, I always think of the local guides, of the farmers we pass by along the trail—these people who walk for hours because they have to, not because they want to.
Do not get me wrong, I am not dissuading anyone from buying high-quality products. Right now, I am willing to shell out some thousands for a good pair of trekking shoes and a durable backpack. What I am trying to say, that we dress to impress ourselves, not others.
I am an avid ukay-ukay girl, a thrift shop shopper, who finds joy in used and inexpensive #ootds. And anyone can actually look great without the expensive tags.
Anywhere in Asia, travelers are advised to wear suitable clothes upon entering sacred places like temples and churches. But some travelers, mostly westerners, do not really understand this religious culture. Outside the mosque in Gili Trawangan (Lombok, Indonesia), there is a sign “Please do not wear bikini in front of the mosque.” But still there are other travelers who walk around or bike around in their little bikini. I am a self-proclaimed pagan but may be I’m self-righteous for saying that it is pure common sense to respect cultural values like wearing appropriate clothes in sacred places.
I do not understand people who travel with earphones always plugged in their ears. The beauty of traveling lies in the employment of the senses. It is as much as about the sight as it is about the sound, the taste, the touch, and the smell. So once in a while, especially if you are not in a long winding bus ride, let your ears capture the different sounds surrounding you. Let your ears enjoy the feast of sounds. Let them stay unplugged.
This is a reminder to my fellow travelers, mostly millennials. Traveling is not about going to popular places, take endless selfies and photos, and upload them on Facebook or IG, and track all the likes you get. I have met some people who act like this, who travel to take photos of themselves so they can brag about them online, who does not really enjoy the place because most of the time, they are scrolling down the screen of their phones. Everytime I find myself doing this, I turn my phone off and just people-watch or contemplate.
I have been contemplating on traveling without a phone as well. But it is freaking hard especially when work requires me to be online most of the time! Haha!
I have met someone who has been to all United Nation countries—that is a good number of 193 countries. But this person is one of the humblest I have encountered in my life, unlike those who have been to twenty countries, who barely take time to understand the nuances of the places they visit yet brag that they have been traveling around the world for two or three years running. There are travelers too who think highly of themselves after ticking off some popular places in the country.
Nothing delights a local more than hearing their language from a foreigner’s mouth. Take time to learn some basics like the equivalent of thank you in a local language: terima kasih (Indonesia and Malaysia), Salamat (Philippines), Khob Khun Na Krup (Thailand), Khàwp ja̖i (Laos), Cảm ơn bạn (Vietnam). One thing that all budget travelers must learn is the local equivalent of “hi,” “I have no money” and “how much”to discourage touts from targeting you
It is important to be very discerning when you are traveling in an unfamiliar land. I have been scammed more than once. And the feeling is not something worth bragging for. So one technique I have learned over the years is to ask at least three people about the price of the same thing before buying anything. Ask about cultures and customs as well to avoid disrespecting the locals.
I have noticed that new travelers nowadays are crazy about itineraries. Itineraries work best for mountaineers because they have to calculate the ETAs and ETDs, especially if it is a major climb. But for the usual beach trips and the like, there is no need to be overly gaga about Google map and itineraries. Instead of forever looking at your phone, enjoy the moment, and welcome the unexpected.
We travel for different reasons, but I hope that we do not forget that we travel not because it is cool or trendy but because we want to know ourselves more, that we want to know and understand, or at least try to understand, the complex worlds around us.