Are tourists ruining Venice?

Asking the question are tourists ruining Venice?

In front of me, a sea of people spans in all directions, even as the gray clouds above us threaten to burst.

Deep in the heart of San Marco Square, and what I deem the heart of the touristic center of the main island which makes up the step-back-in-time Venice, the tourists are unavoidable. In fact, here they are more in my face than any other place I have visited (and I am counting the mass of people gaping at Mona Lisa at the Louvre). It is shoulder-to-shoulder packed and puts me into the throes of those tense, pre-anxiety attack moments where all I want to do is throw elbows and make my way from where my packed water taxi has deposited myself along with the other throngs of tourists, through the massive square, and down into the veins of the town where my hotel is.

But, I can’t.

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Responsible tourism twitter chat: what you need to know

“Responsible tourism” isn’t just the latest catch phrase in the travel universe. These two words are slowly changing the way people travel. With more attention being placed on the environment, people and animals, a shift is beginning to be made towards a more responsible, more ethical way to see the world.

Lucky elephant

Lucky, a blind elephant rescued from the circus in Thailand, takes her first steps toward freedom at Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for pachyderms outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand

Recently, both STA and Intrepid announced they would no longer offer elephant rides as a part of their tour packages — a major coup for people like me whose goal is to help protect these majestic creatures, but also to educate people on the truth about elephant (and other animals) involved in tourism. But, responsible tourism stretches far beyond just elephants. It is everywhere, and now, each week, there will be a chat on Twitter to help educate others regarding how to be more responsible, but also to share their stories and more.

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Tourists behaving badly: how to be PC in Thailand

Tourists behaving badly. It happens everywhere. I’m sure you’ve seen it: drunken bar fights with locals over a bill. Tagging an historic landmark. Taking smiling group photos in places which are disrespectful (like Auschwitz).

Living as an expat in Thailand, I am treated to this display of very non PC behavior/stuff to make Thais blush daily. It ranges from the minor no-nos (like ladies not covering your shoulders/knees at a temple) to the obscene (like men not taking “no” for an answer at a bar with bar girls). It really bothers me because a) visitors either don’t bother to read up on etiquette before visiting this amazing country and opt for a “head in the sand” or possess the “what works in my home country surely works here” assumption; or b) they know better but choose to disregard cultural norms, simply justifying their holiday as their holiday, which allows them to act however they deem fit (or unfit).

For those planning a trip to Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, here are some important things to keep in mind:

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The “Get F*cked Up Lifestyle” of a traveler: more harm than good?

I’m no angel. Hell, I don’t even come close. I’ve done my fair share of partying all over the world. But, today I saw the new Matador book that was released “101 Places to Get F*cked Up Before You Die” and it made me think about the stereotypes of backpackers and travelers.

I’ve written for Matador. I have friends who have been editors there. I love the site and most of the articles, but the idea behind this book struck a chord with me.

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Beer.

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“101 Places to Get F*cked Up Before You Die is the only travel guide that could possibly help adventure seekers and world-trekking party-goers take their experience to a whole new high (or low). So, raise a glass, hop a flight, and join 101 Places’ professional party-crashers as they breach security, ride ill-recommended ferries, and hike miles into the wilderness all in search of the best parties in the world.”

Encouraging breaching security? Putting lives in jeopardy? Hiking into the wilderness to a party (which makes me think of all of the environmental damage something like that does)?

What kind of message is being sent to travelers? What kind of message is being sent to locals who often welcome visitors with open arms?

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#sunset over Koh Samui.

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As I have grown and traveled, I have seen a lot of things. Beautiful things. Gorgeous places. And then, there is the dirty, sleazy side of travel.

Drunken fights. Sloppy hookups. Pissed pants. Vomit-covered shirts. ODs. Obnoxious, arrogant behavior that is disrespectful to the places being visited.

Living in Chiang Mai, I am witness to grotesque displays of partying. Partying that would humiliate the people guilty … if they could remember it. I’ve seen bottle breaks, abuse, falling-over-drunk people who think nothing of it. Let me say this: it gives the entire lot of backpackers a horrific stereotype. It furthers the idea that we are only interested in getting wasted. That we all are irresponsible. And, that really bothers me.

During my long-term travels, I cannot count how many times I was ashamed to be associated with other people who had no idea what was considerate, no idea what was appropriate. People who were all-out dicks.

I have not read the book, so I cannot comment on its innards, and I am sure the writing is spectacular, but the title alone suggests to me that the sole idea of traveling to far off places isn’t to see but to be so drunk, so drugged, that the days are spent laying in bed with an all-mighty hangover.

Like I stated, I’m no angel. I’ve done St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland. I’ve explored the nightlife in Budapest. I’ve hung in the coffee shops in Amsterdam. But, my goal in visiting these places wasn’t to get crunked, it was because I wanted to experience the cities. Sure, some of that comes with a party … but not all of it. I don’t encourage people to go and explore the world with the goal of partying their asses off.

Yes, I encourage living. Yes, I encourage experiencing. But, I don’t cheer people on to drop that tab of acid at a Full Moon Party or drink the “exotic” cocktails on Koh Phi Phi (where, coincidentally, two girls were getting f*cked up and later died because of it). I don’t condone being so intoxicated you wake up on a street somewhere, stripped of your belongings, because, hey, if you are that hammered, there is always a chance of that.

Don’t get me wrong — I am not slamming Matador — but it makes me wonder: does a book like this perpetuate the idea that backpackers are irresponsible travelers? Partiers who take in a city based on shots and nightlife instead of visiting a place for all of the other things it has to offer? Does it do more harm than good to suggest that the way to see a place is through beer goggles?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please, weigh in below.

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My To Do list

What’s in a bucket list? Or, on a bucket list?

I mean … I’ve never really had a bucket list. I’ve tried to have one, but the amount of experiences in this world I would love to have cannot be contained on one clear, succinct little list.

Instead, they flutter about the crevices of my mind, occasionally popping into my consciousness when an event, a person, a word, sparks them. For instance, I see someone’s post on Facebook about what they have just done, and BAM, I remember that is on my list.

I also don’t really have a list because right now, I don’t travel too much. I focus on my work with Lek and the elephants, so there is little time for me to daydream about skinny dipping in the Maldives or camping in the middle of no where and looking up at the Milkyway in front of a fire on a crisp fall night in the desert.

Sure, I say things in passing, mostly to the extent of “Oh, man. That [fill in the blank] would be SO cool to do. I need to remember that.” Then, I promptly forget what that activity is.

So, when push comes to shove, no. I don’t really have a bucket list in the sense of something I am ticking off per great adventure. But, I do have things in my life I would love to experience.

What are they?

The Northern Lights

Northern Lights in Sweden

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons: Image Editor.

I think this one time, I might have actually seen the infamous wonder, but it was on an airplane coming home from Alaska. My eyes could have been playing tricks on me, but I swear, for a minute there, I thought I saw some dancing green and blue from out my little window.

Since, clearly, that was not enough to satiate my desire, I want to go back to Sweden and see the magical lights way up north. In doing some research, I think the best place to go would be Abisko National Park.

Antarctica

Because, why not? I’ve seen the pictures. I’ve seethed with polite jealousy at others’ trips down there, and the penguin and ice cap and serene, empty beauty. I. Want. It.

Mongol Rally

Oh, Mongol Rally. This little experience has tempted me for years. A car. A few people. And a trip from Europe to Mongolia to raise money for a charity. I mean, I can’t change a tire, but I know people who can. And, seeing all of that immense beauty of the world and culture? Come on. I have to do this. One day.

Cuba

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons: Jodastephen

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons: Jodastephen

Forget that Beyonce and her ostrich-elephant-python-every-other-endangered-animals-grossness-sneakers and Jay-Z just were there. There is something so incredibly romantic about the little country south of Florida. And, I want to experience it for myself. Before Americans are technically allowed in and, in my opinion, it loses its exotic luster.

Varnasi, India

Varnasi

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons: nicocrisafulli

Two of my good friends, Mindful Wanderlust’s Cody and Giselle, went here on their recent travels before coming to Elephant Nature Park. India was never really on my list as one of the places that captivated me. I always thought of it as super crowded (and we all know I freak in crowds) and a country where the runs are about as normal as breathing.

Then, I learned about Varnasi and my entire opinion changed. I’d go to India just to visit here. Of course, once I arrived, I’d probably take a month or so and gallivant around the rest of the country (which everyone I know loves … so thinking I will end up loving it, too).

Why Varnasi?

To take from Wikipedia, this statement alone fascinates me:

“The city has been a cultural center of North India for several thousand years, and has a history that is older than most of the major world religions.”

The spiritual center of India sounds like a place I need to experience.

Camino de Santiago

I don’t really like climbing hills or anything, but the pilgrimage in Spain — the Camino de Santiago — isn’t only a challenge but an incredible way to see the more untouched beauty the country has to offer.

I have a few friends who have done it, namely Daniel from Canvas of Light, and his stories alone about the hiking, the camraderie, are enough to get me to push myself to do the month-or-so long trek.

Camp outside of Area 51

Living in Las Vegas as long as I did, I never made it near Area 51. And, I would have really liked to do so. Sure, there were loose plans discussed, but nothing ever came of any of it.

I love the desert, I love camping and being able to combine the two in a moderately eerie spot … yeah, perfect. Oh, and it has to be a crystal clear night so I can see all those beautiful stars.

Give Paris another chance

Paris

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons: agaw.dilim

I went to Paris in 2002 and was underwhelmed, to say the least. I was 22, missing my boyfriend, at the end of my trip, and just wanted to go home. Instead of embracing Paris, I simply went through the motions. I rushed through school groups at the Louvre to see Mona Lisa. I took the metro to Moulin Rouge and took a photo outside. I didn’t even drink good wine or eat cheese because I think back then I was a) unappreciative of wine, and b) not a cheese snob — I hated cheese except on pizza. So, returning to Paris at 33 (or older) seems like something I need to do. I’d also like to explore the entire country since I didn’t get to do so on my last big visit to Europe.

Meditation Retreat at Doi Suthep

My friend, Lindsay, did a 10-day version of this recently and fell in love with it. I have this huge problem where I cannot get my mind to shut up, even when I really want it to. She learned how to meditate and got more connected to herself. And, I’d like to do the same. Ten days with no internet, only eating from 6 a.m. to noon, learning more about Buddhism and speaking with monks sounds like something that could really benefit me. 

Have meaningful experiences

So, this isn’t really a “place” or anything, but it is truly what I want from every moment of my life: meaningful experiences. Connections. And, mindful. When I first came to Thailand, I wanted to ride an elephant. Of course, I quickly learned how horrible that is for them, and instead now work to educate others on what they go through in the name of tourism. But, I also learned how my tiny little decisions can cause a ripple in the world. I want to do things in my life that are responsible, meaningful, and above all, kind.

My top 10 bucket list post is a part of Save Elephant Foundation’s blog carnival to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Elephant Nature Park. Elephant Nature Park is celebrating 10 years of success protecting the Asian elephant, educating tourists and tour operators alike that there is another way for us to interact with these wonderful animals. Please take a moment to visit their website, visit their Facebook, and connect with them on Twitter.

 

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The truth about child labor in Cambodia

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from travel writer Kristin Addis. 

The piping hot day in Siem Reap, Cambodia, becomes ever more noticeable as the wind stops grazing the skin and the tuk-tuk comes to a halt outside of the gates of the extraordinary ruins of Angkor Wat.  Perhaps you’ve waited your whole life to see these ruins – – I know I certainly had.

Monkeys run across the path in front of the tourists on foot.  A captive elephant carries passengers upon his back through the forests surrounding the temple.  Hoards of tourists flash their cameras at centuries-old rocks.  It is exactly how you had imagined it would be.

That is, until entering the grounds, when a tiny, bronzed hand tugs at yours.

“Miss!” the young girl chides in near-perfect English, “Beautiful post-cards! One dollah, one dollah!”

Another child, this time a boy who appears to be no older than six-years-old, runs up and asks which country you’re from, because he’s collecting coins, and, gee, he would really like to have one from each country.  Could you spare some money, perhaps?

Photo courtesy Sailing “Footprints: Real to Reel” (Ronn ashore) via Flickr Creative Commons

I encountered this scene often as I traveled throughout Cambodia.

On the beaches of the south, children had memorized popular American songs as a way to get our attention and start a dialogue with the aim of selling bracelets.  In the capitol city of Phnom Penh, children hawked everything from guidebooks to drugs.

These images were heartbreaking every time.  As a tourist who can afford to spare a dollar or two, it seems heartless to deny a child this small gift.  So, many tourists buy from them, if only to support them slightly, and to feel a bit less guilty.

Some tourists resist at first, or ask questions to justify the donation.  These children easily produce a laundry list of reasons why they are selling goods and/or begging:

I have to work to help my family, my parents have no jobs.

I am working so that I can pay for school!

Look at your hairy legs! Like a monkey! I’ll thread them for you! Here, I’ll show you, let me try.

Please help me. You have money, you can help me!

Photo courtesy of sebr via Flickr Creative Commons License

The reality is, these children are not going to school.  Their parents may be sitting only a few meters away, ushering their children forward because tourists find it harder to say “no” to children vs. adults.  The children know that if they mess with you, joke with you, and warm up to you, they may just make a sale.

Of course you have a dollar to spare, and you may feel better momentarily for what appears to be the alleviation of poverty.

Regardless, the bottom line is, giving to young workers and beggars directly supports, perpetuates, and encourages child labor.

Even worse, these children are often pawns of larger organizations that traffic children, expose them to drugs, impose exceedingly long hours, and take the majority of the earnings.

As tough and hopeless as the situation may appear, the hope for a brighter future lies in schooling.  Giving to child workers only supports the easy way out – sending children to work so that they can earn now, rather than giving them the opportunity to learn now and earn more in the future.

This shouldn’t prevent us from giving altogether, however.  There are ways to make sure that your money and good intentions go into the right hands.

How you can help put an end to child labor in Cambodia

–       Donate time or money to local organizations that support child education and the betterment of local lives

–       Buy from street vendors who are of age, and tip where it makes sense to – this supports work from those of a proper age and puts money directly into the local economy

–       Check before you donate.  Websites like Concert Cambodia help to keep local organizations accountable

*Cover photo courtesy of Sailing “Footprints: Real to Reel” (Ronn ashore) via Flickr Creative Commons

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Fact vs. Fiction: the Thailand Sex Industry

 

Editor’s Note: After my post What not to do in Chiang Mai drew some comments from my readers regarding my stance on sex tourism in the region (or lack thereof), I decided I wanted someone who knows more about the subject to weigh in on the topic. As someone who is heavily involved in responsible tourism, it is incredibly important for me that my readers are educated and then allowed to make their own decisions in regards to what they choose to support or skip while traveling. While I do not condone the Thailand sex industry, I do want my readers to know what really happens in this area in regards to working girls. Human trafficking, child slavery, drug addictions all do exist in the world of sex in parts of SE Asia, particularly those whose people live in extreme poverty. BUT, according to in-depth research, these problems are not occurring in Chiang Mai. This post is written by Alex Martin, someone who has spent a lot of time investigating the Thailand sex industry and sex tourism. 

What’s the deal with Thailand’s sex industry?

Thailand sex industry

Photo courtesy scatterwadatai via Flickr Creative Commons

The sex industry in Thailand is a vast and complex organism — something that cannot be defined in concrete terms. Also, the concept of ‘pay-to-play’ relations in regards to morality is subjective to the individual and their social and cultural background. For the purpose of this — a post examining the ins and outs of the sex industry (and a topic that is nearly impossible to fit into one concise piece) it is more prudent and beneficial to give a holistic description of Thailand’s industry so people can make their own decision.

I will keep my opinion until the end and ask you to set aside any pre-conceived notions of what you think sex should be about.

I sometimes work as a guide and translator for an educational tour company and almost always get at least one student who is studying women’s rights in Asia. It’s been my assignment on more than one occasion to bring a student to different venues and interview women working there. Most of the information I am using for this article comes directly from interviews I have conducted on these trips.

We all know that prostitution is an ancient profession, but that doesn’t make it anachronistic in the least. In Thailand, it’s a huge industry with many faces. It has ‘lady bars’, special massage parlors, brothels, go-go bars, and many other venues that travelers and locals frequent. There are even whole streets dedicated to different forms of ‘pay for sex’ places. Since this article is for tourists, I’ll keep the information narrowed down to places they usually frequent.

But first, ping pong shows

The most famous form of prostitution in Thailand is the ping pong show, which is exactly what it sounds like. Interestingly enough, when I’ve been asked to bring a person there, nine out of 10 times it has been by a woman, while the men in the group are very uncomfortable. I personally refuse to even talk about where it is possible to see one of these shows.

Ping pong shows are notorious for getting women addicted to ya ba, which is a methamphetamine that directly translates into “crazy drug,” as a way to keep them working. For many people, this show has become a popular tourist attraction that many people say is one of those things they just have to see once. The thing is, with millions of tourists coming to Thailand ‘just once’ every year, it keeps the demand up and the horrid-ness and exploitation continues.

There is no choice for women who work these shows and men (and women) aren’t going there for any sort of connection. Most people look at it and go for a joke or shock value, making it some sort of sick luxury. Many people don’t understand the implications of what they contribute to. This is not a ‘must see’ attraction in Thailand.

Sex and the women behind it

Thailand sex industry

Photo courtesy of Jessica Rabbit via Flickr Creative Commons.

Now that ping pong shows are out of the way, let’s look at the women who work at the other venues (bars, massage parlors, etc.). The places I was able to conduct interviews at were go-go bars and ‘lady bars’. The first thing I gathered from speaking with many of them is that they are women first and sex workers second. Upon meeting them, most of them wanted to talk about their family, hobbies, and other normal conversation that you would have with any person you met for the first time. These interactions happened in Chiang Mai and most of the girls working were from other provinces. They had come to Chiang Mai of their own volition, usually telling their family they had found a job that wasn’t what they were actually doing, to be able to make money to send back to them. Many times, women said that they had a child whose father wasn’t supporting in any way. In Thailand, child support is almost non-existent and there are not many ways to legally get a father to financially contribute to the life of his child.

Financially, working in the sex industry is almost logical to a person who is desperate to support their family. There aren’t many government aid programs for people with money problems and a person who works as a farmer or in a factory can make as little as 300 baht a day (the minimum wage was just raised). The working conditions aren’t comfortable. There is no nine to five or overtime. In the sex industry, women can make more money without even sleeping with men.

The concept of pay-to-play

At lady and go go bars, women aren’t forced to sleep with men. It is their job to entertain them while they are drinking and get them to buy them drinks, which cost significantly more than a regular cocktail or beer. For each drink a man buys them, the woman makes a commission. If a man likes the woman (and the woman likes the man), he can pay a bar fine to let her leave work early. This does not promise sex. If a woman chooses to sleep with a man, it’s her decision if she wants to charge him and how much. Many women choose to give men their phone numbers and meet after work so they don’t have to pay the bar fine. The reason? These women are looking for more than cash for having sex one time. They are looking for somebody to take care of them as they have learned that society won’t. Obviously, there are people who are just looking to make as much money as they can by sleeping with men.

Regardless, they have the choice to do it.

The men who pay

Many people look at the men who frequent these types of places and label them as ‘old creepy perverts’ or sexpats. Upon asking different women their opinions of the men who frequented lady bars, they usually said the men were often polite and gentle. Interestingly enough, they said the younger men were often more problematic as they wanted to pay for women just so they “could do things that their girlfriends wouldn’t let them do.”

Upon talking to men who spend time at lady bars, I’ve noticed that many of them are widows or divorced. For how much they talk about it, one can only guess that they are still hurting. Losing a loved one is difficult and sometimes leaves a person feeling like they can’t ever love again. Many men who go to these places are looking for some sort of connection that isn’t as intense so they can’t get hurt again. Many marry girls from these bars because they want companionship that feels simpler than what they previously went through romantically. At the end of the day, as unorthodox as it is to many western standards, the relationship between men and bar girls is consensual and mutually beneficial.

To sex or not to sex?

Sex tourism Thailand

Photo courtesy Nicolai Bangsgaard via Flickr Creative Commons

I urge people to empathize —  instead of judge —  both the men and women who are working or patrons of these types of venues. There are things I can confidently say a person should not take part in while traveling to Thailand like the Tiger Temple, Full Moon Party, or almost any elephant camp that isn’t Elephant Nature Park.

My personal opinion is this: in regards to lady bars I can only say it isn’t something I’m interested in doing. I think the real problem isn’t this form of sex-as-profit, but a society that makes it almost necessary for the industry to exist as a whole.  For me, I find it more disturbing that there aren’t any government programs to help single mothers who have to pay for their children’s food, clothing, and education as only the worst schools in Thailand are free. Students are expected to buy their own books, uniforms, and lunches regardless.  Outside of Bangkok, there is nearly no government funding to public schools.

I also urge every person who travels to Thailand to have a look around in one of these bars. Talk to the women and buy them a drink. Learn about their lives and tell their story. Don’t treat them like they are anything less than a person who is trying to make a living and take care of themselves and their families.

 

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