How to NOT be an Obnoxious Tourist in Southeast Asia

Traveling through Southeast Asia can be a pretty fulfilling and fun experience.

But even so, there are certain do’s and dont’s you should follow so that you don’t, intentionally or unintentionally, become an obnoxious tourist.

I’ve just recently returned from a tour of Southeast Asia that spanned 6 countries over a period of over 3 months. As a solo traveler, I always check myself into backpacker hostels so that I can find some company for my travels. That, and the fact that I can’t very well afford to stay at hotels and resorts for weeks and months at a stretch. Most of my experiences have been really great, and I’ve met some amazing people along the way. However, I would sometimes come across tourists who seemed almost comically insensitive, inept, or just plain obnoxious. In fact, discussing other horrible tourists seemed almost a staple of introductory conversations in hostels.

Anyway, if you don’t wanna’ be pegged as one of “those tourists”, you should read on for some broad stroke do’s and dont’s you can observe to be a conscientious tourist in Southeast Asia. This is by no means an exhaustive list that explores the minutiae of cultural differences amongst different countries in Southeast Asia. It’s an entirely subjective list based on my personal experiences.

DONTs

DON’T Disrupt Sacred Rituals

While traveling through Laos, I happened to find myself in the capital city of Luang Prabang. Other than the waterfalls, hiking trails, and riverside cafes, the city is popular for the Alms Giving Ceremony, one of Lao’s most sacred traditions. The ceremony involves Buddhist monks lining up and walking through the city collecting alms from locals who remain kneeling on the ground. The alms may include sticky rice, sweets, fresh fruits, etc. Tourists are allowed to partake of the ceremony and offer alms. However, the role of tourists in this ceremony has become increasingly controversial.

There are some tourists who unload themselves from tourist vans and flock down upon the monks like a gaggle of geese with the relentless flashing of their cameras. Some even make a mockery of the ceremony by taking close-up pictures of the monks as they hand out alms. This is plain disrespectful and obnoxious behavior, and if you do this, I’m sorry to say this (well, not really) but you’re a BAD tourist.

In the spirit of honesty, I didn’t actually see this happen with my own eyes. I’d heard about this from other tourists, I read about it in blogposts, and I saw the street signs. So I made a moral and ethical choice to not join in. I figured even taking pictures to highlight the problem would make me culpable in it.

bad tourists southeast asia
Obnoxious tourists in Luang Prabang snapping away at the Buddhist monks. Image Source: Landlopers

DON’T “Educate” the Locals on Suffering

I had been enjoying a nice dinner in Siem Reap Pub Hostel when I happened to hear snatches of a conversation that piqued my curiosity. A Polish boy around my age was arguing with one of the hotel staff about how he wasn’t truly “hungry.” The middle-aged Cambodian man stated that Cambodia was a poor country and most people were hungry all the time. However, the Polish boy kept insisting that he wasn’t really hungry, and that it was all in his mind. I don’t know what Zen buddhist teachings he’d subscribed to, but this privileged white boy’s insistence seemed positively profane considering he was munching away on a platter of beef burgers all the while discussing how hunger was a state of mind.

Look, I get it. You’re in Southeast Asia, you’ve probably been to a few buddhist temples, taken pictures of a few buddhist monks, and now you think you’re a Zen Buddhist. Fair enough. Now make like the  monks and hush!

DON’T Punch a Street Seller

Okay this is pretty much a “don’t” for any situation. However, I’m referring to a very specific situation here. A fellow tourist I met once boasted about how he punched a guy who was aggressively trying to sell fake Rolex watches to him. This was a particularly extreme reaction, yes. However, I’ve come across several tourists who are aggressive with street sellers trying to make a living.

Cities in Southeast Asia are always lined with street shops and sellers who deal in trinkets and ornaments. Yes, they overprice them and aggressively sell them to tourists. They might even follow you, constantly prattling on about how you need that $30 Original Golden Rolex Watch. And hell YES they can be annoying, especially when you’re in a hurry to get somewhere. But before you go apeshit on them — even verbally — try and gain some context. A lot of countries in Southeast Asia are poor and sustain themselves via tourism. People are brought up to see western tourists as their only source of sustenance. Additionally, they’re constantly vying with other sellers for your attention. So yes, they might get aggressive in their marketing, but unless they’re being physically aggressive, just chill and walk away!

night market laos
Night Market in Laos.

DON’T Contribute to Animal Abuse

This is something I’ve done myself, and I sorely regret it. In Bali, I went to a place called “Turtle Island”. Naive fool that I am, I assumed this would be an island where turtles simply thronged, and that we could watch them from a safe distance. However, what I did find was a bunch of old turtles kept in dirty dilapidated tanks. Furthermore, as the tourist boats unloaded, the guides would pull them out into the sun so that parents could get their kids to pose for “cutesy” pictures. Just FYI, there’s nothing remotely “cute” about animal abuse.

Not all wildlife tours are as abusive in nature. In fact, some are even structured in such a manner so as to contribute to the welfare of the animals. Some of the elephant tours in Thailand were designed for such conscientious ecotourists. However, you need to learn to distinguish between an ethical tour and an abusive one. And unlike me, you should figure that out before you pull out your wallet.

turtle island, southeast asia
Turtles being kept in dirty dilapidated tanks in Bali.

DON’T Waltz into Temples in Short Shorts and Crop Tops

Most Southeast Asian countries are generally quite modest and don’t appreciate a lot of skin being shown. However, it’s generally okay for you to wear what you want when you’re traveling around the cities and such. But when it comes to exploring temples, dress appropriately. There are plenty of signs that expressly forbid shorts, crop tops, vests, etc, yet I still see plenty of tourists brazenly flouting all those rules.

DON’T Clog the Toilets

Most of the hotels, restaurants, and hostels you go to in Southeast Asia will come with a warning not to flush paper towels or sanitary products into the toilet. These warnings are often written in a humorous tone, however this is a very serious issue. Plumbing systems in most southeast asian countries aren’t as advanced or powerful as in the western nations. If you flush paper towels down the toilet, it’s likely that it would clog up the pipes and you’ll create a real mess for the cleaners.

southeast asia toilets
Hostels in Southeast Asia always come with similar toilet warning signs.

DOs

Check your Privilege

I was sharing a tuk-tuk in Laos with a couple of tourists when I came across another unpleasant situation. One of the girls in the tuk-tuk had to be dropped off at a hotel which was down a narrow alley. We could see in Google Maps that the hotel was literally a 3-5 minute walk down the narrow alley. So the tuk-tuk driver stopped before the alley and asked her to get off. However, she was adamant that she wanted to be dropped off exactly at the hotel, and that she’d pay half the original fare if he didn’t take her all the way. She was so insistent on this that the tuk-tuk driver gave in and tried to squeeze the vehicle down the narrow road.

What happens next? We get stuck that’s what! The lady merely shrugs, huffs in discontentment, mutters something about incompetence, and then walks away with her bags! Meanwhile, the poor tuk-tuk driver is stuck trying to get us back out. The funny thing is, this isn’t even an isolated incident, it’s just the most infuriating one.

Support Local Shops and Restaurants

Instead of going for flashy chain restaurants all the time, you should try eating out at the street side shops. This will give you a more immersive experience into the culture. Furthermore, it will ensure that your money is going to small local business owners who really need it.

Just to be clear, I don’t think you’re an obnoxious person if you eat at flashy restaurants. I do too. You’re on vacation, you wanna’ have a good time, sure, go ahead and treat yourself. I just think it would be nice to also contribute to local small-scale businesses.

street food in southeast asia
Street food in Sapa, Vietnam.

Conclusion

Well, so there you have it! These are a couple of tips for you if you’re afraid of being an obnoxious tourist. Or if you simply want to be a conscientious one.

Obnoxious Traveler in Southeast Asia

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