How Should We Travel?

How Should We Travel?

A few weeks ago we were blessed with three days off and a nice five-day weekend in which to celebrate New Years so we decided to jet to Chiang Mai for the holiday. The main city in the north of Thailand, Chiang Mai is a traveler’s paradise complete with jungle excursions, mountain adventures, elephant rides, tiger hugging, and an international atmosphere.. It also comes with all the comforts of home if that’s what you want when you’re traveling. When you’ve been living in Thailand for over three months though, I think it’s justified to crave western food and the comfort of English speakers. So I happily ate my weight in pancakes, pizza, yogurt, and endless amounts of juices and walked the streets in the silent comfort of not being stared at all the time. Travelers usually stick to the center of town so we rented motorbikes and explored the outskirts of Chiang Mai finding hidden temples and chasing the elusive mountains and never quite reaching them. We did accidentally enter an army base, though, but that’s a story for another time.

As a traveler’s paradise, Chiang Mai is full of people from all over the world, mostly backpackers, and after spending three months in “real Thailand” where there are virtually no westerners I couldn’t help but hate myself for being a “tourist” there.

There was one experience in particular that prompted some thinking on my part. We took a songthaew (like a mini, open-air bus) up a steep, winding road halfway up the mountain to a temple called Wat Prathet Doi Suthep, which overlooks the city. Now I’ve been in insanely touristy places before: Times Square, the Louvre, Big Ben and they’re all crowded and packed with people but this temple was another story.

Swarms of people were walking up hundreds of stairs to get to the temple holding their cameras protectively around their necks, careful not to bump them against bodies and small Thai women in hill tribe dress sold colorful jewelry at every turn. When we got to the top, the temple was beautiful of course, but it was easy to distract from once you noticed the piles and piles of shoes scattered around. It’s customary to remove your shoes before entering a temple and for this reason they have shoe lockers for rental in case you don’t want to risk them being stolen or ruined by the crowds. I’ve always had an unnaturally large trust in people and I really didn’t care about losing my $10 Target flats anyway so I decided to add them to the pile, wondering if I would see them again.

I walked around the temple trying to focus on the immaculate beauty of the buildings around me and the ornate, intricate detail of it all, the unapologetically excessive use of golden color, the careful etching, the way the late afternoon sun landed on the top of the temple. Magic hour.

…Well it worked for a bit before I would accidentally bump into someone ahead of me, or duck to avoid being in someone’s Facebook album entitled “Southeast Asia 2014”, or narrowly miss being stepped on by some small child being touted along by their parents.

I found a place in a corner and just observed the temple. Well, I tried to observe it but found myself observing the people around me more. I was particularly dumbfounded by these three women who, armed with a selfie stick, were taking hundreds of pictures of themselves with the temple behind them yet never once turning around to actually look at the temple. I watched as they took turns taking photos of the other two. I was intrigued by their poses much like a visitor at the zoo is intrigued by monkeys picking shit off each other. It must have been 15 minutes before they stopped taking pictures and left. Never once looking at the temple itself. And I realized that in all the interest I had taken to watching the strange self stick commercial happening before me, I hadn’t either. So I sat for a while and did just that.

On our way down the mountain I listened with my eyes closed (I get car sick) to an Australian guy about my age talk to his friend about how he hates touristy places like that temple. At first I felt annoyed; yeah you hate touristy places, but you’re a tourist yourself and you chose to come here so aren’t you just perpetuating the reasons why you hate touristy places?

But then I thought about it and realized that I understood because I feel the exact same way. We travel to places and we feel like we’ve completely wasted the trip if we don’t visit the most famous attractions, the ones Lonely Planet are telling us we need to go. But the truth is, places are famous for a reason. They must be beautiful, important, historical, challenging, enlightening places otherwise people wouldn’t flock to them…right?

But then there are those off-the-beaten-path places that you discover one day and wonder why they aren’t world-renowned and one of the “1000 Places You Must See Before You Die”. You probably love it simply because it’s quiet and it’s seemingly untouched by so many visitor’s footsteps and camera flashes.

But we’re still tourists even if we visit “non-touristy” places. By definition tourist means “a person who travels to a place for pleasure”. Well, aren’t we all searching for pleasure in everything we do? When we eat, when we sleep, have sex, travel, we’re all attempting to get some sort of pleasure out of it. But unfortunately the word tourist itself has a terrible connotation and conjures up images of fat white men in Hawaiian shirts, pasty sunscreen on their noses, “I heart NY” t-shirts and disposable cameras.

Similarly the word traveler by definition means “a person who is traveling or who often travels”. So, we can deduce that a tourist is also a traveler because they’re traveling, but is a traveler not a tourist much like a rectangle not a square?

I’ve always been interested in if not confused by this tourist/traveler debacle. We all have a right to travel to places and see things we’ve always wanted to see and whether you stay in an expensive five star beach resort or a $3/night hostel, you’re not necessarily doing something right or wrong and whether someone is labeled as a tourist or a traveler is highly arbitrary.

I, for one, prefer the term traveler because it’s a catchall. When you travel you’re a traveler, it should be that simple.

But I do think that there are different types of travelers. We’re all different, so of course we’re all going to travel in different ways. Some may prefer the quick, clean, convenient act of flying while others prefer the scenic, long and thoughtful journeys brought on by train travel. Some may seek the comforts of home while away, whereas others thrive on adapting to a new places’ culture. Some may pack five bags for a weekend trip, while others need a single backpack for a three-month one. But all these different travelers have the same right to see things as the next one. I will argue that there are more ethical ways of traveling than others, ways in which we can work to benefit the local community in which we stay, boosting their economy rather than that of larger and potentially exploitive corporations. We can do activities that help to celebrate and protect the natural environment rather than those that degrade it and destroy it.

And it’s really too bad that these amazing places are seemingly “ruined” by so many people, so many cameras, so many people wanting you to buy this bracelet and that scarf. But more people are traveling now than ever before; that’s just the globalizing world we’re living in and I think we’re just going to have to adapt to that. With any hope we can preserve these places so people can enjoy them for many more years to come.

And when the crowds get too big and the noise deafening I’ve found my own personal strategy: find a place away from the crowd, sit alone and reflect. Take a few pictures but take even more mental ones. Then I just look. Look and take it all in and try to find the reason why this place is so famous. In my experience, I’ve always found it, despite all the madness.

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