Visiting indigenous communities is undoubtedly a highlight of anyone’s adventures whilst travelling through the backwaters of South East Asia. The opportunity to experience authentic cultures, traditions and lifestyles of the many first nations of the region is an eye opening and sometimes life changing event. However with the push of tourism into these regions, lack of indigenous control and money hungry governments keen to take control, ethnic communities often become just objects to be photographed rather than be engaged in a sustainable approach to tourism. With help from a guide I read in Vietnam produced by the local Hmong and information from the Karen in Thailand, here is an etiquette guide for responsibly visiting an ethnic village on your next adventure.
- Drug tourism is alive and kicking, especially in northern Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Whilst some use by indigenous elders is tied with custom and tradition, the use by tourists encourage younger indigenous members to move away from traditional practices and get involved in the growing and supplying for tourism consumption. Not to mention harsh punishments if caught using, best to avoid this practice.
- Try to buy indigenous made handicrafts from the source and not fake imports. The money goes a lot further into the community to help develop education and health facilities.
- Photography. We are all guilty of taking a sneaky snap when we think people aren’t looking. When people put up an argument that “it’s okay and it does no harm”, I ask what would you do if someone came to your door and took a photo of you? Ask permission, offer to pay if need be and show the photo to your subject. Never take a photo of sacred items without permission.
- I was once in the middle of Borneo at a small primitive village. A western couple sat in the middle on the village and started kissing each others face off. There was an uproar! The village held a meeting and it was decided the guest house owner of where the couple were staying had to reprimand them for disrespect. They promptly left the next day! Public displays of affection are often taboo in many ethnic villages, wait to you get back to your hotel room.
- This one does my head in. You wouldn’t rock up to someone’s house in your own country in just a bikini or even shirt-less! Why do it when you’re travelling? Dress conservatively, once your there you can sus the situation out and if the situation allows, you can always take a layer off.
- Don’t encourage prostitution! It’s a massive issue in ethnic communities as devious tourism pushes in. It’s not just the physical act of it; families often sell their children into the industry, the increase of STD’s into the community has many health implications and increase potential for a breakdown in community structure.
- Begging children are hard to say no to and its hot topic in so many debates. Some people say you shouldn’t give handouts because it encourages begging, other say give something that is constructive whilst other say who cares, its such a small amount of money to give. I’ve tried buying food for the child instead of giving money, only to find them running off to hand it over to a rather healthy man obviously using the kids to siphon money from tourist. I’ve tried just ignoring people, which I just feel like rubbish for not helping out. So I’ve ended up either giving money to reputable charities or education institutes in the countries, or I try to buy handicrafts directly from the source which hopefully sees the money go back into the community to encourage good health and education
- Always offer to pay if you eat or stay in an ethnic village. Indigenous peoples work on a reciprocity system. It is common that if you receive something you need to give something in return. In the past this would have been something like a gift or food, today it is money.
- Be aware of customs. These vary from indigenous groups and cultures, however things such as not removing your shoes, touching children on the head or showing the bottom of your feet can all be consider taboo in certain areas. If in doubt ask!
I hope these tips are of some help and I’m sure they will help you to experience a more authentic, responsible and engaging adventure when you next travel to South East Asia.