Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What The West Is Good At Exporting

I have been lucky enough to travel to a decent number of places in my life, especially in recent years. I love to travel. There is nothing else I love as much as traveling and travel planning, save for maybe going to concerts. Like a lot of Americans I love to travel to Europe because, let's face it, Europe is by and large so much cooler than America. But I also love to travel to countries outside the "Western" world.

My wife and I have traveled to SE Asia twice now, most recently this last autumn when we took our 5-year-old daughter with us. It is an amazing part of the world to see, beautiful with a rich history and very lovely people. It is not like we are the only travelers who know this secret. This part of the world sees an amazing amount of tourism now. You walk down the streets of Hanoi, Luang Prabang, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, among other cities, and you will be surrounded by a lot of other white people. Generally this is really god for the local economies as we bring a lot of money with us to spend in restaurants, on hotels, museums, and gift shops.

But a lot of Westerners bring something else with them besides their money: Asshole-ish behavior. Ass-hattery may be our biggest export from america and Europe.

Siem Reap, Cambodia is one of the most special places on Earth. It is the closest town to the wonders of Angkor Wat and a nice little city to hang out at night. It is also overrun with tourists. It really was amazing to see the difference in the six years between our trips there. The number of hotels they have there now was shocking. So was the number of tourists walking the streets and partying in the bars at night. Not just the numbers are what's shocking, but the number of hipsters. It appears Siem Reap has become an "it" location for the young hip people from The U.S. and Europe. This wouldn't really be a problem if they didn't bring their asshole behavior with them.

An example: We were in an ice cream and coffee shop in downtown Siem Reap around an area called Pub Street and "The Passage" where a ton of restaurants are located. These are all places that are generally cheap for us but your average Cambodian cannot afford to eat or drink at them. All of central Siem Reap caters to tourists. There were a couple of very Eurotrash-looking Italians who ordered espressos. When they got thir drinks they were not exactly what the guys wanted and they got very angry with the young girl serving them. They basically yelled at her that this was "not what I wanted" and to "take it away."

They acted like a real couple of dicks. Both parties are speaking a second language to their own, English. The fact that you can travel to a place like this and not have to try to converse in Khmer is really convenient and things will be misunderstood now and then. Is it really necessary to act like an ass about it? This is vacation after all.

I think travelers need to show a little more deference and patience when in a country where the main language is one you don't know. I'm a guest places like Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam yet somehow I am able to do all my business with hotels and restaurants in English, my language not theirs. I should appreciate the generosity of that. We had a mistake happen in a restaurant in Luang Prabang. My daughter wanted basil on her pizza and it took a while to get the waiter to understand it. When the pizza came it had black olives on it instead. We didn't send it back and my daughter ate it, though we picked off the olives. It just is not a big deal. I'm in a country where I don't speak their language which means the language barrier is my problem and not theirs. I'm really happy about my kid learning that lesson that day. She's already a more mature and respectful traveler than some of the people we came across.

Like this middle-aged English woman in Hoi An, Vietnam.She ordered a caffe macchiato at a nice restaurant we were having lunch. she got all pissy with the waiter when her drink came because it was a shot of espresso with just a dollop of foamed milk. You know, a caffe macchiato. She then lectures the waiter on what a macchiato is, telling him there should be a lot of milk in it, that it is a big drink. She makes him take it back to fix it. And the very stupidest thing about this is that she was wrong! She learned her coffee lingo from Starbucks back at home, she is the one who didn't know what she was ordering.

After the waiter left to "fix" the "mistake" the tone in her voice to her travel companions was one that said, "stupid foreigner," not realizing she was the stupid foreigner, not the waiter who brought her the right drink in his home country.

The rudeness you can see sometimes toward people whose country in which we are guests is stupefying. So is the inappropriate behavior.

In Siem Reap we would see a lot of girls and guys walking around in short-shorts and tank top shirts Now, if you've done even the most minimal bit of research on Cambodia - like 3 minutes worth - you know that they are culturally a very conservative people who dress modestly and that revealing clothing is a big no-no. But apparently hipsters can't be bothered with learning anything about where they are going. Even worse, they would go to Angkor Wat that way. Sacred holy ground. Signs that actually tell you that kind of dress is inappropriate.

I'm not one to hold a lot of respect for religion, certainly. But a traveler must have respect for the people whose country they are visiting. Their culture is still theirs no matter how much money we spend there. The problem with some of these Western travelers is they treat these countries as if they are in the SE Asia section of Epcot Center at Disney World and not in a country where people live, work, pray, raise families, and try to live a life. If your only goal is to party and get drunk in bars with a bunch of other white people then what the hell is the point? I can get drunk with fellow American at home.

They not only embarrass themselves, they also embarrass those of us that try to travel in a way that honors and respects the place we are visiting.

This is not to say I don't think people should go to places like this or that they are ruined for travel. Despite its crazy crowds, the asshole-ish behavior of some, and the inevitable scams that go along with crowds of richer people being in a poor country, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and the rest of the countries in SE Asia are truly wonderful places and I'm that much richer for having visited. I would encourage everyone to go there some time in your life.

But don't bring your asshole behavior with you.