The nude photos taken on top of a Malaysian mountain by a group of backpackers have hit the headlines in recent days as once again Backpackers have gotten themselves in trouble for acting with a shocking lack of respect and foresight. Travellers need to remember that they are guests in other countries, and they have a responsibility to travel respectfully.
A small group of backpackers – including one one English girl, 2 Canadian siblings and a Dutch man, were arrested and detained in Malaysia and are now being deported after posing for nude photos on top of Mount Kinabalu, a stunning UNESCO site and one of Sabah’s biggest tourist draws. Other travellers are still being sought by the police. According to news reports, the group took the 2 day trek to reach the summit for sunrise, and then decided to strip off and pose for naked selfies at 7AM after watching the sunrise, despite warnings and pleas not to by their local guide.
This situation has unfortunately been inflamed due to the fact that a day later, a rare earthquake hit the mountain and claimed the lives of 18 people, a tragedy that local tribes are now blaming on these travellers as they believe it was a punishment by their now angered gods. An aspect of the story that has unfortunately been jumped on by Western tabloids.
It is easy to say that this is ridiculous, it is easy to say that there is no possible way their actions could have caused an earthquake. Many people in the West have completely dismissed these claims as ludicrous and ridiculous in the extreme, but they are completely missing the point that it really doesn’t matter what we believe in the West or how much scientific data about tectonic plates is dredged up and displayed, the fact of the matter is they believe it. It forms part of the belief system and culture of some of the tribes who live there.
The fact is they are not only in trouble with the law for stripping off, they have offended local culture too.
I have been to Malaysian Borneo, and I have climbed Mount Kinabaiu. It is a stunning part of the world and easy to get lost in the awe and majesty of the landscape. The population is dominated by local tribes who live by their own traditional beliefs and are generally among some of the most welcoming and friendly people I have met. The mandatory guides, porters and workers who work hard to ensure the tidal waves of tourists get up and down the mountain every day safely work hard, and – at least the guide in my case – are a fountain of information and stories about the landscape, the history and the culture of the mountain and the local tribes. They use tourism to good advantage, and when it is done responsibly and with respect, everyone wins.
But that does not in any way mean they should put up with idiot tourists acting with complete disregard to culture, common sense or basic common decency.
I cannot believe the absolute shocking lack of foresight, common sense or respect that these travellers have shown by doing this. I am a huge advocate for responsible travel, for respectful travel, and have argued that case many times. As I stated in this interview podcast for the BBC World Service News Hour we are guests in these countries, and we do have a responsibility to act sensibly, responsibly and with just a little bit of respect and decency!
Common sense will tell you that if you decide to strip off naked pretty much anywhere in the world you are going to get the attention of the local police and get yourself into a bit of trouble. Hell, if I travelled down to London now and ran around starkers in Trafalgar Square I’d be hauled into a cell quicker than you can say ‘it’s just cold, guv!’ But this is much more than that. These travellers have not just fallen foul of decency laws for stripping naked, they have not only displayed a lack of judgement with their actions, but they have displayed a shocking lack of respect and sensitivity too. They have also offended local tribes beliefs and culture by desecrating a mountain they believe to be sacred. A mountain where they believe their dead reside.
Radhika Sanghani, writing in the Telegraph argues that this was just a bit of fun, just a prank by someone who was fulfilling the ethos of being a backpacker by ‘living life to the full’. Yet by arguing that she not only misses the entire point of why this group got themselves into trouble in the first place, but also insults every backpacker and independent world traveller by assuming we are all full moon party seeking hedonists out for a good time regardless of the consequences! As she states:
“If you read this from the perspective of a traveller it all starts to feel rather different. Because anything goes.”
No, it doesn’t.
Taking a gap year is the trip of a lifetime, you are there to enjoy yourself, have a good time and step out of your comfort zone. But at the same time you are not there to do all of that at the expense of the dignity and respect of the local customs, traditions and beliefs. There is a line, and these travellers crossed it.
We’ve all done stupid things when we were young, we’ve all made mistakes, no one can deny that. I’ve certainly made my fair share of cultural faux pas in all my travels over the last fifteen years, the difference is I didn’t do it so blatantly, or more importantly, on purpose.
I have found that locals are generally very welcoming and understanding of travellers, and when minor mistakes in cultural etiquette are made, such as not wearing a ceremonial piece of clothing in a religious site, not taking your shoes off when entering buildings, even touching a child’s head in Thailand or other predominantly Buddhist regions for example, they are tolerated to an extent. No offence is generally taken as long as it is a genuine mistake. As long as the traveller involved is coming from a place of respect, then such incidents can be treated as a learning opportunity and a chance to grow, as well as a chance to learn from and interact with locals. If the traveller is open minded enough to use those incidents in that way.
But those minor infractions are a far way away from stripping off naked in public and taking selfies on sacred mountains.
No one is saying don’t go out into the big wide world and have a good time, go to parties, have a drink, strip off naked if you like. But there is a time and a place for all that. A sacred mountain is not a full moon party.
If you want to act like a drunken idiot tourist then there are bars and resorts in Benidorm or other places that will cater to your needs. If you want to be a backpacker and travel and see the world independently, then you are going to need to show a little more decorum, common sense and respect when you are staying as guests in other peoples countries and cultures.
This group of backpackers now face at the minimum being deported from Malaysia, and could very well still face a local tribal court as well if news reports are accurate, and I have absolutely no sympathy for them at all.
It seems – if news reports are to be believed – that at least one of the girls involved in this is sorry for what she has done, and probably regrets it bitterly at this point. It may very well be the fact that she was taken up in a tide of peer pressure or whatever and did something stupid in the heat of the moment. But that is no excuse. She got caught and must now face the consequences of her actions, whatever they may be.
Backpacking around the world is not about you acting like a fool to impress your mates back home with a selfie of you ‘doing something outrageous’. It is not about your vacuous, self obsessed need to show how daring or ‘crazy’ you are on your social media. Backpacking around the world is about experiencing new cultures, trying to understand and learn from them and growing as an individual.
Travel the world by all means, but do so with a mindset of respect and responsibility. Backpacking is an amazing adventure where you can and will have a lot of fun and games along the way, but it will also open your mind massively to new cultures, new ways of thinking and new experiences if you let it. So go on your travels, but do so with an open mind and a lot of respect, you will get so much more out of the experience as a result, and you certainly won’t risk offending locals and falling foul of the law!
Be part of the solution, not the problem.
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