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 on their gap years 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 the local culture too.
I have been to Malaysian Borneo, and I have climbed Mount Kinabalu. 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 the local economy benefits very well from it. When tourism 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!
It Is Just Common Sense!
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.
A Time And A Place.
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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Australia Bans Tourists From Climbing Uluru. And It’s A Good Thing.
The Importance Of Respect When You Travel.
What I Wish People Had Told Me Before I Planned My First Backpacking Trip.
I would have some (not much) sympathy if they had not been warned by their local guide. Your point about respecting local customs is important. Unfortunately, too many travelers treat the locals and their country like entertainment and seem oblivious to the fact that these are real people, with real traditions/customs and societal norms that need to be respected. Thanks for the article.
I’m with you, at the end of the day common sense will tell you stripping off is a stupid thing to do anywhere in the world, but there is a little bit of leeway that can be given for pure ignorance and innocent mistakes. I mean I’ve made god knows how many cultural faux pax myself (although never on this moronic scale), but as you say they had been warned and did it in full knowledge they shouldn’t, so they deserve what they get. Thanks so much for commenting. 🙂
I 100% agree with this post. If you want to be stupid, do it on your own time in privacy. I am shocked by how many North Americans (I am from Alberta) are passing it off like they didn’t deserve any attention from the law.
Thank you, it isn’t just Americans though there are a lot from every country saying they are being dealt with too harshly. I say they got off lightly!
Great post. Too many people forget that they are guests in a foreign country. They feel entitled to do whatever the hell they want. So damn disrespectful. That, to me, is the difference between a tourist and a traveler — undertsanding the importance of respect. We have too many tourists in this world. We need more travelers. Thank you for posting this.
Thanks JB and Renee, I appreciate that. I completely agree too about the difference between a tourist and a traveller, and I hate being compared to the former! 🙂 Thanks for commenting.
Very well said!
The only thing I don’t quite agree with (which actually makes a pretty big difference in my mind) is equating a deserted mountain summit that takes days to reach with an urban public space like Trafalgar Square. The wildness and isolation of where they were makes their behaviour understandable – ignorant and accidentally rude rather than willfully hurtful – IF (and only if) noone else was around to see them and they weren’t aware that this particular mountain Mount Kinabalu is sacred ground in a way that other mountains are not.
For me it’s not the simple fact they took off their clothes on top of a mountain that makes it so awful. It’s that they did that in front of their local guide, who had asked them not to out of respect for the sacred mountain and local culture. It’s as if he is not even a person to them, and as if the local culture means nothing.
I really like the last paragraph of your article, and I would add to that never, ever forget what a huge privilege it is to be able to travel the world in the first place.
Thank you very much Bonny.
Well, I don’t know whether you have been to Mount Kinabalu but it is hardly a deserted wilderness, even at the summit. The mountain is a massive tourist draw and every single day huge scores of travellers, tour groups and backpackers from all over the world are led up the mountain by teams of guides, not to mention the numerous local porters that handle all the logistics. So there would have been a lot of people around even if they went to a relatively ‘quiet’ part of the peak. In terms of public decency laws however my reference to Trafalgar square really can be replaced with any public space you like. The fact of the matter is in the vast majority of places around the world if you strip off outside of specifically designated ‘nude’ areas you will fall foul of local equivalents to public decency laws, and it doesn’t matter if you are in the middle of an empty field or a busy city center. The law is the law.
Bearing that in mind I do absolutely see your point about at least some of the group getting carried away and having no malicious motive behind their actions, the young British girl for example I can totally see that and I totally believe she is full of genuine remorse now having been put through the mill (as well deserved as I think it was). However there are two issues with that, the first is that the group would have had numerous talks with their guides before starting the climb and during the nights stay at Laban Rata (where everyone stays half way up) where they would have been told the ‘rules’ by their guides and told to respect the mountain, and told exactly why too. You can’t even shout at or swear at the mountain, never mind get naked on it. The second is that their guide warned them (if reports are to be believed) numerous times not to do it and told them exactly why. So whilst I can see some of the group perhaps getting carried away, they would have done so in full knowledge of the fact the mountain was sacred, and against all advice and warnings not to.
This post totally sums up everything I feel about this situation. I have absolutely no sympathy for anyone who visits a country and totally disrespects local tradition and culture – especially when a local guide has specifically told you how incredibly disrespectful it is. It is people like this that give backpackers and travellers a bad reputation.
I’ve read some quite negative things about Malaysia in the past few days – this has made me so angry. The month we spent in Malaysia was a highlight of our trip to Asia – we found it an incredibly welcoming and friendly country.
However, we made sure that we understood the culture before we visited. At times, I would not even wear a swimsuit to the beach in some areas of Malaysia as I knew it was not appropriate – let alone get my boobs out on a mountain when asked not to by a local guide.
I honestly don’t think ignorance is an excuse – before visiting any country, you should make a point of understanding a bit about it’s culture, traditions and the ‘dos and don’ts’.
I really hope this has taught these tourist, and any other potentially irresponsible tourists, a very valuable lesson.
Totally agree with you. Malaysia, and Malaysian Borneo for that matter, are both unbelievably amazing places, friendly, welcoming and are two of my favourite places in the world! Just a little bit of common sense solves the majority of issues like this. Just use common sense, show a bit of respect and think about your actions, it isn’t that hard! As you say, it is idiots like this that gives us all a bad reputation! As you say, I hope they learn from it and this acts as a deterrent to others.
So true! We can all make mistakes that is for sure, but going directly against your guide’s advice is simply stupid!! I don’t understand why people feel the need to strip down near tourist attractions instead of just absorbing the atmosphere or just enjoy the moment. It is rude and respect-less towards the locals! Most Thais don’t like the full party either as far as I know, but I don’t really get the point why people travel around the world just to get drunk. So please always listen to the locals and don’t be a jerk
Exactly Tine, as I said people are in general very understanding of genuine mistakes. I totally agree, just show a little respect. It isn’t that hard!
Yes! I could not agree more! I don’t get this whole stripping off in front of monuments thing, just stop acting like drunken tourists in Benidorm!
I don’t get it either, but completely agree with you!
Well said sir!!
Thank you. 🙂
Of course for your own safety one should follow local customs and laws but just because something is tradition doesn’t mean it’s not an incredible stupid one right? Slavery use to be tradition too, should someone be jailed for disrespecting it?
We need to evolve ideas.
Whether you personally disagree with the law/culture is not the issue. The point is you are a visitor in their country and you respect their laws and traditions whether you like them or not. It is not just about safety, it is about respect and opening your mind. If you don’t like that you have no place calling yourself a traveller and you should stick to the poolside of an all inclusive in Benidorm.
Thankyou for the response, but I still find it horrible that Women in Pakistan aren’t allowed to drive, I still find the genital mitilation of girls around the world horrific, but your right, we should respect these things because they are traditions, they are sacred and should never be changed. I’m so annoyed by gay marriage being legalised in America, Traditional marriage was the norm for so long and now some arseholes want equality and it’s wrong because it’s disrespectful to the traditional local culture.
Okay, so you think just because there are terrible things happening around the world that you have an excuse to dismiss any countries law or cultural sensitivity as you see fit? Do you think you are so almighty that you have a right to automatically judge every culture on your own paradigm? That just because you don’t agree with them you have the right to dismiss any laws and do as you please? You need to open your eyes a little. And seriously, you are equating a countries own population democratically voting for a legal change to some idiot tourists who think they can break laws and get away with it? Really? Right. Okay.
It’s always a pleasure to read your posts Mike. I fully agree with what you say, and I should add that I don’t find anything funny in taking naked selfies on a sacred mountain. Seriously – what’s the fun in that? Then again tourists at times are completely oblivious to local rules and even if they do know them, they really could not care less. People in Sardinian airports are regularly caught taking away bags or bottles of sand – yes, SAND – they take from the beach. You’d think they are people who haven’t travelled much and have no idea of what respect for a country, a region, a culture, a people and the environment is. Then… I have actually met bloggers who have done the same. I caught them myself, and it made me angry. Not only because it is illegal, but because it is our patrimony!
Thank you Claudia, I totally agree, some people just don’t think about their actions. It’s just ridiculous.
yeah, just realize for them