Last Updated on March 6, 2023
Let’s talk about socially responsible travel in Southeast Asia. Although there are general ethical principles guiding responsible travelers anywhere in the world, there are specific considerations for travelers in Southeast Asia. From the dark side of animal tourism to choosing ethical activities to spending money wisely—it’s a complex situation. Let’s jump into activities you might want to do, as well as alternatives that are just as fun! The resource section at the end offers extensive links and resources for responsible volunteering, planning a trip to the region, and other relevant information.
Primary Concerns for Responsible Travelers in Southeast Asia
Each and every activity that you engage in as a tourist impacts your trip and your destination. Tourism can be a force for good, a strong agent for change, support, and development. In some parts of the world, tourism demand has preserved natural habitats, protected endangered species, and infused billions of dollars annually into local economies. There is vast potential for tourism to positively impact people and places around the world. But not all tourism has the long game in mind; as a responsible traveler and backpacker, here’s a thorough (but not exhaustive) list of what you need to know about sustainable travel in Southeast Asia.
1. Elephant Tourism
As a rule of thumb, responsible travelers should avoid tour companies and business offering the elephant rides. Elephant owners must break the will of the animal before it can perform and willingly submit to serving humans. This is a horrifying process. Before you travel, read about how elephants are treated in the region (mahouts don’t fare much better), and come to an informed decision and position on this issue. Elephants are wicked smart; they purposefully live in communities and they grieve their dead. It’s not a harmless act to support the elephant riding tourism industry.
Traditionally, the people of Southeast Asia used elephants for hard labor, to clear land and forests. Like horses, elephants allowed owners to accomplish more on any given day. Now, with machinery more commonplace, only very rural communities still use elephants for work (and mostly in Laos). That’s because owners make far more money from tourism. Which would, perhaps, be a happy ending for the animals, if they were treated well. But the Southeast Asian elephant tourism industry has led to a cycle of abuse, fueling over-worked and perpetually hungry animals.
But responsible travelers have options. Sanctuaries in Thailand and Cambodia offer ethical traveler-elephant interactions. And it’s not a poor trade-off—travelers report glowingly on the their visit to these sanctuaries. These organizations give elephants a home and a peaceful life, and travelers leave knowing their tourist dollars support wildlife protections and have bettered the lives of formerly abused animals. Check out the Save Elephants Foundation to plan your trip.
Side note: Generally, avoid riding any exotic wild animal. Riding ostriches in Dalat, Vietnam has gained popularity and it’s beyond unfortunate. An ostrich’s body is not designed to hold an adult’s weight and these animals fully panic when ridden.
2. Tiger Tourism (And Animals in General)
Unlike elephant tourism, there is less consensus about the ethics of tiger tourism. GV believes responsible travelers should exercise extreme caution when visiting a tiger tourism experience anywhere in the world, but especially in Southeast Asia. Two main companies in Thailand offer tiger experiences: Tiger Temple near Bangkok, and Tiger Kingdom near Chiang Mai. You should NOT visit Tiger Temple. NatGeo reported an explosive story on Tiger Temple’s practice of supplying tigers to the black market (tiger bone is popular on China’s black market). And although Thai authorities closed Tiger Temple after the NatGeo report, it will reopen … which doesn’t mean it won’t simply do a better job of hiding unethical practices.
On the other hand, Tiger Kingdom near CM self-reports that it supplies zoos around the world with the adult tigers that are too old to use in the park. So far, investigations have found no evidence of negative practices, and Tiger Kingdom’s tigers seem happier and well-fed. The park loses points in my book because it provides no educational value—which is an important part of preserving endangered animals—but it doesn’t seem to operate at unethical standards, beyond the fact that it’s breeding wild animals in captivity purely for profit. There is a lot of debate in support of, and against, zoos. Research before you book a trip so you know where you stand on the issue.
3. Human Tourism & Trafficking
As the country with the most developed tourism industry in the region, Thailand also has two serious instances of negative human tourism experiences, and Cambodia is on the map, too. Travelers should use the following examples as lenses to better spot and avoid human exploitation when engaging in tourism anywhere in the region.
The Karen Padaung Village is located in northern Thailand, and the villagers are women who traditionally wear gold rings around their necks. It’s beautiful, and tourists love snapping photos of the women in their village life, but it’s shady business to spend your money there. The women are Burmese refugees and they’re stuck in Thailand as a living zoo for tourists. Southeast Asia offers dozens of alternative options, such as treks through hill-tribe villages and homestays run by community based tourism organizations and social enterprises. Anyone thinking of visiting the Karen should instead research trekking and homestays in Vietnam’s Sapa region.
Back in the 70s, Vientiane, Laos was a well-known destination for ping-pong shows at brothels. Now outlawed in Laos, the practice has flourished in Thailand alongside the region’s massive sex tourism industry. Human trafficking plagues much of Southeast Asia, and by all accounts shows like these—and tourism demand—stoke the situation further. Most ping-pong shows are centered in Bangkok, Phuket, and Pattaya. No matter how many bloggers and backpackers gush about these shows, this should be a HARD pass for responsible travelers. Curiosity is not a valid excuse for paying to enter shows that exploit the women, compromise their dignity, and are often run as a form of modern-day slavery.
Additionally, in Cambodia there is a very real problem with orphanage tourism. Unless you are very familiar with Cambodia, or if you are working within the development industry, you should steer well clear of visiting any orphanages. It’s difficult to suss out which are helpful or hurtful. Some are running for-profit and merely to provide travelers with the chance to hug a child and feel good about their time. To avoid this, consider visiting restaurants and businesses that are tackling this issue through their own means. Support these dozens of organizations and social enterprises in Cambodia that use training and employment to keep kids off the streets, to employ single moms, and to support the Cambodian family structure.
As a responsible traveler, you might have weeks or month that you would like to donate to a cause or community. While volunteering has its own ethical concerns outside of tourism, there are opportunities for travelers with the time, skills, and the willingness to lend a hand. Many NGOs offer opportunities for this type of travel. But not all are doing great work. Use the GV database to research vetted independent volunteer opportunities in Southeast Asia.
5. Spending Money Responsibly
Spending your money effectively is one of the most important ways you can travel the world responsibly. For Southeast Asia, which is largely composed of developing economies, this is particularly true. By using social enterprises on your trip, you can create a trip with positive impact. Practically, when you are on the ground, pick businesses using funds to support local communities and offering training, support, or the protection of natural resources. You can do everything from get a massage or pick a trekking guide—all with companies committed to social impact.
In addition to choosing the right business to support, it’s also important to note where you should avoid spending money. Vietnam, in particular, has a massive industry built around selling, exporting, and trafficking in exotic wild animals. Many exotic and endangered animals are also used as used as high-end tourist souvenirs. Avoid purchasing anything made from wild or endangered animals—turtle shells, skins, ivory, etc. And do not buy exotic animal meat or turtle eggs for consumption. Engaging in these practices is either illegal, or contributes to the continuation of these destructive practices.
6. Connecting to the Local Culture
You can also use your spending power to support responsible tourism experiences that connect locals and travelers. Homestay programs are popular throughout Southeast Asia and these are fantastic ways to infuse money into remote, rural communities. Northern Vietnam has an extensive number of homestay programs, but you will also find them throughout Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, too. And while homestays are popular, there are other ways to make those connections.
The most memorable travel experiences are those that allow travelers to form connections with the local culture and communities. We know that responsible travelers are looking for authentic travel experiences, and the best way to find them is to stay curious and find a lens through which you’d like to travel. Use your own interests as a gateway to the local culture. This can mean anything from art to food to music. For example, my niece was interested in art when we backpacked Southeast Asia, so we found local artisan workshops. She took classes directly from locals on everything from traditional weaving to Buddhist stencil art. You don’t need a tour to find these experiences, just research and curiosity. Our social enterprise database is a good start, but you will also find so many opportunities once you’re on the road. Just keep your eyes open, stay curious, and don’t be afraid to try activities that push your comfort zones.
Additional Resources & Readings
- Thailand Travel Guide: A detailed guide covering what you need to know before you go to Thailand, sustainable tourism operators, and specific accommodation and travel recommendations. Written from a long-time traveler who spent years traveling SEA with an aim to help travelers find the best cultural experiences possible.
- Vietnam Travel Guide: From south to north, this guide shares the highlights backpackers and responsible travelers will enjoy in this culturally rich destination. Includes a fully embedded map you can download on your phone to locate social enterprises and ethically-minded businesses.
- Review: Travel Insurance Options for International Volunteers: Responsible tourists planning volunteer opportunities abroad have some specific concerns when it comes to finding the right traveler’s insurance. This piece breaks down the various options, which traveler situations they fit, and companies you should probably avoid.
- Southeast Asia Lonely Planet: I used an earlier version of this book on my first trip to Southeast Asia, and it acted as a great primer on how to get around, and gave me a lay of the land that I always felt helped smooth out my many subsequent trips.
- 8 Responsible Guiding Principles for the Ethical Traveler: This detailed piece looks at all the areas of responsible travel that you should consider before you head out on the road. It’s all the ways that you can lessen your impact on the people you meet and the places you travel.
- Should You Give to Child Beggars?: This is a very balanced and detailed piece about the things you should consider before you donate to child beggars on your travels.
Thoughtful Long-Reads from Amazon & Around the Web
- Eating Viet Nam: A journalist moves to Hanoi, Vietnam and begins a food journey through the back alleys and tiny street stalls of Vietnam. A great read for food lovers.
- Sightseeing: Thailand is a land between two worlds: the one tourists see, and the nation facing economic and societal issues. This book looks at both sides in a way that is thoughtful and interesting. The short story format is ideal for bringing it with you and reading as you travel.
- The Worst Party in Asia: The Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan is well established legend down in the Thai islands. This spot starts a party scene that runs across SEA for many backpackers, but there’s a darker side to it. Please read this piece before heading that way.
- King of the Dump: The NGO scene in Thailand is expansive, but also complex. This is a good read about one small region and the issues and gray area surrounding supporting communities.
- The Vietnam Solution: An interesting piece about current American and Vietnamese relations and how the two countries overcame the war to work together in modern politics.
- Trafficked into Slavery on Thai Trawlers to Catch Food for Prawns: The relationship between Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) is complicated, and this piece touches on not only that, but a side of the global fishing industry’s impact on Thailand that lies just under the surface.
Search the GV database for social enterprises and businesses that need your support in:
What are you thoughts? Anything you noticed on your travelers that others travelers should know about? Any great reads that offer context, background, or just fun to the story of Southeast Asia and its people? Let us know in the comments below.