The below blog post addresses just some of the problems of (mostly white European) backpacker tourism. When I first travelled in south-east Asia ten years ago, I did not see that my presence could be detrimental to the communities that I was visiting. My awareness of this has grown and evolved over the last few years, and there are, no doubt, so many more issues that I am unaware of with regards to how I impact communities as a white European. Every day is an opportunity to learn and become more aware.
An example of one of the photos that has been used by Lonely Planet
“Hill tribe tour!” “Trek to a longneck village!” “Spend the night with a hill tribe!”
Hill tribes hill tribes hill tribes. You can’t walk more than five metres in Chiang Mai without seeing signs for these tours.
Tour companies and guide books such as the Lonely Planet use different terms for indigenous people, depending on which country they’re referring to. In Laos it’s the term ‘minority’.
In July 2016 we spent two and a half weeks travelling around the far north of Thailand on scooters. We were careful not to photograph people without their permission, and we avoided driving into many of the small villages that we passed. This is because these villages never see tourists, and may not want to, and didn’t give us our consent to visit.
A sketch of our route (from my diary)
I don’t understand the fascination with traffic-clogged Chiang Mai. I can’t wait to get away from the city and the tour agencies selling treks to ‘hill tribes’. But I’ll write more about that in another post.
Chris and I want to explore the far north of Thailand on a long scooter trip. So we hire out two scooters and haphazardly brave the traffic of Thailand’s second largest city. (If you’re new to riding a scooter, I don’t recommend starting in Chiang Mai.) When we arrive in peaceful Chiang Dao at the end of day one, I’m just thankful that I get there in one piece.
We hiked the GR10 in June 2016.
I don’t like climbing mountains. I think of it as macho: the egoic human wanting to conquer the peak. Don’t get me wrong, I love long distance hiking, and I have done my fair share of hikes. But I don’t feel the need to climb a few thousand metres high.
So I wonder why I am here, why I have chosen to walk the GR10, a trail that spans all of the Pyrénées, from west to east – a whole 900km of up and down. It is, of course, because I want to be immersed in beauty. And surely you don’t get much more beautiful than the Pyrénées.
You know that a city is too gentrified when you start to see cafes selling cupcakes. I have a particular problem with cupcakes because they’re just fairy cakes, similar to those that we used to make in primary school and sold for 10p. But rebranded as cupcakes, they’re now sold for £3 per tiny cake.
Gentrification in progress. There’ll be cupcakes! an artist’s mural announces on London Road in Brighton.
I have called Brighton – and the London Road area – my home for a number of years. Brighton’s a great place. Small enough that you run into friends on the street, and big enough to be a hive of alternative cultures and projects.
“All religions have the same heart. We’re all one,” a man says to us warmly as we drink tea in his home.
We are in the city of Kobanê in Rojava, an autonomous and democratically run region in the north of Syria. In late 2014, Kobanê became the focus of the world’s media when ISIS attacked the city and surrounding villages. In response, the US eventually bombed Kobanê, flattening it in the process. As they fought ISIS, the bravery of the Rojavan YPJ and YPG fighters was all over the news, whilst their brother and sister PKK guerillas within Turkey’s borders were, and still are, branded terrorists by Turkey and its allies.
Walking to a commune meeting in Amûdê with friends
“We’re solidarity activists,” we say to a man who greets us as we cross the border into Rojava.
“You’ve come too late!” he replies.
Nevertheless, he smiles widely, welcomes us and shakes our hands. In a way, I agree with him. We have come too late. We are only visiting Rojava when there has been a revolution; only after the people have successfully formed their own autonomous region. Where were we when the Kurdish population of Syria were fighting for their rights, for their own self-determination, under Assad?
Martin drinking tea in the Shrine Of Man
You know you’re in a polluted place when your bogies go black and your chest starts to hurt. I’m back in South (Iraqi) Kurdistan, which is also known simply as Bashur, meaning South, to Kurds.
I’m with three friends, trying to cross the border into Rojava. Bureaucracy, politics and crooked governments have ensured that it’s difficult to enter Rojava from this border, and impossible from the Turkey side (unless we want to be shot). So we pile into a taxi to Erbil (Hewler in Kurdish) to try to sort out our papers (no-one other than me fancies hitchhiking, what with ISIS strongholds not far away, and there’s no buses).
“Shit shit SHITTT!” I moan under my breath as the taxi driver races at high speed up to the back of a truck, then just before crashing into it, swerves to overtake. He does this again and again, weaving through the hundreds of trucks that clog the safe route to Erbil. Everyone wants to avoid Mosul. The smell of petrol fills the car. We pass oil tanker after oil tanker, and truck fumes fill our lungs.
Karen, who died in May
I have started to contemplate death properly for the first time. This contemplation began roughly one year ago, when I was in Bangkok. Running late for a Buddhist talk on impermanence, I dodged the heavy traffic as I walked across the road.
Suddenly I saw a man laying on the ground with a sheet over him, surrounded by police tape. He had been killed by a car. I stopped and stared and began to cry. Despite the hectic street, he looked so alone on the cold ground, as the police detatchedly stood around taking witness statements. I thought about his family, who wouldn’t yet have the news that he had been killed. Passers-by hurriedly moved on, and some people even giggled. (I wondered whether this was a nervous reaction to death, or whether it was because of a different relationship to death in Asia in comparison to Europe).
Read Travels in Kurdistan (part 1) here
Children of Roboski at the graves of their relatives, who were killed by Turkey’s military on 28th December 2011
It’s late June, and we arrive in Midyat as it’s getting dark. Unfortunately for us, President Tayyip Erdoğan has also decided to visit Midyat on the same evening, after a farcical PR stunt, giving Angelina Jolie a tour of the nearby Syrian refugee camp. Police are everywhere, roads are blocked, paparazzi wait, and a deafening helicopter hovers over our heads.
We move onto Roboski, close to the border with South (Iraqi) Kurdistan. Four years ago, me and my friends, Robert and Mats, crossed the border here, and learned about the Roboski massacre, which took place a few days before we arrived. Turkey’s military bombed and killed 34 local people who were on mules, carrying out cross-border trade between North and South Kurdistan.
Polen Ünlü, an activist in the conscientious objector movement, died in the bombing in Suruç on 20th July. (Photo taken from JINHA women’s news agency)
It’s June 2015, and we arrive in North Kurdistan (the part of Kurdistan within the Turkish borders) at election time. The Kurdish population is ecstatic, because for the first time in the history of the Republic of Turkey, the pro-Kurdish HDP party has won 80 seats in parliament. The HDP could only have any seats if it gained at least 10% of the total vote (a rule that was put into place in 1980 to stop Kurds from ever being represented), and it achieved this. Although I’m an anarchist, I can’t help but be a bit impressed by the HDP, with their promises of women’s and LGBT rights, and their attempt to represent all ethnicities and religions.