by Hank Leukart
March 26, 2006

Five things Southeast Asia should learn from the Western world

The environment and customer service are some of Southeast Asia’s challenges.

Plastic trash piles up near Huay Xai, Laos

Plastic trash piles up near Huay Xai, Laos


UANG PRABANG, Laos — I love Southeast Asia — it’s one of the best and most rewarding places to travel in the world. Here are five things that Southeast Asia could learn from the Western world to make it even better.

1. The environment is key. Nowhere are the dire effects of pollution and slash-and-burn tactics more apparent than in developing countries. Cities like Bangkok, Bombay, Shanghai, and Mexico City have already become intolerable for Western tourists - the acrid, polluted air makes breathing difficult and the smell of excrement makes spending any time in the cities much less enjoyable. Most backpackers I’ve met already brag about not caring to visit huge cities like Bangkok because of the pollution.

Equally bad is locals’ treatment of jungle areas and rainforests; locals illegally deforest national parks so that they can sell black-market teak and bamboo, and hill-tribes illegally burn hundreds of acres of forest for agriculture use. Plastic bags litter the landscape, partly because rural Thais are accustomed to disposing of pre-plastic biodegradable banana leaves and need more education about plastic’s environmental effects and partly because many people simply don’t care. In the end, these actions only hurt the locals themselves; most local Southeast Asian economies depend almost entirely on tourism, and without beautiful wilderness for trekking, tourists will stop spending money.

The worst part is that if only responsible governments better enforced well-designed zoning restrictions, motor vehicle standards, and wilderness-protection policies, these problems mostly could have been avoided. Fortunately, in many cases, environmental effects can be reversed, but governments should act immediately before health problems get worse and tourists skip these destinations completely. Asian governments can use U.S. policy as a boilerplate, but that’s just the first step.

2. Suffocation is not service. Thais seem to think that good service is synonymous with suffocating service, when in fact the opposite is true. Southeast Asia, take a note: excellent service is invisible until the moment at which one needs it. (Side note: even some restaurants in the Western world haven’t totally figured this out yet.)

Taxis: When a Westerner is walking down the street in any Southeast Asian city or town, every taxi passing by inevitably stops and begs him to take a ride. Why? Does this really result in more business? Wouldn’t he have stood on a street-corner and yelled if he needed a ride? In New York City, taxis never beg customers to take a ride (quite the opposite), and they seem to have a lucrative business. Chances are that if we’re walking down the sidewalk, we probably want to walk. When we need a taxi, we’ll call one. I promise.

“Chances are that if we’re walking down the sidewalk, we probably want to walk. When we need a taxi, we’ll call one. I promise.”

Restaurants: Yelling at Westerners to eat food as we pass restaurants doesn’t make us any hungrier. We can easily see the food on tables even without you yelling at us, and since we’ve been traveling here for many weeks eating the same (excellent) food over and over, we know exactly what the food tastes like. When we finally do sit down to eat, standing at the table waiting for us to select an item from the menu does not make us decide any faster nor does it prompt us to order more food. When we want to eat, we’ll ask for a table — and when we’re ready to order, we’ll call you to the table. I promise.

Street markets and clothing stores: Following us around a store, literally one foot behind, doesn’t make us want to buy more clothes; mostly, it just makes us want to escape the store as soon as possible. Also, keep in mind that any given tourist is usually only interested in a subset of the available goods. Western guys don’t usually want to buy rolls of textiles, so stop badgering us to do so. Western girls don’t usually want to buy tasteless T-shirts with dirty jokes on them, so stop badgering them. When we want to buy clothes, we’ll try them on and ask their price. I promise.

3. Tourists are smarter than you think. It’s true that when tourists arrive in a new place, they don’t know everything about it — but we know a lot more than we’re given credit for. Have you seen those Lonely Planet guidebooks we all carry? You may be surprised to learn that the guidebooks describe, in great detail, every scam, trick, and lie that has ever been tried on or told to a Western tourist; those books also tell us how much everything should cost. Taxis: we also know where everything is in a town — even before we arrive! We understand that sometimes, you’ll try to charge us a bit more than you would a local. We don’t mind. But in almost all cases, when locals try to to scam or excessively overcharge savvy tourists, it’s not only a waste of everyone’s time, but it hurts the economy in the long run. Tourists avoid areas where locals treat them like walking ATM machines, and no one likes to give money to people that annoy him. Also, as trust degrades between tourists and locals, traveling becomes less fun and rewarding, also resulting in fewer tourists. My advice to Southeast Asia and all major tourist destinations: stop trying to scam and overcharge tourists. Instead, charge consistent, fair prices for all services and goods. In the long run, you’ll make more money — I guarantee it.

4. Not all white people are rich. In fact, most aren’t. We wear brand-name clothes, we look like the celebrities you see on television, and we seem to spend a lot of money — but remember, we’re on vacation. Just because we’re white doesn’t mean we’re millionaires; in fact, almost all long-term backpackers have no jobs at home and very little money in the bank. Don’t get angry when we scoff at paying $8 US for a hotel room — most of the time, our balking at the high price is not a charade. Traveling is expensive — even in Southeast Asia — especially when our bank accounts are empty.

5. Westerners can’t speak Thai, and you can’t speak English. You think you can, but you can’t. We admit we can’t speak Thai, and we never bothered to learn. But please, keep that in mind. No matter how many minutes you spend trying to explain something to us in Thai, we’ll never understand it. Ever. Even if you speak loudly. Also, if you try speaking English, and we can’t understand, please don’t become frustrated. We know you think you can speak English, but you really can’t. Being able to say, “Hello,” and “You like?” does not a fluency make.

See also: Three things the U.S. should learn from Southeast Asia. WB

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