How to Be a Socially Conscious Backpacker
At the end of March, I stopped being a resident of Thailand and became a traveler of Southeast Asia. After 6 months of making a home for myself in a small rural town in northern Thailand, I packed up my apartment into a backpack full of everything I would need for a five-week adventure through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Bali. To be honest it was bittersweet to leave my home—my students, my friends and all the spots that had become mine. But I was so excited to travel and see new places. Still, I was a little nervous about living out of a backpack for so long.
During the last time I lived abroad in 2011, I went backpacking through Greece for 10 days, and while I loved experiencing the different cities, I didn’t love living out of a backpack. But that was years ago, so I decided to give it another try.
How to Be a Socially Conscious Backpacker.
I spent a week in Northern Thailand, ten days island hopping in Southern Thailand, two days in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and a week in Vietnam. While I loved experiencing all these new places, I still missed being a local. I missed riding my motorbike through familiar streets and buying guava from the fruit lady. I missed seeing my students at the night market and I missed sharing meals with my friends. I missed being a part of the community, and I missed taking part in the local customs such as going to temple to pray.
However, I realized that just because I was no longer a local did not mean I couldn’t travel like one. I started avoiding the touristy streets and started supporting local businesses. Over the years, as traveling has become easier and more affordable, it is important to remember to be a conscious backpacker. Here are my tips:
How to Be a Socially Conscious Backpacker:
Eat local foods and support local food markets
I noticed it was a little bit more difficult while was I was traveling to eat at local food markets but it is so important to do so! Not only will the food taste better, but you will also get better value for your money and you will try something authentic. The best Pad Thai I have ever had in my life cost less than a dollar and was made by an older Thai woman on the side of the road, while the Pad Thai that cost 12 dollars was not very tasty at all.
Support NGOs and organizations that give back to the community
In Cambodia, after spending the morning exploring the temples of Ankor Wat, my friends and I headed to Phare Circus Social Enterprise for a circus performance that empowers impoverished and exploited Khmer youth. Phare Performing Social Enterprise aims to provide employment to Cambodian youth from difficult social and economic backgrounds, while contributing to the rebirth of Cambodian modern art.
How to Be a Socially Conscious Backpacker
All the circus performers learn their skills through Phrae Ponleu Selpak, an association that provides art education in Battambang, Cambodia. Struggling families and youg people from the streets and orphanages from the community come to PPS to learn, express, and heal themselves through the arts. It was formed 20 years ago, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, by survivors of the war who were empowered by creative self-expression learned through their art-making. They first founded an art and public school and began offering free education and then quickly thereafter created a music school, theatre school, and then a circus school. Today more than 1200 students attend the public school daily.
The Phare Performing Social Enterprise was founded in 2013, was founded in Siem Reap to offer visitors and locals the Phare Cambodian Circus. It offers the students and graduates the opportunity to use their skills and to earn a living wage. The organization shares my belief that the arts are an instrument for human development and social change. Through international recognition for Cambodian arts, they hope to secure a brighter future for their community. The circus act was incredibly inspiring and uplifting and the performers were unbelievably talented.
Try to learn a little bit of the local language
Learning how to say hello and thank you in the local language can go a long way. Coming from a small town in Thailand, I learned a bit more of the language, but locals in larger cities were always pleasantly surprised when I thanked them in Thai. Sometimes you might even get better deals if you show locals that you are willing to understand a bit more about their language and culture.
Learn from those you meet
Throughout my travels, I met really inspiring people and one person I met in particular said that in his travels he learned that ultimately people around the world, whether they are rich or poor, or live in developed or undeveloped countries, are all the same. He said he believes that “we all have the same hopes and dreams for our families, for our lives, and for finding love in a partner and friends–sometimes we need help, but mostly we just need to be treated with dignity and given a fair chance.” And I couldn’t have said it better myself.
How to Be a Socially Conscious Backpacker photo by Unsplash.