Travel activities that are no longer acceptable: Six that I regret

Tubing at Vang Vieng, Laos, got out of hand.

Nobody’s perfect. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all done things we later regret. We’ve all taken part in experiences that we’ve later realised were a bad idea.

That’s because things change. Perceptions change. Ideas change. What’s right and what’s wrong alters over time. Things that were once encouraged suddenly become things that aren’t.

This is as true of travel as anything else. You look back on some of the experiences you had over the years and realise that they definitely would not be OK if you tried them on today.

A few weeks ago, Intrepid Travel launched a “travel confessions” campaign, inviting travellers to own up to the regrettable things they once did, as part of a promotion for World Elephant Day. The link: plenty of us used to ride elephants as a tourist attraction, something that was once encouraged but is now seen as a pretty bad idea.

So what are your travel confessions? What are the experiences you once had that you wouldn’t anymore? These are a few of mine.

Elephant riding in Thailand

Jaipur, Rajasthan, India - November 14, 2010: Mahouts and elephants give tourists rides up the rampart to the entrance of Amber Fort. Elephants are allowed a maximum of four round trips per day. iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Ben Groundwater's six travel experiences I regret. tra3-online-regretPhoto: iStock

It was just the done thing, not so long ago. In India; in Thailand; in Laos. You could take an elephant ride as part of your south-east Asian experience. You’d get up on the back of one of these beautiful beasts and lumber around for an hour or so, maybe getting splashed with water, or even going for a swim. I did it. Loads of people did.

But … these should be wild animals. For an elephant to be ridden by humans it has to be “broken”, it has to have its natural behaviour completely altered. Tourists have no business creating an industry for broken elephants to be paraded around for our enjoyment. I wish I’d never done it.

Tubing in Laos

I’ve written before about my experiences “tubing” in Vang Vieng in Laos. The first time I did it, it was amazing: only a few of us on the river, floating along, drinking beers, stopping in at a few shacks on the banks run by friendly locals. We pretty much had the place to ourselves.

Second time I went, a few years later, I was on a tour, and I was part of a problem. Tubing was out of hand by then. It was hugely popular. People were drowning. Injuries were common. The locals hated it. I seriously regret taking part in that.

Buying the Myanmar line

I was as excited as anyone when, about eight years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi declared Myanmar open for business once again. A new frontier! A new Thailand, a new Laos, a new Cambodia. A formerly troubled land that was at peace and had democracy and was OK for foreigners to support and visit. I went there, twice. I wrote about it. I encouraged others to go.

It was only later we realised that Myanmar, and indeed Aung San Suu Kyi, were not what we had thought, not what we had hoped for. The systemic attempt at eradication of the country’s Rohingya minority makes me seriously regret having supported Myanmar’s regime (which collects much of the tourist dollar).

Walking with lions in Zimbabwe

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe - May 9, 2007: Zimbabwe - Lion Rehabilitation & Conservation in Victoria Falls. Small group of tourists walking with two young lions in the forest. On year old lion in front, behind three tourists and a ranger.  iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Ben Groundwater's six travel experiences I regret. tra3-online-regretPhoto: iStock

This is similar to the Thai elephant ride. The thing to remember is this: if an animal is acting in ways that aren’t natural, then there’s a problem. Some sort of training or naturalisation has taken place. That shouldn’t be a tourism experience.

Antelope Park in Zimbabwe is a beautiful private game reserve that also has a lion breeding and rehabilitation program, which is a great thing. One of the experiences that used to be offered, however, was a walk with the younger lions – lions that would eventually be released back into the wild.

It was an amazing experience, but you have to look back and think, was it really a good idea to habituate soon-to-be-wild lions with humans? I don’t think so. This shouldn’t be a tourist attraction, and it no longer is.

Clambering all over Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat, Cambodia - January 26, 2009: One of the attractions in Angkor Wat is watching the sunset from Phnom Bakheng temple. You can see photographers waiting for the right moment for the perfect picture and many people just enjoying the view. In order to reach this spot you have to walk uphill 0.7 km and then climb to the top of the temple. iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Ben Groundwater's six travel experiences I regret. tra3-online-regretPhoto: iStock

This is a little like Uluru: just because you can climb it, doesn’t mean you should. Cambodia’s stunning temple complex is open to the public, and it’s pretty much a free-for-all once you’re in, with few ropes or barriers preventing people from climbing all over the ancient structure.

I did it, back in the day. Had a great time getting all Lara Croft on that thing. But when one person becomes millions, that’s a problem. I wish I hadn’t added to the long-term and seemingly inevitable damage to such a beautiful thing.

Getting drunk in Prague

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - JUNE 21: A participant shows off his beer muscles after lifting a full keg of beer on a weight machine during a street party at the Staropramen brewery June 21 in Prague, Czech Republic. Pub life and beer are an intrinsic element of Czech culture, and contribute to the Czech Republic's first place world ranking in annual consumption of beer per capita, at 156 liters, well ahead of second-place Ireland (125 liters per head) and third-place Germany (120 liters per head). (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Getty image for Traveller. Single use only. iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Ben Groundwater's six travel experiences I regret. tra3-online-regretPhoto: Getty Images

I wasn’t the first and I definitely won’t be the last person to get drunk in Prague. I was part of the new wave of tourists pouring into the city as the former Soviet bloc became cool, as everyone discovered there was life in Europe beyond Paris and Rome and Vienna.

So I went out with groups of other travellers and partied in Prague: drank beer and absinthe; stumbled through Gothic streets; danced at a five-storey nightclub. It was fun. It was awesome.

But the trickle of boozy tourists to the Czech Republic has become a wave – the place is overrun now; drunk revellers are a serious problem; locals are being driven out. I’m not particularly proud of having been part of that.


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