Responsible tourism in Southeast Asia

Like all popular tourist destinations, many of Indochina’s wonderful experiences come with a catch. The overdevelopment of Thailand’s phenomenal islands is well documented, as are the bargirls and booze-fuelled beach parties, but other obstacles remain more deeply hidden from view. On the flipside, Laos is only just in the midst of a huge period of development, but there exists a lingering feeling that laments the gradual loss of an old way of life and fears that their lives will become more like ours – more concerned with material ‘stuff’, a notion at odds with their Buddhist underpinning.

Vietnam is a country very much in recovery; though the war may have ended four decades ago its effects are still palpable and it’s understandable that the need for employment and sustenance often takes priority over the conservation of landscapes. Similarly, Cambodia has come a very long way since the dark days of the Khmer Rouge and the battles and torture that raged through the country for decades. The smiling faces that welcome tourists display the optimism and contentment of a people grateful for what they have, but the physical, intellectual and economical scars remain as the poverty cycle spins on.

There is still much to celebrate in each destination, however – the forests, coastline, countryside and traditional villages are astonishingly beautiful, and understanding each country will help us contribute to their conservation as well as showing the Indochinese people that tourism can be successful in a way that gives back to the land and, importantly, to them, rather than simply taking.

People & culture

The rise of orphanages

Generally, Indochina is a poor region and there are an enormous number of underprivileged children, as well as a large number of orphanages. In spite of this, volunteering at an orphanage is often not only an ineffective solution – it actually makes matters worse. Not only does it cause further emotional damage to the children in care, it can also, ironically, create more “orphans”.

There are many organisations offering volunteer placements in orphanages across Indochina – but be aware that your presence could be doing far more harm than good. When children become a tourist attraction – and a way to make money from philanthropically minded tourists, there will always be people taking advantage of this.

Orphanages can become businesses rather than places of care, with many of the children actually having parents who have been encouraged to give them up. Untrained volunteers, however well meaning, should not be allowed to work with potentially very damaged children, just as they would not in their home countries. And a high turnover of volunteers can mean that children become separated from people they have become attached to again, and again.

For this reason, we removed a large number of orphanage volunteer trips from our site in 2013, and launched a campaign to raise awareness of the issues. We do support placements for trained individuals, as well as placements that do not involve contact with the children

Responsible Travel, in collaboration with organisations such as Save the Children and ECPAT, launched a campaign against unqualified and/or unnecessary orphanage volunteering.

What you can do?
We urge only qualified professionals to volunteer directly with orphans, and for a minimum of four weeks, in order to be of benefit to the children. We also encourage all volunteers to ask a number of questions to the volunteer organisation in order to ensure they are acting ethically and responsibly, and taking the correct measures to ensure child safety. The issue is a complex one, so do see our campaign for more information and guidelines for volunteer organisations and 10 questions for volunteers to ask.

Watch Al Jazeera’s documentary on Cambodian orphanages here

Child Sex Tourism

Unscrupulous orphanages are sadly not the only threat to Indochina’s children. Many sex workers are estimated to be under 18, and the law does not specifically prohibit the exploitation of children. However, tourism – and tourists themselves – can have a huge impact on reducing this number and encouraging vigilance to stamp out this practice.

While large sections of the tourist industry – not just the tourists – continue to actively embrace and protect prostitution, and it contributes to the Indochinese economy, there is little chance that the children involved will find more meaningful employment any time soon. In many areas of society, the practice has become normalised, with no social stigma attached.

Many families – largely from rural areas – are tricked into selling their children into the sex trade, and told they will have a better life. Others are former street children who have been picked up by traffickers. Child trafficking – for slavery or the drugs trade – is a serious concern across Indochina. Tourism is a major contributor to this, as around 15 percent of female sex workers are under 18 – and many children are now being trafficked – kidnapped or sold – to be abused overseas or in their home country.

What you can do?
Childsafe International is one organisation working with tourism businesses across Indochina and elsewhere to educate them about child protection. Many of the operators listed on Responsible Travel use hotels certified by ChildSafe, meaning they will not allow tourists to bring local children into the hotel, and will report anyone seen with a local child.

The Code also works to protect children from sex tourism. Tourism companies can sign up to The Code, and in doing so pledges to undertake six steps to stopping child exploitation– including staff training, providing information to travelers and establishing a policy. A list of tour operators and hotels in Thailand that have signed up to The Code can be found here.

If you do see anything suspicious in a restaurant, bar, or hotel report it to the manager. Don’t assume that just because you are in a four-star resort that this could not happen. If the manager refuses to investigate, take your business elsewhere – and if possible, notify the police. If there turns out to be no cause for concern, then this will quickly become apparent. You can also use ChildSafe-certified taxis and tuk tuks. The drivers refuse to take clients with local children, and will not give any information that will support child exploitation. The drivers trawl the streets all day – so they are well placed to report any injured, abused or potentially trafficked kids.

The best way to stamp out child exploitation is to provide an alternative for the children. Social enterprise projects train and employ kids and young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds to prevent them from having to turn to this kind of work.
Kian Rackley, from our supplier Insider Journeys, explains more:
"Social enterprises are springing up all over Vietnam – they’re one of the best ways to give back, as well as having some pretty good Vietnamese food! STREETS International in Hoi An takes in and trains disadvantaged children in a Jamie Oliver-style restaurant, covering all aspects of hospitality from waiting on tables to being a chef. It results in a recognised diploma. Learning English is paramount, so they also take small groups of travelers into the markets each week to practice. There are two similar restaurants in Hanoi and Saigon called KOTO, which means Know One Teach One. In Hue, an organisation called Spiral focuses on disabled children and young adults. They recycle things that you can find on the street into jewellery and then sell it. All of the money goes into funding heart transplants in Central Vietnam."

Unexploded ordnance

Unfortunately, unexploded landmines still sadly exist in central Vietnam, along the Laos border, in Cambodia and across the Laotian countryside, in fact Laos has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country, per capita, in the world. During the Vietnam War, covert US-led bombing raids over the country left behind countless unexploded cluster munitions (UXOs) that are scattered in their millions throughout the country’s landscape. Of the 270 million cluster bombs dropped on the Laos during the time of the Vietnam War it is estimated that up to 30 percent (80 million) failed to detonate and continue to pose a threat with around 300 Laotians maimed and killed by contact with UXOs annually.

As one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, Cambodia’s landmine legacy is well documented. Around 200 people a year continue to be killed or injured by unexploded ordnance, and an estimated 40,000 amputees live in a country which simply does not have the medical facilities to give them adequate care. Around 4 to 6 million mines are still believed to lie in the ground, on farmland and in forests; clearing them will take decades.

The situation is indeed tragic, but it is by no means hopeless. In December 2008, 94 states signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international treaty to ban cluster bombs, which obliged governments to destroy stockpiles, clear affected land and assist victims, and as of May 2019, 120 states have committed to the goals of the Convention.

The bomb removal programme in Laos began back in 1995, and today well over 1,000 workers are destroying ordnance. The removal process is slow and painstaking, but it is working and the US, who currently allocate upwards of $9 million a year to clear UXO in Laos, are committed to helping with the problem alongside many other countries globally. Since 1999, Germany has provided over $15 million to Cambodia to support the mine clearance effort there and contributions globally now equate to approximately $30 million per year.

What can you do?
A thoroughly heart warming addition to your Cambodia itinerary is a visit to the excellent Cambodia Landmine Museum near Siem Reap. As well as being a museum, founded by Aki Ra, a former child soldier in the Khmer Rouge, it is also a safe house for injured children and adults, providing them with a home and an education. In recent years, the facility has opened up to care for children who suffer from abuse or disabilities, not just landmine victims. Although tourists are not allowed into the children’s home, volunteers can come and teach or help run the museum – you must apply in advance.

Other than never wandering away from your tour group so as to avoid getting injured yourself, the best thing you can do to help Laos’s problem with unexploded ordnance is arm yourself with knowledge as to the organisations based there such as COPE, and the organisations based back home that champion support for the victims and their families. There are many ways that you can raise money and awareness and your interest will be welcomed.
Lesley Schofield from our supplier, All Points East shares her opinion on the issue of unexploded ordnance in Laos: "During the Vietnam War, more bombs were dropped on Laos than they were on Vietnam and the worst sufferers of poverty in Laos are those that have become injured from unexploded ordnance, especially if they are the head of the household. There is no social security, so there are no disability means or special services in place to support disabled people. The level of unexploded bombs is still very high and it’s the farmers and farm kids playing in fields that find them, which has created a poverty that’s very difficult to cope with when you first see it as a tourist because it’s largely associated with disability."


Poverty levels are still high in Indochina despite the glossy tourist exterior, and the minimum wage is painfully low – exacerbated by the high cost of living in the tourist towns where many hotel and restaurant workers are forced to live. An expensive hotel is no guarantee of workers’ rights, so contributing to the local economy is not as simple as turning your back on the shoestring backpacker hostels – even staff at five star resorts may live in basic shared rooms, far from their families, and without the paid vacations to go home and visit their kids.

What you can do
This is an easy one – TIP. Thailand’s minimum wage is less than £6 per day, so by leaving a small amount for serving staff, chambermaids, porters and drivers you can contribute a huge amount to how much they take home to their families each day.

Unfortunately the problem is exacerbated in all-inclusive resorts, which entice travelers with the promise that they will not need to spend any money at all. This is likely to result in even lower salaries for staff – and no tips at the end of an extremely long shift. The best thing to do is avoid these resorts all together, but if you do stay in one, then be sure compensate the staff. If you can afford to vacation halfway round the world, you can afford to leave a much-needed tip. 

Wildlife & environment

The trouble with elephants

For centuries, mahouts have trained elephants across Asia to transport people and carry heavy loads. The tradition of working elephants is a complex one – it is an ancient way of life for entire communities in some regions of Southeast Asia, and elephants are able to penetrate dense forests and cross rivers in a way that vehicles are not – meaning they can be used for small scale logging without the need to bulldoze forests to create roads and bridges. Today, there may be just 5,000 elephants living in Thailand and Laos’s elephant population is thought to be under 500, which is devastating. Over half of Thailand’s remaining elephants are described as “domesticated” – this means there are thousands of captive elephants that have been trained to work with humans and are cannot be released into the wild. However, when the Thai government halted logging, many elephants found themselves “unemployed” – and were put to work in the growing tourist industry.

This encompasses a wide range of activities, from performing in circus-like shows, to being ridden around city centers, from carrying tourists through the jungle to being bathed by volunteers. One thing to bear in mind is that elephants are not “domesticated” in the same way as dogs or horses, as they have never been bred for captivity in the same way as other species. Their wild instincts remain, therefore, and baby elephants must endure a horrific process to tame them into submission. The sad fact is that tourism has now turned elephants into a lucrative business – a “tamed” baby can be worth tens of thousands of pounds.

The treatment of endangered animals is also a growing problem in Vietnam and Laos; the continual pressure for the local population to make money means that endangered animals are sometimes killed to satisfy the bizarre but very present western appetite for animal souvenirs and ‘exotic’ foods.

And let’s not forget the ‘medicinal’ purposes for which animal parts are put to use. Despite claims that the exotic lotions and potions sold in Laos under the umbrella heading ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’ can cure all ills, the animal parts used in them such as bear bile, tiger bones and rhino horn are extracted in the most barbaric ways causing nothing but pain, extreme discomfort and in most cases, death of the animal involved.
What you can do
Some animal rights organisations urge a boycott of all elephant sanctuaries – but the thing to remember is that there are thousands of ex-working elephants who now need caring for. One of the best sanctuaries for rescued and retired animals is the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, which has a medical center, natural landscapes for the elephants to live in and an expert team of carers, who look after them round the clock. The sites exist very much for the elephants, not for the tourists. Volunteers undergo training programmes to be able to look after the elephants, and the fee is reinvested into the elephants’ care as well as in local community projects, often supporting the families of the former mahouts, as well as reforestation work.

Research is key, and with the Internet there is no excuse for making incorrect assumptions about a place. Look at photos or videos of the sanctuary you are planning to visit to see how healthy the elephants appear, and what their enclosures are like. Check vacation review sites – as well as the unedited reviews on Responsible Travel – to look for stories of maltreatment. Any good sanctuary will also include plenty of information about where their elephants come from, how they are treated and what visitor interaction does or doesn’t involve – anywhere offering performances, painting or rides should be avoided.

Riding elephants damages their spines – and the animals have been beaten or prodded into submission to persuade them to allow riders on their backs. The photos of you riding an elephant may look great at first, but could turn out to be an embarrassment once you have researched what went into “training” that elephant.

Sadly, only wild elephants fall under any legal protection in Thailand, so there is little you can do if you see signs of cruelty. However, you can report it to your operator if a tour was organised through them, to deter them from offering this excursion again, as well as to Responsible Travel. You can also name and shame on social media and review sites – photos add proof of what you have seen.

Some particularly sick-looking elephants are dragged around the streets in chains as “beggars” to get money from tourists – this practice is illegal in Thailand, so photograph and report it to the local police.

Watch Elephant Whisperer, a documentary about Lek, who has dedicated her life to saving elephants at Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park.

Responsible tourism tips

Indochina is a deeply religious and conservative region; strappy tops and short shorts should not be worn. In temples you should dress even more modestly – knees and upper arms should remain covered, and you should remove your shoes before entering a temple. It’s a good idea for women to carry a sarong or light scarf to cover up at short notice. The head is the “highest” and most revered part of the body; never touch anyone’s head. Conversely, the feet are the lowest; pointing your feet at someone or at a religious object, such as a Buddha statue, causes serious offence. Remember, most temples are functioning religious centers. Don’t give pens, money, or sweets to the local people you encounter on visits to villages as it can encourage begging and may be seen to establish a non-equal relationship between tourist and local. Instead, donate children’s books to river libraries or buy crafts directly from villagers and show an interest in their skills. Sweets may seem like an ideal gift for children, but access to dentists is extremely limited to rural dwellers and the last thing you want to give them is tooth decay! Sex tourism in Cambodia has not yet reached the levels of neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, but it is on the increase. Most local people are keen to avoid this as it tarnishes the tourism industry as a whole, encourages the hassling of westerners and leads to the trafficking of sex workers. Some bars and hotels, therefore, refuse to let western men in with Cambodian women in order to deter this practice – it’s a good idea to support these places. Female travelers of Asian origin may therefore be questioned and should carry ID; but remember, it’s ultimately for a good cause. You could use up dozens of memory cards on the photogenic Indochinese people – but never take a photograph without permission, especially of monks or official figures. Strike up a conversation with your subject, find out more about them, and tell them who you are. Even better, if they are a stallholder or shopkeeper, buy something from them. This way, you both gain from the exchange – and your purchase will have a nice story behind it. Destinations across the region are struggling to adapt to the amounts of waste generated by tourism and development. Litter bins may be limited, so keep hold of rubbish until you find somewhere suitable to dispose of it. Batteries are toxic waste and there is no way to safely dispose of them in Cambodia and Laos, so take them back home with you. The Dam Sen Water Park in Saigon is a popular daytrip for families wanting to escape the tropical heat. However, the water park is part of the bigger Dam Sen Theme Park, which has a number of captive animals, including poorly treated elephants. Bears, monkeys and dogs are dressed up and made to perform for visitors – so do not support any part of this park. Vietnamese people make up for their conservative dress by asking impertinent questions – it’s not uncommon to be asked about your marital status, income or family by a virtual stranger – but be polite even if you don’t want to answer directly. It’s all just part of the culture. Be careful when you visit hill tribes. There are many wonderful community tourism organisations, and our operators work with these, using local guides and allowing you to become part of the community for the day. However, there are also very exploitative tours – including coach tours in Thailand, where dozens of tourists descend on a village; and trips to see the Karen or Kayan “long-necked women” – refugees from Burma who are famed for the metal rings that elongate their necks. They are such a lucrative "attraction" that the Thai government has refused to allow them to seek asylum elsewhere, for fear that it will affect tourism. Thai food is famously delicious - but steer clear of bird nest soup, popular amongst the Chinese community. It is made from the nests of swiftlets - whose numbers are suffering as a result of the increasing demand for nests, the most expensive of which can command thousands of pounds per kilogram. Working conditions for nest harvesters are precarious, as they climb dozens of metres up rickety ladders inside caves; injury and even death are not uncommon. Bangkok's Chatuchak Weekend Market is the biggest in Thailand. It's a great experience - but avoid the animal stalls. Exotic species such as iguanas, alligators and monkeys are for sale here, but even the kittens and puppies are kept in horrendous conditions, in small, hot cages without food and water to prevent them from making a mess. You may see animal parks advertising the chance to cuddle a tiger cub – never support these. Cubs will have been bred illegally, kept in poor conditions and are most likely being reared to the point when they can be slaughtered for their bones, which are valued in traditional medicine. Any responsible, captive breeding programme will never invite humans to come into contact with wildlife, as habituated big cats can never be released.
Written by Polly Humphris
Photo credits: [Page banner: dia_n] [The rise of orphanages: Beth Kanter] [Unexploded ordnance: Emilio Labrador] [The trouble with elephants: Audrey] [Boycotting Thailand’s Tiger Temple: Isabelle Acatauassú Alves Almeida]