Female Savvy Traveler – Camping in South East Asia
By Kate Burlington
Many of us want to experience the real Asia and spend one or several days camping in the wild while on holiday in South East Asia. I love it too…
There are thousands of well-run international travel operators offering trekking and camping holidays for people on all budgets, from the very cheap for young people and backpackers to the very expensive for those with a significant budget available to them. Some tourists are concerned about the environmental and social impact of their holidays, and choose to support local initiatives run by NGOs and other businesses that are locally run and employ local people to minimize the negative impact.
My husband and I, often try to find local community based tourism sites off the beaten track run by community groups and local NGOs. With the increase in social media coverage and use of the internet, they are easy to find and book.
So far so good, but why is it so often a frustrating experience for many well-travelled tourists?
One of the challenges for me being the fact that I am often treated as a child. Ok, I grew up in a great family with both of my parents loving outdoors, camping and hiking. I can build a tent within minutes and make a fire without firelighters (who uses those?). My parents were open-minded liberals, so since the age of 14 I was allowed to camp with friends unsupervised by adults… I know in today’s world social services would have been called to assess these risks, but I was not the only one, many of my friends had a very similar upbringing with plenty of opportunities to spend time outdoors, to test our own limits and take calculated risks. We were fortunate to be able to play, be adventurous and free spirited.
This upbringing makes me an outdoor savvy traveller, who gets frustrated watching a guide who struggles to build my tent. And yes, I have tried to help many times… but being female and a paying customer disqualifies me for helping, or even being allowed to build my own tent. There is an obvious cultural mismatch the guide’s and mine expectations- I am happy to pay for local knowledge of the area and their guiding skills, but unless I am paying for a luxury “glamping” holiday I do not expect to be waited on. Building a tent is a fun activity to me, not a chore. Let’s face the reality most of the time our male guide would not choose to camp for fun, as you or I might do. For him , t is a job – one he loves and values. One that helps him to provide for his family and allows him to support a local environmental protection or community developmental initiative. However, if you ask him if he would rather be in his bed at home than in the middle of a forest sleeping in a tent, most of the time he would not hesitate to stay at home. This is understandable, as both of our experiences and motivations are different. This in itself is not a problem, but it is important to acknowledge the fundamental difference we have for being in the middle of a forest camping.
In addition, traditional gender roles within the region play an important role in this scenario. I am often expected to be the fragile “butterfly” that could not possibly know how to do “manly” tasks like making a fire, building a tent, or carrying heavy backpacks. Over the years, I have watched how my male counterparts get treated differently. I long for the same level of trust in my abilities they receive from the guides.
This substantial cultural difference makes for an interesting element within any camping holiday with a local guide.
How do you deal with it?
Do you get angry? Do you just “put up” with it? How do you negotiate this very complex relationship across cultural and gender differences, so you are both happy with the end result?
I have tried many things and here are some of the best solutions, I found:
- Good cop, bad cop – Often my husband and I play to be the bad cop – good cop. He is always the good cop and I end up being the slightly eccentric female who just loves to be difficult. Ok, I know… gender stereotype reinforcement, but it allows me to do what I like – be adventurous and take risks without totally alienating the local guide. Instead of facing up to the issue and forcing the guide to lose face, I enable the issue to pass as part of my eccentricity of being women.
- Trying to explain that I am able to do this by myself – sorry to disappoint you but this solution has never worked for me. Either the guide gets very confused or upset that I am trying to do his job – a job he gets paid for.
- Let it happen and just re-do – the one option always available is to let the guide make your tent or pack your bag, and then you can correct it and fix it later. This seems to work most times, however there are a few exceptions. A few months ago, a friend of mine and I camped with a guide who decided to make an open fire less than half a metre from our tent. Health and safety were obviously not considered, and we almost ended up with a fire in our tent. When we asked the guide to move the fire he just could not understand what the problem was. Remember, whenever it comes to issues of safety always make sure that you stand your ground and do not let things happen if you think they can be dangerous.
- Just accept the status quo – not sure I personally like this option, as if nothing is done and things are left unchallenged, many others female savvy travells will be faced with the same issues.
It is important to remember, all the guides you meet really want you to have a fantastic experience and a great holiday. They are honest and good people who just don’t understand where we come from and why we want to get dirty and uncomfortable while trekking in the middle of nowhere. It is frequently a lack of training and cross-cultural understanding that often leads to the challenges that female outdoor savvy travellers face. The tourism industry still has a long way to go before it understand the female feminist travellers, so why are we surprised that small community based tourism projects are not getting it right?