I caught up with a fellow traveler at the weekend, she has just come back from travelling the world for a year with her young family - total family travel goals! She was thanking me for a travel tip I gave her about visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand because she had realised once there the sheer number of places out there clinging on the surge in popularity for ethical care of elephants by claiming to be good. Spending so much time in Thailand, I took care to research thoroughly and to ensure I was only supporting causes I was certain were benefiting the environment and animals. Talking about her step-daughter's experience in India where she signed up to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary and found it to be mistreating the creatures, we realised how easy it is to do the wrong thing when all you are trying to do is the right thing. And isn't that the problem we are all facing in trying to be ethical these days?
I consider myself a pretty good human, I like to keep my carbon footprint low, to support and build up my friends, to smile at strangers and help out at a homeless shelter. Everywhere I travel I try my best to be ethically-minded and research every location, every day trip I go on and all the companies along the way, only supporting causes I know are genuinely helping local people. But somehow I still feel like I'm fucking it all up.
Much like trying to be vegan or only eating ethically-sourced food, using only beauty products that haven't been tested on animals or wearing clothing that hasn't encouraged slavery or mistreatment of those in third world countries. What is boils down to is we're all just trying our best to be damned good people and to try and help everyone, to support all the causes. We get to a point when we think, hell yeah, I'm doing pretty darn good at this! We're able to help educate others and feel like we're actually making waves, like we're making a change.
And it all comes out that we were doing it wrong all along.
Like the time I switched to almond milk after learning about the harmful impacts of the dairy farming industry, but then found the problems caused due to water sourcing and insecticides were just as bad. Or when I signed a petition over the closure of a factory that had been mistreating workers in a third world country for cheap clothes, but then heard so many were unable to feed their families because they were out of work. And the time I switched make-up brands to avoid animal testing then found the company uses the services of another company that does employ animal testing!
It's a constant battle and for anyone who tries to be ethically-minded, it can be a bit of a roller coaster - one minute you're up and feeling great for all the good you are doing for the world around you. Then next, you hit rock bottom when you realise actually by trying to help you may be doing more harm than good.
One of the problems - there are too many opinions out there and too many facts, but so often thanks to Twitter and various other social media outlets - the two become almost indistinguishable. It's so easy to read one thing and to make a change in your life, then a week later to see an news article damning the opinion you just read elsewhere. I don't know about you but I'm overwhelmed with information and I'm finding it hard to know which advice to take. To feel certain that I am actually making informed decisions that really are doing the best for everyone and the world around us. We've gone full circle from struggling to get the truth from companies over their ethical policies, to now being swamped with information and unsure of the facts.
Another aspect of this is the bloggers, social media stars and the celebrities who so often pick a cause to back and legions of fans follow in their wake. The fact is these influencers have a huge impact on the decisions of people across the world and the ethical nature of the decisions they make can cause huge waves. Just look at how many more people seem to care and know about global warming effects since Leonardo DiCaprio started talking about it, and Emma Watson must be one of the best-known faces for using her platform to really highlight key issues from women's rights and climate change to sustainable fashion. But likewise, this can be used in a negative way, such as when some figures make questionable decisions such as wearing real fur, encouraging their fans to follow suit. The constant fight for change and for attention means it's hard to know who is really trying to make a difference, and who is just jumping on the bandwagon for likes.
As someone who has been travelling for over three years and has no plans to stop anytime soon, being ethical in my travel will always remain at the forefront of my mind. After all, what was that quote?
Take only pictures, leave only footprints, kill nothing but time. - Aliyyah Eniath
I've always felt the one thing that really touches my heart and stays with me a long time after my travels, it's not the places. It's not sunrise at Angkor Wat or exploring waterfalls of Laos, it's not doing yoga in Thailand or learning to work on a farm in outback Australia, or even getting lost in the ruin pubs of Budapest. It's the people you met along the way. The amazing souls who helped you when you were struggling, the ones who showed you a world you never dared dream of, the ones who gave you enough laughs to last a lifetime. Those people are the ones I hold close in my heart, they're the stories I tell about my travels, they are the memories.
So if that is the case, then it's so important to make sure your travel is benefiting the people who have given you the experience of a lifetime and the environment you've been lucky enough to explore:
These are just examples and there are so many other ways to be ethical in your travel, to make informed decisions. And that is the most important thing, like me, you may be struggling with knowing if you are truly being ethical. But when it comes down to it, just the fact that you care enough to inform yourself is the first step to really doing something good in the world. Don't listen to all the judgement over social media, it's too easy to get swept away in throwaway comments instead of investing your time in making a change.
This has turned into a pretty mega blog post considering I had writer's block just a few days ago, but I think this is such an important issue to be raised. Can you identify with feeling confused over traveling and living ethically? It's okay if you do, we're in it together. As long as we're all doing our darnedest to make a difference, that's all we can do.
How do you ensure your travel is ethical? Do you ever worry your 'ethical' decisions are less ethical than you would hope? What ethical changes have you made in your life?
Laos proved to be a country with two very different sides to it - the drunken, touristy side you may have already heard about where we aren't exactly welcomed with open arms by the locals. And the pure beauty of this mostly untouched landscape combined with the genuine kindness of the Lao people. It's such a strange dichotomy and caused me to have mixed feelings about the country at first - I couldn't decide whether I felt I actually ever knew what Laos was really about. But I suppose travelling through in just two weeks after spending three months in Thailand - I never really would know the country beyond the immediate impression - it takes time to peel back the layers and get to know a place. But I certainly gave it my best shot. We arrived in Luang Prabang and headed straight for our guest house that I had pre-booked just to ensure we could find a place straight away - we had expected to arrive in Laos a lot later than we did and didn't fancy finding a place in the dark. We stayed at Matata Guest House and when we arrived we were given a warm welcome by the staff - all a really lovely, friendly bunch who were eager to get us settled in to the four bed dorm. We chilled out for a bit with a coffee and some play time with their gorgeous dog, who, of course, was called Hakuna.
Later that evening we headed out for food and where better to eat than the local night market? We were advised to aim for a selection of stalls that offered an all-you-can-eat deal for a few thousand kip and we went and filled our boots after a long day on the boat. The food was okay, a mixture of noodles, rice dishes, vegetables and meat - but it definitely didn't have the flavour and spice of Thai food so I was a little disappointed. A lot of the vegetables were really overcooked and many of the dishes tasted the same, but still, it was cheap and quick. Afterwards, we headed to the main bar that everyone always goes to - Utopia is hidden down a couple of backstreets near the river and is a lovely little bar with okay music, relatively cheap drinks and a great atmosphere. It was buzzing when we arrived and we spotted some friends straight away, plus a load of others we had met previously at different points on our travels through Thailand - everyone who was anyone was in Laos that week! After a few drinks, a lot of laughs and a cheeky dance, the bar was closing (don't forget those annoying curfews in Laos) and everyone was heading off to the infamous Luang Prabang bowling alley which sits in the middle of nowhere. Trust me, as you get loaded into the tuk tuks like cattle and drive off into the dark, pulling up to this ugly and neglected building - you definitely feel like you might be on the way to an execution. But as soon as you walk through the doors into the horrible fluorescent lighting and hear the rubbish speakers attempting to blast out cheesy tunes, you know you're in for a pretty strange night.Bowling is a bit expensive but it's something you only do once, a bit of a rite of passage for the backpacker in Laos. It's absolute rubbish and you have to be drunk, but if you have a good gang of people you can turn it into a really random but fun night. We had a great gang and had so much fun bowling barefoot while one of us played barmaid and doled out the bottle of whiskey. It was pretty funny, especially when one of the girls kept getting strike after strike and totally destroyed the boys' scores! One of the lads was so sure he was going to win, and he couldn't hide his disappointment when he realised he had lost so superbly. Finally we were finished and ready to leave, many of the other bowlers were still going strong but we were done for the night and headed back to town. The one great thing about Laos' curfew is that even after a big night out, you can still get a full night's sleep because everything is shut by around 2am - this was welcomed after all the partying in Pai.
Other highlights of the stay in Luang Prabang include getting my hair cut by a Laos woman who spoke not a single word of English - this was interesting and she definitely didn't do what I asked. But hey, my hair looked a damn sight healthier after all the dry bits were cut off! I also went for a fabulous massage (aiming to have one in every country I visit in Asia) which was specifically a Laos massage - which was very different to those I have had in Thailand. It was far more gentle and more relaxing than invigorating, plus the oils they used smelt amazing! I also loved walking around the markets and the town - Luang Prabang is a lovely little town, but if you have already done all the trekking and trips like that elsewhere, it leaves you with little to do. The shopping appeared good there, although I didn't buy anything. I would definitely recommend a visit to the town because it is lovely and the people are very friendly - if you do pop by, also go to the bar that holds nightly fashion and breakdancing shows out on by local children - it's very different and good fun.
Have you been to Laos - what did you think of the country? Would you consider going there in the future to test out your bowling skills?
Okay so you remember that time I wrote about smear tests? This is going to be a little bit like that... Probably one for the girls and a bit much for the boys to cope with - just warning you now. So Dad, if you're reading this, you can give this post a miss. Periods. Pretty bloody inconvenient aren't they? It was never something me really thought about before coming away, but I certainly wish I had now so I could have been more prepared. This is something no one warned me about and something I had never read about, but I know I'm not the only female traveller to be caught out unexpectedly. I've met several women on the road who have been only too quick to tell me about the horrors they have faced using Thai toilets when they just want a nice clean toilet with loo roll on hand. When you're packing to come away, it's just not something that really crosses your mind because as Westerners, we are so used to having sanitary products on sale in every shop with clean dashing toilets everywhere, and those super hygienic disposal buns for anything that won't flush. But what happens when it's not all so convenient?
Surfing the crimson wave, or riding the cotton pony, never seems to come at a good time and it's far more annoying when you're going on holiday and you just want to be looking fabulous in a bikini instead of bloated and like a beached whale with spots the size of maltesers. Painting a beautiful picture here aren't I? To be honest, I've never been one of those girls who has been that bothered by periods, they're an inconvenience but I just get on with it. If I know I'm going away on holiday or something, I will use my contraceptive pill to control when I have a period, so I can time it for a week later or even a month later. Good old microgynon! But what happens when you're going travelling for a year? Well it's one thing to run two packs of pills together, but a years worth isn't quite so good for you I'd imagine, so how do you cope with having a period in Thailand and what do you need to know?
Toilet tissue has to go in the bin (in most places) and so do all tampons and sanitary products - that means when you change your tampon, it is left wrapped in a bit of tissue in the bin. Seems pretty gross to a westerner, but it's either that or the whole bathroom with be flooded with whatever else is down there!
Go prepared. Much of Thailand doesn't sell a fantastic selection of sanitary products, so don't walk into a 7/11 and expect to find all your favourite brands. You will want to make sure you have a good supply of tampons in particular as I haven't actually seen them on sale anywhere yet - Thai women apparently use sanitary towels instead as tampons are considered unclean. Pack as many as you can! I met some girls who were having them posted out to them from mum.
The sanitary towels are nothing compared to the slim fit ones at home - while slim, they often seem to come with huge wings. Not quite as discreet and comfortable as the ones from back home, but they do the job when you're desperate and run out of supplies. Just be sure to stock up when you see them on sale as you often won't find them in shops in some more remote places. I think some of the Thai women must be shoving a rolled up newspaper up there instead!
Things like wet wipes and anti bacterial gel are really helpful when you want to make sure you have clean hands and a clean body in slightly less clean places. As a backpacker, you quickly lower your standards of cleanliness to fit with the place around you, and when you add in limited clothes and underwear in your bag, sometimes you just want to feel fresh - these can make all the difference.
If you have quite heavy periods, it might be worth seeing your doctor before you go and seeing if they can put you on a contraceptive pill that will help to lighten them and to make you more comfortable when travelling - but this is totally a matter of personal choice. I've met girls who have the injection, the implant, the coil and a range of other methods for dealing with periods while on the road.
Don't let it scare or stop you! Having a period in Thailand is really not that bad and it is certainly no excuse to lock yourself in a dark room and cry. It doesn't have to stop you from doing anything, I still hiked, swam, sunbathed and explored plenty of places and it didn't stop me enjoying myself. Just make sure you don't push yourself too hard, if you have bad period pains then give yourself some painkillers and take care of yourself. It's okay to have a lazy day when you're feeling rubbish, or to head to the city when you're too bloated to feel comfortable in a bikini. That's the beauty of backpacking, it's so flexible and will fit around how you feel.
Okay that's all my period advice for today - girls I hope it helped you. Guys, well done if you made it to the end of this post.
If anyone has any questions, I'm always at the end of a comment, so leave one below and I'll always get back to you. Or why not share your period horror stories from your travels?