Canadians strip on holy Malaysia mountain – what’s wrong with travelers today?

Young people on the top of Mt. Kinabalu in Malaysia, apparently just before some stripped naked for a photo.

Young people on the top of Mt. Kinabalu in Malaysia, apparently just before some stripped naked for a photo.

Maybe it’s the booze. Or it’s the jet lag. Perhaps it’s that travel makes us feel free of our normal societal bounds.
Whatever the reason, it seems a lot of us act like buffoons on the road – whipping off our clothes, carving our names into ancient relics and assuming ridiculous (or, worse, offensive) poses in sacred places – before posting our antics for all to see.
It’s gotten to the point, I think, where you could call this an epidemic. The latest example comes from Malaysia, where the government has kept two Canadian women from leaving the country following charges they stripped naked on Kinabalu Mountain, which locals consider sacred. Malaysia authorities say it was not only insulting but may have caused an earthquake that erupted near the mountain.
Did the young folks cause an earthquake? No. Are they guilty of being insensitive, rude and disrespectful of a foreign culture. Damn right.
You want to strip naked for a photo? Try your bedroom. Or maybe your backyard. It might not get you arrested in Las Vegas, but it’s not acceptable at the Grand Canyon or in Banff or the top of Mount Royal in Montreal (unless it’s Grand Prix weekend, of course).
It’s not even summer yet, and already the Internet is filled with examples of stupid people doing stupid things away from home in 2015. To recap just a few:
• Two twentysomething American women could face serious consequences for carving the initials “N” and “J” into a wall at the Colosseum in Rome earlier this year. Not only did they deface one of the great treasures of the world, they had the audacity to take selfies. Kind of hard to disprove yourself in court now, ladies.
• A Russian woman is in hot water for filming sex scenes at the Great Pyramids. She may have great pyramids of her own, but this is not a good idea.
• Three French men and two American women have run afoul of authorities in Cambodia for stripping down to take naked photos at Angkor Wat.
Just this morning I saw a report in ETurboNews about authorities on the Spanish island of Mallorca pleading with people to keep their clothes on and stop having public sex.
For goodness sake, what is the matter with us? Are we really this uncouth, this self-centred that we run must amok around the world? Have we reached a new low in terms of public behaviour?
A couple of academics I spoke with for a story I wrote for The Globe and Mail said they think not, actually.
“It’s probably not a trend – but it’s a trend we’re noticing,” said David Dunning, a professor of psychology in the arts and sciences department at Cornell University in New York. “I don’t think people are any more stupid than in the past. But it’s easier, certainly, to document things.”
“… Don’t forget tourists in the old days would not so much desecrate but actually steal parts of the Colosseum,” he added.
I have seen castles in the south of France with 15th or 16th century graffiti on them, complete with descriptions of young men dropping their trousers to show off Mr. Johnson to unsuspecting princesses. So maybe it is just that we get caught more easily now because we share evidence of our shenanigans, rather than leaving them to the dustbins of unwritten history.
Is there something about travel that brings this out behaviour?
“We do travel to have fun and to relax. I think we lose some of the constraints we usually put on ourselves,” Dunning said. We’d be more vigilant if we were around family or friends or people we interact with on a regular basis. We lose some of our inhibitions – or some of our self-restraint – and we don’t seem to mind that what might be okay at home is not okay in the culture [we are] in.”
That would explain all those survey results revealing that men and women like to take romantic risks when they’re on the road. Hey, what you do in the privacy of the Miami Marriott is your business: Acting like a clown while carrying a selfie stick is, I think, something else entirely.
But Professor Ramona Pringle, who teaches at the RTA School of Media at Ryerson University in Toronto, says she does not agree with folks who label selfie fanatics as narcissists.
“I can see that as a first response, and I can see why museums worry about selfie sticks and people damaging things as they rush to take a photo of themselves. But I don’t think it’s anything new for people to try to say ‘I was there.’
I see their points. But I think there’s something else at work here, which is our ability to offend people much more easily than we used to. I mean, my Dad talks about how when he was a kid it was a big idea to pack up the car and drive from Oakland, where he grew up, to Los Angeles. There’s not much danger in offending anyone in L.A. with typical behaviour from Northern California.
But now we can find ourselves in vastly foreign places in the relative blink of an eye; places where the usual shenanigans (not that I count posing naked as usual) don’t go over the same way they might at home.
What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas. But that doesn’t go for Malaysia or Zimbabwe or Colombia or China.
Customs are different in other parts of the world. And we all need to be a lot more sensitive to that.
That issue aside, do we really need to take our clothes off somewhere to get attention? Didn’t these people learn anything from their parents? I remember my Dad once telling me, “Never do anything that would embarrass your mother.”
I’m sure I’m guilty of doing that on occasion, but not from displaying myself in the all together in a public place or in a country where we should know better.
So let’s learn a little respect when we travel. Let’s dress appropriately, ask permission before we do anything we’re not sure of and use a little common sense, people.
Dropping some of those selfie sticks into a pool of hot lava wouldn’t be a bad move, either.

EMAIL: jim@jimbyerstravel.com
TWITTER: @jimbyerstravel
INSTAGRAM: @jimbyerstravel1

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Katharine Fletcher 15 June 2015, 12:55 am

    My travel journalist colleague Jim Byers nails it in his blog at http://jimbyerstravel.com/, in his June 7, 2015 entry, entitled, “Canadians strip on holy Malaysia mountain – what’s wrong with travelers today?

    Of course, blatant disrespect of other peoples’ culture has been going on… forever. Aspects of French, Spanish, English Colonialism spring to mind…

    And, I recall meeting many North American and European women travellers back in 1983 when Eric and I were backpacking in Burma, who insisted on visiting Buddhist temples a) wearing shorts and tank tops; and b) menstruating. At that time, in Burma, women were asked to cover up, wear a preferably long skirt, and to avoid visiting when menstruating. Many female travellers we met simply said they didn’t care about these rules, that the locals had to learn our ways and adapt.

    Now, that’s a pity, in my books.

    What alarms me more about this recent Malaysian incident is that nowadays, most travellers and tourists know about such historical disrespect as Colonialism…

    The only positive I can see about these Canadians stripping and urinating at the mountain is to demonstrate that it’s a prudent time to pause, and to reconsider precisely why we want to travel. Eric and I travel to explore other cultures and their traditions, and we believe it’s not only prudent to be respectful of other peoples’ ways of doing things, it’s also intriguing to learn more about their beliefs. This is how we can learn about one another, and increase our understanding of the world and its peoples.

    Thanks, Jim, for a timely and most thoughtful post!

  • Penny Sadler 18 June 2015, 12:35 am

    I’m bewildered why everyone wants to be naked on the internet. And why be rude in another culture?

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