The people you most want to avoid in SE Asia (and everywhere else also)February 3, 2017
Call it expat privilege, call it snobbery, but let’s be honest; once you’ve been living in Asia for a while there are certain stereotypes that you go out of your way to avoid and who you would happily see being devoured by sharks (if we had any). And it’s just not tourists who fall into this ‘unwanted’ category, but quite a few of your fellow expats too. Here’s a light hearted but occasionally scathing look at the groups that really get my hackles up.
1. Barstool Philosophers. We’ve all met them propping up bars in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and other destinations. Usually managing to make Keith Richards look healthy and nursing their happy hour beer till it virtually evaporates, these fountains of faux-wisdom are often in the final years of their lives (not a bad thing from a world view perspective). For the price of a fresh beer or a short, or sometimes just because they think you need to hear about their decades of experience in Pattaya/Sihanoukville/Insert sleazy resort of choice here, these alcoholic versions of the Oracle at Delphi know everything you will ever need to know about relationships, visas, the locals, dealing with police, which bars have the best happy hours, running a business (they have likely failed at several), where to go for a full English/Aussie pie/burger, quantum physics, and a whole plethora of other mind-numbingly uninteresting facts, figures, and anecdotes.
Ok, maybe not the quantum physics, but you get my drift. The ironic thing is, despite their lengthy time in the country, these sages rarely speak more than a smattering of local phrases, and those tend to be ones that can be used for purchasing either alcohol or sex. If you find yourself stuck beside one of these geriatric argle-bargles, then quickly finish your drink and escape.
Irritation factor: 8/10
2. Crims on the run. (See also former Special Forces types). Another common species found throughout Asia, and, like the so-called Special Forces soldiers, they suffer from severe cases of Walter Mitty Syndrome. Get stuck next to one of these creatures and they will regale you with their convoluted tales of a life in organised crime (or sniper duty in Iraq) and how they used their brains to evade the forces of law and order (or the Taliban). They will hint at their activities here, and let you take away the impression that they are major underworld figures with a price on their head. They will pepper their stories with dashes of colour in the form of shoot-outs with gangland figures (whose names they have harvested from old news stories) or tell grand tales of living la vida loca that involves nubile women who happen to be contortionists, piles of cocaine Tony Montana would run from, and yachts more often seen in the marinas of Monaco.
The (sad) reality is that their true criminal record amounts to shoplifting in Woolworths when they were 14 and the only nubile woman they have ever encountered charged by the hour. If you find yourself being verbally assaulted by these purveyors of fantasy, simply let slip that you are a ranking police officer and they will skulk off to hide in a corner.
Irritation factor: 7/10
3. The Business Cliques. Now this isn’t a dig at the business community in general, best not to since I am (reluctantly for now) part of that community. But within that grouping there definitely exists certain insular cliques whom I’d gladly see put on a plane and sent homeward on one way tickets. More often than not these can be middle management types back home who were never going to get promoted any further but who, in Asia, can suddenly find themselves in dizzying and lofty positions.
You will find them at any of the various “ – cham” or other networking events, hovering in the shadows of the real business geniuses, and foisting their name cards on all and sundry. In their own country they would forever be stuck in their own little orbit of anonymity but here they rise to Brobdingnagian levels they could never have dreamt of.
These creatures are amusing/irritating on two levels; firstly they never realise that they are looked down on by the real businessmen and women working here. But more annoying is the way they gather in little packs and cling to all things British/American/Australian/Insert home nation of choice. Rarely will they venture into the real world of where they are living, but instead will gather in their favourite expat bar or restaurant and eat almost exclusively dishes from home. They are usually the biggest complainers about the lazy/dirty/rude/useless natives and most still have that degree of colonial superiority that was used to decorate Raffles. They rarely last more than a two or three year contract before fleeing back to the bosom of the motherland.
Irritation factor: 7/10
4. The Trust Fund Twatpacker. To do one section on backpackers would have taken up several pages. It’s a little easier to break them down into their sub-groups and identify the most annoying. Now generally, I don’t have anything against budget travellers and most backpackers tend to be pretty decent types. But one grouping that does make you reach for the nearest sharp object are the ‘Trusties’ (if with dreadlocks, they become ‘trustafarians’). Whereas most backpackers are on a real budget, these trusties are on an imagined budget. Often with names like Tristan or Gabriella, these are the privileged few, armed with top of the range rucksacks, $200 sandals, obligatory rebellious piercing, and the inevitable ‘emergency’ debit/credit card from mummy/daddy. Their trip is usually part of the last fling gap year before going on to a high level university then a job in the city/media/pr/managing the family estate. They have spent some pre-trip time religiously learning some local phrases so they can “…blend in with the natives, yah” and have memorised all relevant pages of their copy of the Lonely Planet guide.
They’re the first to hit the markets after arrival and buy some of what they think is local garb, particularly those awful jasmine/elephant pants that deserve doused in gasoline at the earliest opportunity. They are also most likely to cover themselves in fluorescent body paint and spend 12 hours dancing to the boredom that is psytrance.
Irritation factor: 8/10
5. Chinese tourists. I hesitate to single out one nationality in case of accusations of racism (which it’s not). The simple fact is that your average Chinese tourist in SE Asia is an absolute nightmare. It seems hardly a week goes by without some ‘horror’ story appearing in the media or on social media. Defecating in public – and especially at monuments such as Angkor Wat – starting fights on planes, attacking buffets like a crazed herd of wildebeest, air rage incidents, and a total lack of respect for local ways or customs (though this latter one can be a feature of many tourists).
But just why are they so bad? Lots of theories have been put forward, from lack of education among middle aged Chinese, no awareness of other cultures, right through to the perhaps overly simplistic explanation, “They’re Chinese.” When you throw in the fact that the Chinese groups tend to be the worst tippers despite the efforts of many Chinese travel agencies, then you can see why people tend to roll their eyes when they see a group.
Unlike some of the other categories, this one has the capacity for change. I personally think it is a very generational thing and that the older Chinese who have never had the opportunity to travel before can be a little overawed by the experience. Till that day comes, if you see a large group approaching…run!
Irritation factor: 5/10
6. The Ecowarrior Vegan Pansexual Minstrel. The second of our backpacker subgroups and the second worst . This group are the backpacker equivalent of Jehovah’s Witnesses on a crack/acid cocktail, only this group smells bad, very bad, “Because washing damages mother earth, man.” They’re out to save the planet in any way they can, though they do seem to have conveniently forgotten the carbon footprints they left in getting here.They will all get tattoos while travelling because “this country has left its mark on my soul, man” and the majority will have dreadlocks, though usually temporary ones.
Often found with a guitar or didgeridoo, they will regale you with tales of their journey upriver and how they communed with nature and the spirits of the forest. Popular phrases amongst this group include; “I’m here to find myself”, “That’s so deep, man”, “The Goddess will be a gateway to high-frequency fulfilment”, “The grid is calling to you via a resonance cascade”, “Consciousness consists of meridians of quantum energy”, and “Eons from now, we warriors will heal like never before as we are aligned by the dreamtime.”
They will quote Paulo Coelho, Rumi, and Russel Brand at you…incessantly. They will also all either have a personal shaman or they are one, and will gladly tell you of their amaaaaazing ayahuasca experience in the Venezuelan rainforests. Don’t ever mention to this group that you are against animal cruelty but still eat meat or you will be subjected to a 12 hour Billy Graham style sermon on why you can’t be both (throw the phrase ‘tu quoque’ at them to confuse if only for a few minutes). If you end up with one of this group next to you, there are various tactics you can employ, including ordering a steak, offering them soap, spraying them with a chemical insect repellent, or simply shooting them in the head.
Irritation factor: 11/10
7. The Sex Tourist. While it’s an often overlooked fact that the majority of the sex industry here in Asia is aimed at the locals, it remains a sad fact that the sex tourism sector is still pretty damned big. You only have to wander around nana Plaza or Soi Cowboy in Bangkok, Street 104/136 etc. in Phnom Penh, or Victory Hill in Sihanoukville, to see just how big a part it still plays.
Now this is not a dig at sex workers themselves in any way, I believe that if they do choose (and on a serious note, many do not choose but are trafficked into this work) to work in this sector then they should be protected by law and have access to things like regular health checks etc. But there is just something so skin crawlingly sleazy about many of the men who come here only for this reason. This list is very much about stereotypes and they don’t get much more stereotypical than the overweight, divorced manual worker from Barnsley who saves all year for two weeks of lust in Pattaya with a girl young enough to be his granddaughter.
What takes them to a whole new level is when they ‘fall in love’ with one of these girls (they should have listened to the barstool philosopher for once) and empty their ATM to support the girl, her ‘brother’, the entire family back upcountry, two kids, and a water buffalo. Now it’s not as if there are no stories online warning of the pitfalls ahead, if anything there are a million of them, riddled with the clichés of desperation, betrayal, and financial ruin. So why does it keep happening? Spend a week in any small town in the UK (or Europe, USA etc.) in the winter and you will see why the idea of exotic locales and exotic women who can bend over backwards (literally) to please you is so appealing to these hordes of condompackers.
Irritation factor: 8/10
8. The Travel Blogger. There may be a certain amount of irony in targeting bloggers in a blog, and to be fair there are quite a few travel bloggers who I really enjoy reading, but since the spread of smart phones and social media, suddenly everyone and their Auntie Mable seem to have travel blogs. Now the ones I do read tend to be quite informative and I often find myself making notes on a destination I’ve not visited or a new restaurant that is getting a good write up. But for the most part their entries veer towards the staid and uninspiring.
Now how do you spot these creatures if you are out and about? Well, much like vegans, this group seem to suffer from some form of compulsive behaviour that means they have to tell you they are a travel blogger, usually followed by how many hits last week’s blog on the Ko Pha-Ngan full moon party got or how many retweets, shares on Facebook etc. etc. As I’ve said, there are (lots of) good examples of travel blogs, but my issue is with the sheer volume that exists now, and how hard it can be to sort the wheat from the chaff. They come in all physical types, nationalities, class types, and backgrounds, but you can usually spot them at your favourite beach bar or restaurant frantically typing away on their laptop as they update their 17 regular visitors on just how fresh the shrimp is on this beach compared to the last beach.
Irritation factor: 5/10
9. The Voluntourist. Potentially another controversial one so I need to make it clear that my ire is reserved for the short term volunteers and also those organisations that capitalise on voluntourism by charging silly prices. This latter aspect of the sector is nearly always filled in by Guardian readers from affluent UK suburbs, who wear green wellington boots, recycle their waste religiously, and have a standing order from their bank to Greenpeace or whichever good cause is the current flavour of the day (and am sure each Western nation has their own version of that).
Unless you are bringing very specific skills to the table which will make a real and tangible difference, then my view is that your two weeks of volunteering achieves very little other than patting yourself on the back. You may have good intentions but honestly, no, stop it, go and lie on a beach instead and, when you get back home, why not find a local good cause that could do with help and volunteer some time there EVERY week. There is also the consideration, when the charity/NGO project involves children, that you can do more harm than good. Such short term interventions, no matter how honourable your intent, can in fact cause psychological harm to what is likely a vulnerable group.
Irritation factor: 7/10
10. The Yoga teacher. Now I’m not having a go at Yoga, or indeed the vast majority of Yoga teachers either. It’s a wonderful discipline that improves suppleness and flexibility and I doff my cap to all the true practitioners. But living here in Asia, you tend to come across a lot of what I think of as ‘Fundamentalist Yoga’ with the emphasis very much on the ‘mental’ part. There is a certain irony in Westerners coming to Asia to teach something that originated in the region.
Invariably the practitioners in this area of Yoga will have matted dreadlocks, a tie-dye t-shirt, jasmine pants, and several ‘spiritual’ tattoos (editor’s note; see also ‘Ecowarrior Vegan Pansexual Minstrel’ from part 1). These ‘gurus’ have usually been on a spiritual discovery for several years now and have nearly always spent time with a Swami in Northern India (reality – 2 weeks with food poisoning in Goa), discovered the true meaning of their inner self (reality – too strong a mushroom shake on Ko Pha-Ngan), spent months reading ancient shamanic scriptures (reality – they skimmed a Carlos Castaneda book) , and awakened the hidden power of their chakras (reality- a day long bowel movement while on Koh Rong). They also tend to reject the idea of using deodorant (as will quickly become obvious) and promote more quackery than David Avocado-Brain Wolfe. To be avoided at all times unless you want to experience a permanent spinal injury.
Irritation factor: 6/10
11.The Patriot Abroad. When living at home, this species of expat rarely raised a patriotic finger other than the odd drunken rant during football or rugby games. But once they choose to leave the ‘old country’ they transform into rabid patriots who will not hear a word said against their home nation. They will likely have a flag on the wall, at least one tattoo with their flag or national symbol, and will turn up to televised sporting events like clockwork, to shout on their own team while denigrating all others.
For some reason those that originate from the UK seem to suffer from this condition more than other nations, though some English ones may play it down a little to avoid being mistaken for a brain-dead UKIP supporter. Despite the tropical heat and humidity, Scottish versions of this expat will insist on shipping/bringing a kilt over (they’re 100% wool for chrissake!) and wearing it as often as possible, much to the amusement of the locals in a region where ladyboys are commonplace.
The patriot abroad will also make posts on social media every time a ‘food parcel’ from home arrives, and by their enthusiasm you would think they had just won the lottery. Luckily for the masses, the patriot abroad usually only reveals himself during major sporting events (or prior to major sporting events in the case of Scotland fans) or at times of nationally significant events (St George’s Day, Burns Night, Dydd Santes Dwynwen etc.) As a result, it is easy to avoid this class of expat by carefully avoiding sports pubs or large gatherings at any time when they may be at large.
Irritation factor: 5/10
12. The Cheap Charlie. This type can be either expat or traveller. Now look, I have nothing against people travelling – or living – on a budget. You live – or travel – within your means, and I have great admiration for those who can go out and experience the world on a limited budget. But there is careful financial planning and there is utter and complete stinginess. First of all you have to realise that most expat run businesses in Asia are not making their owners rich. There is rent, electricity, stock, staff wages, and other overheads. So if you, in the case of travellers, and your three friends sit and carefully nurse one bottle of water between you so that you can access free Wi-Fi for several hours then you have no right to act aggrieved when the owner tells you to f*ck off. And while we all love the cheapness – and variety – of street food, buying your $1 fried rice from a nearby stall then taking it into the nice air conditioned venue by the beach is just sheer crass rudeness.
Expats can be worse. We all like a good happy hour offering cheap draught beer and cocktails but there is something self-defeating in having tactics where you flit between bars to take advantage of their happy hour by using a tuk tuk that means you spend as much in total as if you had just remained in bar number 1. And going back to the costs and margins of running a business here; the principal idea of offering happy hours is to get the customers in and spending money on food or on more drinks once happy hour is finished. Do you really think that your purchase of three happy hour glasses of Angkor draught at 50 cents a pop is going to help them survive the coming low season? At the very least buy some snacks from the menu, even if they are the cheapest ones available.
Irritation factor: 7/10
13. The Culturally Unaware. Ok, so you are on the adventure of a lifetime, coming to places you have never been before, meeting new people, and experiencing cultures that are likely far different to your own. Living in the information age, there is a wealth of material out there to read, both online and in books, as to what to expect, how to behave, what is forbidden or frowned upon, and what the cultural parameters are. So why oh why do so many of you come over to Asia and act like total grade A assholes?
We’re not asking you to take an exam, or to spend weeks studying the material available, just to brush up on some of the basics. Every year we see more and more reports of travellers disrespecting temples and historical sites, wandering about naked in conservative countries, climbing on Buddha statues, insulting locals with behaviour and actions, defecating in public (editor’s note; see also ‘Chinese Tourists’ from part 1), or being arrested for a sheer lack of common sense. We’re not trying to stop you having fun, far from it, but even a little cultural awareness of the country or countries you are visiting can go a long way.
Getting angry with locals because they don’t speak English is another example I have seen on a regular basis. I mean, come on, this is their country, and while you may expect some level of English to be spoken by staff in major hotels, large restaurants, or by the tourist police, to expect poor old Bong Dara selling noodles by the roadside in Banteay Meanchey to know anything more than ‘hello’ is the height of colonial arrogance. And that doesn’t mean that we expect you to pick up more than a smattering of phrases in the local lingo (though the locals will love if you do attempt their language), it is simply about being aware that many locals will have no more than a rudimentary grasp of your language.
Irritation factor: 8/10
14. The Culturally Over Aware. Yes, number 13 has its flipside. There are travellers – I know, I have met them – who take the whole ‘learning something about the country and culture’ to ridiculous heights. It sounds hypocritical to on one hand criticise people who learn nothing and then single out people who learn too much. But trust me, when you actually live in a country and end up in conversation with someone who proceeds to deliver a lecture on construction techniques of the 12th century as exemplified by the Angkor temple complex, then you would understand where I am coming from. I want to applaud you for actually showing real interest in your destination but you have taken it to such anal levels that I want to slap you instead.
And if you think the reaction from us expats is bad, you should hear what the locals say! Do you really think they want their (long) working day interrupted by some well-meaning liberal Grauniad reader delivering a long and stultifying diatribe on the multiple causes of the Khmer Rouge coming to power? Simple answer to that is ‘no’. And it’s also a ‘no’ to the idea that you dressing like a local will endear you to them. They are far more likely to laugh and think ‘lop barang’ (crazy foreigner).
But your attempts at the language side of things? Bravo. The locals do love that part and do not be put off if they laugh at clumsy pronunciations as they do genuinely appreciate that you have tried to learn Khmer (or Thai or any other regional language) and will help you learn how to say it properly. Just tone down the know it all side regarding history etc. and you will be fine.
Irritation factor: 4/10
15. The Forum Griper. May seem strange to include gripers in a list which is griping, but every country in the region has its own (or several) online forum(s) where expats gather to complain about…well…absolutely anything and everything (editor’s note; see also ‘Barstool Philosophers’ above). If you spend any time reading any of the particularly bad ones, you will wonder why any of the members are actually here. There are good and bad ones for sure, and the good ones can be both informative and funny (but still with a side-order of gripe). Cambodia has Khmer440, once a hell of geriatrics complaining and whining and flaming new members but since the new owner took over it has turned into a far better place with a better cross section of the expat community and can be a good place to go and ask questions, even stupid ones.
The real humdinger in this category though is ThaiVisa, which has managed to maintain the highest levels of pathos for many years now. You enter the TV forums and in your mind you are stepping into a badly run old people’s home where there is a pervading aroma of stale urine and neglected pensioners. As with most of these forums, there are definite cliques running amok and new members will show any naiveté at their peril as no quarter is given. Teak Door in Thailand seems a more civilised version and if you are looking for genuine information and/or help there I would recommend that one. The real danger of any of these forums is that they can suck you into a black hole of often meaningless debate to the detriment of anything you had planned to do that day.
Irritation factor: 6/10
16. The Spontaneous Bar Owner. I have lots of friends who own bars here and in Thailand. And with the odd exception most of them have thought through their purchase, looked at all the pros and cons, and made an informed decision that while not allowing them to get rich quick, owning a bar here will allow them to live in a tropical country and not worry about 9-5 drudgery.
But, without fail, each high season brings in a new crop of spontaneous idiots who spend two weeks here, think that owning a bar will be paradise, and sell up back home and make a reactive purchase. The reality check that most of them miss is that lots, and I mean lots, of businesses fail across this region every year. It’s not an easy ‘career’ path by any means. Long hours, the potential to drop into an alcoholic lifestyle, unscrupulous landlords, high staff turnover, and crappy low seasons (or crappy high seasons for that matter) can all mean that you are heading home with your tail behind your legs sooner rather than later. And trust me; your ‘unique’ business idea is anything but. Virtually every variation of them and their cousins have been tried at some time or another. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to start a new life away from the horrors of Brexit/Trump/being French but in the name of all that’s holy, think before you jump! Take some time to know the area, talk to other bar owners about potential pitfalls and always, always have a contingency plan which includes emergency funds. If you can afford to, spend a couple of months living here before deciding what business to buy. These little snippets of advice may sound obvious but if more people actually used them then there would be less one-way fares back home come low season.
Irritation factor: 7/10.
17. The (temporary) English teacher. As with business owners, I know a lot of people in Thailand, Cambodia, China, and other countries, who are teaching. And nearly every one of them is a professional who has qualifications and experience and actually cares about the job they are doing (and let’s face it, given the wages in many places, they’re not doing it for the cash).
No, my ire in this area is reserved for the temporary/travelling/last resort English teachers. The ones who have no real qualifications (a degree in social studies does not count) or experience but sees the fact that some countries are desperate to fill vacancies as carte blanche to present themselves and their skimpy CV as being the salvation of the children here. Your photocopied degree from Khao San Road does not actually mean you know what you are doing, nor does your 2 years’ experience as a waiter in Basingstoke. But teaching here offers an easy option for people wanting an extended holiday but who lack any real skills to compete in the employment marketplace.
Now I’ve heard the argument that a crap education is better than no education. Bollocks. If you can’t tell the difference between there, their, and they’re, then you shouldn’t be around kids and passing on your own ignorance. If you really want to teach here, go off and get a decent teaching experience, rack up some classroom hours as an assistant, and then come and get a job. Yes, we need teachers across the region, and yes, the level of education here needs to be raised. But what we don’t need are people whose idea of a good lesson plan is teaching their students how to give a middle finger.
Irritation factor: 11/10.
18. The Hipster. Though this list is in no particular order, I have saved the best (worst) for last. This is not a problem that is only prevalent in SE Asia, but is a worldwide scourge that needs exterminating as soon as possible. With your carefully coiffured beards, your stupidly retro dungaree shorts, checked shirts that belong in a Canadian lumber camp, and your obscure and esoteric tattoos that only tell us how much of a dick you are, this is one trend that will ideally die out sooner rather than later.
Now combine those hipsters with backpackers (hippackers?) and you have a creature that is crying out for a continual slapping. They never drink ‘just’ beer, it always has to be a craft beer from a cask made from aged timbers of a sunken ship then transported thousands of miles on the back of a well-trained Moose. And never mind the beer angle, this hipster food craze is now getting beyond a joke. I want my food on a plate, or at the very most a piece of slate, what I do not want is my food served in a variety of household objects, novelty mini shopping trollies, little metal buckets, or other such nonsense, nor do I want anything, be it coffee or food, served ‘deconstructed’. Do not attempt to turn your sheer laziness into some sort of trend-setting chic idea. I go to a restaurant so someone else can cook, not to be presented with the various constituent parts of a dish for me to look at in stupefied amazement.
It’s not clever; it’s just inane and unimaginative. If you find yourself in the company of one of these people the best course of action I can recommend is to kill them with fire.
Irritation factor: 14/10
An extended version of this feature appeared on the author’s website www.stevenwpalmerauthor.wordpress.com. Many thanks to the author for permission to reproduce here.