Naked Tourists and Mountain Gods, or Traveler’s Responsibilities

Mt. Kinabalu
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Mt. Kinabalu

I’m not sure if it made the Western news recently, except in the U.K., but there was a large furor here in Borneo over some naked tourists. The reaction in the UK was out of line, and the whole episode raises issues of morality, respect and responsibility that I have been mulling over in various regards for a few years now.

Mt. Kinabalu is the fifth highest mountain in Southeast Asia, and one of the largest tourist attractions in Sabah, the northern Malaysian state in Borneo. The mountain dominates Sabah, physically, geographically, and in many ways, culturally. It has long-held spiritual significance for the local tribes, and it is somewhat of a rite of passage for Sabahans to make at least one trek to the peak in their life, though many make dozens.

It’s also a huge tourist draw, and one of the main attractions marketed to tourists. It is a two-day trek to get to the peak and back down, with an overnight stay near the top.  There are only around 150 permits a day, due to limited facilities and efforts to minimize the impact on the natural environment. When we made the trek a few months ago, Western tourists comprised roughly 10% of the climbers that day, with the remainder being predominantly Malaysian, as well as other Asian tourists.

Climbers hike 6km the first day, taking roughly 4-6 hours to reach the lodge at which everyone spends the night. The following morning, everyone departs between 2-3 am, hikes four hours in the dark, and arrives at the summit around sunrise. The temperature at the peak hovers around freezing, so most climbers head back down after an hour or so to make the descent all the way to the base.

On May 30th, 2015, a group of 10 young, Western (British, Canadian, German, Dutch) tourists were climbing Mt. Kinabalu. Upon reaching the summit, the group decided to strip down and take a nude group picture at the UNESCO world heritage site, because that’s what kids do these days apparently.

Reports have stated that their local mountain guide urged them not to do this, and some of them told him he was “stupid” and to “go to hell.” Presumably there were a few dozen other people in their vicinity, primarily Malaysians, who would have been involuntary witness to this classy display of backpacker bravado.

They complete their descent and all disperse to the various hostels, flights, buses, or whatever was next on their individual vagabonding itineraries. Case closed, no harm done, except for a few prudish Malaysians, shocked by the site of some white genitals and nipples, right?

A few weeks later, on June 5th, a 5.9 magnitude earthquake hit Sabah at 7:15am, with its epicenter just a few miles from Mt. Kinabalu. Earthquakes are not at all common in Borneo, and neither the population, nor the mountain, was prepared. One of the rock spires near the peak collapsed, causing a landslide. At 7:15am, most of the climbers would be just beginning their descent from the peak, which put them right in the path of the landslide. A total of 18 people were killed, including four local mountain guides, and a number of school children from Singapore.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, someone took note of the pictures and the story of the naked tourists on the mountain, and it spread like wildfire through various social media channels. The population of Sabah is split between Muslim and Christian, though there are small pockets of the population left who still adhere to their traditional animist beliefs. It was suggested that the naked tourists had offended the spirits that reside in and around Mt. Kinabalu and that perhaps the earthquake was retribution for this affront.

This idea quickly made its rounds, and even a Sabah deputy chief minister mentioned it. As the story spread, and as the population dealt with the shock and grief of the earthquake, the deaths, and the psychological and economic impact, anger at the naked tourists spread and there were demands for their apprehension and prosecution.

In short order, four of the tourists were identified and apprehended; the rest were either unable to be identified, or had already left the country. They were quickly tried for “indecency,” found guilty and sentenced to three days imprisonment and a fine of around $1,300. They were given credit for time served while awaiting trial, paid their fine, and were released and deported the following day.

Now, for the deeper issues here and what was and was not handled correctly by various parties.

First, I think the Malaysian Court did an admirable job, which is something I don’t think I’ve heretofore found occasion to say about anything having to do with Malaysian government. They held the tourists accountable for their actions, they satisfied the local demands for justice, and they did so in a way that acknowledged the affront caused to local customs and laws, but did not impose an unduly harsh punishment that would have caused an international incident or resentment abroad. Simply, they gave these kids a serious enough slap on the wrist that they will hopefully never do something this dumb again, and it will hopefully cause other travelers to think twice before engaging in stupid, disrespectful behavior.

Those in the wrong here? Pretty much all of the Western parties to the events. Both the tourists themselves, and perhaps more importantly, the Western media.

As travelers and tourists, we must always remember that we are guests in the countries we are traveling in. We must be at least cursorily aware of the laws and customs of our host country. This is really quite simple:

  1. Read that section at the back of your guidebook that mentions any legal matters to be aware of:
    • Are drugs legal, or are they highly illegal? If you’re in Amsterdam, you don’t need to worry about being arrested for smoking some weed. If you’re in Indonesia, you do not want to be caught with even the tiniest amount of drugs, as you’ll be looking at a long prison sentence or even death.
    • Sex: Age of consent varies between countries, and there are other matters to be aware of. In Laos, it is illegal for foreigners to have sex with Laotians, unless married. In some Muslim countries, it is illegal to have sex with, or even share a hotel room with, your partner unless you are married. Laws regarding homosexuality vary widely as well.
    • Alcohol can be illegal in places, as well as public intoxication, open containers, etc.
  2. Observe the locals
    • If the locals aren’t getting drunk in the streets, or wandering around town with no shirt or in short shorts, then there is a good chance there is a social taboo against these behaviors even if there is no legal proscription.
    • This is most commonly the case with dress. Many other cultures are more conservative than Western ones in this regard. Muslim and many Asian countries don’t show much skin. Don’t wander around town in a bikini. Don’t sunbathe topless, even if you come from a European country where this is second nature.
  3. Use common sense and show some respect
    • Just because other tourists are acting like insensitive assholes, doesn’t make it OK.
    • If it wouldn’t be acceptable at home, it probably isn’t elsewhere. Do you wear a bikini or a mini-skirt to church at home? Then don’t wear them to the mosque, cathedral, temple, or whatever spiritual sight you are visiting.

In the case of the Mt. Kinabalu nudists, it comes down to common sense and respect. The average tourist wouldn’t be aware of  the details of Malaysian laws regarding nudity and indecency, but one need not research this before traveling to Malaysian. All you have to do is look around you and be a decent human being. See how a large proportion of the local women are wearing a hijab, or headscarf? See how most of the men wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts? Notice that many restaurants have prominent signs indicating “no pork served?” It doesn’t take much sleuthing to realize that there is a fairly devout Muslim population here, and they are conservative in terms of dress, diet, and intoxicants.

Does this mean you have to don a hijab and give up pork? No. It means you just have to respect their culture. Don’t get shit faced in the streets. Don’t wear a bikini or go shirtless everywhere. Don’t get fucking naked in a national park that is an important cultural and spiritual symbol for the local population.

As Westerners, we have a fairly liberal acceptance of nudity. Hey, who doesn’t like seeing a nice pair of boobs, right? Those uptight, conservative, religious types need to accept our natural bodies, right? Well, what would we do at home? If you got naked for a group picture in front of Westminster Abbey, Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park, or the Sydney Opera House (????), you wouldn’t be surprised to find yourself the object of police attention.

If you’re German, you may be used to sunbathing topless on your lunch break in the park next to your office. But you generally don’t go take topless pictures in front of the Brandenburg Gate; it might be legal, but socially, it’s a bit strange. I’ve been backpacking in national parks in the US, and bathed naked in mountain streams. But I wouldn’t pose nude on the viewing platform of Niagara Falls.

On a very closely related note, when traveling in foreign countries, I am always disheartened to see tourists imposing their culture and habits on the place they are traveling. This manifests itself in myriad ways, and is entangled with the whole phenomenon of Western culture’s world-wide explosion through television and the internet.

We can’t lay the blame at tourists’ feet for KFC, McDonald’s, Starbucks, the Body Shop, Hard Rock Café, and every other multi-national corporation’s expansion into every corner of the world. But tourists can and should stop demanding that Malaysian, or Thai, or Chinese food taste like what they are used to from home. Tourists should stop demanding that every hotel or guesthouse world-wide serve a full English breakfast, pizzas, hamburgers and pasta. And the dreadlocked hippy backpacker set should stop thinking that fire twirling is a legitimate cultural demonstration in any developing country.

Again, all it comes down to is showing a little common sense, some awareness of what is going on around you and what is acceptable, not imposing yourself and your culture, and showing respect for others. In essence, being a decent fucking human being. Which is kind of what you should be doing anywhere, whether you are traveling or not. And I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t always upheld these ideals myself; I’m still ashamed of my first encounter with absinthe in Prague 15 years ago, and still mystified that I managed to not end up in the hospital followed by jail.

As for the Western media in this instance, I’d like to put this a bit more eloquently, but what keeps coming to mind is simply that you are a bunch of close-minded, muck-raking shitheads. The headlines from the UK tabloids, including the Sun and the Daily Star went along the lines of “Your Boobs Have Angered Mountain Gods” and “Naked Brit Girl Caused Killer Quake.”  Tabloids can’t really be expected to act with any decency, but even the more respectable media outlets, including the BBC, CNN, etc often had an undercurrent of bemusement and condescension.

These tourists broke the laws and cultural taboos of the country in which they were traveling. They offended the locals, their customs, and their spirituality. They acted like spoiled little shits. If the tables were turned, and some Malaysians got naked in front of Big Ben, or in Westminster Abbey, what would have happened? They probably would have been arrested and prosecuted, and maybe even pilloried in the media if there were some extenuating circumstances that brought it to the wider public attention. Like so much of the world today, it’s OK if we do it to them, but not if they do it to us.

What I found most disturbing, was the thinly veiled condescension in most of the media accounts. These ignorant, backwards people think their mountain god is angry at the site of some boobs. How quaint and ridiculous.

The Bible tells of god manifesting himself as a burning bush on the side of a mountain. How is that any less preposterous than tribal spirits inhabiting a mountain? US laws in most localities prohibit women walking around topless, even for group photos in national parks. How is that any different? I have no doubt that (setting aside the obvious contradictions) if a group of Malaysian Muslim women posed topless in front of the revered presidents of Mount Rushmore, there would be a rabid group of Americans demanding their heads (figuratively. Or maybe not?)

I imagine a Venn diagram of those proclaiming the arrest and prosecution of the topless tourists in Malaysia to be an injustice, and those in the hypothetical situation of the Muslim tourists in America, would very much resemble a circle. I can envision the spittle-flinging myopic diatribe of Rush Limbaugh on both accounts.

Now, what about the Malaysians in this little scandal? The few I have spoken with, and the impression I get of the majority, were quite reasonable about it.

They didn’t necessarily believe that a mountain god was taking retribution for some naked foreigners. They weren’t completely ruling out the possibility; after all, these were the spiritual beliefs their ancestors had held for many generations. More importantly, they viewed it as a matter of respect. Don’t disrespect our sacred sites, our beliefs, our culture, and our people.

There were not mobs of locals wielding pitchforks and machetes, demanding the heads of the infidels. They just wanted these people held accountable for their actions, and future transgressions prevented. Once prosecuted, there wasn’t outrage at the defendants getting off with a relatively lenient sentence. A firm enough slap on the wrist to make it clear that this type of behavior is not acceptable, then they moved on. If only judicial matters the world over could be handled so swiftly, and so sensibly.

It all boils down to a very simple idea: show some respect and common sense. As a traveler, as the media, as the courts, and as a culture.