The Naked Truth behind the Backpackers in their Birthday Suits

naked-trip_3314697kby Esther Ng

It took several hours. I had believed them when they told me that oxygen thinned as you went higher in altitude, but I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of first-hand experience. It took nearly twenty breaks in between scaling the smooth slab of rocks to eventually reach the base of the highest peak of Mount Kinabalu—Low’s Peak, or so it was named. On my left was South Peak, the second highest peak whose image is emblazoned on Malaysia’s hundred ringgit note. My breathing was difficult and shallow, and I thought, for probably the hundredth time that day, that any hopes of scaling Mount Everest were an immediate shutdown.

After two days and one very uncomfortably freezing night at the midway Rest House, I finally made it to the top of Southeast Asia’s highest mountain—Mount Kinabalu. Our guide, a simple young man from an indigenous tribe in Sabah, had led the whole way with five huge backpacks on his shoulders. Ahead of him, another guide of a tour group had nonchalantly strapped together almost twice that many bags and hauled them by himself after his group. After we hit the 22km mark, my second guide spotted a piece of candy wrapper no bigger than the size of a quarter. It was barely visible due to its translucent plastic, but my guide picked it up and held it in his hands throughout the first stage of the climb. Along the way, he picked up whatever tiny trash he could find—cigarette butts, pieces of paper, even colored string—although these were so small many would have figured it insignificant and barely litter. I remember looking at his hands behind his back as he led the way ahead of me. I remember wondering and marveling at his insistence of holding on to every bit of those tiny rubbish pieces he found. I remember my marvel turning into utmost respect as the hours passed and he still clenched them in his fingers. I remember asking him, as we neared the Laban Rata Rest House, how often he did these guides. He smiled and told me in Malay, “Every other day, ‘dik(little sister).” He only got one day off every week. But it didn’t matter to him. Mount Kinabalu had been home to his ancestors, and it had and always will be home to him and his many brothers from the local tribes of Sabah.

That was more than two years ago, a final farewell trip before I left for the States for university. News struck me one day as I returned home from classes in Hawai’i; Mount Kinabalu had fallen victim to the current “trend” of tourists taking their clothes off for nude shots. At 13,435 feet in elevation, Mount Kinabalu was a popular and difficult climb that drew thousands of eager climbers each year. I was horrified when I saw one picture posted online of nearly 20 men and women in the midst of stripping in front of South Peak, and another displaying pale buttocks with arms raised in the air with a sense of jubilance. The authorities were not the only ones who were offended. The entire state of Sabah, as well as people all over Malaysia as well, were in an uproar over what they considered plain desecration of their ancient site holy to the Kadazandusun tribe.

More angry reports surfaced of how the tour group’s guide had begged them to stop, only to be laughed at and ignored by them. In June, three individuals were arrested and charged by the Sabah authorities who identified them as being part of the group who stripped on Mount Kinabalu. Apologies were quickly issued. The two men and one young woman were subjected to public humiliation before being fined and deported from Malaysia.

Mount Kinabalu is the latest cultural site to have been sieged by this Internet trend of having naked or near-naked photos taken at popular heritage locations. In January, three French tourists were arrested after being caught taking naked photos of each other in the Banteay Kdei temple in Cambodia’s famous Angkor Wat. Earlier that month, a scandal had erupted over photos of a female tourist posing topless at the same location—although she was never caught. A few months later, two American sisters were arrested and charged for stripping naked at Angkor Wat. They were found guilty and deported from Cambodia. These cases, however, are just the tip of the iceberg. Online collections have shown a huge plethora of other photos, such as bottomless German tourists posing in ape masks next to moss covered temples. These were the lucky ones who evaded capture only to proudly display their “achievements” online. Cambodian authorities retaliated furiously, undermining new and solid rules to counter stripping tourists. Their anger, however, was nothing compared to the embarrassment and sadness faced by the common folk. Kerya Chau Sun, a Cambodian spokesperson for group presiding over Angkor Wat’s management, expressed his humiliation of such scenarios. Calling it “disrespectful”, Sun said he spoke on behalf of not just the people of Cambodia, but also the poorer communities who still revere Angkor Wat as a national pride and a holy place.

Meanwhile, authorities in charge of Macchu Picchu were faced with the dilemma of having nude tourists who stripped down in front of Peru’s famous UNESCO World Heritage Site. They scrambled to put up signs and set down strict rules to stop such behavior, but photos still continued to emerge of Western tourists appearing naked with the ancient structure in the backdrop. Several tourists were detained for such behavior in 2013, but this only inspired more to attempt the current on-trend. Authorities warned that removing clothes at the ancient Incan site was a “crime against culture”, but the words, just like the warnings at Angkor Wat, only fell on deaf ears. The struggle, it seems, is real.

The trend has become increasingly widespread. In Giza, porn actress Carmen de Luz posted an explicit photo of herself in a thong on top of a camel with the pyramids in the background, angering the Ministry of State Antiquities. Paul Marshall, who runs a blog documenting his “naked worldwide trip”, recently posted a photo of a man in the buff atop the Great Wall of China. Marshall is one of many individuals who support the trend, despite the risks of skirmishes with authorities involved. It is all in the name of fun, he says, on his blog post. “After all, we are all humans, we were born naked and we die naked. What’s the harm in just showing it all off during travels?”

Marshall’s playful words contrasted with that of his fellow veteran “streaker”, Emil Kaminski. Kaminski, who has been showing off his derriere in different places for about 12 years on his travel website, was one of the men who stripped in front of South Peak on Mount Kinabalu. Luck was with him as he had left the country before Sabahan authorities managed to identify him, but the Canadian gallantly posted a photo of his nude Mount Kinabalu excursion online, captioning in “the time of my life”. When the onslaught of threats and retaliations by many Malaysians begin to hound him, the travel vet posted an expletive-ridden video in which he mocked the uproar behind his nude photos. On his page, Kaminski rudely responded, “It’s just a f—ing mountain.”

“Just” a mountain?

In response to Emil Kaminski, I say this. Yes, perhaps it is just a mountain to you. Perhaps it is just part of getting in line with nature, or being one with Mother Nature. Perhaps you, like Paul Marshall, only see the fun and thrill of such “adventurous” travelling. No doubt, getting naked only increases the adrenaline even more, no doubt, of course, such an experience will be an unforgettable one. Perhaps there is nothing to be ashamed about the nude human body—and you certainly aren’t ashamed of yours—for we all share the same parts anyway. Perhaps as long as you do not get caught, or perhaps if you do one day, the joys of fulfilling your goals would be worth it.

What you, and the rest of your eager-to-get-naked travel community, do not see is the selfishness within yourselves. You think only of the thrill of your desires, not about the feelings of those who love their heritage sites, the very same ones whose grounds and walls you are rubbing your bottom against. You do not see the humiliation endured by the people, such as my mountain guide, whose beliefs include having their spirits attached to Kinabalu. Indeed, to the local tribes, it is considered a resting place for the dead. To you, it is just a mountain, but to them, it is a holy site, the resting place of their ancestors, and a huge part of their culture which surrounds their rituals and legends. These sites have belonged to them for thousands of years. It is theirs to protect, and we climbers make it to Low’s Peak only on the goodness and generosity of the Kadazandusun. They love their mountain, and they protect it even from the very last bit of candy wrapper litter. They lead you to the top and carry your 90-pound backpacks for you, only to be rewarded with a sight of their charges taking off all clothing for photos in front of their beloved South Peak.

There is a reason for the phrase, “there is a time and place for everything”. You call it fun, they see desecration. You call it nature, but they call it ancestral history. You think of cool photos, of online trends, of inspiring others and having the pride of leading a travel revolution—but did you ever stop to think of the Cambodians, the Malaysians, the Peruvians, even the Egyptians and Chinese, whose rich history and culture are embedded within these sites? It is your pride over theirs, except you forget that these places, unlike your body parts, do not belong to you. They are not yours to treat as you like. You leave with what you came for—but you leave the local people with a sense of anger, humiliation, ultimate disrespect and sorrow of having their revered sites subjected to your unwanted and offending actions.

Kate Ng, an editorial writer for The Guardian, wrote, that “we[Malaysia] may be a modern country, but we are still steeped in traditions and culture”. She is right. The lack of consideration and refusal to even apologize for such actions not only show blatant disrespect, but also hurt the local community of the country, she adds. No matter where one goes, no matter how much we believe in or appreciate local folklore and traditions, there is the unspoken rule of understanding and respecting the do’s and don’ts of a country. Malaysia, just like Cambodia and Peru, is a conservative nation. Stripping stark naked on their heritage sites is like a slap to their faces in return for their welcoming nature.

Living in Hawai’i has imbued me with the habit of walking around in slippers all day—but I could not, and would never do that in a mosque back home in Malaysia. Treat others as you would want yourself to be treated—with the respect that you desire and deserve. As travelers and visitors, we travel to explore, to learn, and to appreciate, not to undermine the significance of another’s traditions.

If you would like to get naked in public while traveling, I would suggest a nude beach somewhere in the Caribbean, where you would offend no one and could top off your tan in a perfectly acceptable environment. If you do not and cannot have respect for others’ culture—then you do not deserve to travel with what little appreciation you have for their hospitality.

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One Comment to “The Naked Truth behind the Backpackers in their Birthday Suits”

  1. Well written and completely agree there is a time and place. I think that too many people do not respect the traditions of other cultures and that is sad!

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