WHEN in Rome, do as the Romans do.
The message behind this medieval axiom rings loud and clear – that is to behave as those around to conform to the larger society and respect the beliefs and practices of a local culture.
Sages of yore, however, would be shocked to find the behavourial dictum they had minted so abused that its original purpose as a code of civility for travellers to foreign lands now resembles a multilated misnomer.
There are, of course, people mindful of the need to do as the Romans do when in Rome – or if they should be elsewhere, then live as the residents do there.
But nowadays, reports abound of travellers showing scant or totally no respect for the customs and traditions of the countries they are visiting.
They brazenly insult the local cultures and their expectant sense of entitlement – as if their status as tourists automatically grants them transgressional immunity – is a glaring faux pas.
They are merely deluding themselves if they think just because they are contributing to the tourism industry of the host country, they are entitled to demean the indigenous cultural norms, sensitivities and beliefs with impunity.
Such travellers not only hurt the feelings of the locals with their disrespectful behaviour but also soil the image of their own country by projecting their kind as ill-bred and culturally shallow.
But what do these cultural rednecks care about the crassness of doing things only monkeys do or how many people they hurt by stomping on their cultures so long as it satisfies their egos.
In Cambodia, for instance, the most popular tourist attraction – the complex of ancient temples, including Angkor Wat – is suffering from a “form of over exposure.”
This year alone, at least five foreign visitors have been “arrested and deported for taking nude photos at the sacred sites.”
According to wire service reports, the authorities have no tolerance for people stripping down at Angkor Archaeological Park, a sprawling, centuries-old Unesco World Heritage Site that drew two million visitors last year.
Such naked incidents have also irked ordinary Cambodians for whom the Khmer-era complex holds enormous spiritual and historical significance.
“Angkor Wat is the most famous sacred temple in Cambodia where everyone – not only tourists but also Cambodians themselves – has to pay respect,” Rattanak Te, an administrative assistant who lives in the capital Phnom Penh, was quoted as saying.
“It definitely upsets me and all Cambodians because outsiders will think we – Cambodian people – are careless and do not take good care of this World Heritage (site) by allowing these tourists to do such an unacceptable act.”
Recently, two American sisters were arrested for “snapping photos of each other’s naked backsides in the temple of Preah Khan,” according to Kerya Chau Sun, spokeswoman for the Apsara Authority, which manages the temple complex in Siem Reap, in northwestern Cambodia. They were each sentenced to a six-month suspended sentence, a fine of one million riel (US$250), deportation and a four-year ban from the country.
In another incident, two Canadians were recently caught taking nude photos at Machu Picchu and arrested as part of what Peruvian authorities are calling a crackdown on “crimes against culture.”
The Peruvian newspaper La Prensa reported that the duo were “briefly detained at a local police station after guards caught them taking nude images of one another with a cell phone.”
The incident came to light just two hours after a pair of Australians were caught doing the same thing and reportedly attempted to bribe guards to avoid arrest.
The practice of stripping at culturally revered sites follows the trail of its bare-all exponents across the globe.
Malaysia is not immune to such caveman antics.
Although some water has passed under the bridge since, it is not out of place to reflect on how a Canadian travel blogger tried to cash in on the Mt Kinabalu nudity incident by fabricating stories about it to fan a firestorm on social media.
The blogger Emil Kaminski claimed to be one of the tourists posing naked on the peak of the mountain. He has scoffed at Kadazandusun belief that the mountain is sacred, labelling it as “mere superstition and idiotic.”
Kaminski, founder of travel blog Monkeetime, said on his Facebook:
“If local religion prohibits certain actions, then local believers of that religion should not engage in it but they cannot expect everyone to obey their archaic and idiotic rules.”
He also poked fun at reparations for stripping on top of Mount Kinabalu, claiming he believed in having some “decency laws” but did not see the harm in nude photos being taken on “a remote mountaintop.”
He said he took his “butt photos” in remote places where hardly anyone sees him – in other words, these photos are not for public viewing.
He, of course, would want us to buy that but his reasoning is flawed, considering Monkeetime’s YouTube page where he posts his nude pictures, has over 10,000 subscribers and over five million viewers.
This makes his nude photos taken even “at remote places” anything but private. It may true “hardly anyone sees him” in the act but everyone will have a front row view when the pictures go viral. This makes a mockery of his belief in having some decency laws. It is all right so long as they do not apply to him.
Kaminski is said to have misbehaved in Brunei two years ago by insulting the Sultan and Islam, and believed paid “to write about his travels and the pranks he pulls wherever he goes.”
He has posted obscene messages across several social media sites, aimed at Malaysian officials, and even “pretended he was one of the naked hikers” but has since admitted making up the story about being in Malaysia at the time of the controversy.
His double talk has prompted the parents of one of the arrested climbers to call him “a halfwit who is stirring up a media storm and is not doing anyone any favours.”
In Canada where Kaminski comes from, drinking alcohol in public is prohibited by law. Canadians also take a hearty sense of national pride on their flag which “should never be shown in indignity or displayed in an inferior manner.”
One wonders how will Kaminski react if a visitor to his country drinks alcohol in public or sits on his country’s flag or spill dinner on it. Will he still be singing la vie en rose when his national culture and pride are violated?
It would, of course, be wrong to generalise that Kaminski’s disrespectful behaviour is reflective of the whole of Canada. I would think far from it.
A great majority of his fellow countrymen, I am sure, disagree with the stunts he pulls to insult other cultures. It’s people like him who give their country a bad name.
Was nudity the cause of the earthquake on Mt Kinabalu? Geologists do not think so but they do not go around insulting the beliefs of the locals. You could also say the timing of the powerful tremor sucks for the strippers. They could have gotten away with it if there was no earthquake.
However, notwithstanding the earthquake, the real issue is the nudists’ utter disrespect for the local culture. They not only stripped and peed at the summit but also added insult to injury by laughing at the spiritual significance the locals hold for the mountain.
While others were unrepentant, some of the climbers had expressed remorse and apologised for causing ill feelings by stripping on top of the mountain considered holy by the local population. They had left after serving their sentence – three-day’s jail and RM5,000 fine.
When you visit a country, you are expected to respect that country’s culture. If you belittle or desecrate that culture, you only have yourself to blame if you get prosecuted because of it.
As one columnist quite rightly pointed out, it is wise to note that the general rule – when you visit places (in any country) with deep spiritual and cultural significance to the local people – is to maintain proper conduct and not do anything that might be perceived as disrespectful – such as behaving inappropriately.
So when in Rome, it does no harm to do as the Romans do.