Eleanor Hawkins, the young woman from Derby currently facing obscenity charges in Malaysia, was barely a toddler at the time I behaved stupidly on Mount Kinabalu.
In 1994 I set out to climb South-east Asia’s highest mountain wearing a pair of sandals ill-suited to anything more demanding than a stroll on a beach. The writers of the Lonely Planet guide to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei did not address the question of suitable footwear, presumably concluding that climbers would be appropriately equipped. But the book did make clear that Malaysia is a conservative nation, and visitors should behave with moderation.
For a day-and-a-half I cursed quietly as I stumbled uphill in the company of dozens of Malaysian tourists, for whom scaling Kinabalu is a rite of passage.
Just below the summit, I wobbled anxiously as I waited my turn, then scrambled to the top. I duly noted the sun rising from the South China Sea to flood Borneo’s muscular east coast with light. But I was rather more preoccupied with descending safely after my footwear malfunction.
How technology has improved our lives in 21 years - not just with the development of high-traction hiking sandals, but also the ability to take photographs on a device half the size of a guidebook and transmit them instantly around the world from two-and-a-half miles high.
If the 10 Western backpackers who stripped off on the summit had done something smarter with that phone, they would not now be facing charges of obscenity. Tap “FCO Malaysia” into a smartphone, and within seconds you learn from the Foreign Office travel advice that “Malaysia is a multicultural but mainly Islamic country. You should respect local traditions, customs, laws and religions at all times and be aware of your actions to ensure that they don’t offend.”
Ms Hawkins’ lawyer would be unwise to argue that, among some travellers, stripping off for the camera at World Heritage Sites such as Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat is de rigueur. When you buy a ticket abroad - whether to visit a Unesco-recognised location such as Mount Kinabalu, or to join a pub-crawl through Magaluf in Mallorca - you signal your acceptance of local laws and attitudes.
In many popular locations, a certain amount of leeway is conferred pragmatically in order to protect the tourist industry. Right now hundreds of British tourists in Dubai hotels are breaking the strict UAE law that prohibits sharing a room with “someone of the opposite sex to whom you are not married or closely related”. But don’t rely on touristic immunity.
In the context of South-east Asia: you may be amused by the law against chewing gum in Singapore, and baffled by the Thai taboo on showing the soles of your feet to other people. Many of us abhor laws such as the intolerance of homosexuality in Brunei - a small nation, incidentally, that you can view almost in its entireity from the top of Kinabalu. So don’t go there. Their nation, their rules.Reuse content