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Naked tourists keep taking photos at sacred South-East Asian sites, and locals are not impressed

There's an incongruous trend sweeping across South-East Asia of Western tourists posing for nude photos at monuments, temples and holy sites.

Jakarta (28/08 – 20.00) So many urges might strike as you arrive at an impressive, sacred site that you’ve travelled across the world to visit.

Perhaps it’s to cry or to reach out and feel the cracks in old stone. You might want to elbow the person next to you and whisper in awe.

But have you ever felt the urge to get naked?

There’s an incongruous trend sweeping across South-East Asia of Western tourists posing for nude photos at monuments, temples and holy sites.

And it’s not going down well.

A man in white shirt, and woman in white dress and an official looking man in red suit, all wearing face masks, stare ahead.
Alina Fazleeva and husband Andrey Fazleev were deported from Bali in May this year for taking nude photos at a sacred tree.(Getty: Sonny Tumbelaka)

Ravinjay Kuckreja is a Balinese religion researcher at the State Hindu University of Denpasar in Bali.

The occurrence of nude photos in inappropriate locations just “keeps repeating”, he tells ABC RN’s Life Matters.

While there are some “everyday casual tourists” involved, he says a greater proportion of the photos seems to be by influencers, who are “purposefully creating content”.

“A lot of them tend to be wellness gurus or actors or yoga influencers,” he says.

He lists some recent examples, including the Russian influencer who was deported from Bali in May after posing nude against a 700-year-old tree

A month earlier, a Canadian actor and wellness blogger managed to offend both Balinese and Māori people when he “went live on top of a sacred volcano doing the Haka”, Mr Kuckreja says.

The man was also deported.

Blurred still taken from a video of a man with long curly hair, staring into camera, from shirtless waist up, under blue sky.
Jeffrey Craigen attempted to perform the Haka naked atop a sacred Indonesian volcano.(Instagram: video still)

Mr Kuckreja says he’s not alone in being dumbfounded by the behaviour, which is increasingly attracting strict responses from local authorities.

“The main question here is why [does this] keep happening again and again?” he says.

Why take the naked temple photo?

Mr Kuckreja says since 2018, European and Australian tourists have racked up a growing list of insensitive activities in Bali, documented and shared online.

There have been incidents like “a Czech couple splashing holy water on someone’s backside in 2019”, he says, as well as naked West Australians driving a scooter into a pool in the same year, and in 2021 another Russian influencer posing naked on an elephant.

It’s not the nakedness per se that’s the problem, Mr Kuckreja says.

“However, being naked … in temples and sacred places – that’s a big no-no.

“Usually, you’d have to enter with a sarong and a sash to cover up your lower body … It’s basically out of respect for the spirits or for the gods and the ancestors that dwell in such places.”

From above bodies from feet to mid-calf stand in shallow water on white sand, near a small starfish.
It’s not nakedness that’s the problem; it’s nakedness at holy sites that is.(Unsplash: toa heftiba)

The incidents aren’t just happening in Indonesia.

There have been a string of cases – and deportations – of tourists being naked at sacred sites in Cambodia and Malaysia, too.

Ben Groundwater, a travel writer and former tourist guide, says behaviour like this is nothing new. When he was a guide in the early 2000s, there was “a lot of bad behavior” among tourists, including “a lot of people getting naked in places that they really shouldn’t have been”, he says.

“But it just wasn’t quite so obvious. There was no social media back then [so] nothing was being posted, nothing was being sent home.”

The behaviour often fell into the category of “acting up in a way that people thought was harmless, but was obviously fairly problematic”.

Mr Groundwater believes there are two distinct groups of people here.

There’s a group he considers simply lacking in “perspective”: “just regular travellers who do crazy, silly things when they travel and things that might be disrespectful”. They may not consider the impact of their actions.

And then there are influencers, who are “heavily focused on attention [and] getting more followers. It’s about impressing your followers [and] creating shareable content”, he says.

“I find it very difficult to believe that these people don’t know that they’re doing the wrong thing”, he says.

“Anyone who’s travelled at all knows that if you’re going into a place of worship, a temple or a church or whatever, there are certain things that you need to do to show respect.

“And obviously one of those is not taking all of your clothes off and taking a photo.”

Mr Kuckreja agrees that social media drives some travellers to use foreign countries “as a stage for themselves”.

But he believes there are other, more pressing motivations: namely, a lack of education and a bubble caused by independent travel.

“People are not really using local tour guides anymore,” Mr Kuckreja says.

“They are staying by themselves in Airbnbs or villas which are managed locally. They use ride hailing apps. They don’t talk to any locals. They don’t have any drivers or any point of contact, so they don’t really know what’s happening. They don’t really know what’s around them,” he says.

Deportations ‘a statement’

Mr Kuckreja believes that people from Western countries can sometimes see law enforcement as less professional in South-East Asian countries.

He says there’s a mentality among some travellers that laws can be avoided in places like Bali with bribes.

“[They think] you can get away with everything, as long as you pay a little bit or you meet the right people”, he says.

However, it’s not the case. In fact, authorities there can be more conservative than in some Western countries.

Deportations after inappropriate behaviour such as nude selfies at sacred sites are part of “the Indonesian government stepping in and saying, ‘Hi, we exist and we have laws, and we are more than happy to enforce them’,” Mr Kuckreja says.

“Now, the ministry of human rights and legal affairs of Indonesia [is] just putting the foot down and deporting people as a statement.

“You can’t just be going to a foreign country like Indonesia and be doing anything [you] want to do.”

Bali’s Governor, Wayan Koster, said in a statement that it is more “important to preserve the culture and respect the dignity of Bali” than tolerate behaviour such as nude photos at sacred sites for tourist dollars.

Mr Kuckreja says many Australians, who are likely to have been to or know about Bali, are often more educated about its customs and traditions, as first-time travellers.

“They kind of are able to discern which [site] is sacred and which one is not … They’re much more aware,” he says.

Those who are “completely foreign to Asian culture” are more likely to demonstrate behaviour that is considered disrespectful, he says.

“When they come, they don’t really know … the boundaries between what’s sacred and what’s not.”

According to Mr Kuckreja, the number of tourists who travel respectfully in Bali still overwhelmingly outweighs the number of those who don’t.

But he wants bad behaviour to be called out so the balance doesn’t start to shift.

He’d like to ensure people who travel to Bali or any other overseas destinations “respect the local culture and learn something new as well”.