“Am I a tourist or a traveler?”

That’s the question I ask myself at 5:30am on a warm, sultry morning in beautiful Luang Prabang, as I watch the procession of monks gracefully receiving alms, one at a time, as they calmly pace through the city. As a “tourist,” I’d probably run up to one of the monks and quickly demand a selfie, because what is more “exotic” than Asian monks clad in saffron robes, right? “The folks at home will be soooo jealous when they see my photos!”

As a self-proclaimed “traveler,” however, I have to hold myself to a higher standard, right?

If you travel enough, inevitably you confront this question: what kind of visitor do I want to be? Do I, for example, want to be the type of person who arrives in a country, hits all the popular sites, insulates himself inside a nice hotel, eats at fancy restaurants, takes a photo looking like he’s holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and then posts all of his pictures on Facebook? Or, do I want to be a “traveler” – someone who seeks the road less traveled, whose goal is to really get to know the culture of his destination?

So many times in my traveling twenties, I found myself condescending to those who I deemed to be “tourists.” How uncouth they were, eating at MacDonalds, executing their little agendas, rushing around from one E-ticket site to the next. What a prig I was with my “I only stay in small guest houses” and “I only travel by local transport” and “At least I TRY to learn some of the local language!”

Is a judgmental “traveler” any better than a manic “tourist”?

In the end, it’s all semantics. Tourist, traveler, whatever! We all hit the road for the same reason – to experience the sights, sounds, and cuisine of a foreign place and to escape our “routine.” It doesn’t really matter where you stay or how you travel – the important thing is, do you adopt an attitude of respect for the local culture? Are you curious about how people live their lives? Are you there to make interesting connections with people and, above all, to learn from them?

Personally, there are days on the road when I just want something familiar. I want a veggie burger and fries. I don’t feel like “total immersion” that day. Does that make me a bad person? I hope not. Wherever I go and whomever I encounter, however, I’m definitely going to be polite and respectful. I’m going to try to observe the cultural norms. If the temple requires I take my shoes off before entering, as they do in Laos, I’m going to do that. I’m certainly not going to point my feet at the Buddha statue because that’s very rude according to religious customs.

Perhaps the appropriate attitude to adopt is, “I’m a visitor here in someone else’s house.” I don’t mess up their abode or take souvenirs without asking. It’s a privilege to even be here!

It’s certainly a privilege to visit Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage City. Located in northern Laos, the town is built at the confluence of two rivers: the mighty Mekong and the Nam Khan. The overwhelming impression is, “Wow, it’s so Southeast Asian AND so French here!” Luang Prabang is truly exceptional for both its architectural and artistic heritage, a fusion of Lao traditional urban architecture with that of the colonial era. LB is also a big temple town, with graceful, religious structures everywhere you look. Call it a Mini Bangkok, albeit with that quintessential, slow, leisurely Laotian pace.

In the end, I *do* take pictures of the monks begging for alms. I mean seriously, it’s quite a beautiful and moving sight! But I do it discreetly. I certainly don’t insert myself into the picture via a selfie. I’m a visitor here! The last thing I want is to be kicked out of the house!

(Whether you call yourself a traveler or a tourist, here are a couple of ideas for you try on your next overseas trip: 1) Be spontaneous—no itinerary is set in stone 2) Eat locally 3) Get off the main track and wander 4) Rent a bike 5) Strike up conversations with everyone you meet—and not just other travelers 6) Find an opportunity to volunteer somewhere 7) Bring photos of home and share them with others, so the locals can see how YOU live. In other words, take advantage of this precious opportunity to learn about the culture, and yourself.)