Travel blogger misses the mark in Afghanistan controversy (Opinion)

A file photo of Afghanistan.
A file photo of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is gradually being taken over by the Taliban. Herat, its cultural capital, is under siege. It’s one of the last places on Earth any foreign traveler should be right now. 

Yet, last week, that is precisely where Thailand’s most famous homegrown travel blogger found herself. 

Now Monthon “Mint” Kasantikul, the figure behind I Roam Alone, a solo travel blog with over five million followers, is digging her heels in, going on a full-court press to defend her decision to travel to a war zone in the thick of a pandemic and threatening legal action against her critics. 

No matter how she frames her argument, though, she is wrong—wrong to believe that traveling into the line of fire is worthy of glorification, and wrong to think that by parachuting in she could do a better job of representing the people of Afghanistan than professional journalists. 

On July 26, in a since deleted Facebook post, Mint revealed that she was stuck in Herat. The Taliban had seized several districts outside the city and were moving in fast. A UN compound had been bombarded by rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire. Herat was being defended only by the country’s unraveling security forces and militias called upon by a prominent warlord. 

As Mint described the situation in detail, she also shared a photo of her female guide, divulging her name as she explained what might happen to her if the Taliban took control. With insurgents bearing down, this small act could have grave consequences for the guide she left behind in Herat. (Mint later explained that she revealed her guide’s name at her request, as she believed it would facilitate her asylum request; we have chosen not to republish the guide’s name here.)

Netizens in Thailand were sucked into the wake of her saga. Some were rapt. Others were upset that she seemed to hang her cohort out to dry. Most, however, were nonplussed that anyone would be traveling in Afghanistan now. 

They had a right to be upset.

War zone travel is irresponsible, if not indefensible. The risks run the gamut from harassment to arbitrary detention to death. All put great strain on embassies, which are left to clean up the mess wayfaring travelers create. Such situations can also give rogue regimes legitimacy and leverage. Worst of all, they put local workers at risk, like Mint’s minder in Herat, for example. 

Make no mistake: Afghanistan is a war zone, albeit one that stands in that liminal zone between war with a foreign occupier and war with itself. It’s also full of cautionary tales of independent travelers who went off-piste and ended up devastated. 

Joshua Boyle and Caitlan Coleman come to mind. In 2012, Haqqani forces kidnapped the Canadian-American couple while they were hiking in southeastern Afghanistan. They spent five years in captivity. Four years later, two Hinterland Travel tour buses were attacked by the Taliban as they passed through Herat province.

While these travelers have acknowledged being lured by the mystique of venturing to places where few others go, it’s harder to apprehend Mint’s motivations as a travel blogger. 

In a Facebook post today, she described wanting to portray the country fairly and independently. She seemed to suggest that foreign and local reports were inadequate, if not inaccurate, in telling the “real” story of Afghan citizens. 

 

It takes extraordinary hubris to assume that in mere weeks one can better demystify the fractured and complex military political situations in Afghanistan than reporters, analysts, and specialists who have spent years decoding them for governments and global readerships.

But Mint isn’t the first to attempt to show “the other side” of life in the line of fire.

Recent Afghanistan travel videos by YouTuber Drew Binsky have yielded over one million views, a figure that can net creators tens of thousands of dollars. 

In March, solo female traveler Eva zu Beck shared a video on YouTube titled “What’s it REALLY Like as a Tourist in AFGHANISTAN.” It has recorded over 430 thousand views and received many favorable comments. “Afghanistan seems like such an amazing place,” one user wrote. 

As anyone who has traveled widely will tell you, some of the most challenging destinations can also be the most rewarding. The people who live in them often appreciate the presence of intrepid foreign travelers—they’re a symbol of hope, an opportunity to reclaim control of a narrative that outside actors have shaped for them, and a source of cultural exchange.

But YouTube videos optimized for clicks and eyeballs are little more than travel porn. In one of Binsky’s videos, he depicts three ways people in Afghanistan get high. In another, he smokes hashish with local youth, writing off a gratuitous act as a cultural experience.

Mint doesn’t stoop to this level in her work. But it’s nevertheless fair for the public to question her intent. Any for-profit travel content derived from a war zone should raise serious ethical questions, and Mint’s own work in Afghanistan should be scrutinized on these grounds alone. 

It’s also fair to ask: why now? The pandemic has devastated the global south. Afghanistan has fully vaccinated just 0.6% of its population. Getting shots in arms will only become more difficult as the Taliban’s offensive further destabilizes the region. In other words, this isn’t the time to travel to at-risk destinations, no matter your vaccination status. 

But instead of owning up to her actions or turning criticism into fuel to become a more responsible public figure, Mint is threatening to sue critics for defamation. In Thailand, that is famously a criminal offense. Considering the destination she has just returned from, it’s hard to fathom how one can justify support for a law so insidious that it can result in imprisonment. 

Mint serves as an unofficial Thai diplomat whenever she goes abroad. To do so responsibly, she must walk back her threats and drop the pretense that legitimate criticism is “fake news.” Like all influencers, she must also reflect on the role she plays in shaping public opinions.

The “mainstream media” she has implied a healthy skepticism of may be imperfect, but reporters have spent years training and working in the field—especially those stationed in war zones. Travel bloggers who aspire to produce stories about challenging destinations must adopt ethical, professional reporting practices to serve as credible voices. That includes Mint. 

For as long as Thai viewers tune in as she roams alone, she will hold outsize power in the public sphere. She needs to understand that with great power comes great responsibility.

Craig Sauers is managing editor of BK Magazine

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