Southeast Asia Sold Its Soul; Let’s Go to North Sentinel Island!


Who’s heard of North Sentinel Island? I hadn’t until a few weeks ago, but it is possibly the most interesting island in the world, and chances are you’ll never get to go there. Here are some of the few facts known about this place:

Located in India’s Andaman Islands, its inhabitants may have lived in almost complete isolation for the last 60,000 years.

Nearly all attempts to contact them have resulted in being chased away and shot at with arrows. They even fired arrows at a helicopter.

Their language is completely different from any of the surrounding tribes.

They seemed to pre-empt the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and retreated to safety.

No one knows anything about their day to day lives, they live in dense jungle and there could be anywhere from 50 – 500 people living there.

The Indian government has banned contact with the Sentinelese and has set up a 3 mile buffer zone around the island.

So, who wants to go there? Apart from almost guaranteed murder on arrival, I’m pretty sure most people’s curiously has been piqued, and a visit there (assuming they become friendly) would probably be on a lot of people’s bucket lists. However, a quick bit of research into another Andaman Island tribe, the Jarawa, shows that contact with the outside world before they are ready would be disastrous for the Sentinelese.

The Jarawa were almost as untouched by the outside world as the Sentinelese, until they recently started coming out of the jungles and interacting with settlers and tourists on South and Middle Andaman Islands. Alcohol, marijuana, prostitution and disease has since ripped this tribe apart, and their numbers have dwindled to only a couple of hundred. The main cause of this was the construction of a highway right through their land, which has recently been the location of human safaris – car loads of tourists driving through, taking photos and even making them dance for food.

It’s a pretty extreme example, but this constant need to see something new and get away from the tourist trail might not be the best idea.

A popular complaint among tourists is that there are too many tourists. Places that were once authentic apparently become ruined because the masses descend on them, so off we go looking for the next destination. No tourist in Thailand should be complaining about too many tourists. Not even people that went there in the ’70s and ’80s should be complaining now, because they effectively built the highway to the Thailand we know today.

The tourist trail has been established, and it will always be added to, but is there any need to speed up that process so we can feel we are getting something more authentic and real? Should we be ditching the hill tribes who have come to rely on tourist money, only to hook another one up to the pump?

People are always going to want to travel to beautiful and unique places, but purposely seeking out undiscovered places while denigrating the ones we’ve already laid waste to can’t be the right way to go about it.

Take Koh Phi Phi’s tourism explosion after The Beach was filmed there. 15 years on and it’s an unstoppable tourist machine, and there is no reversing that. While it might be more interesting to escape the crowds and find the next new island paradise, is that the best thing for the region?

I recently read a post about Vang Vieng, Laos, and how it has changed. The author seemed to be advocating ditching Vang Vieng and looking to the surrounding areas for a more real experience. I think that is bad idea, as you would basically be deserting a ship that needs you to stop it from sinking, only to destabilise the next one you jump on. Vang Vieng is now a tourist town and there is no turning back from that. People have invested their futures in the tourism industry and they need to be supported, not passed off as too common or touristy by travellers thinking they are doing good (particularly after the government shut down all the dodgy stuff – the reason a lot of people visited in the first place).

River in Vang Vieng, Laos

Will anyone ever get to go to North Sentinel Island? Who knows, but the answer to that question should lie with the Sentinelese themselves. There is no right or wrong answer to any of this. The way tourism effects people, culture and the environment varies the world over, and some places deal with those effects better than others.  I’m not saying don’t seek out new and interesting places, it’s one of the best things about travelling, but also don’t abandon the tourist trail, as we have made so many people rely on it. We should also be aware that as soon as we bring our cameras and money somewhere new, that place changes forever – but is it for the better?

FURTHER READING: Someone did just travel to North Sentinel Island and got killed for their trouble!

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.
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  1. March 13, 2014 at 4:01 am — Reply

    I have actually heard of this place. Last year I was on a project with a few guys from India and one of them was telling me on this island and a few surrounding it as his dad was stationed there or on one of the islands a long long time ago. Apparently the islands are just stunningly beautiful. I dont know if I will ever get to go there by the looks of thing mentioned in your post. A real shame when stuff like that happen.

    • March 13, 2014 at 4:23 am — Reply

      Yeah they look amazing from the photos I’ve seen, I’m pretty keen to check them out but I’ll be avoiding this one!

  2. March 13, 2014 at 4:48 am — Reply

    Great photos, when I visit I’ll be sure to pack my shovel in case there’s a hidden treasure waiting to be found!

    • March 13, 2014 at 4:53 am — Reply

      Haha, you’ll need more than a shovel! A shield might be good..

  3. Interesting! I have to admit, its the first time I hear about the islands. And I hope I am not the only one, so they stay the way they are…

    • March 13, 2014 at 10:17 am — Reply

      Yeah, hopefully! The world always changes though..

  4. March 13, 2014 at 8:21 am — Reply

    I remember reading about this place a while ago, how corrupt Indian police is allowing top-dollar paying tourists to visit, while locals are treated like animals. Great article though, food for thought! Thanks for sharing

    • March 13, 2014 at 10:18 am — Reply

      That must be about the Jarawa people? Yeah I’ve heard about terrible things going on with them

  5. March 13, 2014 at 11:13 am — Reply

    i’ve never heard of it to be honest but you make a good point about tourists. We all want to see the undiscovered corners of the world but sadly it can also destroy everything pure and ruin it. Very sad to hear about the people living there being exploited like that 🙁 Very interesting article to read though, hopefully more awareness can be spread about it!

    • March 13, 2014 at 2:10 pm — Reply

      Cheers Samantha! I think it’s in our DNA to want to always find new places and that will probably never change.

  6. March 13, 2014 at 6:29 pm — Reply

    An interesting and mind-awakening piece about the effects of tourism on these places. What we really liked in South America that speaking Spanish we really could leave the beaten path behind, in Asia it’s more complicated.

    • March 14, 2014 at 10:58 am — Reply

      Cheers! You make a good point about speaking the local language, I think the gap between locals and tourists closes when you can speak their language

  7. March 14, 2014 at 10:47 pm — Reply

    I didn’t know about this place to be honest! amazing that people still live like that, I think it’s good that the Indian government have put up a zone to protect them as otherwise it would quickly change!.


    • March 15, 2014 at 12:43 am — Reply

      Yeah, the government has handled them surprisingly well so far, let’s hope they keep doing it!

  8. March 15, 2014 at 12:27 am — Reply

    Although I love to find places off the beaten path that are not too “touristy” I think sometimes people get too caught up in the idea of being a “real traveler” (whatever that means) and think the only way they can do so is by abandoning the popular places. I think places are popular and attract a lot of visitors for a reason. Probably because they’re great! I think we must try to find a balance between enjoying the old and new destinations.

    • March 15, 2014 at 12:46 am — Reply

      Yeah, I’ve met a few travellers who look down on people for going to popular places, some people obviously don’t realise how pretentious they sound when they talk like that!

  9. March 15, 2014 at 3:40 am — Reply

    Haven’t heard of this place or people before. It reminds me of the tribe in the Brazilian jungle. All we have are aerial images. Now they’re being protected from any outside influence.

    • March 16, 2014 at 1:36 am — Reply

      Yeah, I’ve watched a few documentaries on Amazon tribes, looks really similar!

  10. March 15, 2014 at 5:48 am — Reply

    A lot of responsible tourism posts recently are making me think about the impact of travelling. I’m all for going out and seeing the world and would encourage anyone to do the same. What ruins a place that attracts a lot of tourists? Is it just change? Who decides that the change is bad? Yes the point you made about the human safari with the Jarawa people is horrible. No question about that and indigenous cultures/heritages should be protected. BUT has SE Asia sold its soul or just changed?
    Brilliant article and great photos which really made me sit and think. Thank you 🙂

    • March 16, 2014 at 1:40 am — Reply

      Cheers Kate! I think most parts of Southeast Asia have got the balance right and travelling in the region allows you to see popular places but also get away from the crowds.

  11. March 15, 2014 at 6:06 am — Reply

    It’s crazy to think there are still tribes living completely untouched in the world. Definitely invokes the sense of mystery and exploration that the travelers of yesteryears would have experienced. Although I’m not sure if you’d live to tell the tale.

    • March 16, 2014 at 1:41 am — Reply

      Yeah, it really gets you thinking. Just knowing there are completely undiscovered people/places left in the world makes me happy for some reason!

  12. March 15, 2014 at 10:06 am — Reply

    I’ve never heard of this island before now. I think it’s human nature to be curious of people who live so remotely unlike the rest of the world but that doesn’t mean our curiousity always needs to invade their space. When visiting a new place, I happen to like seeing a balance of both touristy areas and something off the beaten path.

    • March 16, 2014 at 1:44 am — Reply

      I feel exactly the same, popular places are popular for a reason but it’s also nice to see other sides of a country.

  13. March 17, 2014 at 8:46 pm — Reply

    Great images, when I visit I’ll be sure to pack my scoop in case there happens to be invisible value patiently waiting to be found! awesome that individuals still stay like that, I think it’s excellent that the Native indian govt have put up a area to secure them as otherwise it would easily change!.

    • March 25, 2014 at 12:37 am — Reply

      You might find that precious metal they were looking for in Avatar!

  14. March 19, 2014 at 9:01 am — Reply

    Love the image of the River in Vang Vieng! This is a part of the world that is pretty intriguing yet very mysterious in many ways given it’s lack of media coverage. There is so much beauty out there through the natural landscapes and scenery, I am sure it is an amazing experience if you have the opportunity to do so.

    • March 25, 2014 at 12:38 am — Reply

      Vang Vieng is one of my favourite places! I’m pretty keen to get to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, seems like a really interesting place, I’ll be avoiding the human safaris though!

  15. Bob
    November 22, 2018 at 2:35 am — Reply

    I think we should invade.

  16. Jötunn
    March 13, 2019 at 3:31 am — Reply

    A popular complaint among tourists is that there are too many tourists. Places that were once authentic apparently become ruined because the masses descend on them

    Sounds like Iceland

    • March 20, 2019 at 10:35 am — Reply

      Are the locals getting annoyed? I have noticed Iceland is getting really popular these days!

  17. Jerry Adams
    August 27, 2019 at 8:13 am — Reply

    I hope that the Sentinelese keep their island for themselves throughout eternity. It is believed that these people have been on that island for more than 60,000 and are direct descendants to the first Africans on Earth. Rather that is true or not, these people need to be protected at all cost from “all” outsiders. No disrespect to my caucasian brothers and sisters, and the Christians Missionaries, but I most definitely hope the Sentinelese keep you out by any means necessary. Because we all know what happens once Christian Missionaries and Caucasians see uncharted land and uncivilized natives to that land. They have a need to kill and steal and to enslaves it’s inhabitants. Nothing personal racist against the Christians and Caucasians, but just speaking from historicals facts.

    • September 3, 2019 at 4:36 am — Reply

      It’s a complex situation — it’s cool that mysterious places like this still exist though!

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