Sun 2 Jan 2011 - Mon 10 Jan 2011
Crossing the border from Laos in the North meant our first stop in Thailand was Chiang Rai. It would be our base as we explored the golden triangle and minority villages surrounding it. A friendly travel agent hooked us up with a one-day itinerary that sounded perfect: White Temple, Long-Neck Karen village, and golden triangle. With a knowledgeable guide and a private car we had high hopes for our pricey day.
The White Temple was packed and deservedly so - it was amazing with its modern take on Buddhist architecture. Next stop was the minority village and a steep $10 entrance fee. "Where does the money go?" I asked our guide. "Do the villagers get a percentage of the profits?" "We give them rice." was the snarly reply, hesitatingly translated by our guide. That should have been my red flag. I should have walked back to the car then and there. But we paid the $20 and walked in.
Down a short path was the first village, of the Lahu people. "Why do the tribes live so close together?" I naively asked. Then the truth came out. The three villages we saw were the artificial creation of a rich man who paid for the land and set up this tourist trap. While the villagers are free to come and go, they are restricted to selling souvenirs, performing dances for tips and posing for pictures. My stomach sank. It felt like we had entered a zoo, where human beings were on display. We didn't want to buy anything, and felt guilty. We tipped the dancers, but felt awkward applauding their lack-luster performance. The "villages" were set up so that we walked through a row of huts where each resident sat in anticipation of a sale.
The only redeeming aspect of this circus was that we had a great guide, who, being "from the mountains" herself, brought an element of authenticity. Her gentle nature was evident as she sat beside several women and interpreted our questions. We were able to ask about their feelings, family and history. The Long-Neck Karen women, we found out, were moved from Myanmar and historically didn't live in Thailand. They are far from their hometown, but are optimistic that this life is better for their children. They giggled nervously while explaining that yes, the rings hurt very much, but it is their duty to maintain the tradition.
My thoughts lingered on these women while we toured the golden triangle: Mae Sai (border town to Myanmar with a great market), Chiang Saen (home of ancient ruins) and Sop Ruak (location of three-way border between Laos, Myanmar and Thailand and site of historical opium trade). I felt angry at myself for contributing to the exploitation, frustrated with the travel agent for not explaining the true nature of the site, and embarrassed on behalf of all tourists who desire to see "different" people so much that this rich man became richer. I wondered how, in 2011, can we truly have a view into the traditional way of life of minority people while traditions, and tourism, evolve around them.
Back in Chiang Rai, we spoke with another travel agent who was candid about the difference in minority villages. "If you want to see real villages, you have to do a multi-day trek and get away from Chiang Rai." We signed up for a two-day, one night trek.
I believe that the group makes or breaks the trek and we had a great group of 11: friendly, enthusiastic, and energetic. We started with a boat ride and got off at an elephant camp. Four of us who opted out of the elephant rides took a tour of the village. Friendly men chatted with us, our guide let us taste and smell plants, and explained the daily life in the village. We were off to a great start.
During the two days of walking, we walked through villages without interfering too much with the lives of the villagers. We saw that they have trucks, plumbing and electricity, but still lack Thai i.d. cards to get government support or education. We slept in a single-room bungalow above a village where our talking and laughing in the starlight wouldn't disturb the sleeping villagers. Our guide's family cooked for us and took care of us and we appreciated having that connection to the rural landscape. We had bamboo walking sticks for the tougher terrain, and we relaxed in a waterfall and then a hot spring at the end of day two. Overall, we paid much less for a much richer experience.
In Chiang Mai a few days later, now travelling with my parents, we visited two mountains in the area. On Doi Suthep, a village tour was part of the itinerary, but it was quite obviously a tourist market while the villagers lived removed from the tourist trail. On Doi Inthanon, however, our guide took us to a real Karen village where people have lived for generations. We met an English speaking man who was sorting garbage, a duo of weaving ladies, and a 98 year old woman who was living out her days on the porch of her home while her son lived next door.
The moral of the story became very clear; if you're looking for authenticity, ask your agent before you book, expect modernization in small doses, and don't support sites that treat minority people as side-show acts.