March 11th, Chiang Mai, Thailand – We spent the period since our last update traveling around northern Thailand with our friends Anna and Lenny. It was nice to have company for a bit and it is good to know that we will have at least some of our friends when we return. After meeting at the decent tribal museum in Chiang Rai we caught the free transport via pickup truck to an Akha-run guesthouse in the hills. The Akha Hill House is an interesting and pleasant setting for a few days; we walked to nearby Akha, Lisu and Hmong villages as well as miniscule waterfalls and well developed hot springs. The resort is run by the village as a means to finance their high school, which is now expanding to take in students from neighboring villages. We stayed in good, but certainly not luxurious, bungalows overlooking slashed and burnt hill sides, some remaining forest and tea plantations apparently owned by a Taiwanese billionaire; the tea fetches 3000 baht a kilogram abroad, the villagers get paid around 20 baht a kilogram to pick it.
From there, a long ride in a hired van that included an unplanned detour (how professional drivers can know their roads worse than I do is still a mystery) took us to the dirty, hippie-dominated town of Pai. For some reason this place has attracted hordes of past and present hippies and all the typical grime that comes with, if it has some inherent attraction I could not find it beyond the muesli, Rastafarian-colored attire and odd odor I could not quite put my finger on. Mae Hong Son however is a much more pleasant base for exploring the villages of the area. There are still plenty of travelers around, though Thai tourists seemed the majority, with the cafes, travel agents and souvenir stands they bring, but it was all less dramatic, kind of fading into the background, and easy to ignore. A few interesting wats dot the landscape and their is a peaceful lake with paddle boats and exercise stations, but the primary reason for coming here is to visit the surrounding hill tribes. Around the region we explored Lisu, Hmong, and KMT (old Chinese revolutionaries) villages and even made a stop at one of the royal residences (wandering around temples and cities makes you much bolder and I no longer think twice before unlocking the gate to the Queen’s residence), but as any agent around town makes clear the highlight of the day is visiting the ‘long neck, long ears.’ The Paduang are a Karenic tribe, some of whom have fled Myanmar, and are officialy refugees in Thailand. The Paduang place very heavy rings around the necks of girls from the age of 5, the rings collapse the collarbone leaving the appearance of elongated necks. They are part of the KNPP, a group of Karen people who has been fighting with Myanmar’s military government for an independent Karen state in the Burmese area bordering Thailand. The KNPP has set up several of the refugee camps as tourist attractions, charging 250 baht to watch the people and buy their handicrafts, with the money financing the villages and their fight (in what proportions I do not know).
Much has been made about the ethics of these ‘tourist attractions’ and really the ethics of hill tribe visits in general. Having visited many villages across Vietnam, Laos and Thailand via group tours, guided treks and by our own feet and vehicle, I am having a hard time understanding what makes watching tribal people ethically different from people watching in a Parisian cafe. It seems to me that the view that these people need to be protected from our prying eyes derives from the condescending notion that these people are somehow ‘primitive’ and need our protection. I have never heard anyone question the ethics of wandering the streets of Bangkok, why should the roads of a Lahu village be any different? Why is paying for a photograph of a fully dressed Akha different from paying for an autograph by a sports star? Of all the tribes we have visited, none better demonstrate this than the Paduang villages. These people are practicing the very modern art of capitalism and utilizing the most valuable commodity they have to improve their situation. The women I spoke with in the village echoed what has been written elsewhere; they do not resent the rings but see them as an integral part of their heritage, while their jobs are not ideal they are better than what was available in Burma and do not wish to return, and to me they did not seem any less content than the typical 7-11 employee. The only village visit I take issue with was the one on our horrible tour of the demilitarized zone in Vietnam. There the travel agent collected money for providing us the privilege of seeing the village without giving anything to the villagers; that seems akin to selling tickets at the back door of a movie theater without handing the proceeds over to the theater.
I did not find Chang Mai to live up to the praise it receives from so many. It lacks the vibrancy of a city like Bangkok and does not have the quaintness of Mae Hong Son or even Chiang Rai. There are some interesting wats, but at this point I have seen so many that it takes something grand to maintain my interest. The shopping is okay, but the famed night bazaar is lousy for bargains or exceptional finds and the overall opportunities in the city do not match Bangkok. Several wats have set up sessions where you can chat with the monks in English about Buddhism, Thailand or anything else; these are interesting programs and provide a great opportunity to get to understand an important part of the local community. One new experience I am having is the feeling of running out of time. We are now at the point where we must make decisions about what to see and what must be dropped, with little flexibility left for uncertainty. The first to go was Bangladesh, the difficulty and cost in attaining a visa and the problems of land travel in our limited time saw to that. Through no small pain, but minimal cost, we were able to reroute our RTW ticket to avoid transiting India and instead fly direct from Bangkok to Sri Lanka. As of now, we are replacing that part of our itinerary with a return to Laos to check out a new resort located 40 meters up in the forest canopy of the Bokeo nature reserve. After that we will head into Myanmar for a couple of weeks and then do some diving in the Andaman before moving on to Sri Lanka. However, we are having slightly more difficulty with flights in Myanmar, and with just five weeks left we do not feel we have the flexibility to risk waiting two days for connecting flights. So we will just have to wait and see how it all works out.