Starting my year long travel I knew that I will be confronted. I could not exactly predict with what and how but I knew it will happen. I was kind of scared and excited of what I may discover. And curious about the answers I could get.
I started my Asian and first in the row trip with Thailand taking it for ‘easy’ country (and the only one I did not need visa for). I didn’t pay any attention to preparations. Food, beaches, massage – that was my imagination about that country. I assumed that two weeks to be ‘enough’. But it was not. It was just prelude that put Thailand back to my ‘countries to visit’ list. I got some confirmation about widely known beliefs. There was definitely excellent food from the street stalls and very kind and smiling people. It was easy to organize yourself and low prices gave backpackers the luxury of spontaneous freedom.
Visiting north part of Thailand not only turned my appetite on to explore the rest of the country but also confronted me with the things and ideas I took for granted. And that was just the beginning. All was new so my senses were working on the highest level to proceed delivered information and to ‘make my mind’ about them. But it was not always possible.
Padaung Tribal Village was definitely a first one of a strange bag of memories with the label ‘uncategorized cases and open questions’ that I brought from my trip. And that took me out of the ‘tourists bubble’.
At that time I have been at the beginning of my travel trying to figure out what I just done leaving everything behind and how I want to shape my trip. A few first days in Bangkok made me curious but also scared seeing some continental hippies that forgot to came back to their home countries more less twenty years ago letting their silver beards grow and taking advantage of local massages or brothels and ‘easy going’ life to go on. With the eyes of imagination I have seen myself the years after and ‘lost in transition’ what I thought the travel could ‘do to me’. It was not the plan but who knew what could happen?
After overcoming jetlag I moved up north to Chiang Mai which is considered to be the ‘cultural capital’ of Thailand. The old town surrounded by the walls was full of temples and tourist shops catching eyes with offers of short or long trips, cooking courses and little tailor shops. I stayed there for more less a week looking around and trying to get used to new reality.
I visited temples, talked to monks, worked hardly on round shape of my hips packing them with delicious street food (well even enrolled for the cooking course which by the way is a must when you are in Thailand) but most of all I tried not to plan too much or not to think about what I left temporary behind and to live in the present. Easier said than done. ‘Letting go’ was definitely an art that took me some months. Trying to organize myself as a lonely female traveler I walked everywhere in town getting sometimes to the shocking parts of the city. But regarding trips outside the town I took cautious steps and still looked for some organized groups. On that way I enrolled on a round trip in the region which included the visit to the Karen tribe village. The name of the tribe did not ring the bell at all but a photo of a woman with golden rings on her neck recalled some memories of documentaries seen once in the TV. And now I could get there! Me, explorer, wow! Of course I wanted to have photos and of course I wanted to feel like a journalist touching new culture.
I did not thought a lot about the offer but in my imagination I was about to go to some natural village and observe people living there.
When we got there everything looked fine. We walked through some rice fields seeing faraway in front of us first shapes of little houses. Soon we reached a big and tidy village with different paths that led to different tribes. As it turned out it was not only Karen tribes living here. Those signs with the arrows and the name of the tribes on it made me feel strange. But I was walking further on and soon got fascinated by the colorful ladies sitting in front of their houses, preparing and selling the handmade crafts, playing with children, laughing, singing some songs. They were smiling gently into the lenses of a few tourists that were walking around. With the rings on their necks they looked kind of noble like queens. One could even try the ‘ring collars’ (prepared extra for tourists) on and to make a photo. Felt strange.
Theoretically all was well but something was ‘wrong’.
The houses were staying alongside a path creating a chain of the crafts stalls. The ladies were smiling but there was a shadow in their smiles. And I noticed only one man around working on a music instrument. Where were others? I asked this question to the guide and he replied that they were working on the fields behind the houses. But passing by the rice fields I could not see them actually. The language barrier prevented me from asking them directly the questions that were running through my head.
I learned that the rings were put on girls between 4 and 5 years old adding additional rings every year and never took off. That the origin of it goes back years ago and as legend said while the men were hunting and leaving their woman alone in the village the rings were worn in order to protect the woman from the tiger’s attack and being beaten on the neck. Apparently with the time it become the beauty standard for the tribe as well.
I walked by the stalls watching the ladies preparing crafts. I noted some of them had also rings on their legs and hands. Little dusty path lead me from one tribe to another. My tourist curiosity got saturated with the colors. But my mind was still working on and trying to link the ‘facts’ with the ‘strange feeling’ I had.
We turned back to Chiang Mai but my mind was running through and through this visit. I started small research and investigation trying to find out more about them. I discovered some contradictory information. “Human zoo’s” is what those villages were called counting northern Thailand’s Padaung Karen hill tribe villages to the country’s most controversial tourist attractions. Padaung were the refugees from Myanmar escaping from violence and rapes of the rebels due to inner terror in their home land. They found asylum in Thailand allowing them to live in peace. A Thai older man, owner of the hostel I was staying at in Chiang Khong, saw the existence of the village like the one I visited as a big help to the refugees. Surely it is, as who wants to live in the war state. But what was the price?
Searching for the answers and digging in some articles brought me to the Hill Tribes museum in Chiang Rai where one can learn about the other side of this help – the refugees are put into the villages which are managed by Thai managers collecting the fees from tourists and paying just a small salary to the inhabitants. A fee which allows them to live inside but not really to move outside the village (the museum is definitely worth to visit also in order to know how to behave when you visit Hill Tribe villages, more information: http://www.mekongresponsibletourism.org/thailand/50-where-to-shop-thailand/hill-tribe-museum-and-education-centre-in-chiang-rai.html).
Cultural centre or exploiting of stateless woman and children?
Most of the refugees do not have full rights as Thai citizens. Only the Thai ID card would give them the right to move outside the village but the process seems to be endless and only few are successful. While looking pretty for the photos many of the women choose to wear the rings out of a genuine desire to carry on with the tradition. Once on, the rings are worn lifelong. And that heavy rings which weight up to 7 kilos do not stretch the neck but actually deform the chest and shoulders by pushing down the ribs to give the illusion that the necks are abnormally long. I was asking myself an obvious question: is putting the rings on the necks of little girls born in the refugee villages still a real following of the tradition or it already became a way to earn the money?
Peaceful life in exchange for given up freedom and access to the world of freely made choices and possibilities? Is that a faire trade? Was I taking part in ‘fair tourism’?
It was the first but not the last time I was reflecting on the ‘things’ I posses and are obvious to me. So obvious that I forget to be thankful for. Freedom of move. Freedom of choice. Can I change anything? I do not know. I can write about it. About responsible tourism which I do not know how to define? If you do not go there you do not pay the fee to the owners. If you do not go there and do not buy anything they will not earn for living. Would it force the Thai government to integrate them or to deport them? Thailand still seems to have lots of inner troubles themselves.
And the Padaung tribe? They will probably continue to live the way they do. Keeping their gentle smiles with some shadow and poker faces. Playing the cards the life gave them in that turn. Until the next change.
see also a movie: