Chiang Mai, the Thai North & Why We Didn’t Visit A Karen Village

July 10, 2012 in Asia, Thailand, Travelogue

When we moved to Thailand, we didn’t move to Chiang Mai because it seemed like “everyone” we knew was already there.

Now we know why!

The second largest city in Thailand and the gateway to the mountainous north is spectacular. It’s the perfect blend of culture, history, and modern convenience. The old city still has part of its old wall and is surrounded by a moat, what’s not to love?!

Did I mention we have friends there? Some of them have moved on now. Some are away visiting other countries. But we did manage to connect with Lauren and Neil and their sweet son for three days of adventure.

We thought we’d just meet for lunch and the afternoon. Lauren took us to the most fabulous hole in the wall restaurant where we had Burmese Shan food and then to visit her son’s school. I’m not big on school, you might have noticed, so when I tell you that if I was going to send my kids to any school I’ve ever seen, it would be this one, that should tell you something. Of course it only goes up through sixth grade at this point, so we’re disqualified on height alone. 🙂

The school

A “get to know you” lunch turned into pineapple on their front porch, dinner at an evening food market and a whole day of picnicking and waterfall swimming on Saturday… Sunday we met for dinner and one more celebration at the Sunday walking market in the old city. Can you tell we liked these people!! I think they liked us too. Their four year old was in “big boy heaven” with our tribe and took full advantage of his own team of climbers, fetchers, hide-and-seekers and monkey bars. Fun was had by all. I found a kindred spirit in Lauren on many things, from parenting to education. Neil and Tony talked tech. No need to expound! 🙂

Their family was like saving some of the best for last of our northern tour. 

There was one thing we didn’t do on our northern tour that some would find a glaring omission in our tour of Thai culture.

JOSÉ LUIS GARCÍA GARCÍA.  Mujer Jirafa ( Tailandia)

We didn’t visit a Karen village.

Can I explain why?

Remember the Hill Tribes Museum we visited in Chiang Rai? We learned there that the plight of the Karen is a pretty dismal one. They are refugees from the conflict just over the mountains in Burma. They don’t have legal status here in Thailand, nor can they go home. Someone figured out that there was dollar value to their cultural quirk of Karen women wearing heavy metal rings around their necks to depress their collar bones and seemingly elongate their necks, so they exploited that.

“Villages” have been created in which the women stand around (or sell things) in their neck rings while tourists pay an admission fee to be allowed to “experience” their culture and take pictures. We read in museum that the women are paid a small amount for wearing the rings and being available to tourists. The men are paid nothing but a rice allowance, as they are not of “cultural interest.” Most of the money goes to the village developers.

We read stories of people who were essentially relegated to the village and could not leave. We read of people who had been exported to other countries for “cultural exchange” and moved into other villages like this in first world countries. They are being denied citizenship (even though they’re the largest of the hill tribes, and have been in the area for over 100 years in some cases). They are not being appraised of their human rights or any options other than existing in their “human zoo” villages.

I’ve seen some charming pictures of the smiling faces in these villages. I’d love for our kids to have seen these people and have the exposure to such an interesting and ancient culture, but not at the expense of someone’s human rights.

Financially speaking, we just can’t support what equates to human trafficking in some cases and exploitation in almost every case. “But they are there by choice, they get paid,” some will say. Indeed, they are and they do. But is that really a choice? Living in a refugee camp that is even worse, or wearing a few rings and smiling for rich strangers? Have they really been given options, real options, I mean? There are some NGOs working there. I’d rather spend my money on those than on a “cultural experience” that just widens the gap between “rich and poor,” “first world and rest of world.”

There was an excellent page in the museum entitled, “Why we don’t run guided tours to the Karen Villages” and the essence of it is that there is no ethical way to do it, in their estimation (and they’ve been working in Thailand for many years.)

So, we took a pass.

I’d be interested in hearing from people who have gone, about the experience, about how you felt about it, about the ethics involved for you and how the whole experience seemed.