While visiting Chiang Mai, my driver stopped by the Hilltribe Education Village, which is ostensibly a snapshot of hilltribe life featuring representative from the Akha, Lau, and Karen (long necks) tribes. You arrive at the village and the fee is a whopping $10USD, which compared to other ‘attractions’ in the area is a bit expensive. As I looked around and asked questions about the experience, I immediately got the ‘no’ feeling.
The eager Thai man agent informed me that I could just walk around to each hilltribe and that each of them had a tract of land. He then got excited and pointed out that the long necks were the finale. The finale? These are are people, not circus animals. Feeling uneasy with the reality of my walking around viewing people like they were a human zoo, I declined to support the so-called tour.
In full disclosure, many years ago, I happen to catch a NatGeo episode about the Karen (longnecks) tribe in Thailand and was really looking forward to visiting with them and learning more about their culture. When I arrived at the Hilltribe Education Village, I was really disappointed in myself for nearly supporting something that felt so wrong. Talking with my driver, I discovered that the tradition of incrementally placing rings on the necks of Karen women had become nearly extinct until the hilltribes realized people would pay to take pictures with them if they were donning rings.
Later during my trip, as part of my slow boat journey down the Mekong, I was once again faced with the prospect of visiting hilltribe communities, except this time, it wasn’t a contrived attraction, but their actual villages. I had read up on these stops from others who had taken the slow boat and they encouraged visitors to bring school supplies along for the kids, which I did. I became an instant celebrity among the many children who crowded around me hoping to snag a pen. While the children were sweet and endearing, it felt wrong, all of it. It felt wrong being there, stopping by the village to ogle and take photos. And, when I thought about all the boats that stopped here everyday, I figured it must be a very exhausting existence for them.
For those unfamiliar with hilltribes, they are peoples who live typically in very rustic, minimalistic environs, often with scarce resources. The level of poverty is astonishing; many of the children do not have shoes or proper clothing and the communities lack things like running water and depend on rain water as a source of hydration. Many of the children tend to end up victims of human trafficking and as a whole, members of the communities meet resistance and rejection when seeking medical attention and trying to enroll their children in schools.
Many of those in the communities do not have Thai citizenship and have been continually displaced and exploited by Thai and Burmese governments. Many do not speak Thai and have little to no means of securing employment to earn a living wage. In some cases, tour operators have capitalized on this opportunity and the curiosity of tourism to turn these communities into attractions, which is really a shame.
After visiting two villages on the way to Luang Prabang, some of the people on my boat started having conversations about responsible tourism and about how intrusive our visits had seemed. I walked away from the experience with a renewed commitment to really thinking about how and where I am traveling and making sure my presence is delicate communities is not just as a spectator but that it has purpose.
Have you every visited somewhere where you felt like and intruder or like your presence was doing more harm than good?