This week as I zipped around our capital city like a superwoman, Chiang Mai lazy days came rushing back to me. Delhi was melting from the peak of Indian summer and I rushed around finishing my last minute preparations for a long Turkey trip. Although long planned, it was unexpected, because of too many uncertainties, when the last minute failure of cancellation (read zero refund) of expensive airline tickets finally sealed the deal. Europe is having mid term holidays and Turkey is brimming with vacationers. No amount of sob stories melted the airline’s heart and I got disheartened from being unable to cancel that trip. Exhaustion from back to back travels affected me physically and I got overwhelmed with unnecessary expenses, high fever and intense fatigue.
Family sapped my energy too and left me sleepless and bone tired. I felt drained spending time with my demanding, energetic daughter and writing away like mad to replenish my funds. My last 2 destinations (Socotra, Yemen and UAE) were not easy on the nerves and I craved for rest, relaxation and peace. I ached for Chiang Mai’s languid life; the flowers, mountains, slow local drawl and waterfalls, those sultry evenings by the moat, gorging on local food and the sweet feeling of missing a very special friend. CM had been amazing most of the times, except for 1 experience which left an uncomfortable after taste.
Buoyant from the Doi Inthanon group tour experience, I had booked myself for 2 more day trips before heading towards Laos. The Golden Triangle tour which is very popular in the tourist circuit turned out to be a complete waste of time and money, while the intrepid and less known bamboo rafting was actually a lot of fun. The first tour actually covered nearly 650 kilometers of northern Thailand, crossed over to Chiang Rai and spilled into Laos. It was a long day, spent shuttling around in a minivan with a boring group and visiting viciously touristy places.
We started early at 7 am, made the first stop at the Hot Springs at Maekajan before entering Chiang Rai city. The hot springs were hardly visible among the thick cluster of shops and restaurants, but it was nice enough to for a brief feet dip. Northern Thailand stretched endlessly and emerald green lush country unfurled. Houses became more intricately Lanna in architectural style as we headed deeper into the north and rice fields and sakura/cherry blossoms dappled long distances in green and pink. A huge cloudless sky promised a clear hot day and bored to death in the van, I cursed myself silently.
The famous White Temple or Wat Rong Khun was the only reason for stopping at Chiang Rai and it was one thing that I had looked forward to on this trip. It turned out to be a huge disappointment and cemented the travel belief that all that’s featured/famous are most of the times over hyped. We got off at the lychee tree shaded parking lot and immediately got swallowed by waves of touristy crowd at 0830 in the morning. Lychees hung in unripe pebbly skinned clusters and orchids sprung profusely from baskets. I followed a steady stream of visitors and got my first glimpse of Wat Rong Khun.
Better known as “the White Temple” it is one of the most recognizable temples in Thailand and definitely the most bizarre. Designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, the famous Thai visual artist, Wat Ron Khun stands out because of its dazzling white color and embedded glass pieces which sparkle in the sun. Built to highlight the teachings of Buddhism, Wat Ron Khun till today is undergoing construction works. Accessible by a bridge over a reflecting pool, every part of the temple signifies some aspect of Buddhism.
Although very photogenic, it was a total spiritual mess with loudspeakers screaming out crowd control announcements and at least a dozen other people sharing my Wat Ron Khun photo (and vice versa). The access bridge was very creepy with statues of dismembered limbs and agonized faces crowding at its base, but it got stranger as I entered the main shrine. While the exterior despite its quirky white and glassy look was adorned with traditional Naga serpents and other Thai mythical creatures, the colourful murals inside the main shrine had superheroes saving the world. Batman, Spiderman, Doraemon, Elvis and other contemporary villains and superheroes from movies and comics shared the area with spaceships and a serene Buddha smiled at them from the opposite wall. It was as strange as it could possibly get and no amount of love of art could cajole me to like the hideous creation.
We left soon enough and traveled endlessly till we reached the northernmost end of Thailand. Mekong River moved sluggishly, as if tired from carrying the heavy load of 5 countries and every waterfront shop sold postcards of fishermen displaying frighteningly long eels as their signature Mekong trophies. Mekong is the lifeline of China, Laos Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar and is the 12th largest river in the world. It used to be a part of an important riverine trade route and was the mainstay of the infamous cross border opium trade.
In fact one of the highlights of this trip is the seasonal sandbank which is situated at the physical triangle made by Burma, Laos and Thailand at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong River. The sandbank is accessible only in summer and winter and had been popular with opium traders throughout ages. Untouched by security forces of the 3 countries, it is a temporary no man’s land where illegal opium smuggling and trading flourished.
We continued on wards to Mae Sai, the farther-most northern trading border between Thailand and Burma, and stopped at an insipid touristy restaurant for buffet lunch. The food as expected was bland and tasteless and the service beyond pathetic. We ate like birds, scuttled out of the crowded place and lined up at the ferry point for crossing over to Laos. It turned out to be another disappointment because the Mekong river cruise was mind numbingly dull and the Laos border was nothing but a tourist trap.
Set up by the Chinese, Don Sao (Laos) was a big open market where local Loas people sold garish China made souvenirs, water bottles, beers and ice creams. Crappy copies of designer bags, cheap clothes, more creepy Mekong giant eel postcards and bottles of fermented snake wine with whole snakes floating inside, made up the paltry variety and they were absolutely horrid. I cursed the daylights out of myself and managed to rest in the shade while my Chinese group members shopped, squealed excitedly and took endless Victory sign photos. Thankfully before I died from utter boredom, our guide materialized from somewhere, herded our group to the speedboat and took us back to the Thai territory.
It had been a terrible day and probably my worst travel decision ever. Time seemed to refuse to move and I nearly opted out of the tour to rent a car and rush back to Chiang Mai. The border towns however were caught in frenzy Songkran celebrations and ruined my CM escape plans. I sat like a bored mouse, nibbled on a bag of “imported from China” roasted chestnuts and prayed for sleep. Thankfully we were at the northernmost frontier of Thailand and had no choice but to head back towards CM. The day had passed by painfully slow and we again retraced endless tracts of tea gardens, rice fields, sunflower patches before making the heart breaking final stop at Long Neck hill tribe village.
Few of my travel decisions had ever made me feel guilty of committing/participating in something unethical and most of them had been done during my initial days as a newbie wide eyed traveler. However the visit to the long neck hill tribe village was recent and I still regret participating in promotion of human zoo. While perhaps the term human zoo would be too harsh, personally I still regret that visit.
Tourism is a very serious industry with long term impact and changes lives of generations forever. However its a highly volatile industry where like most travelers, I constantly walk on an ethical tightrope. While home stays and volunterism are great new learning trends in the travel industry, few realize how this assimilation or cultural exchange actually destroys uniqueness and cultural individuality in the long run. Change is however inevitable and travel industry is at the moment a dynamic young giant, curious, unstoppable and at times reckless.
Having grown up in Calcutta with its legacy of hand pulled rickshaws, I can understand how tourism is just an income generating occupation for the long neck hill tribes, but I still cannot separate my emotions from the helplessness of their situation. Controversial, painful and always involved with too many shades of grey, long neck hill tribe tours are anything but easy on the conscience. Although many Karen tribe members are now 2nd generation Thais, most are Burmese refugees who had fled their country to avoid the military conflict. Known for sporting multiple heavy neck rings, the long neck ladies are also prolific weavers and their hand woven scarves are of incredible beauty.
As we made our way through the bamboo groves, to visit their village, nothing had prepared me for the human spectacle that I witnessed there. Rickety, clean swept bamboo huts lead us to an open square where the hill tribe ladies sold hand made wares.The square was lined with shops and long neck ladies worked on the loom, sold handicrafts and minded toddlers (who also sported neck rings) from their store fronts. Traditionally worn for beauty and protection from wild animals (animals always attack the necks) the brass coils, contrary to the belief do not elongate the neck, but compress the shoulder blades.
This gives rise to their unique long neck appearance and dozens of myths surrounding them. These ladies supposedly remove the rings only during pregnancy and childbirth and their weight do not allow them to gaze at their babies face during breast feeding. The rings are removed one at a time (similar to their adding) and the neck retains its original size post ring removal (without any health risk or deformity). Apart from the long neck tribes, the square also housed shops of “Big Ear” ladies, whose ear lobes were uniquely extended by massive hollow piercings. Most of them were dressed in indigenous attires, with traditional thanaka (natural paste applied as make up in Myanmar) face make up and head pieces, although some seemed hastily thrown over modern clothing.
We walked around the village, posed for photos and bought some souvenirs with conflicting emotions. These refugee hill tribes are supposedly not allowed to hold any Thai jobs or even go outside their villages, in exchange of their refuge, but are permitted to entertain tourism (only day trips) for earning their livelihood (selling souvenirs to the tourists). It gave the whole scene a very shady patina and apart from promoting unhealthy tourism, it also encouraged the practice of placing heavy neck rings on little girls, even toddlers.
Sure enough the village had too many little girls sporting neck rings and grown up make up while they should have been in schools and they preened for tourists like professionals. It was a very conflicting and uncomfortable situation, because sadly both discouragement and promotion of long neck hill tribe tourism would bring adverse affect on their lives and change courses of their future generations. I walked away from the village sad, confused and with a very troubled conscience. Chiang Mai arrived late into the evening and as I lay in bed that night, I swore to consciously participate in more responsible tourism.
TRAVEL TIP – While individual discretion and taste would dictate participation in such tours, a few write ups on long neck hill tribe tours might help travelers make a more informed decision.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE