lolamatopoeia: (show me yours!)
[personal profile] lolamatopoeia
On our last day in Chiang Mai, we went on a full day guided tour of six different hill tribes in Thailand. I felt severely uncomfortable and awful about the experience. I felt exploitative and intrusive and almost sick about the whole thing. We were with a group of other tourist people who preferred not to speak English around us. I'm not sure. I don't think I spoke a word through most of the day either. I really didn't know what to say.

Everyone in the group took as many pictures as they could throughout the day - posing with the impoverished people, giving the thumbs up or peace signs in their photos with dilapidated houses and livestock. I felt horrible just being there. I took only a few pictures and just of the landscape and a bit of the livestock. It just felt so wrong. No matter how many people told me it was OK, it just felt wrong.

I bought a handmade scarf from a lady from the Karen Long Neck tribe, the first group we visited, because I could actually see them making the scarves right there in front of us and I knew the money went directly to them. I felt alright about that, but the rest just made me feel awful. We were driven from village to village and asked or begged to buy things at each stop.

I had troubles pin pointing it all until I started to voice some of my concerns to Bianca who agreed and added that what was troubling was that because there are people like us who are interested in seeing these tribes authentically then it becomes this kind of awful touristy thing to do where we just swarm in to these villages in our air conditioned vans and take pictures as souvenirs to post on the internet and buy trinkets to collect dust back home holy run on sentence. The whole thing was just gross. These people are poor and desperate and its awful that they've become reliant on tourists now rather than the actual fruits of their labours.

The rest of the day followed a fairly similar path - after the hill tribes we went to a popular ancient cave. It was well adorned and packed with tourists and opportunities to buy more things. I've been to caves before - like when Tudor and I went to some caves in Virginia and were given a detailed introduction to the history of the cave and the types of formations and the scientific reasons that we could not touch the formations or stray from the path. There were certain lights in the caves and different procedures they took to preserve the caves for generations to come. In Thailand, we were given no such introduction or instructions - we were just shown the beautiful gilded images that had been set up artificially, the names that some people had given the formations, and were shown the 'formation' of a Buddha that someone had carved from the rock. Fluorescent lights guided our way along the rounded path that a group of children decided to forgo to instead climb atop the formations to have their pictures taken.

The caves were just another example of the problems that Bianca and I have been experiencing with Thailand, but just most particularly on that day. It just seems that the focus is on tourism and making money off of something rather than education and preservation. I know that's a terrible generalization, but it was just our observation and experience there. I've got to find ways that I can help, at least in some small way through a donation or something, in the future.

On a much happier note, our day ended excellently since in wandering the night market we ran into the American and Australian group we had met in the back of the truck the day before. Apparently the Brazilians in the truck were a millionaire and his girlfriend who bought them drinks all night after we got out of the truck. They said it had been quite the night but that they had needed the whole day to recover. We chatted for a while in the street until we succumbed to a plastic table and a few beer towers on the street.

Why do we always have to meet the most amazing people on our last day in a city? Meghan and Tony are a couple originally from Seattle and have just spent a year in Australia. They decided to leave their jobs together and travel around and discover the world for as long as they can. They're a pretty fun and friendly couple and I'm hoping we'll meet up again. I didn't exactly get Tim's, the charming Australian that Meghan and Tony met in transit to Thailand, story. I'm afraid I was probably too busy telling my own story after I had a few beers in me. Tim's great though. He's travelling on his own at the moment, just coming from Cambodia where he travelled with his girlfriend for a few weeks. It would be great to meet up again during this trip. He's got the kind of personality where you feel as though you've known the person for years even if it's only a few moments on a street in Thailand. I'm meeting so many people like this on this trip. It's hard for me to get used to saying goodbyes. I can't get over how really great people are in this world.
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July 2009

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