18 July 2010

Don't do it: Karen Hill tribes

Many of you probably remember the National Geographic featuring the long-necked tribe in Sortheast Asia. Once I correlated the tribe with the region I am in, I was so excited to be able to go see them. The concept that we have tribes still practicing such exotic traditions in the world of global market and influence was so fascinating.

A bit of background: The Karen tribe is originally from within Myanmar borders. The women wear brass rings around their neck.. and add rings throughout their adolescence. It like the neck has been elongated, but in reality the collarbone and the ribs are being pushed down to a point that they need to keep the rings on to live.

As soon as we went to Chiang Rai, I booked a tour to see the hilltribes the next day. We then walked to the Hilltribe Museum (Which is a do, by the way) to get some background perspective. The museum was like a home-run shop. The exhibits were laid out in corked bulletin boards, laid out along the wall, like someone's packrat attic room. No glass enclosures. Descriptions were printed in regular home printers and glued onto construction paper backing, taped into the wall. Yet, the museum was one of the best I've been to in Southeast Asia. Informative, factual, and narrative. Including a lot of warnings about the tours offered to see the hilltribes. None of the proceeds in the typical tours go towards the villages that the people ask to go gawk at. And more often than not, the villages were notified that they would become the subject of that gawking.

The Karen tribes were worse. The notion that the Karens migrated to Thailand to flee the Burmese.. If it ever was true, it was a long enough time ago. The current "tribes" people see are imported. Businessmen bring in the women, not the men since they look normal, into Thailand, knowing that they are subjects of great tourist curiosity. The "villages" aren't real. They are just artificial sites of tourist traps. In reality the neck ring tradition has been dying out.

We walked out of the museum highly enlightened but feeling like scum encouraging the black human market. The actual visit the next day validated that and clarified what articles meant by calling it a "human zoo". The women were placed in a windy path of huts. The huts were three-walled bamboo structures with a loom on one side for the women to weave, in full view of visitors. The other half had the woven scarves hung up  and a area for the women to sit prettily to be seen. Supposedly the only means the women earn are from the scarves they sell, so we bought them up by the bunch. They were different from the usual mass produced "handmade Thai silk" in the markets, and truly interesting, but admittedly we did it out of our guilt as well.

My curiosity got the worst of me. To future visitors, I warn: don't do it. Not only does is encourage the human trade and cruel marketing of women, it wasn't even a good visit. A strong sense of artificiality, fakeness permeated the whole place.

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