Ethical travelling! One of the easiest words to write and the toughest to achieve in reality. Before going to Northern Thailand, I read and thought a lot, if it is humane to go to a village to “See/ gaze” at a particular tribe. The best way to know an answer to the doubt is by experiencing it and deciding. So I went to a Karen village near Chiang Rai for a few hours to clear the clouds. Here are my thoughts on – Is it ethical to visit the Karen tribes of Northern Thailand?
Who are Karens, and why do tourists find them attractive?
The Karen Longneck tribe are famous for the long brass coils they wear around their necks. Their tribe originated in the Thailand-Burma border centuries ago. Due to some ethnic and political issues in Burma, many Karens fled to Thailand seeking help. They are given refugee status, not the citizenship of Thailand; as of now (2019.) Traditionally Karen tribe prefers to settle in mountain ranges. North Thailand is close to Myanmar, is a perfect place for them with mountains. So you find Karen tribes across many areas like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son.
The uniqueness of the Karen tribe lies in their costumes. Traditionally Karen women wear tunics and Sarongs ( Thai style wraparound) and turbans of wrapped cloth on their heads. They start wearing it at the early age of 5, and they almost never remove it. One of the small-sized rings we lifted weighed as heavy as a mud-brick (maybe 2kg)
Getting to this village isn’t possible by public transport. Plus, to understand at least a bit about the tribe, you will need a local person explaining things. We went with Mr Boon of Chiang Mai, who knew the place well. The tribal language is different from the Thai language. So you will need a Thai guide who understands their language a bit and explains it to you.
Why do Karen Women wear Brass Rings around the neck?
“Longer the neck, more beautiful the woman.” – Karen women believe in that, they say. But this reason is unsure. Some say Karen women wore it to distinguish themselves from the other tribe. One of the ladies said the women wanted to look unattractive to the other tribe to protect themselves. So her ancestor wore it. Other stories say the practice began to defend themselves from tiger’s bites on the neck in ancient Burma.
First question – Are they really Karens?
Karen tribe’s ethnic roots lie in Burma. They are still under refugee status, not Thailand citizen status. The first question is – How many of them are really Karens? – Well, none of us as tourists who go there for a few hours can verify this. Most ladies there were shy and hardly spoke except telling the numbers for quoting their scarfs’ prices. Mr Boon says they are really Karens living here for many generations. A small girl spoke a few words of English and Thai. Many Thai volunteers help Karen kids in education as education for Karen kids beyond 6th grade isn’t allowed by the Thai government. So if they are really Karen women or regular Thai women arranged by local authorities to wear brass rings for a few hours a day? I can’t verify.
Second question: What is wrong if a few of them are faking it to make their livelihood?
It is a remote village. Their houses are huts still. Few genuine Karens must have taught other women to dress up and speak similar to them. Aren’t you contributing a bit to the villager’s welfare? Yes, you are helping them by buying their handmade stuff and the entrance fees.
Are you sure of your donation going towards the right cause and the welfare of the real tribe?
I hope so. That is what the Thai government says, and our driver Boon also says. You may have to get in touch with NGOs and volunteers who are genuinely involved with the tribe to know the truth. I was happy to see solar panels there so that the people here don’t struggle without electricity. If not, every baht you donate may not go to them; at least a part of it is utilized. The Thai government says they give them decent health care facilities and basic necessities. We all know well what great treatments refugees can get in any country, for that matter. So essentially, Karen women make money as a tourist attraction.
Is it a Human zoo?
You must have already read why I didn’t go to the most famous Thai attraction,” Tiger Park” We humans have no right to sedate a wild animal, keep it in captivity to pet them. If I am so bothered about discouraging animal captivity, isn’t visiting a particular tribe similar to the zoo – A human zoo? Yet again, we don’t know the truth. The ladies here seemed to be happy and ok with tourists unless you mistreat them. They must have found it comfortable to earn their daily bread this way. How can we say that the women were forced without knowing the actual truth? Can you force a human so much to dress up a certain way and sit all day long making a scarf? If they are fine, what is our problem? But, Would you like it if a group of people came to your house to see you or stare at you? For sure, I will be uncomfortable. But if they say, they are paying me to answer some of their questions, I may say yes- If the money is big.
But not all of us behave decently. Right. So. what can you do?
So what should you do?
Not all of us can spend weeks together working and helping Karen. But we are curious to know different cultures and traditions. Travelling is the best way to widen our horizons whether it is short or long. So when you visit any tribe, don’t treat them like property, for your photos. Treating the tribals with dignity is in your hands. Try to speak to them slowly if you want to. Don’t ask your guide or translator to ask them if they remove the rings while they have sex. ( Yes, many tourists will have a sex query, I heard from Boon).
Never think of touching their neck or turban to check the material and its weight. Don’t we all love watching people in a park when we go to a new place? Be like that, merge, mingle and show some respect. If they choose to remain silent, be it. Who are we to force them to talk to us? Request them if they can show you their house. If denied, be it so. Women here are timid. Make sure they are comfortable and ok with you clicking. Don’t be that typical irresponsible tourist clicking photos continuously without their consent.
My Last question – Where are Karen Men?
It is nice to see a different tradition. You can understand a culture better when you live with them, eat, and talk with them. If all these aren’t possible in a short period, you should at least get to see all the genders. If Karen women’s beauty depends on how long their necks are, how is men’s handsomeness measured? Where are the Karen men? While Mom and I walked in the village, we saw a man doing daily chores with his kid in a hut. He undoubtedly belonged to the Karen village. His striped Sarongs were hanging left to dry. He was cleaning the house in his shorts and T-Shirts like any of us. So we saw only ladies in the craft market and no men.
Where do Karens want to live in Thailand or Myanmar?
There have been many failed attempts to send Karens back to their home country Myanmar. When I asked a Karen woman who seemed to be a bit more open than others. She spoke her native language but understood Thai –
“You like it here in Thailand or want to go back to Myanmar?” Mr Boon translated it to Thai and replaced Myanmar with Burma. Pointing at the ground with her forefinger, she smiled and made a gesture that said, “I don’t know.”
Considering one woman’s opinion, I can’t jump to a conclusion about one of Asia’s biggest political conflicts. I went through many journals and articles by activists later. Elderly Karens are returning to their homeland whenever allowed and receive help. The young generation is searching for a good education and decent education wants to go out in the world to live like others.
Online opinions versus reality-
- The village is filled with shops to sell stuff made by Karen women – True.
- Karen Women are pushy & they force you to buy. False. They smile and request you – end of the story. If you say no politely, they smile back and never bothers you.
- You can learn about Karen culture in two hours of your visit – False. You can see the Karen women, observe their costumes. To even brush the surface of their tradition, you will need to stay with them for two to three days, eating what they eat. You must contact local authorities and take permission to stay with the Karen women.
- Entrance fees of 300 baht are too much – False.
- The place is touristy – Half true. Because, masstourism isn’t famous in Northern Thailand yet. Plus no public transport access to the Karen village discourages many. Fortunately, there were only a few visitors in June. During winter, there will be a bigger crowd, our driver said.
I have narrated all my thoughts here to decide if you should go to Karen village or not. In my opinion, it isn’t a human zoo. People seemed to be happy there. I can’t check the genuineness, but I am sure there were real Karens, at least a few old ladies. A tribe never lets others to their group by faking. If not in these villages, where on earth can you see such a unique tradition? As a tourist, it is in your hands to behave respectfully and not treat them as a frame for your Instagram photo.
THE ONLY SLIGHTLY PUSHY WOMAN IN THE VILLAGE WAS HER – AKHA TRIBE WOMAN.
What is your thought on visiting the tribal villages? Have you ever been in such a dilemma anywhere else? Let us know in the comment section below.