Thailand, Tourism.. more than just an Instagram Post?
For the past few years I have had the privilege of living in Northern Thailand and working with people from the surrounding hill tribes. Its been a very rewarding and educational experience that has taught me a lot about their culture and history, as well as the challenges they face. Its also triggered a debate among me and my colleagues about how to help these diverse peoples without exploiting them or their culture. And it’s not an easy as it may sound.
Depending on your source, there are 6 or 7 recognized tribes in Northern Thailand. The Karen are the largest group with around half a million members and are able to trace their presence in Thailand back to the 17th century. They are followed by the Hmong, Akha, Lahu, Lawa, Lisu and Mien. There are dozens of sub groups within each tribe so it’s difficult to actually say how many distinct cultures are represented in the region. Estimates put the total number of tribal people in the country at over 1 million with many of them classified as stateless, which means they’re not citizens of Thailand and don’t have the same protections and opportunities as those who are.
The main objective of the Chance Foundation is to provide economic opportunities to hill tribe people through training and employment programs, that give them the skills required to try jobs other than farming or day laborers (the main occupations available to most hill tribe people). These occupations require people to put in very long hours while performing back breaking tasks in intense conditions such as extreme heat and humidity. They also pay very little money (especially considering the hours put in) and don’t offer any chance to learn new things and eventually earn a better living.
Over the past few decades, hill tribe people have realized they can make more money, doing less strenuous work, by promoting their culture and traditions to tourists. This allows them to earn a better income while also teaching foreigners about their unique and rich heritage. It’s a compromise they are willing to make in order to give themselves, and their families, opportunities they wouldn’t normally have.
However, there seems to be this movement in the western world to shun these so called “tourist traps” as they are viewed as “human zoos” or “unauthentic”. While I can understand how people from the west would initially react that way, I think it’s worth doing research and taking a deeper look at what these revenue streams mean to these people and their community. Instead of avoiding them, maybe it’s better to visit in the most respectful way possible by taking a genuine interest in the people and the culture instead of looking for a quick picture for your Instagram feed, before hopping back in your car to the next attraction. I think you would find that if you spent quality time, asking meaningful questions and show a genuine interest in what they have to say, your experience would be much more rewarding.
It also goes without saying that the whole point of visiting these places, in addition to meeting these people and learning about their culture, is to spend money. That’s why they do this. Buy the things they sell, tip them for their services and promote your experience to responsible friends and family to encourage them to do the same.
Tourism is a part of our life and it’s up to us as the tourists to be responsible, respectful and appreciate what these unique people have to offer. Most of the time, a place becomes a “tourist trap” because of the tourists, not the people running the programs. They will respond to you based on how you treat them. If you see them as a commodity to be exploited for your Instagram feed than ofc they will just want you to visit, spend money and then leave. But if you take the time to learn from them, I’m certain both of you will see a more genuine side to each other which would expand your worldview just a little bit more. And isn’t that the whole point of travel?