Wednesday, December 03, 2014

A Livingstone Moment

We headed out this morning continuing on our motorcycle tour of northern Thailand and today it was to be another loop that deviated from the main highway. It would again take us west, up into the highlands that fringed the Myanmar border, then north, and then back down to Chiang Rai.

Not far off the main highway, our speedometer cable broke. That meant no odometer. We really rely on that to judge distances to town intersections and gas stations. We stopped at a couple of places but no one in this remote area had the needed cable. We would have to wait until we returned to Chiang Rai.

The loop took us up to Fang, then north through Mae Ai and Mae Salong, towns that were developed by a fleeing and displaced Chinese regiment with their families that had escaped a past conflict in China.

The roads were very narrow and so roller coaster steep that going down we had to not only shift down to 1st gear but had to stand hard on front and rear brakes to the heat induced extent that they faded to the point of almost failing.

We spotted a wee sign that said Karen Village and pointed the way up a dirt road. We had been reading up about the Long Neck people who live in these remote villages and it hasn't been without controversy and we had some reservations.

A little about their history. Several hill tribes of Karen people escaped the oppressive suffering inflicted upon then by the Burmese government (now known as Myanmar) by crossing the jungle border into the remote hills of Thailand. The Thai government has been reluctant to give them status and for years they have lived in limbo, eking out an existence in a restricted locale whereas other refugee groups were given status and passports and allowed to move on and prosper with normal opportunities.

Some women of these diffident refugees customarily wore heavy brass coils around their necks. They would start as young as 2, and year by year, the rings would increase. (It is 1 continuous ring, not separate coils.) The result of these heavy rings weighing down on the clavicle would press the ribs together and would give the appearance of a stretched out and lengthened neck.

We were told that the necks are not actually lengthened, they only appear that way. But we saw a postcard of a woman with her coils removed and her neck sure looked very long to us! The coils can weigh up to 10 kilograms (22 pounds)! Yes, it is a myth that their heads would flop over if they removed the rings.

Upon their arrival in Thailand and media exposure, it soon became apparent that tourists were quite amazed at their appearance and wanted to visit and take photos, beginning in 1984.

A little about the controversy. Certain elements in Thailand quickly realized their attraction was a significant value for the tourist industry. Some say the status quo remains unchanged because of the government's agenda to keep a good thing going. It has developed into a tourist trap where fees are charged to enter the village where the predominant experience is the many stalls selling the trinkets and not a view of their everyday life.

So, the question we had was, are these people relegated to a status not unlike exhibits in a zoo for tacky hoards of photo op tourists to pretend they had a Livingstone Moment and did we want to be part of this crass spectacle or would our visit, with financial contribution, be of benefit to them at least for the present day?

We decided to see for ourselves. We drove down the road leading to the village, smiling and nodding at a couple of field workers and they returned a shy smile.

Typical style of hut

We paid the reasonable fee to enter the village but in fact the predominant experience was certainly the avenue of small stalls where girls and women of all ages sold their wares. Almost all wore unique traditional clothing and not all were wearing the neck coils. They also sported many arm and leg bracelets.

We looked at all the wares from each and every stand while trying, unlike some, to show some respect for their dignity in our presence and approach. We tried to interact and converse by hand gestures and smiles praising their work and appearance.

We always asked before taking a photo and they happily and proudly struck a pose. They were delighted to pose with us as well, and we invoked a laugh usually when we asked them to give us a big smile. We willing responded by making a purchase when we saw something we liked.

No coils, but red betel nut teeth!

We were never asked to pay for taking a photo. Items we purchased averaged only 100 Baht ($3 Cdn). Definitely not over priced, we thought, and were as happy to pay as they were to receive. We bought 1 of their lovely scarves that they make by hand (the equivalent of $5) on their looms which they were proficiently working away at.

Beauty rings

Behind the rows of souvenier stalls were their humble homes and further their fields that they cultivate, no doubt returning to once the tourists left. Men were nowhere around.

Where does the entry fee go? There are some who suggest that much of it goes to outsiders who bring in the tourist. We only hope that the women keep all of the money from purchases of their items such as hand-woven scarves, jewellery, clothing, and wooden figures and dolls created with long necks and coils, etc.

It's rumoured that the women take the coils off as soon as the tourists leave. We don't believe this to be true as it quite a process to put them on or remove them and apparently usually only 1 woman in the village is capable of this procedure. On the other hand, we have heard that they are proud of that feature and consider it beautiful. Unnatural you say? Maybe. But aren't high heels for beauty's sake or for that matter tanning, or say breast implants?

So we came away with the matter not quite completely resolved in our minds. Maybe we just have to accept that we can't expect modern times not to have its influence in some cultures, dissolving tradition and originality. Father Time has gone digital and it's naive to believe we can find a Livingstone Moment.

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