December 04, 2018
Today I visited one of the villages habitated by the Karen Tribe, famous for the neck rings that the women wear. Originally from Burma, many of the Karen fled to Thailand during the war as refugees.
There are many villages in Thailand (and Burma) where the Karen tribe reside, but I specifically went to Huay Pu Keng because I was told it was the least touristy, 30 minutes outside Mae Hong Son. I drove there by motorbike on a long winding road through the mountains that was scenic and fun to drive through.
Once you get there you can take a boat to cross the river for 20 baht (note: do not take a boat from the earlier exit because they charge something like 800 baht). The entrance fee was 200 baht.
The village is pretty small, with a short little walkway going uphill and the women having their goods out on display. Most of the women are making scarves or just hanging out, with their children running around. Most but not all of the women and children wear the neck rings. They don’t solicit you, many don’t even make eye contact unless you approach them. Everyone seems to speak fluent English.
I went a bit off the main path and saw children playing volleyball, a Christian church, and other houses.
There is no internet or cell phone coverage. The school supposingly has some computers, and some of the people have phones.
When I arrived to the boat there were two women women getting off wearing neck rings and that’s when it hit me that “oh sh*t this is real”. I checked my phone and saw that I had no service.
Pay Yu, the man who drove my boat, was very friendly and told me a lot about life in the village. He told me that the women were allowed to choose whether or not to wear the rings, that there was no electricity in the village aside from the solar panels, and that many of the men didn’t have Thai citizenship (being Burmese refugees) and thus struggled to find work. The school in the village had recently been transformed to teach Thai. He was married but his wife didn’t wear the rings.
He asked me what state I was from and I said “Virginia”, and then he said “that’s one of the original colonies right?” (impressive, many foreigners from wealthier countries aren’t familiar with Virginia) From the age of 17, he’d spent 4 years going to school in the Karen refugee camp (high school and a little bit of university I believe) and then had volunteered there for another two years. He said he’d like to travel one day but didn’t have the money to.
Although the Karen are originally from Burma, neither him nor any of the villagers I spoke to expressed any desire to move back to Burma. He told me that Thailand was better because healthcare and education were cheaper here.
He encouraged me to talk to the people in the village.
At first it felt weird because this is a real village where people live. The women were wearing neck rings but just going about their business, and it felt weird staring at them. There were only a few other tourists.
At one point I remembered that I’d paid an entrance fee and decided that I wasn’t going to waste this opportunity, and so I approached a mother and her child and talked to them for a bit. The mother was very friendly and didn’t hesitate to answer any of my questions. She told me she was content living in the village and had no desire to move.
She spoke fluent English, as did every other villager. I found this extremely impressive, especially given that there’s no internet.
I spoke to a 27 year old woman who turned out to be the sister of the boat driver. She was married and seemed happy, but told me she might move to the city in a couple years to work, something she could do because she had Thai citizenship. Of course this would mean taking off the neck rings. Her husband on the other hand was Burmese and didn’t have Thai citizenship, and thus couldn’t legally work.
She said she had a Facebook account but wasn’t on Instagram.
It turns out that the neck rings can be taken off, contrary to popular belief. I asked her if she actually wears the rings all the time, such as when she sleeps or showers, and she insisted that she does.
I asked if I could try on a neck ring and she put some on. It was a bit heavy and my neck of course felt very constricted. I could not look down. I’m glad I don’t have to wear these rings, though I do think they look cool on the women.
It was cool to see that they had solar power.
I was surprised to see some Christian churches, the first I’ve seen in my 3 weeks so far in Thailand. I asked one of the ladies what her religion was and she said Buddhist, though she said that there were Protestants and Catholics as well. The impression I got was that most however were Buddhist. She said that all the religions got along with each other in harmony.
Overall I found it to be a very interesting experience.
I was very impressed at their fluency in English. Their English was better than the average person in any South American or Ukrainian city, which is remarkable given that they’re living in a village with no internet or cell phone coverage.
I sympathize with those who can’t get Thai citizenship and thus can’t legally work in Thailand. I think the government should do more to help these people. That being said, it would be unfair to single out the Thai government here because many countries nowadays (including the U.S.) are guilty of failing to integrate refugees.
The people seemed remarkably content with their situation other than those without Thai citizenship who couldn’t legally work. I was expecting more of a desire to move to the city, but that was not the sense I got, though to be fair the people I spoke to constitute a very small sample size. Living in the city is expensive, and life seemed easier there.
Despite not having internet or cell phone coverage, they definitely seem to have been exposed to the computer and the internet, so they’re not totally isolated from the outside world. I was surprised that the one woman had a Facebook accout.
I find villages fascinating because life there is so different from what I’m used to having lived in the Washington D.C. area and NYC.
A part of me wants to help out these villages by helping to connect them to the internet and supply them with phones and laptops, but another part of me questions whether this is actually a good thing.
Is the average American or Japanese salaryman happier than the average villager here in Thailand or in Cuba? Is social media good, or does it make us feel inadequate and FOMO by exposing us to “dream” lifestyles we can never obtain?
Regardless of your stance on technology, I think there’s a clear case to be made that work in the modern era is extroardinarily alienating for many people when their time is completely devoted to soulless jobs devoid of meaning or fulfillment, much of the money going to rent and/or mortgage often with little left over. This sentiment was summed up beautifully in the (excellent) documentary Lost Boys of Sudan when a Sudanese person says “in Africa we have time but no money, but in the U.S. there is money but no time”
I would like to explore more villages and perhaps volunteer in one to learn more about the lives of villagers and their needs.
If you do decide to visit the village, I highly recommend actually talking to the locals and learning about their culture and way of life. This was by far the most rewarding thing I did here, and had I not done this I would’ve only gotten a fraction of the experience. I didn’t actually see any other tourists doing this, most of them just walking around and taking pictures. I know it might feel weird, as though you’re intruding, but it’s not, and if anything that’s what you’re paying the 200 baht entrance fee for. I tipped every person I spoke to (some of whom tried to refuse the tip) but of course that is up to your discretion.
Finally I will address the controversy, the accusations that this is a “human zoo”, that visiting this is unethical, that they’re held against their will, etc.
None of the people I spoke to said they were being held against their will. All told me they could leave if they wanted to, and one lady even told me that she planned to move to the city in a couple years. Most of the husbands work in the city.
It is true that many do not have Thai citizenship and thus cannot legally work. This is a problem and should be resolved. That being said, this is unfortunately not really different from how most countries handle refugees (including the U.S.).
Since I went directly to the village without going through a tour or middleman, all the money I spent goes directly to the people.
Now is it possible that I was lied to and that they’re secretly held hostage there? Sure. But after speaking to four people, two of them for at least 15-20 minutes, getting their emails and contact information, I did not get that impression. The man I spoke to worked in the city and was simply on holiday for the week.
If indeed they are being exploited and held hostage, then that is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. But it is not the impression I got after speaking to these people. The burden of proof regarding any allegations of exploitation is on the accuser, and I see a lot of people throwing around accusations without any evidence.
I get it, a lot of people are uncomfortable with what some call “poverty tourism”. When I was in South America it seemed that at least half of the tourists were uncomfortable with favela tours (though half of them would do it anyways and then afterwards claim they were still uncomfortable with it). I always thought this thinking was stupid, as if touring through Beverley Hills or the Upper East Side and padding the pockets of billionaires is more ethical and morally acceptible than visiting a slum and supporting their economy. By this logic, isn’t the whole concept of visiting a “poor” country unethical? Guess I should cancel that trip to India and Madagascar and book another trip to London and Paris /s. What utter nonsense.
At the end of the day, I gave money to the village, learned about their culture, and have now raised awareness of their village and culture via writing this post. There’s a legitimate possibility I may go back and volunteer in the village or the refugee camp because I find it so interesting and think it would be rewarding.
If anything I did was “unethical”, then please educate me on how so. But please back up any allegations with evidence, along with your reasoning as to how me visiting this village made these people any worse off.
Written by Jeremy Bernier who left the NYC rat race to travel the world, work remotely, and find the meaning of life.