It Doesn't Have to be a Living Human Museum
Jae blurts out in a sarcastic voice, “You only feel that way because that Dutch girl said so.”
Maybe he was right. He was referring to a conversation a Dutch girl and I had during our trip from Chiang Mai to Pai. During that conversation, I did state I felt a bit uneasy. But, I was curious about seeing something I never knew existed before.
So, maybe, the seed was planted.
The sun began to set and it looked like we had just about an hour of daylight left. The engine roared as we sped down the river to the boat landing to make our way back into town. Alba and I had just finished a conversation about our experience at the Kayan Village. I was honest. At first I felt awkward. It seemed to me that we were not visiting a village but visiting a museum with living people. It seemed as though the villagers on the main strip were playing a role. I am unable to understand their language but I can understand the universal language of the body and face.
You get a sense…if something is authentic or not.
Earlier that day, we met Niti Siriwat, a guide in Mae Hong Son, who has been doing treks up to the village for over 20 years. He was a kind, educated and soft spoken man who knew thai, french, english and about a dozen tribal dialects. He states most visitors are from France, a few more from England but very few from America. We stated we heard of the Mae Hong Son loop that included a visit to the tribe of long neck women. He was familiar with this inquiry.
It took fifteen minutes to drive from the town center to the boat landing. We found ourselves on a motor boat zipping up the river towards the Kayan Village. A village that is 3 kilometers from the Myanmar border. I had my first lesson. These people are from Myanmar. They are refugees who fled Myanmar after decades of forced relocation and ethnic cleansing by the junta. Thailand had accepted them into their borders and provides for their minimal well-being.
The village we were about to visit attracts very few tourists nowadays. But, today, after 30 minutes with the first lady we encountered up the dirt road, I heard motor boats approaching off to distance. I turn and see about 2 dozen tourists ready to dock and snap happily at this walking cultural tour.
Niti stated it might be time to start moving quickly to avoid the influx of tourists. These tourists were French guided by an Asian man who spoke french and yelled out facts about the village. He would point to the long neck women while stating it was ok to take pictures. At this point, Alba was drawn to a little baby carried by another women up the road. With the help of Niti we began conversing with her.
There was actually one moment when I was taking a picture of the eldest lady in the village that an older french couple remarked on how primitive the people were. I retorted back in my Jersey way that what you think is primitive is unique in a world…where we praise individuality but expect cultural conformity.
They said something back in french which was garbled up in my head but I continued to say, we can look at these rings and say they disfigure women. But, can’t we say the same thing about women who go under the knife to fix noses, to suck fat from their thighs, to place silicon in their breasts.
If you think about it…how strange is it that we have to place a metal ring around our “ring” finger to indicate we are in a partnership with another human being?”
The couple along with the other tourists left quickly. They snapped their pictures, marveled at how “primitive” these people were and went off to their next stop where ever that may be.
After seeing this I couldn’t help but reconfirm my feeling that the vast majority of people come here as if these people are living exhibits. “Yes, I was here. Look at my pictures. Aren’t they strange?” Ok, I may be exaggerating a bit or assuming this is how most people experience this village. Maybe my own perceptions are spilling over on how I think others are viewing this experience.
I wanted a totally different experience. I wanted to learn something. I wanted to take something back with me that was more than pictures or a scarf made by the Kayan women. Niti helped me get a better understanding of the culture, the plight of the people and their individual stories. It’s these stories of sacrifice that I remember.
It’s been a few hours now and we completed our rounds of giving notebooks, pencils and rulers to some of the village kids. At first, I wasn’t sure if this would be a good thing to do. I asked myself, “Are we teaching these kids to expect handouts from tourists who come here to never to come back?” But, I knew the answer when I saw these kids’ eyes light up or see a smile on their face. I knew at that point we made a small difference. I hope this may help reinforce the importance of education. I am not sure if that is their takeaway. In the future, I am going to make sure that the donations go directly to the school.
We finally made it up to the top of the village. Two school age children followed us and hid every time we’d look directly at them. They’d laugh and hide behind a post or brush. We head down the hill and make a quick right and I read, “Roman Catholic Church.” Niti told us earlier that the people are Catholics. French missionaries came and converted many to the faith. Originally, they were animalists but over the years they’ve accepted the Catholic or Protestant faith.
We sit down on a bench across from the church. We begin to have discussions about politics and religion with Niti.
I’ve realized that Jae, Alba and I do not see many things the same way. It makes traveling with these two interesting. It challenges some of my beliefs and at other times boils my blood. We get into a short debate about the Catholic faith. Alba and Jae are unsure of their feelings on these people becoming Catholics and not Buddhists. I stated that these people have a choice. I argued back that one must know more about the religions before arguing on which one is better. Have we not learned that once we remove the religious dogma that all these teachings are all the same. I had to restate, that these people weren’t converted from Buddhism, they were converted from animalism. They held onto their strong argument they should be Buddhist.
I had to disagree.
If people find comfort in a religion, then no one other than that person can say what is right for them. We all have choices. If Jae and Alba were raised Christian and choose to become Buddhists, the Kayan people can choose to be Christian.
These cultural debates would continue to various other parts of our journey. It definitely made me rethink some of my positions but ultimately came back to the same conclusions – to respect another person’s choice to live their life.
We begin to head back down to the dock. We noticed a boy hauling trash over a bridge. A simple reminder that anywhere in the world us boys do take out the trash. As we approach the boat, the village was left with no other tourists and the children could be seen finally enjoying the day.
In retrospect, I would agree with this Dutch girl. I felt the village was a museum.
I came to that conclusion the moment I heard Alba ask to visit a village with no tourists. We live in a world of commerce. Anything touristic will of course be commercialized in order to cater to the tourists desires to see something authentic.
It all boils down to money. These people have learned to make a living off the tourists that visit this remote village. They have the ultimate right to do so. We can choose to quickly walk up the dirt road, happily snapping pictures or we can actually take the time to sit down and speak with these people. I realized when you treat them as people not as museum pieces they actually won’t try to sell you anything. They’d prefer to smile at you and share with you their culture that they feel is changing and ultimately disappearing.
Yes, it is a museum. It’s a living breathing human exhibition. But, if you explore this village correctly, you’ll gain a better understanding of yourself and of a people willing to share their unique cultural traditions.