Ethical dilemmas in the hills of Northern Thailand

Ethical tourism is tricky. If ever it did, the ‘take only pictures, leave only footprints’ brand of travel ethics doesn’t stand up to scrutiny during the era of climate crisis. The severely negative impact of mass tourism has blighted both historic cities and pristine natural habitats, and driven exploitation of people and nature. Travel can contribute to a greater understanding between peoples, but mass tourism is not a great vehicle for building mutual respect or sustainable economic development.

The exploitation of vulnerable minorities displaced by war is probably not something most of us would knowingly sign up for. Yet the case of the Kayan people highlights that even this over simplification is fraught with ethical dilemmas.

Hmong village, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Kayan woman, Chiang Mai, Thailand

I was in Chiang Mai working with a local organisation providing mobile health services to remote communities in the region. These are mainly poor hill tribe villages that often lack basic services for whom a mobile clinic is the only health care they can access. In one Hmong village we were treated to musical and theatrical performances. Literacy isn’t guaranteed, and these oral storytelling traditions help spread the word.

It’s important to remember that Thailand is, essentially, a military dictatorship fronted by a compliant monarchy to add a facade of respectability. This alone should be an ethical dilemma, but it doesn’t seem to deter the millions of foreign tourists who visit each year. Hill tribes have been promoted heavily by the government as a cultural highlight of the country. It’s not all sun, sand and the sex trade.

Hmong village, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Young performers, Hmong village, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Hmong village, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Young performers, Hmong village, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Hmong village, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Hmong village, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The Hmong are one of several hill tribes, and their history is typical of many other minority ethnic groups in this region. Originally from Southern China, the Hmong migrated to Laos and Vietnam, and small numbers to Thailand. It was the Vietnam War, and the triumph of the communists in Vietnam and Laos that forced hundreds of thousands of Hmong to flee in the 1970s. Many arrived as refugees in Thailand and those that weren’t forcibly repatriated remain there … which brings me back to the Kayan.

Originally from Myanmar, Kayan women are famed for wearing coiled brass rings that seemingly elongate their necks. Those Kayan in villages in Northern Thailand fled or are descendants of those who fled conflict in Myanmar – a legacy of British colonial rule in Burma. In 1948, Karenni demands for an independent state led to a civil war with the Burmese government – another brutal military dictatorship. Thousands have died, many more displaced.

When the Kayan fled to Thailand in the 1980s they were viewed as economic migrants not refugees and were refused the right to Thai citizenship. Those that left refugee camps for villages found themselves in a trap: they couldn’t legally seek work outside the villages and had their freedom of movement restricted. Thai authorities quickly realised the tourist potential of the exotic ‘long neck’ women and the villages became tourist attractions.

Opportunities for education and employment were limited and the villages had few modern facilities because, well, tourists don’t want ‘modern’ in a traditional village. Tourists pay an entry fee to walk amongst the wooden homes, snap photos, buy handmade weavings and even spend the night. Villagers often don’t receive all the proceeds and have no legal status to stop exploitation by those who run the villages.

Kayan woman, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Kayan girl, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Kayan woman, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Kayan woman, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Kayan woman, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The majority of tourists visiting these facsimiles of Kayan villages do so as part of multi-stop tours and reports of tourists behaving disrespectfully are common. Yet, while every instinct might scream ‘boycott them’, the reality is that as long as the Thai authorities refuse to grant the Kayan basic rights, tourism is a lifeline they can’t afford to lose. There’s much not to like about the arrangement, but visiting respectfully, asking politely for photos and buying artisanal products from the women may be the ethical choice.

There were few tourists the day a colleague took me me to visit a village several hours outside Chiang Mai. The extraordinary Kayan women gracefully agreed to have their photos taken, I bought some weavings, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re part of the problem.

27 thoughts on “Ethical dilemmas in the hills of Northern Thailand

  1. Like the way You bring ‘Ethics’ into Tourism. Kudos. Like, also, Your thought: ‘while every instinct might scream ‘boycott them’, the reality is that as long as the Thai authorities refuse to grant the Kayan basic rights, tourism is a lifeline they can’t afford to lose. There’s much not to like about the arrangement, but visiting respectfully, asking politely for photos and spending money with the women is an ethical choice.’ …But the last sentence here, ‘spending money with the “women!?”‘

    1. Thanks for pointing that out. Taken out of context I can appreciate that that part of the sentence could be misinterpreted, especially in a country infamous for its sex trade. It isn’t meant to imply that type of transaction, but I’ve made the sentence clearer.

      1. Thanks. Appreciated. 🙂

  2. I appreciate your clarity about this.

  3. I arrived from equinoxio as well. I would not visit Myanmar and Thailand and many other countries because I think almost all the money I spent would end up in the hands of the governments. I suppose if I did not live in the US, I would not want to visit this country either. At least certain parts of the country. Although the actual dangers are far over-magnified by the bloodthirsty media. Main thing now is to undo what happened in 2016. The fact that the zealot followers of the current president of this country are cynically exploited by him, is lost on them entirely. Of course, he is a reflection of them possibly even more than they are a reflection of him. Stand back far enough and one sees that it is a tragic and untenable social situation that needs to be addressed. What I see is people being rendered stupid by an educational system that seems to be designed to do exactly that. And now they actively don’t want to understand how the world actually works. It’s all a big conspiracy theory. It goes back many generations. And, realistically, I think it’ll take a long time to fix. Wow. Didn’t I get started?! Anyway, a very thought provoking post woven through some beautiful photography.

    1. That’s greatly appreciated, thank you. I think this year’s election is probably one of the most significant of my lifetime. Even though I’m not a US citizen, I’m nervous of the outcome and also expecting the rhetoric, and probably actions, of some of those zealots to become even more extreme. The effects are felt everywhere and I’m hoping for the better of the two choices.
      PS fantastic photography on your site!

      1. Thank you very much. I feel the same way. The phenomenon that is happening in the United States is not unique to the United States. What concerns me most is the divisiveness. And that concerns me a lot.

      2. And thank you very much for your comment on my photography. I’m very glad you like it.

  4. Enjoyed this post. Came here from equinoxio reblog.
    The photos are culture rich and the thoughts on ethics and tourism gives much to chew on…

    and liked this
    “but visiting respectfully, asking politely for photos and spending money with the women is an ethical choice”

    1. Thank you, that’s much appreciated. I’m no sure there’s a single right answer to any of these issues but at the very least people can make a difference by being respectful of other people’s cultures.

  5. Reblogged this on Equinoxio and commented:
    A great reflection and photos on Thailand, minorities and ethical tourism

  6. A great post, Paul, thank you. I seem to remember that Daughter #2 did an internship in Chiang Mai working with the refugee camps. She was delighted with the project. I need to ask her again what the objective was.
    Now, are we part of the problem? You do not support the military junta do you? But then, you reminded me of a trip I did on the Amazon a while back. In Leticia, border of Colombia Brazil and Peru. I remember vividly the visit to an “Indian” village. Which the children in rags, bloated bellies (malnutrition) and a bunch of (Nationality undisclosed) ladies offering lolly pops to the kids. My daughter in law is a dentist, she was outraged. “That will just give them cavities. Poor kids”.
    Well, at least, mass tourism might be “dead” for while…
    Take care

    1. Thanks Brian. I’ve seen similar situations to the one you describe, including the depressing fact of child poverty being used as a means of income from begging. It’s hard to know where to draw the line from a travel perspective. Scratch the surface and too many governments are authoritarian, undemocratic or run by kleptocrats, in the past I’ve had to travel to these places for work but would definitely think twice about going as tourist.
      Hope all’s well and take care, Paul

      1. I was born and lived in many places where children are consistently used for begging. You can even see it in France lately.
        And yes, I would contend that most governments are kleptocratic. When public spending in France is 56% of GDP, and you see the appalling response to the virus crisis, the sorry state of the Paris metro and Paris hospitals, to name a few items, one can’t help asking where has the money gone?
        Stay safe.

  7. You’ve definitely made me aware of the ethical dilemma of visiting villages such as this. I’m probably guilty — I’d love to see these “long neck” women, their dress, what they produce, all set in a rural (albeit shabby) setting. I value your photos because I will never be there, and this is my only glimpse at this society. Thanks for beautiful pictures and for making me think about what can be done to support these villagers without exploiting them.

    1. Who wouldn’t want to visit such an amazing ethnic group? The traditional dress and neck rings are extraordinary. It’s just tragic that in some of these villages the price of that is perpetuating an abusive system, yet taking tourism away is also going to create great hardships for these communities. It’s a rock and a hard place.

  8. It really is a tricky one, isn’t it? I have regular arguments with a friend who holidays in Turkey along these lines. I refuse to go. Much as I’d love to see the country in general, and Istanbul in particular, I can’t bring myself to go and put money in the hands of those that run the place.

    1. It’s an impossible choice at times, and Turkey is a good example. Tourism definitely bolsters international image and tax revenues, which in turn help keep corrupt and authoritarian regimes in power. I won’t visit Myanmar until the dictatorship has been replaced and brought to justice – so never.

      1. I fear my list is longer and currently include Poland, Hungary, Brazil, the USA, and – if I didn’t live here – would probably also include the UK. Myanmar and Thailand are on the list too.

        1. So much of the world is out of bounds. I understand the USA, and I’ve been boycotting it ever since that fateful November in 2016 (not a vintage year for elections in the English speaking world). I sometimes feel bad about that decision though, surely it must be safe to visit blue states?

  9. Thank you for sharing this. It is frustrating to know that despite a big push for ethical travel by the travel community, it is still hampered by politics.

    1. Thailand’s an interesting case. It’s a fascinating country, beautiful and cultured, yet with vast inequalities and famed sex trade all overseen by a corrupt military controlling the country. Yet it’s a tourist Mecca and tourism legitimises everything.

  10. It is a somewhat disturbing article, but I believe that the various aspects of the issue are stated and leaves it up to each individual to make an informed decision. Thank you .

    1. Thank you. These things are never simple and people should make up their own minds, that starts with finding out the reality which is often well hidden.

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