The Day Tour of Elephants and Villagers

Booked a private tour for TH 1,500 at Chiang Mai Full Moon Travel. Saw their chalkboard while walking at the Old City yesterday and since the staff were accomodating and nice, booked with them.  The tour included Doi Suthep, the nearby H’mong village, the attractions in Mae Rim –elephant camp, Tiger Kingdom, crocodile show, monkey and snake shows, orchid farm, and Baan Tong Luang.  I was only really interested in Doi Suthep, the H’mong village, and Baan Tong Luang.

The taxi arrived promptly at 8:30am and we drove to Mae Rim with the Mae Sa Elephant Camp as first stop.

Elephants Acting Like People

Is it right?  That crossed my mind several times as I joined hundreds of clueless tourists watching the elephants do anything except be elephants.

With all the reports about pajaan, that cruel torture process to turn wild elephants into domicile submissive creatures, I wondered what it must have taken to train them to do all those things.  Seeing the sickle-like tools the mahouts use to hit the elephants on the head with further made the thought discomforting.

I was glad the show was over as I really didn’t enjoy it.  I wonder if the elephants were enjoying themselves.  I imagined the animals suffering a great deal just to learn to shoot a dart, kick a ball,  or  paint. 

 Coming here was a big big mistake.  I thought it would be a responsible elephant camp where elephants just go on being elephants.  The fact that people are made to ride on their backs is an indication of bad practice as their backs are not strong enough for any load.    They’re supposed to be ridden on their necks.  Plus I really hate how the mahouts hit the elephants on the head or jab them.

 Should have declined when I heard the phrase “elephant show.”  Perhaps, I was on tourist mode.  Sorry elephants, my TH 250 just added to your misery.
I left as soon as the show ended.  Next stop was Baan Tong Luang, a multi-ethnic village built in 2003 as a tourist attraction.

The Village People

There has been big talk about visiting hill people in northern Thailand.  On one side are the people who decry what they call a human zoo and on the other are those who point out livelihood, while others simply sweep the issue under the rug.  For the villagers themselves, it has been an opportunity for them to cash in on their cultural capital after all, the modern world doesn’t offer them much choices to make a living.

Trekking to inner villages like what I did in northern Laos a couple of years ago was simply out of the question due to my current physical state (read: overweight and bad legs).   Baan Tong Luang was the easy choice.  It housed 5 different groups–Karen, Palong, Akha, Lahu, Yao.

​Though built for tourists, real people actually lived there.  In the absence of a functioning social community however, there wasn’t any real community life as everyone’s day to day life was centered on making crafts and displaying themselves.  There were small patches of rice fields but nothing else. No chickens running, dogs barking, pigs stinking.

 In spite of all these, the place had a real village feel and it made for an easy introduction to the different groups.

You are given a map at the entrance but the village was small enough to just wander around and not get lost.  Large signs pointed the sections out.

I took my time slowly just looking at the houses and taking pictures. Totally relished the advantage of not being with a tour group thereby  going at my own  pace.

I’ve been to Akha villages in northern Laos so it was fun seeing  familiar features such as the Akha gate found at the entrance of villages.  

Bought some ornaments from the gaily dressed women.

The Palong women were busy at their looms weaving the red textiles used for their skirts.  I bought one for TH 500. 

The women also had colorful head wear.

Nothing much was happening at the H’mong section except for this guy making silver ornaments which the H’mong are famous for aside from their beautiful indigo textiles.

All was quiet too at the Yao front.

The largest section of the village was those of the long neck Karen also known as the Padang. They were, after all, what many tourists come for.

Trying on one of the “fake” rings fused together but halved cross-wise which you wear on the front of your neck and tie at the back, you realize that stacked rings, at least a hand span apart, give the illusion of a long neck.  It’s something any person can wear, albeit uncomfortably.  I wonder how many of the young ones are really long necks or just be that during the day for tourists.  Some, especially the older people, really did seem to be the real thing.

The real rings, by the way, are really heavy, thus depressing the collar bone and giving the neck an elongated appearance.  

The young woman below from whom I bought a Karen wooden figure and a guitar said she started wearing rings at 4 years old.

Near the entrance were the Lahu  and there was this guy playing the khaen.

The village also had a kindergarten, a Catholic chapel, and a restaurant. I enjoyed my visit very much.  The situation and context may be contrived but the people are genuinely real.  They make their own handicrafts and purchasing them is a great opportunity for them to earn from their skills.  

Did it feel like a zoo?  There wasn’t a big crowd when I was there in spite of the presence of some tour groups.  Ultimately, it’s how you behave that matters.  If you’re simply ogling or snapping pictures without asking for permission or not showing them your shots, then it is easy to see how it can be a human zoo.  Treat them like real living people.  Also, buy something. They’re not pushy anyway.  
It was way past lunch by the time I left the village so I skipped all the other attractions at Mae Rim as they were all animal shows.  Next stop was the H’mong village close to Doi Suthep.  It took almost an hour’s drive as it was located at the opposite end.  Unfortunately,  the access road Doi Suthep was closed  due to an activity  related to the Thai king’s death. That also meant no access to the H’mong village.  Back at the travel agency, I was refunded TH 1,000 as the sites I went to were enough for the TH 500 tour.

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