Monday, February 18, 2008

Of elephants, long neck women and river crossings.

Karen Tribe Long Neck beauty

We arrived in Mae Hong Son, the biggest town in the northwest region in the afternoon after an easy drive. A Toyota dealership as well other MNCs confirmed this. Thai Airways fly here too, albeit
on twin propellor planes! It was fun walking though the night market which sold all sorts of food and wares. There was a Thai singer and her guitarist belting out soothing melodies and Angkana, ever the avid shopper, bought their CD. We also took the opportunity to go for a Thai traditional massage - which stretches and cracks every joint of our aching bodies.

Our abode was a very nice wooden chalet just by the river, 5 km out of town. Little did we know it was smack right beside the elephant pick up point where baht rich tourists get picked up. That was confirmed in the morning where we saw 3 elephants - a Grandma, her daughter and grandchild crossing the river to feed just beside our chalet. What a treat it was to see such magnificient animals in close quarters. Millie, our 3 yo friend, had a blast!

Mae Hong Son is a good base for trekking to the many hill tribes, most famous are the Long Neck Karens. We drove to the settlement 25km out of town and 4km before arriving, we were waved frantically by a young man holding up a sign in English, "Small car cannot go there". Suspecting another opportunist, I waved him away and proceeded to drive the little Vios through some unpaved roads until it came to a sharp drop. Turning back sheepishly and slightly embarassed, I could see him waiting for us trying very hard not to laugh.

500B and we were on the back of his pick-up truck bouncing around the rough roads. Soon the road disappeared and we were forging a river! What an adventure this was turning out to be. More bouncing around, climbing up and down hills and we came to a United Nations refugee camp. We were nervously very close to the Burmese border indeed. 250B admission and we were led into a village of 200 plus where 3 hilltribes lived. There was a school, a church and many long necked vendors selling beautiful hand-weaved scarfs and clothes. Their surprisingly very good spoken English indicated their experience with the many tourists like us who come to see this intriguing cultural phenomena.
I learnt that the brass rings around their necks do not "lengthen" the neck as such but they pressed down the collar bones - thus giving an optical illusion. While I'm glad that the Karens has found a way to attract tourists and make a living through their unique beauty, I can't help thinking that they may be "marketed" quite unfairly somewhat like zoo attractions and that is a shame. Talking to the Karens, they are very much like any of us, raising a family and working hard to make a living.
But I suppose marketing from this "angle" isn't going to draw the crowds...

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