"In Pattaya, it is hookers. Here, it is treks," a stranger
said to me in a restaurant in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It was
an unusual pick-up line, but factually right on the money.
Just as the beach-town of Pattaya was known for prostitution,
the mountain town of Chiang Mai had become a mecca for travelers
who want to "trek" through the hill tribe villages of northern
Thailand. Trekkers claim to want to get a feel for indigenous
people like the Hmong, Karen and Mien by sleeping in villages
they get to by foot, elephant and raft.
I was one of
My boyfriend, Bryan, and I joined seven other people for
a three-day trek from Chiang Mai. We booked our trek through
a hostel (in addition to straight tour operators, most hostels
offer treks it's a booming business). We shopped around by
reading the comments of travelers who had trekked with the
companies and asked around. Almost every review was glowing.
We felt we couldn't leave Thailand without taking a trek,
which was made out to be the quintessential Thai experience.
We wanted to go native and become enlightened.
Instead we became
Our first stop was the
home village of our guide, Nanni. This was a big selling point for
us because he spoke the local dialect as well as English. Nanni was
a friendly enough guy, but he vanished as soon as we arrived at the
Hmong village. So our group wandered around the impoverished little
town, along with about 20 other Western trekkers on similar tours.
Locals immediately began begging for change, which depressed me. A
few elderly women scolded them, but to no avail. Someone took a
photo of a child and was soon surrounded by a crowd of children
demanding, "Ten baht! Ten baht!" about 30 U.S. cents. I bought a
soda from a store, and a local man gestured for me to buy him one,
too. A group of teen-agers stole a traveler's camera and amused
each other by posing for photos.
I was trying hard not to
project my expectations onto the villagers and failing. The
indigenous people I'd seen in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and (ahem) on
postcards wore brightly colored dresses and headdresses; the bags
they sold had beads and silver sewn into intricate designs. But
these villagers were wearing Western T-shirts with logos like
"Bingo Champ!" We asked why and were told that Christian
missionaries had come to the village, built a church and told the
villagers that they could have the clothing if they joined the
church an obvious incentive in an economically depressed area.
("Christian, wealth. Buddha, poor," Nanni later lamented, though
the predominant village religion had been animism.) A few young
girls did wear tattered traditional clothing, but they seemed
ostracized from the other children. Instead of playing, they
devoted their spare time to begging from us. I'm sure paying 10
baht for a photo of the only village children still wearing
traditional clothing had seemed reasonable to many
The loss of traditional
dress was explained matter of factly, but local opinions on opium
were less restrained. (Availability of opium is another leading
reason why some travelers opt to trek in this region of the Golden
Triangle.) The prevailing sentiment was that older villagers resent
foreign trekkers' frequent use of the drug in their village because
it sets a bad example for impressionable young locals.
The deterioration of the
village's traditional culture wasn't the only guilt-inducing
element of the trek. The elephants we rode the next day wore
shackles and were frequently whipped with barbs by guides as we
ambled toward our next destination a covered shelter by the Taeng
River. The next day, Nanni's assistants built several bamboo rafts
for our transport downriver.
The rafting portion of
the trek was a highlight for me: pushing our way down a river
through a forest, seeing monkeys playing in trees and learning Thai
songs from Nanni and Suk, another guide. Then we rounded a bend and
saw hundreds of discarded rafts just like our own. Nanni told us
that elephants eat the waterlogged bamboo rafts, which can only be
used for several hours before they start to sink. But it looked
like a formidable challenge even for a herd of elephants the fleet
of rafts was choking the river, and more were being added every
day. I cringed as I stepped off our raft and over several more to
reach the riverbank, where I gave a Hmong child a balloon and he
tried to pick my pocket. Then he kicked other people in my tour
group. I was relieved after lunch to get into a truck and head back
But because the other
travelers in our group raved about the trek during the truck ride
back to Chiang Mai, I tried to dispel my cynicism and guilt. After
all, we had contributed money to the local economy, even if the
tour only cost about $50 per person. The other travelers, who only
had a few weeks to spend in Thailand, had glimpsed a culture more
authentic than that offered by the video bars of Bangkok's Khao San
Road or the full moon parties of Ko Pha-Ngan and the other southern
islands. Plus, we'd had some good laughs Nanni had a lot of great
expressions, like "When there are no trees, water falls away
quickly, like water off a bald man's head."
Still, an overwhelming
influx of trekkers had clearly eroded the traditions and
environment of the places we visited, and we had helped contribute
to it. Unlike locals in less-frequented areas of Thailand, few of
the villagers we'd met had smiled.
I gained an insight into
the trekking experience about a month later. Bryan and I were
traveling on a local "slow boat" on the Mekong River in Laos; we
were the only foreigners onboard. At one point during the
seven-hour journey, a plush tourist boat with a faster engine
passed us. Every passenger was white, and every passenger except
for one who really stood out was pointing a video or still camera
at us. It was unsettling, but those of us on the slow boat tried to
act naturally, as though we weren't being gawked at, filmed,
observed. All Westerners should have an experience like
As travelers, it's in
our nature to be curious about the places and people we visit. But
when planning our itineraries and choosing our "adventures," we
need to carefully consider whether our choices will benefit not
only ourselves, but our hosts as well.