Hill tribes, a very white wat, and bugs

May 8th, 2009 by scott and becky

38 km 2 h 15 min

Since there were a couple of things we wanted to do in Chiang Rai, we decided to stay an extra night here. We visited the Hill Tribe Museum and rode out to the famous White Wat (Wat Rong Khun).

We first visited the Hill Tribe Museum, which has an excellent virtual museum website – possibly better than the actual museum! The Hill Tribe people have migrated to Thailand over the last 150 years from areas of Burma, Laos, and China. In essence they are refugees of war; however, the majority have no rights – not even the rights of recognized refugees. Thailand is hesitant to provide citizenship to the Hill Tribe people because the borders are still very porous and they are concerned that with citizenship more people will migrate to Thailand.

Most of the Hill Tribe people are subsistence farmers. Some still practice slash and burn farming on the steep slopes in remote areas of northern Thailand. For a long time, the main crop was poppies for opium; however, the Thai government has tried to curtail this. Poppies are being replaced by soy beans, coffee, and other cash crops.

Too frequently when you hear of the Thailand Hill Tribe people, you see pictures of a small group called the Padaung or Long-neck Karen. The long-neck Karen that live in their traditional villages live in Burma. The only long-neck Karen in Thailand are exploited by tour operators, who create long-neck Karen tourist villages. Only the women are paid, and they are required to wear their neck rings in order to be paid. They work in souvenir shops selling trinkets to tourists, who are charged a hefty sum just to visit this fake tourist village. One argument for this treatment is that the Long-neck Karen in Burma are in the middle of a war zone, so at least the tourist villages are “safe”. However, they have no identification papers, and as a result they have no rights. Children born in Thailand are entitled to get Thailand identity cards; however, this process is often blocked by the unscrupulous tour operators. It looks an awful lot like modern day slavery to Becky! She found a great article about the plight of the Long-neck Karen in Thailand.
There is some conflicting information regarding these tourist villages.

The Karen (other than the long-neck Karen) are the largest group of Hill Tribe people in Thailand. They tend to settle in valleys and practice more sustainable farming. Because of their large numbers, they have adapted better to Thailand and many have Thai citizenship and identity cards.

Learning about the various tribes and their lives through the museum made us happy we hadn’t gone trekking. From what we can tell, most trekking tour operators do more harm than good for the Hill Tribes, since very little of the money paid by tourists gets back to them, and the vast numbers of tourists can have negative effects on the tribal culture.

In the late afternoon, we headed out to see Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple), about 15 km south of Chiang Rai. Unfortunately, we arrived just after the Wat closed (1700h), so we did not get to see the inside. From the outside, the Wat is spectacular, and nothing like any other Wat we have seen. It is vaguely reminiscent of the La Sagrada Familia which we saw in Barcelona. Construction of the temple started in 1997 and is the vision of Thai painter and architect Chalermchai Kositpipat. The murals inside are supposed to be spectacular – we’ll have to come back and see them another time. It is definitely a tourist attraction, with busloads of Thai and foreign tourists arriving even as we were leaving, despite the fact the Wat had closed over an hour previous. Well worth a visit if you’re in the area! Apparently, they had some issues with tourists in the past, such that now any foreigner entering the Wat is required to be escorted by a tour guide.

For dinner we stopped off at the night market food kiosks. There were at least 30 kiosks but the choice was pretty limited, as there were many that served the same food – Becky counted at least six places serving hot-pot. We enjoyed a hot-pot meal at our table although Becky was totally paranoid that Scott would accidently tip the table over spilling the hot coals all over Becky. Fortunately, that did not happen. Another of the food options was deep fried bugs – we picked up a plate and tried each of the four kinds. Once you get over the creepy factor (and that took some time and real will power!), they aren’t really that bad. The think worms were a little gooey on the inside and tasted a little green. The others just tasted sort of like popcorn.

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