By Alison Lapshinoff
The road conecting the towns of Mai Hong Son and Pai in the northwest corner of Thailand is an incredible feat of engineering executed by Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. The dramatically mountainous countryside of this part of the nation is almost entirely clothed in dense jungle, its valleys home to rustic villages where locals cultivate the land by hand sheltered from the fierce sun only by wide rimmed straw hats.
At the roadside, colourfully clad hill tribe women with blackened teeth sell their handicrafts to passers-by. Periodically, our bus was stopped at check points where Thai soldiers would climb on board and check identifications, searching for Burmese refugees.
It was along this preposterously steep and winding highway that our bus of dubious mechanical soundness bounced along, full to the brim with tourists and locals alike, many sitting on the floor resting on their large backpacks. The town of Mai Hong Son is unquestionably remote, tucked among the hills near the Burmese border and the jumping off point for many tour groups visiting hill tribe villages, including those of the Padung or Long Neck Karen tribe, made famous by the multiple brass rings women wear around their necks. Although these rings do not actually lengthen the neck, a feature that is considered beautiful, they depress the collar bone and vertebrae so much that the appearance of a long neck is created.
A visit to one of these villages is somewhat controversial. The Padung are a sub group of the Karen tribe numbering less then 40,000, and are actually refugees who fled to Thailand from Burma in the mid- to late-1900s, seeking respite from political unrest. Their presence draws many tourists to the Mai Hong Son province and has turned villages into human zoos where tourists pay to see "freaks" who have willingly distorted their bodies, as is done in many cultures.
On the other hand, due to their refugee status, the Karens are not permitted to work in Thailand and by charging a fee to enter their village and selling their handicrafts to tourists, they make a very decent living.
We approached the locals respectfully, always asking politely before taking their photo. We were appalled by some tourists who treated them as though they were somehow inferior to them. Would one normally approach a stranger in the street and insolently demand they turn their head in order to be photographed?
We continued with our guide to the top of the trail where the village school was located. The simple wooden structure sat atop stilts and was divided into several classrooms by partitions of woven bamboo. The front was entirely open, eliminating the need for doors. Each class consisted of about a dozen students of varying ages, all sitting on wooden benches facing a teacher and a blackboard. Here they were taught Thai, English, Burmese and their own Karen four languages, all with different alphabets. They seemed hardly disturbed by our presence, ogling white tourists being a daily occurrence in their young lives.
Fascinated that such a primitive place could still exist in today's fast paced technological world, we slowly made our way back to the long boat that would take us back to Mai Hong Son, buying a few souvenirs on the way. The air was less oppressively hot here than in the lower lying parts of the country, and to an outsider, the atmosphere seemed content. A woman breast feeding a toddler smiled and waved at us, a man crouched in the shade while fashioning a crude knife, groups of fuzzy, yellow chicks drank from small troughs, and the muddy Pai River flowed lazily by as it had for centuries.
Part of the way back up the river we stopped to let a wealthy couple from Bangkok off where they were greeted by another guide and an elephant equipped with a comfortable seat for two on its large back. Their tour included a ride through Thailand's dense jungle atop this large, gentle and accommodating creature, another activity that draws many tourists to Northern Thailand.
To the sight of its large, retreating behind and two small passengers, we motored back toward the "modern" world of Mai Hong Son.