I never wrote about my weekend with the hill tribe. There should be a vague discomfort that comes with walking through a stranger’s home snapping pictures. And at some moments, that’s what it felt like. The hike back from the waterfall spit us out into one of the mountain villages. This was the kind of village life that you stare at in National Geographic. Little pigs ran through weed patches and underneath stilted houses. Sun darkened women scrubbed naked babies in metal tubs. As the water buffalo were herded across the path, my apartment with the running water and the electricity felt very far away.
In villages like this one, life is lived out in the open. Heat tends to unify people in unexpected ways. Doors, windows, porches, roofs all kept open with hope of a breeze. My developed world leaves me sealed off in my air-conditioned chamber, but here, there are no boundaries, and still I felt like I was crossing every one. The urge to capture the utterly beautiful faces of the chubby-cheeked children was almost irresistible, but I mostly resisted. Mostly. I thought about how I would feel as a mother, having strangers take my child’s picture without asking. Then it’s hard to justify.
There were parts that I loved. Balloons cross cultures quite well, as do bubbles. If you bring enough candy, no child is a stranger for long. I’m pretty good at being silly and playing in the dirt. More than that, it was fun to watch the moms in the outdoor kitchen gaze at their kids as we all spun in circles and attempted to play jump rope. They smiled at me, and laughed with their babies, and made me feel a little less guilty, a tiny bit less like I was treading heavily on what little unique culture these people had left.
Too much of it felt like a show. Like they see our vans coming and Joe whips out his cell phone. “Bob, quick, get the tribal gear on, the tourists are coming.” The hill tribes are in the tourism business now. It is the kind of capitalizing on culture that one of our first guest lecturers decried. The same focus leads some vendors to chop the heads off ancient Buddha statues and sell them to tourists. It leads the “long-necked” Padaung women to weight their shoulders with coils until their collarbones have dropped ten inches. What is true culture, and what is culture that only exists for show?
Thankfully, our own rustic bungalows with the highly functional mosquito nets were far separated from the true village huts. My feeling of intrusion lasted only as long as the brief tours of the villages. It’s a twisting paradox. They want us there. Rather, they want our money there. And it really is beneficial. Which is the lesser evil: opium or tourists? Well, I like to think I do less damage than an addictive, mind-altering chemical, but are those the two choices? Tourism and limited farming have replaced the lucrative opium production that once characterized the mountain regions of Thailand. It’s complicated, and I mostly chose to play ring-around-the-rosy with three-year-olds rather than worry about the long-term implications of my visit. But if I go back, there needs to be something more. I owe more than money.