Chok Chai Elephant Farm
We weren’t sure what we were getting into when our taxi driver, whom we could understand minimally at best, offered his services to take us on a day adventure to see elephants, tigers and a hill tribe.
Approximately one half hour north of Chiang Mai we arrived at Chokchai Elephant Farm. It had rained during the night, so after crossing a suspended bridge, we skidded through mud to get to the elephant camp. The scenery was part jungle and part circus. Elephants with their mahouts (handler) were out and about and people were lining up for rides. We had read of camps in the area where elephants were treated kindly and other camps where abuse was widely used. We already knew this was the later. We dreaded the next couple of hours, but we decided to lift our spirits and make the best of it.
Hurried toward an elephant, we were helped onto a houdah behind a mahout with his pick in hand. We joined a procession of about a dozen other elephants with riders along a narrow uneven path that was muddy and slippery. When we came to the bank of a river where the elephants were allowed to step into the water, I just knew ours was going to choose that moment to give us a mud shower. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. This was a great photo opportunity for other riders, but our guide wasn’t in the hospitality mode, so no photo. In addition, riders were handed bananas and sugar cane to offer the elephants, but our guide wasn’t interested in allowing us that experience, either.
An elephant show after the ride wasn’t much better. There was no effort made to hide the mistreatment of these sad looking, mild-mannered animals. Cries could be heard from both babies and adults as mahouts liberally slapped at and stabbed them with picks. We were told later that the people working with the elephants are from Burma, present-day Myanmar.
Our intentions were to visit an elephant training center, where people, not the elephants, are trained. We had hoped to learn about their nature, their personalities and their lifestyle, and about the foods they eat. We aren’t interested in getting in the water and bathing them, but it would be fun to help feed them. Our experience at Chokchai was a total contrast to that type of venue.
Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe
A short walk through the jungle from the elephant camp, we approached a small thatch-roofed community on stilts. Our taxi driver had referred to the approximately 30 inhabitants as the Long Necks. He tried to explain more about the people and their customs as we walked, but we were able to understand very little of what he was saying.
The setting was beautiful, with mountain views much like the Blue Ridge in Asheville. There were no doors to knock on, no one had been told of our visit; we just showed up. Perhaps they saw us climbing the path, or more likely, they’ve come to expect or accept tourists dropping in.
We were greeted with smiles by a woman and two young girls, the older two wearing shiny brass coils around their necks. They looked relaxed as they worked in the shade of their bamboo shelters, weaving colorful scarves. The woman invited us to look at her colorful selection for which she was asking 150 baht. Not really needing a scarf, but realizing these people depend on tourist income, I settled on a scarf that was 200 baht. The irony is that it is customary for tourists to barter on prices for wares. So, here I am, negotiating with someone who needs the income, and asking myself, “What is wrong with this picture?” She quickly agreed to 150 baht for the scarf, and I now owned another scarf I didn’t really need.
The younger girl wearing a coil had set aside her work and was watching us. She was neatly dressed in bright colors, full makeup on her face, cheeks painted in design, and more coils around her wrists. I asked the driver to ask her age. She held up eight fingers. Were we observing a custom or a costume?
Our driver encouraged photos with the women. The women and girls seemed more than happy to comply but I couldn’t help wondering how it made them feel. It made me feel as though I was supporting an experience that was not quite authentic. We saw more women, one wearing earrings to widen her ear lobes, and another with coils covering most of her legs. I learned later there is also a Big Ear tribe who wear large silver gauges to stretch their ears. We strolled through the rest of the thatch-roofed village, where it appeared nothing was private. We were told they actually live within these structures, but it appeared more like a market place than a home site. Women in armor sat working on platforms or seated next to their scarves and trinkets, as though on exhibit, or waiting for tourists. The wide open spaces of their homes and/or businesses were equally open to curious eyes. Babies played, chickens ran through the yard, males could be seen sleeping behind the structures in hammocks, lovely smiles with the exception of a few young girls who appeared totally bored. It was all very surreal, like stepping into a National Geographic magazine. I wondered, “Do National Geographic photographers ever feel awkward about photographing these tribes/indigenous people? Was this really their way of life? Or was it staged with smiles, ornamentation and hand-made goods to generate tourist income?”
Upon returning to our hotel, I did some research.
These tribal women have traditionally been wearing brass coils around their necks for hundreds of years. The brass coil or ring is a mark of beauty and tribal identity while the concept of female attractiveness is based on the length of a woman’s neck. Weighing up to twelve pounds, it stretches the woman’s neck as much as ten or twelve inches in length while the weight of the coil, widening at the base, depresses the growth of the collarbone and Ring adornment is started when the girls are five years old, adding heavier weight every few years. Another 30 pounds of ringed coils are also worn from the forearms to the wrists and from the ankles to the knees; just not quite as prominently.
These people are refugees of a Myanmar Kayan tribe, known as northern Thailand’s Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe. Some of the tribe still reside in Burma/Myanmar, while others have fled to Thailand to escape the political conflict, where it is said they are not able to work at typical Thai jobs. Though their life is anything but normal, their costume allows them to earn more from the tourist trade than from laboring in the fields of Myanmar. Most males are either unemployed or work in the fields.
There are several schools of thought pertaining to this tribe. Some believe this is exploitation of human rights. Some believe visiting the village should be discouraged to allow their traditional customs to remain personal and private. Some believe tourism is their only hope of generating income. Some believe they have a lifestyle choice, while others believe they are enslaved to this lifestyle. Based on our impression, it might be a little of all of these theories. Though it was quite fascinating to get a glimpse of this cultural practice, this was far from authentic in our opinion; but probably as close as we will ever come to observing the anomalies of another jungle hill tribe.