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Turning down a visit to the human zoo

3 February 2010

Cécile Clerc, MRG’s Head of Fundraising, discovers how Thailand’s tourism industry is exploiting highland ethnic minorities…and does the right thing.

This time it was South East Asia. Thailand, to be specific. But I was not on an MRG trip but enjoying three weeks under the sun while my friends and family were freezing in Europe. In my rucksack, I had my trekking boots, swimming costume, sun-cream and a pile of books. I even had my husband with me to carry the rucksack! 100% different from my usual MRG trips then…Or was it?

I admit I completely managed to forget about work and MRG at the beginning of my trip. I almost forgot to check before Christmas if the judgement of the Finci Case (an MRG project I’d fundraised for) was made public.

I immersed myself in the craziness of Bangkok. I cycled across the ruins of Sukhotai, an old capital in the Central Plains. I tried all local food possible, including hot pumpkin in coconut milk, a dessert I now love. I learned more about Buddhism and was fascinated by the temples.

Maybe I did think about MRG when visiting the Museum of Siam in the capital, where many references to the ethnic diversity of Thailand were made. Although maybe not…

However, arriving in Chiang Mai brought me back to ‘my’ reality. It is a nice, quiet, provincial town in the north of Thailand and the main centre for hill tribe trekking.

And here I was, walking across the city and passing in front of dozens of ‘travel agents’, displaying pictures of tribesmen and women, dressed in their traditional outfits and encouraging tourists to book a tour to visit a tribal village. In fact it was promoted just like a visit to the zoo.

Thailand is home to numerous communities ranging from the Chao Ley in the Southern islands of Koh Lanta, Phuket or Kho Phi Phi and the Moken who still lead itinerant lives around the Ko Surin Archipelago (both groups often called ‘Sea Gypsies’) to the Karen, Hmong and Lahu in the hills of the north. Since the mid-Seventies, a large percentage of minorities known as ‘hill tribes’ who live in the north, are made up of refugees from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

I had of course read about Thailand’s ethnic minorities before travelling. But I was certainly not prepared for the industry generated around them. And I could not help wondering how beneficial to these communities such an industry is. Surely, sending crowds of tourists to a village must be disruptive to their traditional way of life? And how can we be sure that the profits from this lucrative tourism are actually benefiting the communities?

I’d read on various leaflets distributed by the travel agencies promoting these visits that ‘hill tribes are very welcoming’. Well, do they have much choice?

Here I was- back to thinking about work and about all MRG campaigns to ensure that the rights of ethnic, religious and cultural minorities are fully respected worldwide. It reminded me especially of an online campaign we ran to promote sustainable tourism in Africa.

MRG is not yet working in Thailand. One day maybe? In the meantime, it is down to individual tourists like you and me to think about the consequences of our holiday activities.

I obviously refused to go on a hill tribe trek. Instead, we decided to go for a ‘normal’ trek across the beautiful Doi Ithannon natural park. We looked for a ‘green’ travel company (hard to find but really worth it) whose guide thanked us for not asking for hill tribe trekking.

The best coffee shop in the world

IThe scenery of our walk was breathtaking. And when I asked on the way back if we could stop for a coffee somewhere (OK I can admit it now…I was simply exhausted and wanted to sit down), our guide offered to take us to a local coffee cooperative entirely managed by a local community. It was the best coffee I’d ever had.

And overall probably one of the best holidays of my life. Since it was after all holidays, I can finish this post with a typical holiday picture, right?


This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.