Travel is often full of surprises. Just as South America surprised us by far exceeding our expectations, South East Asia didn't wow us as much as we had hoped. In fact, by the time we reached Thailand, disillusion sank in.
What's With All the Selfies?
In Kanchanaburi, we went to see the Bridge on the River Kwai (part of the Thailand-Burma Railway) and, at the highly informative Railway Museum, learned about the harrowing conditions under which it was built. In 1943, in their attempt to expand their rule westwards into Burma (now Myanmar), the Japanese Army needed a transport route for food, supplies, and ammunition, among other things. The solution? A newly-built railway line. The problem? The way they went about it. It's not known as the Death Railway for nothing.
It is estimated that around 100,000 deaths resulted during the construction of the railway, mainly due to the abuse, malnutrition, and disease inflicted on the conscripted Allied Prisoners of War (POWs) (mostly British, Australians and Dutch) and Burmese and Malay labourers. Around 80% of the forced labourers who died were Burmese or Malay, yet it's hard to find a fitting memorial to them.
The experience at the bridge might have been more meaningful if it hadn't been surrounded by a multitude of stalls selling tourist tat, if there weren't karaoke boats floating down the river, and if a violinist hadn't been playing the Colonel Bogey march.
Add to that little mix, coach-loads of Asian tourists taking selfies with those dreaded selfie-sticks and the obligatory peace sign, and you really had to remind yourself what kind of events had taken place here just 70 years ago.
For a more moving insight into the topic than visiting the bridge itself, it's worth watching the 2013 film “The Railway Man”, which portrays the true story of Eric Lomax – a former British POW left traumatised from his treatment by the Japanese, and, who years later, confronts his Japanese tormentor.
Elephants and Ethics in Chiang Mai
Next up, was the elephant dilemma in Chiang Mai. I'll admit it – I went to Thailand with the initial desire of washing an elephant. Yep, I was lured by those cute pictures of elephants splashing around and fancied giving their back a good scrub. But then we did our research. And somehow, we just couldn't be 100% convinced.
Chiang Mai was plastered in tourist posters advertising 100% ethical elephant tours - no bull hooks, no chains, it was happy days all round, supposedly. As if the multitude of companies wasn't disturbing enough, the array of photos showing puppet-like tourists dressed up in overalls and sitting on the backs of elephants giving them a back-scrub just wasn't enticing us at all.
We had read so many positive reviews about one of the supposedly better elephant parks, about how the founder rescued tortured and overworked elephants, and raised awareness of poor elephant treatment in Thailand. But even at the information centre, after posing our questions to a very dolled up lady boy (an unfortunate-looking soul who looked more like a pantomime dame), we still had our doubts. Were those day tours comprising 90 visitors really good for these wild animals? Should we really be able to interact so closely with an animal that should be roaming free, far from human contact?
It's not hard to find the disturbing accounts of the torture process inflicted on elephants so that they can be tamed with the sole purpose of humans interacting with them. Even if that's not the case now, it's said that the mahouts (owners) climb on top of the younger elephants to get them used to having humans ride on them. Of course, it all gets a lot more complicated than this. It can be argued that there are no safe havens for elephants to roam free in the wild and so elephant parks are at least going some way to ensuring a better well-being for a small percentage of the animals. But I fear all that, dear friends, is beyond the scope of this blog post ;-)
However, whatever you read or believe, it's all about that gut feeling – and ours was telling us “no”. It was all too much of a tourist circus – a very sad tourist circus - and we didn't want to be part of it. We'll stick to hiking mountains, thanks ;-)
Why Karen Didn't Get to Meet Karen
Call me what you want, but if there's a mountain tribe with the same name as you, wouldn't you also want to meet them? Well, that's what I thought about the Karen tribe.
Many of the Karen tribe live in Myanmar, but around 300,000 currently live in northern Thailand, many as refugees, where they have fled an oppressive government that, among other things, denies them citizenship and violates their human rights. Since their status in Thailand also remains an unresolved topic, many of the Karen and other ethnic minorities have turned to making a small income from tourism, mainly from selling their woven products and from village homestay visits.
There are a number of Karen ethnic groups, but you might have seen pictures of the long-necked Karen tribe – such as in publications of National Geographic – who are photographed for their distinctively long necks and brass coil necklaces.
We were particularly disturbed to see once again just how many tours were offered to visit the Karen tribes; the tourist masses with their long paparazzi camera lenses sadly show little respect for their subjects, and it's heartbreaking to see images of cameras shoved right in front of the faces of tribeswomen, who just sit like dolls on display in their traditional dress. We didn't want to be part of that.
In our quest to find a more meaningful and ethical experience, we read about a week-long program that painted a beautiful picture in which you go and spend time with the Karen tribe, help teach their children English, get to know their culture, cook with them, build loos, learn about their elephants (yep, the elephant issue comes in again) and how to care for them. But the doubts were there again. Just how productive is a one week homestay? Every week another group of 14 do-gooders goes out to the tribe – how disruptive is this? Every week, they have to get used to new people. Surely a more long-term stay would be more beneficial. How much English can we really teach the kids? We just weren't convinced that we'd really be benefiting them. And how many loos can one build?!
In the end, I just bought a Karen cushion from the fair trade shop and was done with it!