Reflecting on Southeast Asia
When you take that first step, to travel on your own, you open a piece of yourself that you haven't yet met. You face struggles and live outside your comfort zone and sometimes you will fail miserably, you may face unforeseen disappoints, but you will also surprise yourself. You will learn to adapt to your new surroundings and you will face your fears and overcome challenges. Traveling, living, and working abroad, in my opinion, will make you a stronger person. This next entry is a reflection on how traveling has impacted me as a global citizen.
On a holiday from a busy school year last year I visited Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and this trip has surprisingly left a profound impact on me. I looked at her and I saw myself. Her eyes, they looked sadden, embarrassed, shy, angry, envious. Her eyes spoke a million words, although she did not speak one. I knew going into this experience that it was going to be a difficult situation. Difficult on an emotional level and a moral level. I knew that in some way, what I was doing was wrong, but like most life lessons that I've come face to face with I've had to do just that, actually face my decision and its consequences. After two days of asking the locals where to go and setting up motorbike rentals (giving up our passports for these rentals, another story in itself) and waking up at 5:00 am, we were off. But where to exactly? We didn't know and we couldn't find the right translation of the town or the people or the name of the tribe in Thai. With some research and a map, and the ability to speak some Thai, we finally found our answers. We were going to see the Long Neck Karen Tribe in northern Chiang Mai, Thailand.
There were terrible reviews online of how the Thais treat this small tribe of Burmese expats, but I needed to see for myself. I wanted to understand a remote, dying culture in a world where it seemed everyone was connected. In a place like Thailand, I thought I would find a culture untouched by the outside world, but living in Bangkok, I look back on how naive I was. On on way to the tribe we rode through the thick jungle of of northern Thailand, we got lost and just kept going. We bought corn on the cob from some locals alongside the mountain who looked at us like we were crazy. They told us to go back, that it was too far. In Thailand, you must understand that everyone gives you their own version of directions and everyone thinks they're right. But we were loving this! Away from the city, away from the outskirts of Chiang Mai and all its wonderful culture, we were in the middle of nowhere.
And then somehow, we came across it, the entrance like a grand amusement park. Elephants with carriages on top, lines of people, a food stand, and taxis. There it was, the entrance to this mysterious culture I had wanted to experience. My heart dropped. I thought, the reviews were right. What was I thinking anyways? If there were reviews online then of course it would look like a tourist attraction. Unfortunate but true, many locals in countries around the world will exploit local resources to make money off of tourists (this is an amass of other stories to be discussed and an argument that is prevalent in communities around the world). This was our last day, with tickets to go back to Bangkok in a couple of hours I needed to get in there and get out, I couldn't stand in line to go on an elephant ride or get some sticky rice and grilled pork belly, I had to find them; and I think I had to find her. Looking back now, she stands out so clearly in my mind. I asked how much would it be to go past the bamboo bridge and around the muddy mountain trail to see the Long Neck tribe. The young Thai girl told me it was going to be 800 baht per person. 800 baht! For what? For who? Was any of this money going to the tribe? Were they going to benefit at all from what I was paying. In Thailand where almost everything is cheap and living on a teacher's salary, this was an exorbitant amount of money.
I was so angry, stomping my feet in the mud as the rain started to come down, but it was my curiosity that eventually pushed me to give up the seemingly meaningless fight (you cannot argue with a Thai woman and win, definitely not if you are not fluent in Thai). I went passed her, and then I came upon a couple of young kids playing in the dirt. Then a few women with makeshift stalls selling handmade scarves. There were trinkets and bracelets too, everyone asking me to purchase something from their stall; I was the only person back there. What I had come to see, to understand, to learn about, and to respect was impossible to look at because I felt so guilty. I wanted to understand why these women still upheld this cultural tradition, did they even have a choice, did they know a choice existed for them.
I felt saddened, embarrassed, shy, angry...not envious. I saw her sewing a scarf, using her hands and feet to help make this intricate pattern. I asked if it would be okay if I took her picture, I felt so ashamed, like I was treating her like she was an animal in a zoo. But what I couldn't communicate, why I wanted to take the picture, is because I wondered why is this her life and not mine. Why was she born into this role and not me. She look about my age, how did it end up the she is living this life and I am living mine? She shrugged her shoulders and looked into my eyes for a moment then looked away after I snapped the photo. I wanted to hug her, to fight for her, to speak to her. I wanted to understand her thoughts on her situation and if she was happy as a person, a woman, and relate to her as someone struggling with their own identity. This trip reminded me to be grateful for all that I do have and to remember to respect the people I meet along the way.
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- Johna Hunger