The post originally appeared on 25th October 2011 on Tuk-tuks, chicken bouquets and bicycle bells @ kerrytolsontravels.com
I was also keen to undertake a Hill Tribe Trek to visit the Karen Longneck although I had reservations about the ethics of these tribes being used as tourist attractions. Whilst in Chiang Rai I had watched a video at the Hill Tribe Centre, which explained how they were trying to discourage the practice of wearing brass rings. According to the centre, the custom of putting brass rings on women began as protective armour from tiger attacks. Now purely decorative the rings were to entice the lucrative tourist dollar however the practice and viewing of such was compared to visiting a zoo. I had a dilemma, do I visit or not? For a long time I’d wanted to see these beautiful women with the long elongated necks whose images had stared back at me from countless magazines and although I had made a conscious decision not to visit the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi on moral grounds of animal exploitation, I told myself these women had made a conscious choice to wear the rings.
I was in no condition to undertake a trek; on top of my gurgling gut, I was now suffering from fatigue and looking a tad grey around the gills so we decided to book ourselves onto a day tour. Dosing myself up on painkillers and blockers, we crammed into a mini-bus along with a heap of day-trippers and set off to visit six different hill tribes, an orchid farm, a temple and a cave. Maybe I should also mention that along with the exhausted death-warmed-up-look I now had going, I’d also lost my thinking sensibility and morphed into the robotic tourist intending to get as many sights possible for our Baht.
The final stop was the Karen Longnecks and as Mal and I walked though the corridor of stalls leading the village, I found the pit of my stomach turning, not from illness but from angst. Deep down I felt what we were doing was wrong. Upon reaching the ‘village’ – which was little more than a staged collection of timber huts with fabrics hanging from them and each having either a grown woman or a young girl, all with brass rings around her neck, sitting, waiting - Mal stopped.
Refusing to go any further, he said, “This is a zoo, it’s not right.”
All around hordes of tourists were clicking their cameras away, some posed with the women, leaning up against them, touching them, as if objects. Running around the village were little girls and boys playing gleefully in the dirt. Cameras clicked away at them and some of the tourist gave sweets as enticements. Some of the girls, barely out of toddler age, had rings already on their necks.
Our guide explained the girls started wearing the rings at five years of age. They would have five brass ring wound onto their necks, then every three years until the age of twenty-seven, another three rings would be added. Once the girl started wearing the rings she would need to wear them for the rest of her life. The guide told us the women believed the rings accentuated their elegance and beauty but the down side was the girls would never leave the village. They wouldn’t receive any education higher than elementary schooling and for the rest of their lives, would be only able to make their income as tourist attractions and weavers.
I was horrified – these weren’t mature women making conscious decisions, these were little girls being encouraged to wear these bonded cuffs, enticed under the pretext of beauty to become enslaved to the camera wielding dollar -what of their hopes for the future should they wish to go to university, or travel, or marry outside the village. How, at the age of five could they know what they would want in the future? I was further horrified to learn some of the women received burns from the rings, as the brass needed to be heated to take off and put on and that sometimes the burns became infected causing serious health problems and even death.
I was furious with myself for falling into this exploitive trap and no amount of telling myself that some of these women were wearing these rings well before the visiting of hill tribes had become a popular tourist pursuit and that they needed to earn a living, could justify in my mind the supporting of the custom. Was it a custom? According to the guide, this practice had only been around for about 200 years. Was that a long enough time for it to be considered a traditional custom? A custom to retain?
Chiang Mai was where we planned to fly to Myanmar from. During the week there, we had organised our flights and booked accommodation. Although we’d planned not to have a plan but to go where and when we felt, we found with the release of “The Lady”, Myanmar had suddenly become the hot, must-go-to-spot and everything was booking up fast. We were due to fly out in four days time and I couldn’t wait to see the Myanmar stamp in my passport.
Saturday morning I woke with severe pain, doubled up and unable to walk , it was if I was being pummelled inside and on fire. I turned to Big M and said, “I think I’ve twisted my bowel...hospital now!” I had big doubts of going to a local hospital, terrified at what conditions were awaiting – both my personal condition and that of the state of the hospital. An expat cafe owner recommended I go to the Chiang Mai Ram Hospital and as I stepped into its confines a weight of dread lifted from my shoulders. To my untrained eyes, this was one of the most modern, cleanest hospitals I’d ever been in. My assigned doctor was wonderful and thorough, in fact a little too thorough, suggesting just about every test, x-ray and ultra sound under the sun and we began to wonder if we were about to pay for a new wing for the hospital.
I found myself going from one test room to another, an x-ray here, three ultra sounds there, bodily fluid tests and lots of prodding and probing. At the end of the day, I was told I had an inflamed bowel due to a parasite, given some antibiotics and instructed to go home and see my doctor as soon as I could as they had also found something else that needed attention, albeit not serious enough to be hospitalised, but serious enough that it needed further investigation.
Oh and a pleasant surprise was the final bill, my wonderful doctor with his full thorough attention cost us less than $100 Australian. Phew!!!
So here I sit, some eighteen hours later in an airport lounge. On the tarmac sits a couple of planes, one is going to Bangkok, the other, maybe to Myanmar... I don’t know, but I know we won’t be. Our prized Myanmar visas sit all shiny and new, never to know the smearing ink of a boarder stamp and our endless summer of wandering has come to an end – well for now anyway.
Mal leans over and gives me a hug, “We’ll try again in February,” he says. I nod in agreement, but my heart knows better. It took us years to find the right time to just up and go without a care in the world. Who knows if this opportunity will ever arise again? The boarding call sounds - Home, here we come.
Postscript (28 March 2016): My parasite - Dientamoeba Fragilis - decided to "come live with me" for a number of years, playing havoc with not only travel plans and dreams but also my everyday life. After many treatments and a complete change in diet and lifestyle (and after four long agonising years) I was able to "get rid" of the little bugger. I have heard horror stories of those who have had the parasite for up to ten and twenty years. For further information regarding this parasite which can be found throughout Asia and is sometimes commonly misdiagnosed as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) here is a reputable (Australian) medical link: http://www.cdd.com.au/pages/disease_info/parasites.html
Thailand Blog posts
This blog originally appeared on my blog: Tuk-tuks, chicken bouquets and bicycle bells at kerrytolsontravels.com in 2011.
Hello! I'm Kerry
. . . a plan-nothing, have no idea where I'm going travelholic.
A daughter of the gypsies and the wife of a workaholic, I'm forever wondering 'What's over there?' and devising ways to squeeze through the barbed-wire fence of small-business ownership responsibilities and every-day life tangles to discover it.
and this is my book.