“In Pattaya, it is hookers. Here, it is treks,” a stranger said to me in a restaurant in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It was an unusual pick-up line, but factually right on the money. Just as the beach-town of Pattaya was known for prostitution, the mountain town of Chiang Mai had become a mecca for travelers who want to “trek” through the hill tribe villages of northern Thailand. Trekkers claim to want to get a feel for indigenous people like the Hmong, Karen and Mien by sleeping in villages they get to by foot, elephant and raft.
I was one of them.
My boyfriend, Bryan, and I joined seven other people for a three-day trek from Chiang Mai. We booked our trek through a hostel (In addition to straight tour operators, most hostels offer treks – it’s a booming business). We shopped around by reading the comments of travelers who had trekked with the companies and asked around. Almost every review was glowing. We felt we couldn’t leave Thailand without taking a trek, which was made out to be the quintessential Thai experience. We wanted to go native and become enlightened.
Instead we became ashamed.
The fleet of rafts was choking the river, and more were being added every day. (photo by Jen Reeder)
Our first stop was the home village of our guide, Nanni. This was a big selling point for us because he spoke the local dialect as well as English. Nanni was a friendly enough guy, but he vanished as soon as we arrived at the Hmong village. So our group wandered around the impoverished little town, along with about 20 other Western trekkers on similar tours. Locals immediately began begging for change, which depressed me. A few elderly women scolded them, but to no avail. Someone took a photo of a child and was soon surrounded by a crowd of children demanding, “Ten baht! Ten baht!” about 30 U.S. cents. I bought a soda from a store, and a local man gestured for me to buy him one, too. A group of teenagers stole a traveler’s camera and amused each other by posing for photos.
I was trying hard not to project my expectations onto the villagers and failing. The indigenous people I’d seen in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and (ahem) on postcards wore brightly colored dresses and headdresses; the bags they sold had beads and silver sewn into intricate designs. But these villagers were wearing Western T-shirts with logos like “Bingo Champ!” We asked why and were told that Christian missionaries had come to the village, built a church and told the villagers that they could have the clothing if they joined the church, an obvious incentive in an economically depressed area. (“Christian, wealth. Buddha, poor,” Nanni later lamented, though the predominant village religion had been animism.) A few young girls did wear tattered traditional clothing, but they seemed ostracized from the other children. Instead of playing, they devoted their spare time to begging from us. I’m sure paying 10 baht for a photo of the only village children still wearing traditional clothing had seemed reasonable to many trekkers.
The loss of traditional dress was explained matter of factly, but local opinions on opium were less restrained. (Availability of opium is another leading reason why some travelers opt to trek in this region of the Golden Triangle.) The prevailing sentiment was that older villagers resent foreign trekkers’ frequent use of the drug in their village because it sets a bad example for impressionable young locals.
The deterioration of the village’s traditional culture wasn’t the only guilt-inducing element of the trek. The elephants we rode the next day wore shackles and were frequently whipped with barbs by guides as we ambled toward our next destination, a covered shelter by the Taeng River. The next day, Nanni’s assistants built several bamboo rafts for our transport downriver.
The rafting portion of the trek was a highlight for me: pushing our way down a river through a forest, seeing monkeys playing in trees and learning Thai songs from Nanni and Suk, another guide. Then we rounded a bend and saw hundreds of discarded rafts just like our own. Nanni told us that elephants eat the waterlogged bamboo rafts, which can only be used for several hours before they start to sink. But it looked like a formidable challenge even for a herd of elephants. The fleet of rafts was choking the river, and more were being added every day. I cringed as I stepped off our raft and over several more to reach the riverbank, where I gave a Hmong child a balloon and he tried to pick my pocket. Then he kicked other people in my tour group. I was relieved after lunch to get into a truck and head back to “civilization.”
But because the other travelers in our group raved about the trek during the truck ride back to Chiang Mai, I tried to dispel my cynicism and guilt. After all, we had contributed money to the local economy, even if the tour only cost about $50 per person. The other travelers, who only had a few weeks to spend in Thailand, had glimpsed a culture more authentic than that offered by the video bars of Bangkok’s Khao San Road or the full moon parties of Ko Pha-Ngan and the other southern islands. Plus, we’d had some good laughs Nanni had a lot of great expressions, like “When there are no trees, water falls away quickly, like water off a bald man’s head.”
Still, an overwhelming influx of trekkers had clearly eroded the traditions and environment of the places we visited, and we had helped contribute to it. Unlike locals in less-frequented areas of Thailand, few of the villagers we’d met had smiled.
I gained an insight into the trekking experience about a month later. Bryan and I were traveling on a local “slow boat” on the Mekong River in Laos; we were the only foreigners onboard. At one point during the seven-hour journey, a plush tourist boat with a faster engine passed us. Every passenger was white, and every passenger, except for one who really stood out, was pointing a video or still camera at us. It was unsettling, but those of us on the slow boat tried to act naturally, as though we weren’t being gawked at, filmed, observed. All Westerners should have an experience like that.
As travelers, it’s in our nature to be curious about the places and people we visit. But when planning our itineraries and choosing our “adventures,” we need to carefully consider whether our choices will benefit not only ourselves, but our hosts as well.
Guest blogger Jen Reeder is a freelance writer who has traveled extensively in Mexico, Central and South America, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan and the U.S. She is co-author of Adventure Guide: Hawaii the Big Island and photographer for The Golf Fanatic’s Guide to Hawaii. Jen and Cara both belong to a secret book club. For more on Jen visit: