Not a costume party

There was an ex-friend sometime way back in 2006 or so, who came to visit me in Thailand and then gave me all those cynical, hurtful remarks about the places we visited, the people, the way I lived, everything.

One of them was that all the handicrafts, villages, clothes, everything traditional is completely fake and doesn’t exist in real life, only for the stupid tourists who are willing to pay (heck, where is the dollar sign on this keyboard?!) a lot for bullshit.

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The questions could have been relevant, except that the ’’fake’’ accusation won’t stand up. Even after a few months I knew hilltribe people who grew up in the villages in the mountains, in wooden houses, wearing traditional clothes woven my their mothers. Millions of people still live a more traditional lifestyle in the mountains, not entirely out of choice. But it would be a half-day trek to get there. Hence the showcase villages. And anyway, what is the problem with treks and homestays and making traditional handicrafts for tourists. Any reason is good enough to give a meaningful, sustainable and dignified living to people who would otherwise have very few choices. After all, the opium fields are now out, and royal projects are in. There are vegetables, tea, and tourism.

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It was kind of weird trying to defend, protect, explain people and things that do not belong to my heritage or everyday life. But it was my home by then, Chiang Mai. I guess I am allergic to total crap and armchair philosophers who seem to know all the right answers after two and a half minutes. I still don’t know anything. I still don’t have a definitive opinion about what is right or wrong, what is helping, what is exploiting people with few choices. I don’t see anything any clearer than before, I’m afraid, even though you could ask these questions all along many of the main backpacker trails in the world. What if tourism helps keep traditions alive, because otherwise people would leave to make ends meet somewhere else? Does it make them fake?

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All I know is that I enjoyed taking these photos in Mae Salong and on the way to Doi Tung during the new year festivities a couple of years ago, and I enjoyed seeing people who were celebrating, and not putting on a show.

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