Human Zoos? The World's Greatest Traveler? Burmese Militias? Mae Hong Son, Thailand

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September 27th 2012
Published: October 1st 2012
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When we decided to take a trip around the Mae Hong Son loop in Northern Thailand, beginning in Chiang Mai, we weren't originally planning on stopping in the city bearing the province's name. We had heard a bit about Soppong, Mae Saraeong, and of course Pai, but there weren't many people singing the praises on Mae Hong Son. It kind of came down to a decision that, after two-nights in Pai, we were ready to move on. Don't get me wrong, Pai is absolutly beautiful countryside with a really laid back vibe and lots of chilled out places to, well, chill out. With a mean age of 27 years old, however, our group had become a bit weary of the literal hoards of backpackers who move from bar to bar, the shirtless guys with bathing suits who clearly didn't realize we were nowhere near a beach, and the (albeit humorous) constant threat of first time motorbikers banging into something (though our friends had a few close calls themselves). Anyways, Mae Hong Son, while not lacking in a few farang food restaurants and bars, and suprisingly sporting a small airport, is nothing like Pai. You can tell it is still just a
The LakeThe LakeThe Lake

Located in the center of town.
little too Thai to be overrun by tourism just yet. Nevertheless, there is plenty to do.

Our first night out we were walking though a mini-outdoor market when we were approached by a large farang (Europen / American foreigner) hanging in the doorway of a Thai shop with a larger beer-gut, sporting a Pattaya (the sex-capital of Thailand) tank-top and USA hat. He approached us with a dead serious look on his face and said, 'what do you do for a living? Me? I kill people in Burma.' The guy had the build of a former marine (with years of heavy drinking) and a bit of a crazy look that suggested you maybe wouldn't want question his claim. He was scarfing down red, white and blue pop-cicles by the half dozen. He claimed to be part of a US funded militia that operated in coordinance with Thai special forces and Burmese militias for covert operations in Burma. He then went on to point to a mountain and claimed there were drug wars going on right on the other side, that the entire area was still a major part of the drug trade, and that the entire town was a ruse for tourists and 'nothing was what it seemed.' As he continued on with his tirade a lot of the history he wove into his story was accurate as far as what I had just been reading from the book in Soppong (see previous entry) as well as some other accounts. Also if you look on a map, the town of Mae Hong Son is literally as close to the border of the volatile region of Northern-Burma as it gets. He then went on to tell us that he was the world's greatest traveler, and explained how a youtube search of the name 'Adventure Man' would turn up all of his amazing world traveler videos. Suprisingly, he wasn't lying, though you can judge for yourself how amazing they are. I'm still to this day a bit puzzled by this encounter, but it was an interesting introduction to the city. We waved as he took off on his motorbike, popcicle in hand, on the road leading out of town - perhaps over the mountain and into Burma.

The next day we decided to have a drive through the countryside. We made our way toward a hill-tribe village of 'long-neck' Karen
Children 3Children 3Children 3

The children are the highlight of the visit. Children from the West should come to see the attitudes of these children living under such conditions - and seemingly loving life despite the hardships
people. We hadn't yet decided if we would actually try to enter the village or just see some of the countryside. Things started to get a bit wild when we saw signs for a slippery road, followed by a stream that literally flows right over the top of the road. A discussion soon ensued about whether to cross or turn-around, and when it was decided to cross, I figured I would take the lead as the only member of the group with experience on motorbikes. I decided I would head up the left side where the stream was most shallow, Tara on the back of the bike. We headed into the stream with decent speed and came through with no problem, however as we made our way out of the water we didn't realize that a patch of algae was growing on the road just above the water. When we hit the algae patch the bike skidded out, and we hit the ground hard. My brand-new pocket camera had the screen shatter (though it still functions well enough) and Tara's zoom lense on her much more expensive camera was also damaged, I was covered in mud, but neither of us were badly injured. My friend Jeff, who was close behind, just dropped his bike on the slick but managed to stay on his feet. From that point forward we crossed the remaining 8 or so streams in the middle, and the girls always got off to walk. Lessons learned. On our way back we saw that just below the bridge some small floating docks were being used as a 'restaurant' with people eating, drinking, dancing and swimming in the muddy water. We went down for what may have been our guest's most authentically Thai experience of the trip. We ordered some beers and some Issan style grilled meats with sticky rice. I'm not sure what they thought as I showed my disgusting hands, rinsed them in the river, and then explained that the proper way to eat moo yang (grilled pork) and sticky rice is to rub some fat on your fingers so the rice won't stick, and then ball up some rice in your greasy hands, grab piece of meat, dip it into the spicy sauce and then put it in your mouth. I'm sure everyone was disgusted by the apparent lack of hygeine, but they were good sports and everyone was suprised by the delicious flavor and, I believe, even more suprised when no one got sick. Our guests had taken probiotics before the trip, and I think it really helped them to dive right in to authentic Thai food without the typical stomach reaction. I highly recommend it for travelers, particularly if you have recently taken antibiotics. At the end of our dinner the locals wanted to pose with the girls, and so we had a small photo shoot before we went on our way.

On our final day we took the trip to a Karen village far outside of town. The Karen are one of the many diverse groups of ethnic minorities who were some of the first settlers to reach Thailand, Laos, Burma and Vietnam from the North. They are commonly referred to as 'hill-tribes' because of their choice for settling in mountainous regions, and have many rich cultural traditions unique from their home countries, many of which are rapidly deteriorating due to contact with more modern peoples and missionary efforts. Many of those settling in Northern Thailand are refugees from the war-ravaged regions of North-Eastern Burma. The final leg of our journey involved almost 3 km of extremely rocky and hilly dirt paths, and I really applaud everyone for making it, though our friends did seem a bit visibly shaken by the terrain. When we made it to the village we were not really expecting what we found, and it wasn't until later that I learned a bit more about the history of this village in particular. A recent article on ( has labeled these villages as 'human-zoos,' and the author seems to suggest that tourism to these villages is trapping these people in a cycle of dependence on tourist exploitation. However if one reads further into the issue of Burmese Refugees in Thailand, the issue is far less black and white. This short documentary, "Silent Hopes" ( interviews many of the women we met at the village we visited, including the village head. Because of their refugee status, these people are not allowed to work legally outside of the village, and their residency status is in limbo as Thailand walks the delicate balance between allowing safe-haven for refugees and being inundated beyond their means. Thailand is still a developing nation and the regions in North-East Thailand do not have the ability as of yet to deal with a large scale refugee crises that could ensue if their policies become more friendly to stateless people. On the other hand, Thailand can not simply turn their backs on many of these refugees who are among the earliest settlers of Burma, Laos and Northern Thailand, and so the current state of limbo ensues. With Burma rapidly opening up to the West politically, while simultaneously taking actions which suggest the military government may be reforming in a more democrtic direction, it is hoped that perhaps one day the situation in Northern Burma can become more stable and perhaps these people can return to their homes. As of now, with the people virtually regulated to their villages, it seems that selling their handicrafts is their only way to make ends meet. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit and were able to speak a bit with the people and play with the villages children. I would suggest that if you go, and if you want to help, put as much money in the hands of the people in the village as possible by purchasing their beautiful and extremely reasonably priced crafts. I would not suggest that you simply hand-out money, as these are proud and hard-working people who I'm sure are not looking for a handout. I am not convinced that much of the $15 you pay to enter actually goes to the people. Ultimately, it will be up to you to decide if you want to visit or not.

Mae Hong Son is a quiet, quaint town, but it is nestled in the midst of a wild area. How much of 'Adventure Man's' account of the area is accurate, I cannot wager a guess. I did read recently that a Senator in the province accidently shot his ex-wife (who was at the time working as an aide) dead with an automatic weapon in a restaurant , if that can be read as any sort of indication. There is no doubt that drug production and smuggling still goes on, though the government has done a commendable job transforming these once lawless lands through the subsidized introduction of fruit cultuvation, tea-production and wine making where poppy cultivation once ensued. Nonetheless, it is a very safe and friendly town, and it is part of the world with a very interesting history, one which keeps the imagination alive while visiting. If you are on the loop and have a chance, stop by Mae Hong Son for a visit. If you are interested in supporting the refugees (or visiting a human zoo, depending on how you look at it) maps are available at the motor-bike rental shops. If you are looking for Adventure Man, you'll probably find him, unless of course he finds you first.

Additional photos below
Photos: 38, Displayed: 29


Karen VillageKaren Village
Karen Village

A view of the village from above - this area is more for visitors and commerce, the homes are in a separate area.
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Children 4

Tom showing the children in the Karen villages the pictures they had just taken.
Pineapple BushPineapple Bush
Pineapple Bush

Did you know pineapple plants looked like this?

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