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Tribal Women Attract Tourists in Thailand Amid Concerns About Exploitation

"Where is the trail?!?" said the guide, Jakrapan Saengpayom, before turning to me. "Do you see it?" I did not. But after another hour plowing through dense brush that left our bodies covered in a nightmarish thorn known as butterfly grass, we arrived at our first village: the home of the Karen tribe, which is also originally from Burma.

What exotic sights did we see? Several women in T-shirts and shorts cutting thin strips of wood to make baskets. "They don't like to wear their costumes," Saengpayom told me.

We next headed to see a village of the Lisu, a tribe originally from Tibet that wears heavy, multicolored fabrics, and then the Akha, a tribe whose origins are traced to Mongolia and famed for their headwear of silver jewelry. Several villagers there wore traditional costumes, but most did not.

It was only when we arrived late that afternoon at a Palaung village that we saw nearly everyone wearing traditional garb. Or, more accurately, nearly all the women. One of the striking things about all the hill tribes I saw is that there are elaborate get-ups or anatomical distortions required for women, while the men wear essentially Thai clothes.

The traditional wardrobe for Palaung women is a red, saronglike dress with a blue or magenta jacket and towellike head covering. Most distinctive are the dozens of rattan rings that circle their waists.

Nae Naheng, 52, the matriarch of the family in whose house I spent the night, said the Palaung believe that women used to be angels in the past world, and that male hunters used rattan rings to catch them and bring them to Earth. Women are never supposed to remove the rings. Naheng said she even sleeps in them and only briefly takes off the rings in the shower.

"Once I took them off when I was young, and I felt sick and very sad," she said. "If you do not wear the rings, your soul will get ill and you can die." But one member of the 300-person village does not feel that way. Joy Thaijun, 28, was wearing shorts and a T-shirt when I saw her. This annoyed my guide, who said that if the villagers stop wearing traditional costumes, tourists will stop coming to visit them.

"She is a lazy Palaung!" he said jokingly to her.

Embarrassed, Thaijun put on her costume and immediately tried to sell me some trinkets and handicrafts. After politely refusing, I asked her why she did not wear the costume.

"I am part of a new generation, and I do not like it. It is hot and uncomfortable," she said. But she noted that she might have to because the chief is considering forcing everyone to wear the costume. "If the chief orders us, we will do it." The chief of the village, a 52-year-old named Nanta Asung, told me that Thaijun was the only woman in the village who did not wear traditional dress and that her choice was unacceptable. "If you are Palaung, you have to wear the costume of the Palaung," he said while chopping pork for dinner. "This is a must. A must!"

Asung said they must wear the dress because of tradition, but he also spoke excitedly about its appeal to tourists and noted that half of the village's income of $30,000 a year comes from tourism. That night an Australian family was paying $15 to sleep in his hut. "He is very worried that visitors will stop coming," my guide, who served as my interpreter, told me as we left and headed to our own hut.

As we walked across the village, Asung began broadcasting over loudspeakers: "This is a reminder that all women should wear traditional dress. Some foreigners just came to complain that some women were not wearing their costumes." (We quickly returned to explain to the tribal chief that I was asking questions, not complaining, but, unsurprisingly, he did not issue a correction over the village intercom.)


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