I moved to a remote and jungly region on the Thailand – Burma border in 2014 to found Ways of Change, an ethical fashion brand working to connect communities of refugees with the global community.
I made my home in a bamboo bungalow between two villages, Huay Pu Keng and Ban Nai Soi, home to people of the Kayan ethnic minority who have fled from persecution in Burma. These villages have been in existence for about 30 years.
Eager to put their traditional skills to new endeavors, we began co-creating our first Ways of Change collection. I was working closely with the women who were using traditional weaving techniques, a simultaneously elegant and basic skill, which to them seemed second nature as most of them had learned as young women.
The porch and workshop of La Tuang, the only person in this region who maintained traditional Kayan jewelry skills, became my second home.
The villagers gave me a new, invaluable education. I followed the young men on their spearfishing adventures. I spent time in the jungle learning about the types of bamboo and making furniture. I watched the chief climb a tree with a handmade mask on while he harvested honey. I learned about the natural local medicinal herbs, traditional cooking, wine making, farming, building…Yet, despite the richness and pride I saw in these communities, their situation had been enforcing a disempowering narrative.
Having arrived in Thailand as refugees, Kayan people were identified as tourist attractions due to the brass coils some women wear on their necks, a tradition of beauty. They were moved to refugee villages that are open to tourism with the core income generating activity being a model of tourism which places value on the physical appearances of the women.
With tourism built and reliant on one physical characteristic, as income and hope for the future, a model of mutually disempowering tourism lacking in human connection grew.
Residents of the village were feeling like objects to be viewed and tourists were walking away disappointed by the experience feeling forced into the role of objectifier.
In recent years, reputations like “human zoo,” emerged from the mouths and pens of disappointed (and perhaps well-intentioned) tourists, bloggers, journalists and guide books. The impact, being the rapid slowing of tourism to the villages, and a sudden disappearance of income for Kayan people.
This was only the backdrop, however, to the new co-created reality in which we lived and worked, one where skills, experiences, stories, tradition and culture were valuable and to be shared, taught and learned.
With this reality as our setting, the day came when the Chief initiated a shift in the current model of tourism to one of mutual empowerment, where skills, stories, tradition and culture were to be shared with visitors.
Ways of Change began supporting the village in creating a workshop based on their skills that they would like to share. The first workshop was a ‘Bamboo Workshop’ where people could visit the village for a weekend, stay in a homestay with traditional meals, receive a machete as a gift, go into the jungle on a boat with the ‘bamboo trainer’ to learn about the different types of bamboo, harvest it themselves and learn how to build a small table.
The theme was teaching self-reliance to increase self-reliance. The Chief had expressed to me that they were struggling to pay the teacher’s salaries in the village, he didn’t want to ask charities for handouts, he wanted the village to be self reliant, however he didn’t see how this was a possibility. In a co-creative space we unraveled the potential of sharing valuable skills and how this could create a sustainable income.
During the workshop I was able to sit back and relax (and build a table) and watch the shift in people as they reclaimed their agency, chose a date and time and actively invited people into their homes.
I witnessed the response in both the villagers and the visitors when people engaged with a backdrop of value. I saw the respect and honour that is evoked when someone wants to learn, or is being asked to teach. People were connecting in a space of mutual empowerment and seeing the human in each other.
We have partnered with the Cross-Cultural Co-Creation Club and Fair Tourism in order to continue the movement towards mutually empowering tourism.
Huay Pu Keng invites visitors to join them the first weekend of every month for a Cross-Cultural Co-Creation event offering a homestay, traditional meals and various workshops and discussions (bamboo cup making, jewelry making, jungle walk to the cave, weaving, traditional medicine, dancing, etc.).
With no background in community-based tourism this has also been a journey for myself. The lesson I have learnt is simple. Travel to learn. If you want to empower people, if you want to see communities empower themselves, I know what to do. Meet people and say, “I value you and your skills…or culture…or language…and I want to learn from you.” Connect, honour and respect each other as people in a space of mutual empowerment and create something together.
That is a world I want to live in and we are creating it here in the jungle!