Fair Tourism partnered with Changemaker to set up a project in Kayan villages in Mae Hong Son. We travelled to two of the three villages to assess the current tourism situation and analyse the possibilities for community-based tourism.
A great part of the Kayan hilltribe (subgroup of the Karen people) from Myanmar, fled to Thailand in the eighties and nineties, to escape violence and forced labour by the military junta in their home country. Together with other hilltribes from Myanmar, they were settled in refugee camps along the border. If it wasn’t for their neckrings & other ornaments worn by the female members, they would still be there. But tourism in Thailand was just starting up and the Thai government brought them over to villages to act as a tourist attraction. Because they are not Thai citizens, their freedom of movement is confined to the villages. Some think this is exploitation and boycott the villages completely. But there is an alternative: community-based tourism. If there is real, mutual contact and interaction between hosts and guests, this can lead to mutual understanding and respect.
During our field trip, we spoke to all stakeholders involved, like the Kayan people, tour operators, tourists and numerous NGOs working in the region. Although most Kayan people were happy with tourists coming by every day, others spoke about the lack of freedom and the disrespect from many tourists not asking permission to make photos of them. Currently, most tourists stay one hour, visit the souvenir stalls, take pictures and then rush out. The idea of people staying longer to spend the night, enjoying the authentic Kayan food, try their hand at traditional Kayan activities, like weaving, woodcarving and making music, is embraced by Kayan and tourists alike.
Tourism numbers in the villages are dwindling, mostly due to fierce competition from touristic Kayan villages in easier-to-reach Chiang Mai province. The importance of diversifying the tourism product in Huay Sua Thao and Huay Pu Keng to stimulate the local economy, is therefore very much needed.
To give an impression of the findings of our field trip, we have organized a photo exhibition at numerous locations in The Netherlands. This way we want to create awareness to change the situation in Kayan villages.
A lot has happened since our field trip. With the funds acquired during the opening nights of our photo exhibition, the Kayan people decided they wanted to build a weaving centre in the Kayan village of Huay Pu Kaeng and receive training to make other things than scarves, like table cloths, wallets & other clothing items/accessories. To view pictures of the weaving centre & for other information regarding this project, you can visit our Facebook page.
Since 2016, the village of Huay Pu Kaeng is organizing self-reliance workshops, to move away from ‘the human zoo’ model. Every first weekend of the month, they organize workshops to learn more about their Kayan culture, like brass jewelry making, weaving, cooking and many more. Please visit their Facebook page for more information. Other organisations involved are Ways of Change, KNWO (Karenni National Women’s Organization) and the Karenni Action Project.
We are really thankful and happy that the face of tourism is changing in the Kayan villages, in a way that is mutually empowering for both Kayan and tourists!