The Occidental Tourist


This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, December 01, 2004 was originally posted on December 05, 2004.

DAY 410:  In independent travel culture, some would argue that booking any sort of a tour is a cardinal sin (right next to eating at McDonald’s), as it is counter-productive to experiencing the real reality of a foreign culture.  Lot, Claire, Hans and I were interested in seeing the Karen hill tribes of the north, near the Thai/Myanmar/Lao border, known for its long-necked women with bronze rings around their collars.  We explored the different options of seeing them independently but in the end, the most cost-effective way to see them was just to book the standard one-day tour with an agency, which not only included the hill tribes but all the tourist traps on the way to break up what would otherwise be a boring four-hour drive.

Our guide Nok, a young Thai woman picked the four of us up in an air-conditioned minivan along with a French and Irish couple, two Aussie girls from Sydney and a lone Japanese traveler from Yokohama.  Our first tourist trap on our road trip was the Bai Orchid and Butterfly Farm, which not surprisingly bred and cultivated butterflies and orchids in controlled environments.  The butterflies weren’t that abundant in number and variety and the rows of orchids didn’t even really emit any odor.  “Maybe they’re plastic,” I told Claire.

The “farm” did provide us with a half hour to stretch our legs and drink coffee in the cafe, right next to the obligatory gift shop.

“Ready?” Nok finally asked.

“I think we’ve been here twenty-five minutes more than we need to be.”

NEXT UP WAS THE PAPER “FACTORY,” which produced paper so they could sell it and its products in the big obligatory gift shop nearby.  What made this otherwise tourist trap unique was the fact that the paper was made from elephant dung.  A woman gave us the tour of the process, from the washing of the dung, the pressing, cleaning and pulping.  In the end, the fibers dried in big wooden frames until someone peeled it off.  “That’s a sheet of shit,” I said.

The tour ended not surprisingly at the gift shop, which showcased the many uses of their folded shitty paper, from photo albums to greeting cards so that one could give loved ones Christmas and Valentine’s Day cards.  (Nothing says “I love you” better than a folded elephant turd.)  Lot and Claire bought into it anyway while I tried on a hat that screamed “tourist.” 

“This is definitely not the non-tourist trek,” Lot commented as the cashier rang her up.

NEXT DOWN THE ROAD was the Chiang Dao Caves, a series of natural caverns-turned-religious Buddhist sanctuary-turned-tourist trap.  After feeding the big four-foot catfish in a pond (where fish food was conveniently available from a man for 5 baht), we explored the main cave, a cavern lit with florescent lights to show off the Buddhas and limestone formations inside.  Outside the cave was a touristy fortune-telling machine that worked like an electronic roulette wheel:  you put in a one-baht coin and watched an LED light go round and around until it stopped on a number.  With that number you went to a board on the side with different numbers and ripped off a slip of paper with your fortune on it.  I pulled up arguably the worst fortune available — no sugar-coated fortune cookie fortunes here — and Hans’ wasn’t that favorable either.  He put another coin in and watched the LED spin.

“Ha, I got the same number!”

FROM THE VENDING STAND SELLING different herbs and roots marketing for tourists for wellness and sexual enhancement, we drove off to a food stand for lunch — it was obviously a restaurant in existence to specifically cater to the daily tourists going to the hill tribes.  A family-style lunch of Thai food was already waiting for us and we sat down for the meal and talked about the tourist traps we’d seen and the big one at the end.

“We all do it, we do it to ourselves,” Chris, one of the Aussie girls said.  “You gotta see this, then this, then this…”  She too wanted to do something more “independent” but knew it was just cheaper to do it the standard tourist way.

“You think there’ll be a cardboard cutout [of the long-neck people] so we can stick our heads in for a photo?” I joked.

“That’s so bad!” she said, laughing.  “What a twisted sense of humor.”

THERE WERE NO CARDBOARD CUTOUTS when we arrived at the Three Hill Tribes Village, designated by a sign that read, “Welcome to Three Hills Tribes Village,” near a building with a big satellite dish on it.  It was no surprise that the place was a built-up showcase — or “people zoo” to put it more bluntly — for the three hill tribes indigenous to the region, the Akha, the Meo and more popularly, the Karen, known for their self-elongated necks and ears, which the men in the tribe traditionally found attractive.  Long earlobes were created by sticking pegs in ear piercings; long necks were created by keeping them coiled in a decorative bronze neck dress so heavy (about five kilos) that “long necks” were actually achieved by crushing down the shoulders and collar bones.

The parking lot was connected to the village by a paved tourist-friendly walkway lined with vending stands trying to sell the usual souvenirs and touristy hats.  At the end of the trail there they were, the Karen women in their neck dresses (picture above) in a village comprised of nothing much else than more souvenir stands.  Most of the women were looking quite depressed, weaving textiles to keep busy while tourists went around with their cameras and observed them like zoo animals. 

“This is too weird,” Claire said.  “It’s like a zoo.”

For a second I shared her opinion, but soon snapped out of it.  “Well,” I initially said somberly, “We got what we came for!”  CLICK! went my camera.

As culturally insensitive as that sounds, in a way it wasn’t.  From what I was told, the Karen people didn’t normally wear the neck dresses; it was simply for show, to make money off of tourists.  “I guess it’s like when people come to Holland and pay to see people in wooden shoes,” Lot said, who didn’t exactly pack a pair of Dutch wooden shoes with her. 

“I’ll feel better if I buy something from them,” Chris said.  She bought some souvenirs but it wasn’t exactly necessary; 250 baht of our 650-baht fee each supposedly already went to the community.  (I bought a couple of photos anyway.)

While Hans distributed more balloons to the village children, Claire still wasn’t into the exploitation of the long-necked women, but she found enjoyment in the village puppies.  However, when she stroked one sleeping puppy, she didn’t sugar-coat the probable reality:  “There, there, you’re going to be dinner tonight.”

With that said, she too got over her inhibitions and shot some photos of the village women.  Along with Lot and me, she did the crass pose in front of a loose neck dress, in lieu of a cardboard cutout. 

“We have to get a group photo with one of them!” I said to the gang.


We gathered around a lone girl with the decorative neck brace.  “We’re all going to hell,” I said.  “We might as well go all the way.”


“I THOUGHT THERE WERE THREE TRIBES,” Lot said to me.  “There’s the long ear…”

“The long neck…”

“And the other?”

“They don’t have anything,” I said.  “It’s just another tribe.”

“Okay then.”

At the end of the day of being me being a stereotypical obnoxious American tourist, we went back to the Chiang Mai Saloon to continue the theme.  For my last American-style meal before heading out to less-developed Laos, I went all out with a nice big obnoxious ribeye steak and baked potato.  This was followed by a game of pool.

In the world of tourism, there is a wide spectrum of tourists, from the lone hard-core backpacker with his/her own cooking supplies to the family with the matching Louis Vuitton luggage, and for me, sometimes it’s fun to go to the other side for a change of pace.  When tourist traps set themselves up for it, you might as well go all out.

Next entry: The Power of Geography

Previous entry: Chiang Mai In The News

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Comments for “The Occidental Tourist”

  • THERE’S A BATCH FOR YOU for the WHMMR…  That brings you up to date to the end of my time with the Chiang Mai gang, for the next entry we depart and I head for Laos… with a whole new gang.

    STAY TUNED, the adventure continues…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/05  at  04:01 AM

  • There’s no shame in a tourist trap now and then!  I love the bamboo raft trip, the whole trek looks great.  I’m still trying to decide between going to Laos or northern Vietnam, I don’t have time for both.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/05  at  03:29 PM

  • Crass poses and stereotypical tourists are make them a lot of money. Way more than when National Geographic were the only ones behind the lense.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/05  at  04:51 PM

  • process and the washing of dung pics are the same…. “sheet of shit” filename is a good one…

    puppies are just too cute….

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/05  at  06:33 PM

  • Must say, I loved your fortune. Come on, what’s more fun than “The bone you pick with others will only be your own”? That’s classic! Nothing says cosmic prophesy like “bone picking”. Sounds appropriate in an area where lonely men go to have sex with children. Not that YOU deserve that random fortune.

    I finally caught up. I’ll never get back-blogged again! It’s too much fun to comment.

    BTW, if Middle-Earth is a definite out, that’s way too bad. I understand there’s plenty of LOTR stuff to see & do. If it’s a maybe, I’ll contact my friends there. Let me know.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/05  at  10:25 PM

  • I think the neck things are making the lips look big… or is it just me? How freakin’ UNCOMFORTABLE is that? And, I think that the reason the women are unhappy is b/c they’re in PAIN!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/06  at  02:43 AM

  • CHRISTY:  Middle Earth in TGT3…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/06  at  10:37 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

Praised and recommended by USA Today,, and readers of BootsnAll and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, The Global Trip blog was selected by the editors of PC Magazine for the "Top 100 Sites You Didn't Know You Couldn't Live Without" (in the travel category) in 2005.

Next entry:
The Power of Geography

Previous entry:
Chiang Mai In The News


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