Max, internet cafe owner | Chiang Mai, Thailand | December 10, 2009
A Chiang Mai native, Max owns an internet café that’s popular with tourists in the downtown area.
About Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s largest northern city and a base for tourists to explore the many nearby ethnic minorities or hill tribes who their own distinct cultures and languages. Hill tribe treks can be a 1-day tour or multi-day tour with overnights in the hill tribe villages to offer a glimpse into the lives of these tribes.
The debate on the ethical nature of hill tribe treks continue with proponents saying it offers an extra source of income for the villagers and cultural exchange for both hosts and visitors. Opponents argue the tours are akin to “human zoos” and the direct contact with visitors changes the tribes’ cultures.
LPT: What do you think about tourism in Chiang Mai?
Max: I’ve been doing business in Chiang Mai for a long time, 20 years now. My business is only with tourists and they are about 99% of my business. It’s good for me if we have a lot of tourists in Chiang Mai because it’s a big city in northern Thailand.
We (Thailand) started having problems about 2 years ago with politics and the airport was shut down.1 This was terrible for us because fewer tourists were coming. There’s still some but not many.
Usually the economy in Chiang Mai is farming and tourism. When the people are finished with farming, such as students or others from outside of the city, they will come here and work in the bars. This means tourism is important for Chiang Mai.
LPT: How do you think tourists or tourism has changed Chiang Mai?
Max: Chiang Mai has changed with more international companies here because we have a lot of tourists. In the beginning, they came as tourists but after they saw something good here, they stayed for a long time and started businesses or became investors. A good example is on this street, 10 years ago there were only Thai businesses. Right now, when you look at the signs, the business signs, they’re English signs all over.
LPT: How do local people feel about that?
Max: Local people are separated from the outside and downtown, you know. In the downtown area, we welcome it. The main thing is we welcome it.
Maybe Chiang Mai has already accepted this a long time ago. It’s the same like the tourist city, Phuket. But, when people come to Chiang Mai, they know that our culture is peaceful. We’re quiet people; we don’t fight or speak impolitely. Sometimes the local people will just be quiet even when they don’t like something, you know. We don’t go start fights or go make something bad. We take time to adjust between the new and local things and try to adjust smoothly.
Right now, Chiang Mai looks like it’s going smoothly, local people don’t fight farangs and farangs don’t complain too much about the local people because it’s in the nature of Chiang Mai people to be polite.
LPT: Do you think most tourists are respectful of the local culture here?
Max: I think so, yeah.
LPT: What do you enjoy about working with international tourists?
Max: For me, the main thing is doing business with tourists. The income is quite high and at the same time you learn about tourism and some cultural behaviors.
Sometimes the local people have to learn more. An example is to learn to speak English for selling products to tourists or in the tourism service industry.
LPT: Or maybe tourists should learn some Thai?
Max: It depends. If they want to hang out here for a long time or they would like to live over here or marry and start a family here, than some tourists have to learn Thai and about our culture.
LPT: And the last question is, do you think that hill tribe trekking is a good thing for the ethnic minorities?
Max: I think it’s like a double edge sword, yeah?2 Yeah, the good and bad things are the same. In the hill tribe villages, it’s peaceful, quiet and the routine life is easy.
Right now every travel agency has an option to see the Long Necks, Akha, etc. They go to the hill tribe villages but it’s not just one travel company (but many). Can you imagine?
LPT: Yeah, it’s many.
Max: In one day, there maybe 2-3 treks that go to these villages. Maybe 30-50 people a day, something like that. That makes something over there change. The guides have to give money to the villagers. For a long time, money transferred from the middle man to the hill tribes. When they get money easily, the next season, the villagers will wait for money and not for the relationships. Right now business goes to the hill tribes and they do business with tourists right now. That means it’s not for friendship, you know.
LPT: It’s a different relationship.
Max: I don’t know if you call it an exchange between cultures and money or not. Money goes to the hill tribes and tourists can see many things they’ve never seen before. The bad thing is if the hill tribes change maybe you won’t be able to see original things again, you know. You cannot see the people, looking shy or hiding and waiting for you to talk; no, not right now. When they see farangs(foreigners) they just think money. I’m not saying everyone is like that. That means I cannot say whether it’s bad or good.
1BBC, Thai protesters shut down airport, Nov. 26, 2008 | http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7749399.stm
2AOL Travel, Tribal Tourism: Ethical Or Exploitative?, Dec. 8, 2010 | http://news.travel.aol.com/2010/12/08/tribal-tourism-ethical-or-exploitative/?ncid=AOLCOMMtravsharartl0001&a_dgi=aolshare_twitter