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Community-based tourism in Mae Hong Son: one cultural step at a time

Muang Paem: Feedback session with villagers

Muang Paem: Young Karen girl practicing her weaving skills

Muang Paem: Mr. Soewa, the tradition healer

Muang Pon: Shan women parading a colourfuloffering tree during the Boi Ong Jot festival

Muang Pon: Master weaver preparing a traditional Shan bamboo hat

Muang Pon: Muang Pon children learn Tai Yai language and dances (i.e. the peacock dance here)

15.11.2013

Two villages in Mae Hong Son test their newly acquired skills in community-based tourism during a pilot tour.

“Sometimes, I feel lonely at home. I like when we receive visitors – it’s fun,” says Orawin, an eight-year-old Karen girl living in Muang Paem village, in Mae Hong Son’s Pang Ma Pa district.

Many adults in Orawin’s village share the little girl’s sentiments, but for them visitors mean more than just a welcome break from routine. Tourism in the village represents a chance for these villagers to earn a living, while also safeguarding the traditional lifestyle of this ethnic group that stretches back generations.

Muang Paem is participating in the tourism component of the United Nations Joint Project for Integrated Livelihood development in Mae Hong Son (UNJP).

The UNJP was launched in 2010 and involves several development activities, such as agriculture, small businesses development, natural resources management, health initiatives, education, assistance with legal status and tourism.

UNESCO, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) combined their competencies in culture, agriculture, environment and governance to initiate the community-based tourism initiative in two villages: Muang Paem in Pang Ma Pa district and Muang Pon in Khun Yuam district and. 

The Community-Based Tourism Institute (CBT-I) was selected to implement the project on the ground.

Through participatory consultations and cultural mapping, the institute’s team helped both villages identify their assets and then decide which of these they wanted to share with tourists and how they would do so.

The team also trained villagers and community guides in areas such as hospitality, cultural interpretation, English language skills and waste management, among many others. The aim throughout these sessions was to ensure that the villagers enjoyed the benefits of tourism, while possible negative impacts were controlled.

Two years into the project, it was time for the villagers to put their newly acquired skills to the test.

CBT-I organized a four-day tour for 14 tour operators and institutions; all participants were selected because of their demonstrated interest in community-based tourism and community-empowering projects.  

Muang Paem is a six hour drive from Chiang Mai or a two hour trip from Mae Hong Son, traversing through a very sinuous and partly muddy road.

As challenging as the drive may be, the vista that greets visitors makes it worth all the effort: the picturesque village, with its mainly bamboo and wooden homes, is nestled among rice fields and lush tropical forest.

The Karen CBT committee welcomed visitors and although still a bit shy in carrying out their duties for the first time, the four female guides were eager to introduce our group to the village.

The first stop was the local healer, followed by a visit with the women’s weaving group. Young Karen girls learn natural dyeing and weaving techniques from a young age, keeping the tradition alive, while also generating income for them.

Traditional knowledge around plants is seen as less commercially attractive, though the Karen undoubtedly have a deep knowledge and respect for their natural environment. Their familiarity with the surrounding forest resources, in particular, was obvious as guides took us on a tour of conservation areas.

Unlike the more isolated, Muang Paem, Muang Pon is located on the side of a large road. Despite this, however, the Tai Yai (Shan) village has still managed to maintain an ageless charm, with many houses displaying traditional Tai Yai architecture –wooden structures on stilts and leaf-covered roofs.

The Muang Pon community has maintained its traditional  lifestyle, punctuated by agricultural and spiritual celebrations throughout the year.

One of the most important of these is the Boi Ong Jot festival, which took place during our stay at the festival.

Making it clear that their culture is very much alive and not frozen on display, the villagers welcomed their visitors and invited us to join them as they busied themselves with preparations, such as helping to decorate colorful offering trees and lanterns with traditional Shan paper-cuttings.

The villagers were proud to show off their crafts, such as bamboo weaving, Tai Yai shirt tailoring and embroidering and traditional sweet-making.

“The highlight of this trip is the Boi Ong Jot evening parade. But there are always interesting activities for visitors in Muang Paem,“ says Peter Richard, from CBT-I, who spent significant time in the village during the project design and training phases.

Traditional lifestyles and deeply rooted cultural practices are still very much alive in Muang Paem and Muang Pon. This project focused on unearthing core cultural and environmental values and knowledge and sharing them with visitors and other stakeholders (local authorities, tour operators, etc). With community based tourism, communities such as these can control how they engage in tourism, ensuring that they can generate income, but also that these rich cultures are fostered and that their legacy lives on for young people like Orawin and the generations to come.