Northern Thailand: The Miss Hill Tribe Pageant
Having left the rain behind in Mandalay, we spent a great week in Bagan wandering around amid the staggering panoply of ancient pagodas, then headed back to Yangon, said goodbye to Burma, and flew to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. After getting used to the dilapidation of Burma, Chiang Mai seemed positively sterile, more like California than Asia. We enjoyed having good coffee again, and more fresh foods, but after a couple of days we were ready for something a little less clean and urban.
We took a $20 flight to Mae Hong Son, mostly because it was only $20, and ended up liking that hard-sell trek town more from the air than the ground. Soppong, a tiny town further along the Mae Hong Son-Pai-Chiang Mai loop, was a lot more to our taste and we ended up staying there for about a week. Who can resist a place that sells delicious lemongrass pork sausages for a quarter apiece? We stayed at a couple of “luxury” guesthouses there (each around $10 a night for a double): Little Eden guesthouse and Lemon Hill, both of which had immaculate bungalows on the river.
One day we took a low-key trek and an elephant ride (elephants are about as comfortable as Burmese buses) to a Karen village. We gave a Karen woman a postcard of the New York skyline (pre-September 11th), and her two questions were: Are you allowed to hang your laundry out the window? and How deep is the Hudson River? We also went to Tam Lod, a spectacular and spooky cave system.
But by far the highlight of our visit was the Bang Ma Pha district festival, which happened to be starting just as we got back from the cave. Representatives from eleven nearby villages and several different cultures (Lisu, Lahu, Hmong, Yao, Tai, and Karen, among others) were parading down the main street to the festival grounds, and a beautiful Lisu woman grabbed me by the hand and had me join the procession. At the grounds, there were the usual gambling games and snack carts – one of the games had toothpaste and ramen noodles as prizes – along with booths where each culture demonstrated their various skills and products. The governor of Mae Hong Song province chatted us up – turns out his wife went to Columbia University – while some older Lahu women spat betel juice and lolled by their campfire.
The focal point of the event was, of all things, a beauty contest to see who would be crowned Miss Bang Ma Pha. Our favorite event was the formalwear competition – we got to vote for our favorite contestant (a lovely girl wearing the striking Lisu red-fringe lampshade-ish headdress) by buying a ribbon or two, pushing through the crowd, and presenting it to the girl. Our own award for Most Incongruous Moment came during the sports attire/Q & A event, when the girls hopped around in their gym shorts to the rap song Who Let the Dawgs Out.
What do economists say about scarcity begetting demand? I run the other way every time there’s a street fair in New York, but somehow being at the Bang Ma Pha festival, with hundreds of hill tribe folks around and only a handful of tourists, felt like such a privilege, and I had a great time, even though the winner wasn’t announced til after midnight, even though it was cold enough to see my breath, even though my lovely Lisu pick lost out to some skinny Yao girl.