If they come, you will build it: A Lisu village cashes in on tourism

By Jacob Baynham

Ban Na Lao is blessed with a sublime location. Perched atop a ridge in the jungle-clad mountains 50 miles north of Chiang Mai, the village looks out over the jagged crests of Doi Chiang Dao, the third highest mountain in Thailand. The village is home to members of the Lisu tribe—a people group who live in the mountains of Tibet, China, Myanmar, Northeast India, and Thailand.

Until recently, Ban Na Lao was a quiet place whose inhabitants grew highland rice and corn. That changed when a Thai film crew arrived to shoot a romantic melodrama called “The Letter.” After the movie was released, the country fell in love with the village, its dramatic views, and the sea of fog that rolled into the valley each morning. Then a few celebrities visited, and social media lit up. Suddenly this quiet Lisu village was on the tourist map.

But there wasn’t much of a tourist infrastructure in Ban Na Lao, which lacks electricity and running water. When tourists arrived, braving a steep, ear-popping drive up the mountainside, they wanted food, coffee, even a place to sleep. It didn’t take long for the village to seize the opportunity. They built small bungalows of bamboo thatch and grass. They constructed primitive cinderblock bathrooms. Some set up platforms and erected tents. They still didn’t have much in the way of coffee shops or restaurants, but now people could buy snacks and bottled drinks at little shops. Some of the new hoteliers started including breakfast and dinner in their rates. And the tourists kept coming.

And then, last November, the authorities caught wind of what was going on, and paid a visit. They said the new buildings were unauthorized, and encroached on the wildlife sanctuary, and the national park in which Ban Na Lao is situated. (Many national parks in Thailand were created within the ancestral territory of hilltribes.) The authorities dismantled some of the bungalows, and knocked down a cinderblock bathroom. They enacted a rule that each family could rent a maximum of two bungalows and four tents. They’ll return this month, at the end of the peak tourist season, to enforce the new rule, and dismantle more houses if they must. They’ve even threatened to move the village if it doesn’t comply.

The villagers feel patronized. They argue that two bungalows and four tents aren’t enough to make a decent living out of the short tourist season, and why should they face limits to their participation in the tourism industry? Some are suspicious of the government’s motivations. Are they upset because large resorts closer to Chiang Mai are losing guests? Are they angry because an indigenous hilltribe is making money from the tourism industry on their own terms?

The government has made rules for the Lisu people before. Fifty years ago, when the first Lisu moved to Ban Na Lao, they didn’t choose the location for its scenery alone. They chose it because it was a good place to grow opium—the community’s cash crop, which grew best on high mountaintops. A few decades ago, the government cracked down on opium cultivation, urging villagers to grow corn, cabbage, tomatoes, and other crops instead. It was a hard transition for many villagers who grew opium well and relied on its steady market value. Not all of the other crops sold well. They required more land, and transporting them to the market was difficult. With tourism, though, the market comes to them.

My guide to this issue is Chomay Saenyakul, a Lisu coffee grower and community activist who visited Montana in 2014 as part of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and managed by the Mansfield Center at The University of Montana. I didn’t meet Chomay when she visited Montana, but she was at the Chiang Mai airport to greet me when I arrived, with a sign that read, “Jacob, Montana.”

I liked Chomay immediately. We walked out to her car and she told me how much she loved Montana and the people she met there. She had a bright, easy laugh and a maternal warmth. I could tell I was in good hands.

The day after I arrived in Chiang Mai, we picked up a few of her friends and drove out of town—past flooded rice paddies, fishermen casting nets into a river, and golden stupas rising out of the jungle. A yellow sign warned us that there might be elephants on the road. We climbed through bamboo groves and tall hardwood trees dripping with vines. Finally, we reached Ban Na Lao.

The views of Doi Chiang Dao were impressive—like something out of a tropical Glacier National Park. The village was rustic. Colorful tents surrounded small thatch homes. Gum wrappers littered the dirt road.

Chomay and her friends walked around the village, talking to the homestay owners. The villagers were upset by the government’s plans. They wanted to make a sustainable and profitable business out of people’s interest in their village, and the government was stymying their efforts.

“This is good work,” Chomay told me after some time. “They’re learning the business. They’re learning how to manage it.”

Chomay told me that for a long time tour operators have brought tourists to villages like this, to look at indigenous people. But the indigenous groups didn’t get any income from the tourists. She said she hopes to bring a researcher out here from Meh Fah Luang University in Chiang Rai. She thinks it could be a test case for other hilltribes to learn how to successfully engage with the tourism industry.

“Our people don’t have power, they don’t know how to do things,” she says. “When they have income from tourists, they can stay in their village. They keep their culture and language. It’s good.”

Whatever happens with the government, it’s clear that, for now, business is still good. Before we left, I watched a young woman in a traditional Lisu dress sitting at a table in the shade with her smartphone. In 10 minutes, her phone rang three times—customers wanting to book a stay. She penciled their details into a large ledger—a book that may represent her greatest hope for economic stability since a day when the mountains around her were covered with opium poppies.

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