Responsible Travelling: A Relook at Tourism Through the Lenses of Ethnic Minorities

This May 2018, Actxplorer joined students from the National University of Singapore (NUS) for 1 week in Southern Thailand on their annual Geography Field Studies Programme.

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Yaay Laap (Grandma Laap), the most senior female at Thaptawan, a predominantly matriarchal village. Just this Jun 2018, she finally won a 14-year longstanding lawsuit against corporations on her land rights. Unfortunately, not everyone in the village has the resources to do so, and many of them have hence lost their land.

In the southern province of Phang-Nga resides some Moklen people – sea gypsies that have resettled on the southern coasts of Thailand for a few generations. Though known as ‘New Thai’ people, the Moklens are more related to the Moken people and other sea-dwelling communities in the Andaman Sea than the ethnic Thais.

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A 20 mins drive away from the tourist town of Khaolak brings Actxplorer and NUS students to the Moklen village of Thaptawan (Tubtawan). Here, we find a beautiful sight of blue seas and a horizon lined with grassy mountains.

Post-tsunami Thaptawan

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Thaptawan is one among thousands of communities that were severely hit by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, and presently suffers the aftermaths of this disaster – a complex series of land grabs among the government, corporations, and the ethnic Moklens. Today, the fragmented village is dotted with capitalist developments from beach resorts to shrimp farms. These developments not only encroach on the sacred lands of the Moklen community, but often bring harm to the environment due to lack of governmental regulation.

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A boat that was being washed inland during the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami — This image represents the power and devastation caused by the tsunami. (This image was taken in a neighbouring town).

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The Boxing Day Tsunami has also brought about an unprecedented influx of attention to the community. Though with good intent, not all help provided was contextualized. For example, the government enacted free and compulsory primary to secondary school education for all Moklen children in the public schools in Khaolak – however, these children are often discriminated not only by their peers, but also the ethnic Thai teachers. Besides the government, NGOs have also pumped in much resources to rebuild the infrastructure at Thaptawan post-tsunami – however, these newly built concrete, storm surge-resistant houses are unbearably hot in the tropical heat, resulting in many Moklen people abandoning these houses.

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Though the next tsumani might not hit soon, Thaptawan is still prone to frequent storm surges which result in flooding. While these houses are flood-proof, they easily overheat during the dry seasons of the year.

Livelihood at Thaptawan today

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This seawall belongs to a beach resort at Thaptawan. As more of such developments started springing up, it has necessitated clearer demarcation of sea for defining legal fishing zones. As such, the Moklen people have less and less area to fish as compared to the past. Furthermore, unsustainable fishing have also began to creep into the ecosystem.

Through interaction with the locals, we learnt how privatization of land and sea in the recent decades has reduced the Moklen’s ability to continue relying on subsistence agriculture and fishing for a living. Left with little choice, the younger generation of adults (<30 years of age) end up working for the very people who have taken over their land – the resorts and restaurants that line their beach, in order to afford food and necessities to sustain their families.

Responsible travelling

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“We don’t need people to come here with the mindset of helping us, though we would love people who would come here to get to know us, learn about our culture, and appreciate our heritage.”Ying, Moklen Activist (right in image)

As city dwellers, we might be quick at picking retreat destinations merely based on how beautiful the beaches look. We might be quick to assume that the rural population live a more ‘backward’ life compared to ourselves and are enthusiastic in providing help to ‘lift them out’ of their way of living.

How often do we stop and think about the impact we make on the people and environment we visit?


written by Danielle Poh

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