Ah-Sut, a small, lean, Lahu village headman stood calmly near a sacred altar explaining its significance to our group who were visiting his village of Pang Sa in northern Thailand. Suddenly a min-van roared up, abruptly stopped, and out jumped tourists armed with cameras. They ran through the village shooting trophy photos of people they did not know. My group and I watched in disbelief. The tourists focused in on mothers nursing their children, old women weaving, men working their fields, and children at play. Within 15 minutes, they were gone in a cloud of red dust.
Apparently, they had just completed the part of their tour where they “See the exotic Hill Tribes.” I asked Ah-Sut through an interpreter, “How do you feel about this?” He remarked sadly; “I don’t understand why don’t they stay and have a cup of tea?” I did not understand either. That type of travel offers nothing to the people visited, nor the tourists themselves. No one feels good about barging into a village uninvited and randomly snapping pictures without asking. Yet desperate for photos, many people do just that.
Imagine a different scenario however, one where you are a welcomed guest. Imagine how transformative that could be for everyone. One of the most wonderful things about travelling, is meeting people who speak a language we don’t understand, who wear clothing we have never seen, who eat food exotic to our tastes, and who pray in unique ways to Gods whose names we aren’t familiar with. Standing there in the village with Ah-Sut, I realized how important it is to travel with a purpose, one that involves engaging reciprocity.