Bangkok -- Apparently, i have beautiful pink skin. So says a plump muumuu-clad Thai woman who welcomes me to her Sukhothai guesthouse.
"Light and pink!" she repeats, smiling a hearty, genuine smile that reveals several missing teeth. Because of her enthusiastic tone now, and on several subsequent encounters, I gather that having light pink skin not only makes me stand out, but is also a valued commodity in this part of the world.
Every drugstore or convenience store here (or at least the many I have visited) sells skin-lightening lotion. I arrive pink-skinned and pale, seeking a self-tanning lotion, and the unanimous Thai response is, "We do not care for such products. We prefer to appear more white."
The following day, my tour guide, Ting, informs me that the Thai people find light skin the most beautiful. People with lighter skin tend to get better jobs and are overrepresented in the upper echelons.
"On television and billboards, in print ads, 90 per cent of actors are very, very light-skinned Thais," Ting says.
My silent internal response is a hearty, "That's really interesting. I'm gonna go lie in the sun now without sunscreen."
Ting takes a group of us to the northern hills to visit the Kayan, or long-neck tribe. You've seen them in National Geographic: the women wear a stack of brass rings around their necks to enhance their beauty.
In fact, if the rings are ever removed (which they are not, except for washing and adding new rings), their necks cannot support their heads. Their appearance is certainly jarring to a sheltered Westerner.
As Ting and the rest of our group tour the arbitrarily placed shopping strip, we watch tribe members preparing dinner for their families, and women, young and old, weaving scarves, bags and blankets.
They rarely interact with us unless they're spoken to. It's as if they're on display at a very large-scale heritage museum, and if we put a quarter in the machine they'll go through their expected daily motions mechanically.
The only part of the town we're privy to as tourists is this main strip or market. Not that these human relics remain so. After we leave here, I assume the long-neck ladies will remove their neck rings and send each other messages on their Blackberries to meet for dancing in their secret underground metropolis.
This hunch turns out to be not too far off the mark. On our way back to the jeep I see one long-neck lady talking on her cellphone.
Ting takes us to the Old Chiangmai Cultural Center for an evening of traditional food and performance. I'd be lying if I told you there was no fire-juggling and sword-balancing involved. There was plenty.
I'm uncertain whether actual traditional festivities were authetically represented. We feel we're being served a very diluted, slightly arbitrary version of what Western tourists have come to expect.
We sit on the floor against triangular cushions in the traditional northern Thai style and eat from several dishes on a raised platter. It's totally and shamelessly touristy, but after a while we don't really care. We're lost in the swirl of activity, and for a few hours it is really, truly fun.
On our way out of the Cultural Center, we're transported back into reality. A little girl, dressed in her traditional hill tribe attire, greets us. "Hello, you buy?" she smiles sweetly as she shows us her wares.
My boyfriend and I look at each other.
I melt and think, "Aw, you are an adorable marketing pawn." And buy a scarf.