Wednesday, March 4, 2009

To Hilltribe or Not

Karen (Kariang, Yang), Hmong (Meo), Yao (Mien), Akha (Ekaw), Lisu (Lisaw), and Lahu (Mussur).
These are the six main hill tribes originating from China, now living in countries like Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. Nowhere are they more visible than in Thailand, particularly Northern Thailand. You're likely to encounter hill tribe merchants selling their wares in any major tourist night market throughout Thailand (If only they would sell something I was interested in purchasing).

In Thailand, for years we believed they were essentially exploited by the local people for personal profit. We heard stories of hill tribes confined in remote areas simply as a tourist attraction. This was especially true for the Karen Hill Tribe women with their unusual ringed neck ware.

So while in Chiang Rai, we booked a day trip up the the Golden Triangle, with "stops along the way". The day trip took all of ten hours winding it's way through gardens, the northernmost point of Thailand, Opium museums, temples, a boat trip across the Mekong into Laos, and of course, the Golden Triangle where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar) come together.
On our way back to Chiang Rai, we were told our last stop was to visit the hill tribes. We didn't ask to see the hill tribes but we went along. Driven to a remote area just outside Chiang Rai we arrived at one of the local Hill Tribe encampments just as it was getting dark. The place was definitely set up for tourists but aside from our small group of seven there were none around.
This particular encampment housed four different hill tribes, the Akha, Hmong, Lisu, and Karen. The each had their own staging area where they would perform a customary dance. All except the Karen.

An Akha Hill Tribe merchant at the Chiang Rai Night Market. The Akha are probably the most visible with their unique head wear.

When visiting, you're encouraged to have your picture taken with the Hill Tribe women. A donation is encourage and give you should.

Karen girls begin the process of stretching their necks rather early in life. The rings are actually a solid brass coil and at adulthood could weigh up to three kilos.
We came away with mixed feelings visiting the Hill Tribes in these encampments. It's all a big show as many things are for the typical tourist. The encouraged donations certainly would benefit the people. If you bought something from them they would benefit as well. But how much of the ten dollar per person "visit" fee would go to them? And would they benefit if you didn't visit at all?
If you encounter Hill Tribe merchants, buy something from them if you can. Chances are you won't just run into Karen Hill Tribe women on the streets in Thailand though.
A visit will certainly educate you on these very interesting, gentle people.
More on Hill Tribes of Thailand:

1 comment:

Jonz Theroux-Gidding said...

Asia has always fascinated me a great deal especially since living in Hawaii!

Thanks for sharing! I really how the tree's roots are on top of that house!