The Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand are as diverse as the remote locations where they live. Each one has their own customs, beliefs, and dress. Some live together by choice to preserve their culture and traditions, where others are forced to live in communities dictated by the Thai government. Some people might have objections to going on a tour that visits the hill tribes. But, I feel it is essential as a photographer to respectfully visit these communities to learn more about them and share that experience for more people to understand these Thailand Tribes.
The Akha tribe is the first stop on the tour to visit the northern hill tribes of Thailand. The Akha live in small villages at higher elevations in the mountains. About 70,000 tribe members are living in Thailand. The primary source for their economy comes from farming rice, soybeans, and vegetables. The Akha stress strong family ties, and it couldn’t have been more evident when I visited. There was a school function, and the entire community was there to support the kids. It was beautiful to hear the singing and cheers.
The elderly lady who greeted us when we entered their village was so friendly. She showed up in full LomueAka dress and caressing a wooden frog that emits a mid-pitched chirping croak to get our attention. I purchased a bracelet from her that she tied herself on my wrist. The rest of our visit we spent walking around the village. I was fascinated with the dichotomy of the simpleness of their traditional structures next to the technology of the present. But my favorite experience in the Akha tribe is seeing the kids laugh and play. Their swing set is an amazing engineering marvel that I wanted to go play on. Even with the smiles and laughter, the Akha are considered the poorest of the hill tribes.
The Lisu tribe is that we visited was moved to this location. They are still building the village up. The houses are built on the ground with stronger materials. The Lisu’s in Thailand number around 55,000, and the main source of their economy comes from farming paddy fields, mountain rice, fruit, and vegetables. This is one of the many farmers that practice swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture. The burning of fields in March and April make it difficult to breathe in northern Thailand.
What I did notice is how substantial these homes were, along with how the family is all together. We met one family, and it seemed like everyone was there hanging out on their patio. They offered us drinks while our guide told us more about the community. Then we walked around their village. Their village is clean and very welcoming with flower gardens by the houses. It feels like a mini sub-division, which is a completely different environment than the rural tribes living in the mountains.
The Karen tribe happened to be the tribe that our guide is from. He had family here, so this was particularly important to him to show us his village. The Karen tribe is the largest hill tribe group in Thailand, with an estimated population of around 1,000,000. Their houses are high houses built on stilts and made of wood. We saw one lady making a basket by hand and animals running around everywhere. The Karen are known for their love of peace, tranquility, and solitude and often reside in remote forest locations. The food they produce is for their consumption, and not for commercial use. I saw bags hanging from trees to collect nuts and buckets attached to trees collecting rubber. That was a new one for me. I did not know about rubber trees until this trip.
The highlight of this village is that they are right next to a hot spring. This seemed to be the local gathering place as entire families were there enjoying the hot water. We were even able to dip our feet into the tubs before leaving.
The Long Neck Tribe is probably the most controversial tribe to visit in Northern Thailand. Kayan women are refugees from Myanmar. Although the Thailand government does not classify them as refugees, they are referred to as economic migrants. They are allowed to reside in villages designed for tourism, but not allowed to resettle elsewhere. There is a concern that the money spent to enter these villages does not go to the tribe, that they are treated like animals in a human zoo, and that they exist for you to take pictures, and then you leave to say that you have been there.
There are things you can do to make a difference. If you do visit the Long Neck village, make sure to buy their handicrafts. The ladies spend time to create beautiful scarves and other items for tourists. In addition to contributing to their small economy directly, talk to them. Get to know the ladies and listen to their stories and how proud they are of their handiwork and talent. They are people, and their stories deserve to be heard and shared.
The Long Neck Tribe tradition of wearing the rings around the neck has been going on for years. The girls start adding coils as young as five years old, and they keep adding them as they get older with larger coils and more turns. The intent is to make the neck look elongated, but in actuality, the weight of the rings pushes down the collar bone all in the name of beauty and culture identity. Some have tried to get them to stop wearing the rings based on health concerns, but it is a draw for tourists.
One thing is obvious to me after visiting these communities. Even with having so little compared to the Western World, they seem happy. The smiles on their faces would light up any room, and I feel privileged to have met these ladies. I know some people will object to this post, and that is okay. As a photographer and a travel writer, it is my job to show everything, including the not so good side of tourism. I enjoy getting to know people from other cultures and to be able to share what I have learned to others that don’t have the chance to experience these adventures.
I hope that you can look at this with objective eyes. Do your research to know the history of these cultures, and then you can decide if and when you will visit them. Your tourist dollars do contribute to their economy and allow them to continue their traditions. If you do want to visit the hill tribes in Thailand, look for tour guides that have good reviews and ones that you believe will live up to your ethical codes. But most importantly, consider it!
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