Experience a most evocative slice of the kingdom that few people manage to see — the real hill tribes – by heading off-the-beaten paths with just a bit of advance planning.
by Dave Stamboulis.
Many tourists come to Thailand to experience ethnic hill tribe villages and their people, who are noted for their colorful costumes, age-old traditions, and a lifestyle set in some of the country’s gorgeous northernmost outposts. The bad news is that much of the old way of life and scenes out of a National Geographic story have disappeared, with the younger generation trading in costumes for motorbikes and iPhones; far more concerned with making a decent living than posing for a camera-toting visitor. The good news is that there still are spots to take in the old ways, and if one goes about it the right way, he or she can enjoy some fun, insightful experiences.
If you’re interested in hill tribe trekking, Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai are packed with small tour agencies all eager to separate you from your baht. Many of them do not offer authentic tours, and it’s probably best to rely on word-of-mouth or positive recommendations before signing up. While it may be a novelty to check out those “longneck” Karen women you’ve seen in magazines, remember that the THB 500 fee charged to enter the prison-like villages where they are kept does not go into their pocket.
The average tourist usually walks away feeling pretty empty and guilty about the whole visit. Far preferable is to time your visit to a local event, such as the Akha Swing Festival, the largest annual event for the Akha, which is usually held in late August after rice planting; or the Hmong New Year, in January, when everyone returns home, dons traditional garb, and takes part in village dances and parties where the public are welcome to join.
There are six major hill tribe minorities in Northern Thailand, and within some of these are subgroups. Probably the most visible and colorful are the Akha, known as “Igaw” in Thai, who are noted for the large silver coined headdresses worn by their women. The Akha are thought to have descended from Tibet and they inhabit the upper reaches of Thailand’s highest mountains. They are still the most traditional ethnic group, with strong animist beliefs, village gates guarded by spirit guardians. They used to be opium farmers but opium has since been replaced with more legal and sustainable crops such as tea. The area around Doi Mae Salong, Thailand’s highest village north of Chiang Rai, is famed for its steep tea-leaf terrace plantations, and both the Akha and the Lisu take part in large New Year celebrations up there.
The Lisu, who are also mountain dwellers, also descended from Tibet; and can be recognized by their extremely colorful flowery costumes and flat headdresses. Many Lisu speak Yunnanese, the language of their northern neighbors, and along with the Akha and Hmong, have managed to retain much of their traditions and culture. The Lisu can be found in Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai provinces, and you can even learn Lisu weaving, music, and shamanism skills by taking part in a homestay in the small village of Nong Tong from this enterprising cultural immersion program called Lisu Hill Tribe.
The Hmong (Meo in Thai) are among the most vibrant ethnic minorities in Southeast Asia, seen in Vietnam, Laos, China, and Thailand, with various subgroups (Black Hmong, Green Hmong, Flower Hmong) being named because of the bright embroidered outfits they wear. While most ethnic minority groups live in homes built on stilts, the Hmong build their homes without them, instead making dwellings right on top of food storage cellars. One of the best integrated ethnic groups into Thai society, the Hmong can be found in every province across the north, and one of the best places to enjoy Hmong village life is up around Mon Jam, a village up on a ridge above Mae Rim and Chiang Mai, where there is a Royal Project garden, fresh air, camping, charming restaurants overlooking the valley, and Hmong villages stretching all across the surrounding hills.
The Karen is Thailand’s largest hill tribe, with a population of over 300,000, which is more than half of the entire ethnic minority population in the country. They are also separated into wide subgroups, and except for the aforementioned “longneck” Karen, they are neither as colorful nor as visibly apparent to outsiders. The Karen has the largest number of converts to Christianity of any minority group as well. Many Karen have settled in Thailand fleeing war and oppression along the border in neighboring Myanmar, and it’s only more recently that some of these areas have become peaceful and open to tourism. A great spot to go trekking, escape from it all, and learn about Karen culture is at the Karen Hill Tribe Lodge, located well off the beaten track in the mountains northwest of Chiang Mai.
Other hill tribe groups include the Lahu, also known as Mussur. Their tribal name means “hunters,” gained through their early prowess as hunters and trappers. With a dialect close to Chinese, many Lahu have gone to Taiwan to work, and they have done very well economically, and many now own lychee plantations across Thailand’s north. The Yao, noted for the beautiful large turbans and thick red neck wraps worn by the women, are one of the only hill tribe groups that has a written language, and they excel both as paper makers and in designing farm tool instruments. The Yao population in Thailand is small though, and they are more prevalent in northern Laos, Yunnan, and northern Vietnam.
While hill tribe peoples may be getting harder to find, a bit of advance planning and heading off the beaten path will reveal a side of Thailand’s ethnic mélange that is still going strong, a most radiant and evocative slice of the kingdom that few manage to see.