Is it wrong to visit indigenous Thai Hill Tribes? I’ve been hearing a lot of debate on this subject over the past few months. Northern Thailand is riddled with hundreds of these “Thai Hill Tribes”.
Visting Thai Hill Tribes people
Thai hill tribes are villages of people of varying indigenous descent, mostly refugees that have migrated from neighbouring China, Tibet and Myanmar (Burma) over the past couple hundred years. Comprising seven major tribes: Akha, Karen (including “Long Neck”), Hmong, Yao, Lisu, Lawa, and Lahu, each have their own distinct culture, language, art and colourful style of dress. Thai hill tribes’ people make their homes in the mountainous regions of the North.
The main profession of all these Thai hill tribes is farming. In fact, they have preserved their way of life with little change for over the past thousand years. Of course, this different and unique way of life has considerable appeal to the fellow traveller who would like to experience a culture different to their own. Heck – that’s why most people want to travel isn’t it? So what’s the issue with taking one of the organized tours to visit their villages?
Some of the more ‘versed’ backpacker types I’ve met have said things like:
“Don’t do it, it’s oppressing them!”,
“They guilt you into buy things”,
“It’s terrible, it’s not even authentic – did you see the Christian church in their village?”
I even have heard a much more graphic, and somewhat derogatory term
Hmmm, hearing that certainly made me question my own desire and intrigue to go visit one of these communities. So what’s the good side then?
Though there are some thai hill tribes which have definitely lost a bit of their traditional way of living, due to the reaping benefits of selling their locally produced products to tourists, and posing for countless photo shoots with visitors, you have to remember that there are hundreds (if not thousands) of these villages in the North. The few which are accessible to tourists are villages which have agreed to let people come into what is essentially their homes.
Having spent several months living in an Akha Hill Tribe village myself, I know how kind and welcoming many of the inhabitants are. Though they may come across as incredibly hospitable, there is also a side of privacy and caution which is instilled in their way of life after centuries of being oppressed and unrecognized as citizens by local governments, in addition to the more pressing issue of having rival tribes invading and stealing what’s been earned quite laboriously – even if it’s a bag of rice. It can take some time to earn the true trust of these people. Even after months of living in the village and developing strong friendships, many were still shy and uneasy with photos being taken of them.
The point I’m trying to make here, is that the villages you will visit on an organized tour have agreed to allow people to pass through, and to experience what life is like in & around their homes. Most will get a commission from the tour companies, in addition to being able to sell homemade handicrafts – this has become their livelihood. In fact – people claim that’s just a tourist trap type activity – though in the village I was in, devoid of tourists, I still saw them selling the exact same woven clothing, fabrics, and handicrafts… to each other. The only difference with the Thai hill tribes the local operators visit is that they can now provide a service to the curious minds of visitors with their welcoming smiles, photo opportunities, and authentic art and tapestries. This is ideal for a visitor quickly passing through who wants to have a taste of what local Thai hill tribes are all about.
The best part about these tours? These locals are ok with tourists passing through. It’s their 9-5 job. Once everyone’s passed through, they carry on with their daily routines, celebrate their traditional festivals, and carry on living life as they would have otherwise. It’s a way to make a livelihood, especially when many are not recognized by local governments as citizens, depriving them of their education systems, and restricting the types of employment they can get outside of the Thai hill tribes.
The comments I heard that I think raised my eyebrow the highest in disbelief *the rant continues* are the ones expressing the lack of ‘authenticity’ found in the tourist-driven Thai hill tribes. I’ve got news for you: They don’t fake those neck rings.. they’re pretty authentic… and heavy too! As far as the Christianity influence having infiltrated it’s way into their Animism (believing in the spirits of Ancestors) beliefs go… When Burma was under British rule, Christian missionaries came and went straight to the hilltop villages of Burma to convert many tribal people into Christians – many of which have migrated to the safer hills on northern Thailand. British rule in Burma lasted from 1824 to 1948. Missionaries continue to visit the Burmese and Thai Hill Tribes in their crusade. This is not new, and judging by the history of the world (especially Asia), religions have continuously come in and converted local inhabitants over the past 2000 years. If you look closely at the thai Hill Tribes, you’ll actually notice that their Christianity actually incorporates many of their animistic beliefs into it. It’s more of a hybrid religion. Lastly, yes.. some of them have concrete homes and cell phones. Did the people making these allegations of inauthenticity truly believe that the villagers have no desire to reap on some of the ‘futuristic commodities’ of solid housing and communication that the entire rest of the planet uses? I think it would truly be inauthentic, if not oppressive, if we expected them to live as they did 100 years ago simply for our pleasure of seeing something ‘really different’. Seems a little selfish, walking in with a huge SLR camera (or the slightly more tacky tourist taking pictures with their iPad.. it’s not a camera, people), and expecting the locals to not want a piece of that capitalistic action, don’t you think?
I’m not trying to make your decision for you. I’m not trying to tell you what’s right or wrong here either. I only think it’s fair to make your own decision if you’re able to see both sides of the coin first. Perhaps you can investigate which tour company is doing this in the most non-intrusive, sustainable way. If you choose to go, go with an open mind. Appreciate what these local people are actually allowing you to do, by visiting their homes. If you like some of the Thai silk or gold ring bracelets they’re selling.. buy one. If you don’t like them… don’t buy them. Smile at them. Try to say hello, and thank them for letting you into their home. If it still doesn’t sit right for you… don’t go. It’s no sweat off their back or mine.
Have you visited any of the Thai Hill Tribes? What was your experience like? If you haven’t visited them, would you? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.. I’m interested to hear everyone’s opinions.. both sides of the coin!
You said you lived among them for months, I didn’t even know one was allowed to stay thar long. Do they have a problem with physical contact like shaking hands, buddy selfies or that’s a problem?. Can you meet and talk to everyone or are there restrictions on who you can talk to? I’m a friendly person so I don’t know how much is too friendly to them. I enjoyed reading this blog, finally some positivity.
Travel bloggers generally make the most money by writing for an English-speaking audience in the United States or other rich western countries.
Malaysia and Singapore earn the most for us in Asia, followed by Dubai, of course. Affluent countries generate the most advertising revenue for us.
The tips aren’t in any particular order and aren’t in great detail because I’m not writing a book, but I hope you find them helpful.
We travelled for 1 year on savings, tasted freedom, and didn’t want to return home, so we worked hard to make our lifestyle financially sustainable.
My family is traveling to Chiang Mai in two weeks and we’re interested in learning more about ethical tour groups/guides you know of. Thank you!
HI Ian. We will be in Chiang Mai March 21-March 23. We are looking for an ethical tour of local villages. Can you recommend any operators or private guides? Thanks! [email protected]
Cool, I sent you a follow up by email with some suggestions and introductions to have this done in the most ethical way 🙂
Yes. I have, many years ago on my first trip to Thailand. We had a wonderful experience trekking and staying in many different villages. 2nd time around, with a group booked in chiang mai, ir was way less enjoyable, tacky. yes, i’d go again, i’d take my children. but i’d look for a really good company. We live in a remote village in Romania, in many ways this article reminds me of here. The locals don’t seem to mind tourists here and are very happy if they can sell them some tuica or a basket. The more I think about it, very similar indeed, the old ways and the old houses continue, the traditions endure, but concrete is rapidly taking over
You’ve written an interesting and even respectful article but I withdrew my respect when you thought taking a picture with an iPad is tacky. I bring only an iPad when I travel as a way of communicating with my family and doubles as a camera as I don’t have the space nor desire to carry anything heavier nor bulkier. Why do you judge people by their choice of camera?
I’m in Chiang Rai right now, and visited the Hill Tribe Museum here which is run by an Org that offers ethical tours. I would recommend a visit to the museum (great info) and touring through them. For what it’s worth, they are adamant about NOT supporting the Karen “village” which, according to them, is completely staged, and the women are not free to come and go. This is of course referring to the village most commonly visited by tours from Chiang Mai, of course there are other villages that aren’t so contrived. It seems to me like it would be safest to tour through this organization, which truly seems to have the care and quality of life of the tribes in mind: http://www.pdacr.org I certainly hope that’s the case.
Hi Ian, what a brilliant article and it really made me think twice about my previous misconceptions on hill tribe tourism. I am visiting Chiang Mai in August and would love to find a sustainable/ethical tour company to book through to visit some local hill tribe villages – do you have any recommendations for us to try? Any help would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you again for this article, a great read 🙂 Vicky
Thank you for your insight! I recently visited one of the hill tribes as a part of a tour we were on. Having worked with indigenous people in my home country I have tried to be open minded to both sides of this issue. I do believe that what you are seeing has a special type of authenticity. I do believe they are living as authentically as they can with modern twists of course, why wouldn’t they? But I still have a few questions because the people I saw and spoke with did seem very unhappy. Maybe I’m just not educated enough on the situation, but the child I spoke with said she wasn’t allowed to go to school because she wore the rings, and when I asked if she went to school in the village her reply was no. While I’m sure some villages are willing and encouraging education I’m not sure if it’s that way for all of them. So I wonder what the options are for the women if they decide they want to go to school or become a citizen. How would that process even start? From my perspective there isn’t much of an option for creating a sustainable life outside the village since they have limited options to sustain themselves. I guess I’m just looking for another insight or more information about their rights as refugees and what the local governments are actually doing/allowing.
Hi Ian, Would you also contact me directly in regards to connecting with guides mindful of the issues raised who could assist us in visiting the hill tribes? I understand it is last minute, we are arriving April 01-04, would appreciate any info you have. Thank you in advance, Wendy
This was a great article and I learned a great deal from all of the subsequent comments. My family and I will be visiting Chiang Mai at the end of March and I’d like to visit the Hill Tribes. Can you recommend local tour operator that is mindful of these issues? Thanks.
Hi Renee! I’m happy to hear that you will be coming here in a few weeks! I’ll contact you directly with some options 🙂
Hi Ian – thanks very much for offering a sensible, objective, non-partisan view on this controversial subject. We are visiting Chiang Mai in a few weeks and as a photographer, I debated whether to visit the hill tribes given the ethical (& personal!) views outlined here. Having interacted with tribes like Hmong in Northern Vietnam, I agree completely it’s entirely up to the respect you have for any human beings – that influences the experience.
I would be quite keen to find out which are the companies that work with the tribes to facilitate a visit (or a trek even) – would be grateful if you can share via email below. Thank you again for being a voice of reason, and a reminder that ultimately people have to make their own decisions (instead of taking a side!)
Fantastic, informative, totally objective post based on facts & actual experiences… and written with absolute humanity.
I can’t believe I almost decided against visiting a Thai Hill tribe because of a few one sided, negative blogs about the usual rant .. Exploitation etc.
I will post back after my trip. To heck with the naysayers.
Neck elongation among the Karen population in Thailand is a dangerous and debilitating practice kept alive by tourism and your entry fees. This practice also borders on forced labor and violence against women… no boys or men are harmed in this practice, only girls. And when “chosen” for neck elongation, the girls no longer attend school, but must weave for hours a day. As the author of this post does, you should not equate supporting this practice as being aligned with any sort of cultural sensitivity or with having a meaningful travel experience. The other refugee hill tribe populations have found ways to generate income without subjecting their girls to this type of lifelong pain and suffering for tourist cash.
Thanks for your comment and opinions, John. Unfortunately they’re not entirely true. Many women continue to wear these neck rings as they feel it is part of their cultural identity. There was a revolt against tourism and oppression over a decade ago in which hundreds of Kayen (or Karen Long Neck) women removed their rings in protest. though the collar bone gets compressed over years of wearing the rings, no other permanent damage is done. Their necks are not actually elongated – but merely have the appearance of such, due to the shape and formation of the rings. Many scholars believe the shape was modelled after a dragon’s neck which is a very important figure in Kayan folklore, though the origins are not concrete.
The oppression you speak of too was abolished, and any remnants of it are disappearing too, due to public awareness and international attention. In 2008 the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) stepped in, and expressed reservations about tourists visiting the Kayan villages in Northern Thailand, due to the policies that were in place which did not allow them to apply for refugee status due to their ‘economic importance’… The UN’s push relaxed that policy, and now many Kayen have immigrated to countries around the world, as well as taking up official refugee status within Thailand.
Most of the ‘tourist’ displays are voluntary by the village, or decided by the chief of the village, and they make good money from that. The children do attend school… and many have even adapted more easily removable rings. I remember seeing a village in Bagan – and upon entering, I asked where I may find the Kayan long necks who lived there. The response I got was almost comical – ‘Off season – no wear rings”.
Is it an ‘authentic’ experience? that depends on which way you want to look at it. Some continue to wear them in the traditional sense – many have opted not to, and some simply wear them for tourists. If many have begun to remove the rings, and simply wear them for tourists, in a way they are preserving that element of their culture which could otherwise be lost to globalization, in a non-damaging fashion.
If you have any research disproving this, please share – as I am always open to learning more, and this is not a closed discussion 🙂 This is just my own opinions based on my own experiences after having lived here for a number of years discussing this topic both with locals, tourists, and with the hill tribes themselves.
I had an unforgettable experience visiting the Lahu and Akha Hilltribes in 1991. At that time I really questioned whether we should be there. I almost felt that I was walking on sacred ground and perhaps defiling it – creating some selfish desires for these gentle people who shared and cared for us while we visited their modest homes. We trekked with Wanna Tours and had a gentle, caring young monk, Charin, for our guide. He said that these people were helped by our tour money as they were able to buy some medicines and receive some education. I hope this is true but still have some doubts as to whether they were better off living their simple life…using sling shots or traps and growing their own veggies, raising chickens, pigs and even dogs for their food supply.
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Absolutely spot on write-up. You make a a very balanced and (IMO) realistic assessment of life in the villages and of our impact on them. Earlier this year I went up to two villages on Doi Angkhang – Ban Nor LAe, a Palaung village and Ban Huey Mak Liam which was Lahu. Rather than repeat myself, I’ll just add a link, if I may, to what I wrote at the time.
All I can add is that I am trying to gather together materials – toiletries, clothing, foodstuffs, toys, whatever I can, to deliver to some of the most needy of the villages once I have a truck-full. I’m also sponsoring a couple of children through school, as I see education a the best escape route for these severely disadvantaged youngsters.
Hey John! Thanks for sharing your article and experience! I’ve meant to revisit this article for some time now as it’s a few years old, and perhaps a bit dated – but it sounds like it’s still resonating with the realities which exist here.
That’s fantastic what you’re doing! I believe whole-heartedly that education is the key – not just for the locals, but for the foreigners who want to visit them as well! The more we know about each other and our own situations, the more we can help each other, and help ourselves!
Do you do any of this donation work through an organization or charity? if so, please share their link with us too… or if it’s just you, well.. good on you mate! The world could use more good souls like you 🙂
Thanks for the positive feedback. In response to your questions about who id doing what, I’d suggest that anyone who wants to support the work on Doi Angkang gets inj touch with Fabian Frederick Blandford via Facebook (or [email protected]).
Another worthy cause is some very needy Karen children in foster care….details at http://www.youcaring.com/poor-children-for-karen-hill-tribe-364052#.VXMBIaOxMSs.facebook. In fact, I am meeting with the organisers this afternoon.
Lastly, I am interested in supporting a school at Kaeng Ko, close to my wife village of Ko, Li, Lamphun province. I will be blogging about this in the next few days, so don’t forget to come back to to get the latest updates on progress! We are communicating with the teacher there at present… Watch this space!!
I’ve been to the Karen Regina longneck hill tribe in Tachileik, Myanmar. Gotta say, it was an amazing experience.
They allowed me to dress up in their own clothes, the hat, vest etc… They and I laughed so much, had the best time.
Ended up buying a couple of skirts & fridge magnets.
It was a great experience. 🙂
Hi Emma! Thanks so much for sharing your positive story with us! This is a true positive cultural interaction and completely not harmful. I do know that some tour companies exploit the hill tribes, but what you have just experienced is the exact opposite and has supported them in ways otherwise unavailable without tourism! 😀
I agree to most points. I too come from a tribe in the high mountains of the Cordillera, Philippines (it was my ancestors who built the world famous rice terraces of Ifugao). I can attest that the people from Ifugao need to maintain cultural practices but at the same time many of our tribes men are open to visitors/tourists who are curious and passionate of what my people have– but there are limits to the places that can be visited and to the behavior that the visitor should manifest.
Same can be said with the hill tribes. Most of us who visited (and visits) went their to discover for ourselves the wonder that has been talked about in books and documentaries and we understood that there are limits.
There are places opened for outsiders but there places left to be private. There certain behaviors acceptable to the tribes people but then again there are some which are considered disrespectful.
The visitor should be wary of these things.
My people and the hill tribes also experience the same criticism with regards to NOT BEING AUTHENTIC. Upon further observation though, people with this sentiments are usually those who could not understand (or unwilling to understand) the simple fact the these tribes men are also human beings– positively curious, thirsty for information, malleable to changes that can make life easier, and passionately sociable.
Visiting these tribes is acceptable as long as the traveler respects what is accepted, sacred and intimate for the tribes people.
BTW, great post.
Hey Dani – thanks for this amazing reply. It is one of the most well thought out and heartfelt replies I’ve had on my site. Thank you so much for sharing your own perspective and experience!! I agree fully 🙂
I really enjoyed reading this post. My boyfriend and I are currently in Chiang Mai and would like to visit one of the hill tribe communities. We’ve faced these same questions before when visiting native communities in Latin America, always wanting to be sure we are aren’t doing any harm. I was really hesitant when seeing tour companies on ever corner in Chiang Mai and wondered if this was being done in an ethical manner. Your post provided a lot of insight, so thank you. We’ve decided to visit, but on our own so we may be in control of how long we stay and where we go. We are also looking to volunteer somewhere in the region. Can you provide any details on the type of work you were doing and what your overall experience was working and living in one of these communities. I would appreciate any of your insight. (You can email me directly through my website http://www.movingmindful.com if you’d prefer)
I went with an organization called YWAM to Thailand for 2 months. We helped at this coffee shop in Chiang Rai, where there was a boy who came from a Lahu hill tribe about 3-4 hours away from where we were. So one day we got the opportunity to go and visit. It was an amazing time. We got there after a quite adventurous trek, and the people were so welcoming. They shared with us a snack (super super sticky rice patty). And then we got to play with the kids, and talk to some of the other people there. Even though there was a definite language barrier, it was still good. We held a church service along with them, sharing both of our cultures. Afterwards, they fed us lunch, and then ate whatever we didn’t. After that, they shared with us their tribal dance and even invited us to learn. It was so sweet!! As we were leaving, the head couple of the tribe came up to all of us and said that we were all welcome back any time and that we were recognized as one of them, family. They are seriously one of the sweetest people. Before I went, I had read a book about the tribes and just knowing how these people were once violent people, it made me so happy to see how God has worked in and through them to touch even my life! Seriously. God bless all the hill tribes and people in them!! I would love to be able to live in one for any amount of time and just love on those people. I will never forget that experience. Changed my life!
interesting point made! Love the write up! I’ll be going to chiang mai in august! I’ve been reading up on different articles regarding the long neck village. And many have negative comments on it. Despite all that I still would like to learn about their culture. I’m still quite confused whether I should be joining the tour group or explore to the village myself.
Hi Ain, thanks for the comments 🙂 I’m glad this hit home on a few points, as it was merely intended to have people think for themselves, as opposed to listening to only one side of a story. The karen, and all the other hilltribes, each have their own beautiful cultures, and are generally excited to talk about them… if of course it is within a community that welcomes outsiders. If you choose to join a group or to go on your own, just be sure to research prior if the tour company is giving back to the community they’re visiting, or otherwise, if the community you choose to visit is appreciative of foreigners taking photos of their homes, etc 🙂
I’d feel kind of weird going to a village as part of a tour group. I generally don’t care for tour groups at all. But if you had some kind of local connection to visit one of the hill tribe villages as an independent person then I think it could really be an interesting experience.
We visited a Meo hill tribe and a Karen village in 1976. We had the opportunity to interact with the villagers and my hubby was chuffed that he was able to chat with some of the older Meo people in Mandarin. We didn’t accept their offer to buy a huge bag of ganga for $25. More recently we spent two nights at a Tibetan homestay in Jiuzhaigou in China. Again we had a wonderful time and must have not offended anyone because the grandma, who is about a week older than me, sent us off with a bottle of her homemade barley wine (VERY strong!)and some homemade barley bread. I think it all depends on your approach. If you are genuinely interested in people, you will find they are often interested in you too and we have had wonderful conversations with people we meet, all over the place in our travels.
Love your stories and your approach to this subject Lesley!! I believe it’s entirely dependent on your attitude and willingness to communicate and to share. The world is filled with beautiful people – and we are just that, people. Putting others on a pedestal can in a way be harmful in itself, rather than interacting, communicating, and exchanging. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
Some of my friends went to the Hill tribes and said it was a joke. The tourists were just being herded around and the locals were just putting on a show (unenthusiastically).. Apparently it wasn’t very real..
Unfortunately the situation described by a previous poster regarding Kayan resettlement occurred as the media reported. The UN, which viewed the applicants as refugees, granted 20 families with third-country resettlement in 2006 but Mae Hong San provincial authorities blocked it for roughly two years. After the media flare up they were finally allowed to leave.
Another issue with the long-neck Kayan is that the MHS government has purposefully kept roads into their villages in poor condition to preserve “authenticity,” has in some cases refused the villages access to the government electrical grid for the same reason (thus forcing residents to rely on more expensive generators and car batteries) and prohibits public transportation to the villages. Moreover, these refugees must pay for their own medical care — something that if they lived in the camps would be provided to them at no cost. As a refugee resettlement professional who has spent several years working with Karen and Karenni populations, the state of the artificial Kayan villages is deplorable. These handful of villages are indeed human zoos, a term employed by the UNHCR to describe the situation. The villages have destroyed traditional lifeways, elevated male unemployment above 90 percent and have not provided significant financial benefit. For an in-depth analysis of these points check out “Ethnic Tourism and the Long-Neck Karen” by Jinranai Ismail.
I cannot comment on other Thai hill tribes our the ethics of tours (and I certainly commend the author for his deep respect, understanding and time with the Akha!) but it’s worth noting to all visitors the fringes of society, legally and socially, within which these tribes live.
Hi John – thank you for your very detailed response. I’d love to learn more about your view on the situation. Do you or your resettlement organization have any websites with more in depth insight into this? Your story contradicts much of what I had learned from them during my visits, and my extended stays – though perhaps I was at very different tribes than those you mention or help. I’d be interested to learn what’s happening with those you visit and assist as well 🙂
No problem! I was only addressing the “long-necks” in specific since some have been eligible for resettlement. They are a very small population, though, and to my knowledge none were resettled in the U.S. where I worked. Most Thai hill tribes (Akha, Lisu, etc.) don’t meet the criteria for refugee status for obvious reasons, and I know sadly little about them or their role in Thai society. The Karen and Karenni, however, do in many (but not all) circumstances.
Here is a pretty good primer on the Burmese populations being resettled to the states:
Here’s the UNHCR’s take on the “long-neck” villages:
And here is the piece I mentioned earlier:
Thank you for the links, John! I will certainly read through them.. I want to make sure that I’m presenting the most accurate information, especially when trying to make a point! I really appreciate that, and the work that you are doing!
John and Ava’s very important and useful links were posted 4 years ago.
Ian, you mentioned wanting to present the most accurate information.
Do you plan to update your post with information about the Karen and Karenni tribes’ struggles to leave the country as they wish?
This seems like a very important additional level of information on top of your original post – namely, that there may not be ethical issues visiting some tribes, but that the issue is more complex than a black and white “it’s wrong or it’s right”.
Does anyone have suggestions for a tour that isn’t very invasive? I was planning a trip through a company that catered toward activities that wouldn’t exploit humans & animals and they had an overnight visit with a local hill tribe… it ended up that I couldn’t afford the trip and now I am trying to re-plan but I can’t find the information anymore. I want to make sure the activities I do are ethical for both humans and animals. Thanks!
Hi Jess – sorry it took so long to get back to you! I’ve been busy travelling around. I’ve got a friend who’s currently volunteering in a karen village, and they would certainly love to have guests visit 🙂 It’s located quite close to Chiang Mai… here’s their website: http://www.thecrproject.org/
Good point, it will not help them NOT doing anything either. Perhaps I can try to help them in some small way if I go there.. I noticed none of the travel agencies here (Norway) offer any trips to the tribe, so I suspect they are boicotting. However, i don’t know this for sure, and if I make it there I will report back to your site. Hopefully I get to talk to them and see if there is anything i can do to help. 🙂
Hey Ava! I love getting your responses 🙂 I wouldn’t suspect your agencies are boycotting (unless they’ve told you this).. all the tour operators are incredibly small in Thailand, and barely make enough to spread around, let alone pay a commission to a large norwegian (or any other western) travel agency. Considering you can get full day tours locally, which include bamboo rafting, long neck visits, and riding in ox carts for about $40/USD including food, and transport there and back… it’s probably not in their interest to be booking it due to the incredibly small cut they would get… If you need some help arranging it when you arrive to Thailand, let me know, and I’ll try to ask around to help find the best operator for you. I actually know a guy FROM a hilltribe (not long neck, but another) who live’s in Chiang Mai now, and started offering tours to people to his village, to go on hikes, and live amongst his family for a few days. Just a thought… and he only books direct (no agencies).
Hey Ian, thanks for your reply!
I found the article i mentioned (“Please set me free”), but I see now that it was published in 2008. I don’t know if things have changed since then, I will have to research that some more.
Although it is published in a women’s magazine (Marie Claire), it is a good interview that gives good insight to the issue.
You have some good points, especially since you have spent months there and know some of the people personally. I agree it can be a good way of sustaining a culture.
However, if what the interview (link) says is still true, I will nede to reconsider my visit (my plan is/was to go there in January). I will try to find out whether they still are denied exit visas before I decide.
Hey Ava – thanks for the article link!
I’m curious if this is an isolated incident, or if it happens regularly. I have not heard any news of this before. There’s several other factors to keep in mind with this as well:
1) was the information in the article factual? and if so, was it the FULL story? or were there other details that were left out just to convey a point?
2) Though not going to visit will apease an internal gratification to spite the Thai governments (possible) actions, it will not rectify the (again, possible) situation! If no one is aware of your protest, it will not help resolve anything.
3) As for the long-neck tribes – if this article holds any truth, and they are in a sense being held captive (which I have much disbelief in, from my own experiences), you are also in turn not providing them with your financial support.
My suggestion, simply, is make sure you research thoroughly before making decisions that could affect your own experience, AND the livelihood of the locals as well. That was my only point in this article too.. too many people just buy in to one side of the story, without examining the other side first. 🙂
I recently read that two women of the long neck tribe were granted visas for New Zealand and Finland – so the paperwork for getting out of Thailand is okay, but they are not granted exit visas from the Thai gov’t because they are afraid of losing tourism. In this thread there are merely pros on the topic, and saying they would be worse off if they were not in the refugee camp.
But an important aspect of happiness is freedom, and being forced to live in a refugee camp without the possibility to work unless they are in tourism…..isn’t that wrong? Especially when they do have options outside of Thailand?
I really want to visit this tribe, but was very disappointed when i read about these two women… I hope there are more pro arguments than already listed…anyone?!
I don’t want to contribute to “enprisonment” for refugees…does anyone know more about this..??
Hey Ava – I didn’t read that article.. I’d love to, if you could send me a link to it!! Keep in mind that newspapers want to make the best story, even if it only means showing one side of the story. The situation with refugees around the world is dire, and it’s terrible when politics is involved. This is people’s lives, and for the governments, it’s just about tax revenue.
I have been to several hilltribes, and happiness takes on new forms, some of which you won’t find anywhere else.
I see it in reverse sometimes too, being an expat in Thailand. I will never EVER get the same rights as a Thai person living here – even if I were to marry a Thai. I will always be a foreigner bound by their political system. The difference of course is that I’ve chosen to be here, rather than having no choice in the matter.
I wouldn’t look at hilltribes as refugee camps necessarily though. They are their homes – they have beautiful homes with beautiful cultures. There is a sense of true community.. and slowly but surely, they are getting more and more recognized by the thai government. The village I was living in had all it’s roads paved, and was finally getting electricity, water, internet and other amenities accessible to their homes. It’s a changing world, and this is one of the situations that still exists, but won’t much longer. At least with them allowing tourists in to their homes, it’s a way of sustaining their culture, AND making a living in doing so, before being bound to conformity and working in a mall somewhere. Just my two cents. I merely wanted to illustrate both sides of the coin here 🙂
When I was in Chiang Mai I was actually persuaded not to visit the Karen Hill Tribe by another girl staying at my hostel from comments like you listed above. Before arriving it was something I really wanted to do! Thanks for writing this post and giving me a better view on the situation. Luckily for me, I plan on visiting Burma and Northern Thailand (again) this April so I can go and visit this time 🙂
Hey Jessica! Thanks for the feedback! There are certainly some hilltribes which are being manipulated by tour companies as some people mention.. but certainly not all of them. Like I mentioned, if they don’t want to do it, there’s certainly other options for them. They’ve chosen to allow guests/tourists in to their villages. It’s certainly a unique experience, and one which you should go into with an open mind. I always feel it’s best to make your opinions for yourself – I merely wanted to show the other side of the coin 🙂 Enjoy your trip here in April!!!
Awesome post on a very difficult topic. I think that if you travel with the right intentions and make an effort to respect the difference in cultures… you will find yourself in the midst of some of the most welcoming people on the planet. Way to go Ian!
Hey Mike! Thanks for the comment! It was a topic which was irking me a fair bit as I just listened to what I thought of as veteraned backpackers having such animosity towards something which they either hadn’t experienced first hand, or had, but went in with only their own interests in mind.
I agree completely that with an open mind and a little effort to understand and respect cultual differences, maybe even some understanding to what they’re trying to accomplish, that you will definitely have one of the most memorable experiences! Cheers Mike!
I agree with your commenters. Your photos are so beautiful! I guess to me these “villages” don’t look authentic and seem to be mostly for show and for the benefit of tourists. This does bother me. They are quite accessible to the public- just off the a main road. A tourist can easily visit several “villages” and go back to his 4 star hotel bed in the evening. They are easily driven into by bus loads of tourists at a time. The village I am familiar with is very remote and not accessible by road at all during the rainy season. I realize not everyone can visit these remote and true villages but this is where you’ll see the real deal. I can’t wait to take a look through the rest of this site. Thanks for an interesting read on a stimulating subject.
Hi Lynn! Thanks for the great perspective. I agree that it is definitely possible to visit villages which aren’t on the tourist trail, though for the time-refrained traveller, it may be a bit more difficult to arrange something like this, especially with no familiarity of the area. Of course if people all start doing this, then all the villages will become almost forced into accommodating the increase in tourists who start visiting the more remote… and then the cycle begins again, though this may be something unwelcome by some of the villages. If someone would rather not go to the tour bus driven villages, perhaps it’s best to talk to some locals in a city who may be able to recommend somewhere, or better yet.. bring you to their own village. Not always as easy as it seems though. I hope you enjoy future posts as well, mate! Thanks again for your comment 🙂
Excellent article and one that puts in perspective the differing views on responsible tourism. I am sure that I will be referring back to this article in my research and adding a link to it on our site
Wow.. I’d be honoured, Paul! Thanks for the positive feedback. It can be a bit of a touchy subject, I feel, but one that should be discussed openly. I think the most important voice in this matter is that of the people who live in these villages. In a recent trip to Borneo, I experienced very similar, after staying with a tribe who was not on the beaten trail (story coming), and had their outlook only reinforced that of my own. Thanks again for following 🙂
thank you for writing this. i have been looking for some sort of discourse on this contentious topic. third time in chiang mai now and i still haven’t had the will to sign up for one of those hill tribe tours. you have a point. treat the changes (tourist influx, religious conversions, technology) as natural and necessary for these villagers, and the experience will seem more authentic. that is the life they have now so why look for something more preserved, or backward? you could but those villages might not be easy to get to for travelers just passing through. i’ve blabbered on. great post!
Hey Paul.. I agree and understand completely what you mean. The funny thing is.. everything is ‘authentic’. Someone pointed out a great book to me on the matter: http://www.amazon.ca/The-Authenticity-Hoax-Finding-Ourselves/dp/0771071051 – I’m not sure what dictates in some people’s mind such a black and white view on authenticity. Just because someone still lives in a grass hut, doesn’t mean that they can’t drive a land rover or have an iPhone. Either way.. thank you for your feedback 🙂
Hello Paul, My friend and I (with a little trepidation) took a songtauw to the Hill tribe village at Chiang Mai. (Much cheaper than a tour). When we spoke to one of the villagers sitting on her ‘deck’ (longneck) she was only too happy to be treated as an equal. We sat with her as she shared why they wear the gold necklaces, showed us where it rubs, and showed us a printout of some research that had been done through a Uni on the damage the necklaces cause. (Apparently none to the neck, but does squash the rib cage..) She was a lovely, warm, shy person, and she valued our discussion. She spoke good English and we noticed the children also spoke English. Apparently they learn English at the school on site. So it seems they are being cared about, and discovering new choices for their lifestyle. I valued her openness in sharing. Apart from education, maybe they are being given a chance to have some of the things we take for granted – air conditioner or two? Running water? Hot showers? I don’t know because I felt that was too personal to ask. It was a truly wonderful experience and I am so glad we went. They welcomed us and valued our company..
Beautiful photos! I visited the Karen and Akha tribes while in Chiang Mai, and at first everyone was a little uneasy about being there – some people also said it was like a zoo. However, I felt that it was less zoo-like if you actually interacted with the people, especially the children. We spoke the people, asked to take pictures of/with them, and bought some of the items they were selling, and that made a big difference. Each experience is what you make of it, and if these people are allowing visitors to come into the their homes, than I don’t see anything wrong with it.
Great post, Ian!
Hey Erin!! Thanks for sharing your experience.. it seems that most people who actually take the time to interact with others while visiting actually come out with a positive view on the situation.. it’s just the initial dilemas that I think most people face thinking that the people here are somehow opposed to you visiting, and don’t actually want to be there. This is a lifestyle they have chosen, for the most part..and it’s much better than much of the oppression many of them faced prior to living in Thailand.
Ian, a thousand thanks for an obviously balanced perspective of an issue that only time is in control of. Like butterflies, the hillside tribes cannot thrive or even exist in a “jar” with the intent that everyone else knows what is best for them! Time and evolution (mostly through their own decision making) will determine their future. I especially appreciate your wise perspective on “authenticity”. Indeed this is something that can only be genuine “in the moment” then in the blink of an eye it has changed. I guess we were authentic before we had the wheel but after that, we weren’t? Nothing wrong with cell phones in tribal huts – they don’t have the stupidity of traffic jams! Being respectful and supportive of their choices should bring a peaceful decision whether or not to visit a world they have given permission to be visited.
Thanks for presenting the other side of the coin on this debate. We talked at length with our host in Chiang Mai, and she brought up the point that being in Thailand is obviously better than being where they came from (or they wouldn’t have come).
Many of them have left other countries to escape conflicts there, and the tourism trade allows them to make a living, feed their families and to stay in Thailand, where their lives are better.
You can see more of my thoughts on the matter here: http://thereandbackagaintravel.com/thailand-long-neck-hill-tribe-karen/
Hey Shanna! It’s nice to hear that you’ve shared a similar experience! It’s a bit of a touchy subject, but you outlined some of your concerns quite articulately in your post! Thanks for sharing 🙂
i don’t wish to get into any great debate but i think if these tribes are open to visitors, then it’s ok to go. how else should they maintain a livelihood?
i love all the photos. what gorgeous colors. i think one of those neck collars would look sick on me! 🙂
thanks for sharing, Ian.
xo – lola
Thanks for your feedback! I definitely agree Lauren. If you are welcomed to the village, then why boycott it? Without higher education, there will never be a chance of anything else for many of these villagers. Tourism will enable that!
Those neck rings are actually one of the items they sell.. I think you could sport it if you wanted to 😉
You realize that the attraction you’re visiting is only interesting because its a chance to see a different way of living and culture. By constantly visiting them, tourists are destroying the thing they came to see.
I agree to some degree, Jared… however, their situation is unique in the sense of the oppression that they’ve faced for so long. First of all, I don’t consider their village an ‘attraction’, like one would refer to Walt Disney World or the Eiffel Tower. It is an indigenous group of people who have been denied many human rights. If you isolate them, then they are further oppressed to have even less contact with the outside world… or to the money that exists therein. It is not possible for the vast majority of them to go to school, get health care, or any of the other bare essentials we may take for granted. For groups open to the idea of being visited, they are able to gain tourist money as income otherwise unavailable to them.
What you say is very true… they will change as a result. I hesitate to use the word ‘destroy’ however. Most of the world has changed, and is constantly changing at a very rapid pace. Isolating certain demographics because they live in a way our own people did hundreds of years ago only further prevents them from joining the rest of the world to a level they may otherwise wish to be a part of. It’s controversial of course – so isn’t it best to leave that decision to those affected? by that, all I mean is isn’t it best to support those who wish to allow those interested in visiting their village, to help give them the tools to move forward? I’m not saying this is right… merely asking the question. I value your opinion in this. Thanks for sharing!
Great article! And thank you, Ian, for reorienting who should decide the ethics: well-intentioned backpackers vs villagers themselves. (Answer: the latter.) And with that, the follow-up would be around the issue of exploitation: whether villagers are making decisions that are mostly good for them (versus bad but not as bad as other limited options), whether they’re getting the benefits they were promised when they made this decision, and whether they have the power to change their minds. Another would be where tourism fits within a larger system of marginalization of oppression: does it help prop it up, vs shine light on it and offer bits of respite? And while it’s a generally bad idea for tourists to get explicitly involved in a country’s politics, tourism itself inherently plays a role so it’s good to know what yours is and whether you’re comfortable with that. And if we want to make it even more complicated, no single group of people is uniform, and internal power differentials exist within any group. I don’t know internal decisionmaking processes of each hill community that’s opened itself to tourists, and I imagine some sense of communalism greater than in my own culture but don’t want to assume that’s universally accurate: so I’d also be interested, case by case, in whether any benefits to “local” people flow mainly to the more powerful members vs to the less powerful members as well. And at the nitty-gritty level, as in much of life, I think a lot boils down to whether tourists, and tour operators, approach & interact with people in hill communities in a spirit of shared humanity, or not.
Thanks for posting this…I have mixed feelings about these types of tours and haven’t done any here in Chiang Mai. I felt uncomfortable after a couple ‘homestays’ in Vietnam (when I really didn’t know what I was signing up for) and now look at these trips very warily. Is the tourism helping to support the tribe and, in a way, even maybe preserve their traditional culture? Or is it being invading these groups’ space and way of life? I’m still not sure. But until I feel like I have a stronger stance (one way or the other) on them I don’t want to participate. Do you know of/recommend any good tour companies in CNX?
Hi Alana! That’s a great question, and the root of the answer lies in the term ‘sustainable tourism’. I believe that there are elements of cultures which would otherwise be lost, such as traditional tapestries and so forth, without tourism dollars. Jobs in cities, sadly, have more appeal, even though many who attempt to move to cities end up living in slums, and don’t have the job training needed. That said.. tourism dollars brings a new opportunity to many of the villagers. Financial stability. This enables the younger generations to have things such as higher education at their disposal, thus creating more opportunity for them, and their village, in the future. I met one youngster who was a star english student, who wanted to become a doctor.. only so they could return to their village and help their families. I fear, without tourist driven income, this would never be a possibility otherwise.
I’m inclined to think that while tourism is a real issue, these Hill Tribes face many issues. Only one of these is poverty in what was once a system of shifting cultivation.
Many of their problems stem from political issues – because their traditional place of living is in mountains, and extends across borders from Burma, and then through northern Thaland, Laos and Vietnam, while being continuous with the border with China and Tibet further north.
Each country has an interest in controlling the activities of the hill tribe people. Because they live in such remote, difficult to traverse areas, the possibilities for gun running and opiium trade are obvious.
Various nations, including the US have had an interest in controlling them, and the trades they have been involved in.
Traditional opium smoking among the tribes people (as in China for centuries) did not create the severe addiction problems that it has in the West, because of symthetic versions such as Heroin, and of course, the practice of intravenous injection.
I was fortunate to have a three day treck among some of the tribes in 1975, when I was in my 20s. At that time it was quite dangerous in many places, but through a contact at the local university, a local guide was arranged.
We went on foot, and slept on the floor in people’s homes at night. I recall the “pillow” was a brick (or something very similar) covered with a layer of woven fabric, but with no padding at all.
There were no shops at all, and the people did not try to sell anything to us, or beg etc – we were as much a novelty to them, as they were to us.
It was fascinating to see the irrigation systems for their crops made of hollow lengths of bamboo, with elaborate methods to control the flow, all made of bamboo as well.
I note in the photographs that many of the people actually combine mass produced T shirts with their traditional dress.
Pardon me for being sceptical, but I suspect a lot of the stuff sold as “hand woven” comes from China! Hand weaving is very time consuming, and even in a third world country, needs to sell for more than a few dollars to make the time worthwhile.
Should people go? They will, regardless. Please go respectfully, gently, and don’t look down on people whose lives, though materially poor, can be rich in communal ties and ways we don’t fully appreciate.
Enjoy and learn!
I should add that none of the villages I visited were accessible by road at any time of year. There were just narrow walking trails used by the locals.
As I said, it took days of walking to get to them, they were very elevated, and everything was totally traditional.
I would say these easily visited areas are now little more than for show – nothing wrong with that, and hopefully people on both sides of the tourist divide will gain something from visiting them.