Visiting the Karen Tribe in Chiang Rai – Hill Tribes in Northern Thailand

Hill Tribe ShrineI have been resisting visits to the Northern tribes of Thailand since we arrived because I was worried about exploitation and staring at people as if they were part of a zoo or freak show. A few months ago I took a trip to Chiang Rai and the opportunity to pay the hill tribes a visit once again came up. In the spur of the moment, I ended up doing something that I really wasn’t sure about or keen on. I have to say that my trip lived up to my fears and expectations. I came away feeling like I had done something wrong, and with more questions than answers.

I had not actually done any research into visits to the tribes, so we followed the advice of the driver we had hired for the day. When we arrived we had to pay for entrance from a sullen young Thai man, who pointed down a dirt path that led into the jungle. Nailed to the trees were wooden signposts leading the way, but already I felt like an imposter. We were not on an exploratory walk; we were basically going to gawp. As a child who was reprimanded when I stared at those who were different it felt so wrong and I was extremely uncomfortable during the hour or so we spent there.

Young Girls - Hilltribe Chiang Rai

The villages look exactly how you expect them to: small wooden huts on stilts made from bamboo and banana leaves. But a permanent home is unusual for these hill tribes, as traditionally they migrated from place to place, clearing forests to farm the land and moving on when the grounds became unsustainable. When Thailand introduced stricter rules about forest protection and slash and burn agriculture, and move the tribes from the highlands to lower less fertile land the Red Karen, Akha and Lahu people were forced to find new ways of providing for their loved ones. Many of the hill tribes first moved to Thailand from Burma, China and Tibet either as refugees because of civil war or persecution. Over half the tribes are not registered as Thai citizens, leaving them with hardly any rights and often nowhere else to go.

Hill Tribe VillageI am not comfortable taking pictures of people under normal circumstances, because it always feels like such an invasion of their privacy, but I did take my camera out during my visit, the photographer in me unable to resist the beautiful and fragile tableaux that were being played out. There were plenty of barefoot children running around the village and even the youngest ones were well-trained in the art of posing. I tried to only take shots of them going around their daily business, but even then I had to wonder how natural this life was to them. My favourite picture of the day was that of a woman chatting on her mobile phone. I think it was the closest I got to the reality of their lives, a clash between old traditions and new technology.

Now these families have turned their front porches into shops, selling products scarves that they have weaved themselves. Although I can understand the need to make a living, it highlights the fact that this is a tourist experience. I found it much easier to slip some money into the donations boxes that were displayed in the village with handwritten School Fund and Karen Development signs tacked to them.

Whilst provisions have been made for children to be educated under the Thai system this isn’t always enforced and often the villagers often have only a basic understanding of the local language and are limited in what they can do to make a wage. If money can be made from inviting visitors into their homes and selling handmade products then am I supporting them? What about my entry fee? Does it really go to help the tribes or is it simply taken by those who own the land, who get rich from allowing these displaced families to reside there? It’s certainly an easy way for a proprietor to make money. There will always be those, like me, who are willing to pay to add local colour to their holiday snaps.

Hill Tribe Girls

The first ‘village’ (the communities live on the same patch of land but each tribe lives in their own hamlet) belonged to the Akha people, who first migrated to Thailand at the beginning of the 20th century from China, with another wave arriving due to civil wars in Myanmar and Laos. Their numbers in the north Thailand are currently around 80,000. No welcome party greeted us. I guess people trampling through your fields to come and take pictures of you in traditional dress for probably the 31st time that week can make you feel a little weary. When they finally appear, we were led us up to a large wooden hut that serves as their meeting point and they performed a half-hearted musical performance. Feeling guilty for disturbing their Sunday afternoon, we slipped some small notes into the tin marked Donations and moved on.

We quickly wandered through the Lahu village, another group originating from China, which seemed almost deserted, and towards the largest settlement, in which big eared (Kayor) and long neck (Red Karen or Kayah) people live. At the edge of the village we found a group of half a dozen children under the age of five playing. So used to visitors, they barely look up from their games. As we walked past stands filled with colourful scarves and women weaving we were greeted with smiles. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a teenager surreptitiously open a compact and powder her face, preparing for her moment in front of the camera.

This village had a real feeling of community, with a small school and meeting hall with an ongoing construction project to add an extra row of huts in the northern corner. But they still heavily rely on the presence of tourists to provide necessary funding. I thought long and hard about what would be the best way to support these communities without forcing them to put their lives on show this way, but with limited resources and a specific set of skills, it seems tricky to help them sustain their traditional way of life, allowing them to work with nature whilst the rest of the world tries so hard to control it, ensuring that they have the same rights and care as all of Thailand’s residents when their ideals clash with those of modern Thais and politicians.

Despite many of the young girls having the first few golden rings around their neck that lead to the slow and painful lengthening process, their futures usually don’t involve staying in the mountains amongst their community, and their lack of education means that even if they head into the city they are more likely to end up working in the sex trade than anywhere else. One in three women working in the go go bars in Chiang Mai originally came from a hill tribe. It makes being a tourist attraction seem like an attractive option. There are NGOs working in the north, attempting and draw attention to the issues that these people are facing, but unfortunately their good work is not headline-grabbing enough, or perhaps just doesn’t get heard over the rustle of tourist dollars.

Young Girl HillTribe

I will not be returning to a hill tribe village in any rush. It was certainly an eye-opening afternoon, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. Travelling and exploring should be done with utmost courtesy for the places and people you are visiting, not invading personal spaces or turning their lives into a theatre show, but observing them at a respectful distance, learning and sharing the experience with others.

11 thoughts on “Visiting the Karen Tribe in Chiang Rai – Hill Tribes in Northern Thailand

  1. I know exactly how you felt. such a thoughtful piece. xxxx

    On 24 May 2013 09:24, Bangkok I Love You Blog

  2. These tourist traps are appalling but Thais have learnt that the exotic appeals to foreigners (mainly Western and Chinese tourists) so have exploited the opportunity. I did the same as you many years ago and walked away feeling exactly as you did. Nice piece.

    1. Thanks! It’s taken a while for the whole experience to sink in and for me to be able to write about it coherently. I think a lot of people worry about visiting the tribes, and the sad reality is that their feelings are justified.

  3. I have to shamefully admit that I did go to this “zoo” once, but in mitigation may I say it was at the request of my ( Thai) girlfriend who had absolutely no qualms about it, no matter what I said about exploitation of minority groups.

    1. I really wanted to share the experience with others, it’s nice to get such a good reaction from people. There is a dark side to tourism that is often not spoken about.

  4. I love that you have wrote about this, in such a warm and self reflective way too. It’s nice to read about the bad, just as it is the good. I have not visited for this very reason. Whilst i would love to see the old world charm and traditionalism – i know that it is mine, and many other peoples mere presence, which is corrupting their way of life and turning it into a tourist attraction. Nice piece.

    1. Thanks! I hope that anyone who is hesitating about taking a trip to visit the Hill Tribes will read this and get a first hand account of what it is really like, beyond the shiny tourist brochures.

  5. Hi I loved this piece. I am planning a trip to Thailand with my family and couldn’t put my finger on why seeing the hill people made me feel bad.
    Thanks for helping me sort that out in my head. Years ago we visited a village in Africa and it just felt bad as well.

    1. Thanks Shona! Let me know how your trip goes and if you need any advice!

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