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”.

Thai Hill Tribes people? Who?

Children in a Karen “Long-Neck” Hill Tribe

Thai hill tribes are villages of people with varying indigenous decent, mostly refugees that have migrated from neighbouring China, Tibet and Myanmar (Burma) over the past couple hundered 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?

Tourists meandering through a Karen Hill Tribe

The debate

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?”

Karen Hill Tribe woman wandering through her village

I even have heard a much more graphic, and somewhat derogatory term

“Human Zoo!”.

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?

Karen Hill Tribe handicraft shop

The Skinny

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.

Posing for a photo after buying some local hand-woven fabrics and a gold coiled ring

Akha’s performing in their village for all the villagers during Christmas

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.

Cooking the local catch of the day in an Akha Hill Tribe village

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.

Akha village elder making handwoven tapestries.. as a gift, not for sale.

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.

Karen Hill Tribe member making fabrics on a loom

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?

Karen Hill Tribe girl resting in her hut

Akha children being brought into the 21st century, with yours truly!

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 of their back, or mine.

If you’d like to read up on some ideas for making sure your visit is culturally responsible, I found some GREAT tips over at Off The Path Travel. I suggest you check them out before planning your Hill Tribe visit to make sure that you’re having a neutral (if not positive) impact on the tribes you visit!

MISSIONARIES!!! Just kidding – English teachers being kindly welcomed into the Akha community

Peaceful Akha Hill Tribe village

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!