Recently I was bullied online on a social media travel group for enjoying an elephant ride with my two-year-old child. The protagonist had a lot of mean comments about my irresponsible travel style and after a few arguements, I gave the whole discussion up. I realized that deep in his heart, his intentions were not bad and it was not personally targeted at me. Lack of proper information, however, gave him a whole lot of stubborn opinion and there is nothing more dangerous than non-factual knowledge. It reminded of a similar slur that was hurled at me when I visited the Thai hill tribes in Chiang Mai. To be honest, this is a burning issue among most Northern Thailand visitors and the big question is, “Is it wrong to visit the Thai hill tribes?” No matter, how much we debate about this topic, at the end of the day we will all end up having our own opinion and it is perhaps best to know a bit about the Thai hill tribes to form our point of view wisely.

A Black Hmong lady, one of the Thai hill tribes

A beautiful lady from one of the Thai hill tribes

So who are the Thai hill tribes?

The term “Thai hill tribes” is broadly used to refer to the mountain people of Thailand. These people are of varying ethnic groups and are mostly descendants of refugees who have migrated from China, Laos, and Myanmar. They comprise of seven main groups, namely the Karen (including the “Long Neck”), Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, Akha, Mien, and Padaung. Each community has its own distinct customs, traditions, language, attire, and spiritual rites. Sometimes sub-categories exist within a major group and the Black Hmong are differently attired from the White Hmong. They also speak different dialects and this makes northern Thailand socio-culturally very exciting.

each of the thai hill tribes have their own language

Each community has their own distinct language, custom, and culture

The main profession of the Thai hill tribes for centuries

Traditionally, most of the hill tribes depend upon agriculture for their livelihood. They are adept in using the very controversial slash and burn technique and tend to migrate when the nutrient value of their land gets depleted. Being of nomadic or semi-nomadic origin, the Thai hill tribes moved every few years, but the Thailand government has introduced permanent villages with crop rotation to these communities in order to make them settle down. Call it an attempt for living standard upliftment, a breakdown of traditional cultures, or simply protecting their agricultural land from getting drastically affected by slash and burn method, this policy has indeed made some communities live in one place.

Recommended Read: The tribal tour of Odisha

Thai hill tribes depend mostly on tourism

Thai hill tribes depend mostly on tourism and agriculture

The original opium growers

Until the 1980s the Thai hill tribes main income source was opium cultivation. In the 1980s, with growing international pressure, the narcotics prevention movements started to get strong, and the Thai government created alternative farming programmes designed to eliminate the opium cultivation. It was decided to replace the opium growing culture by introducing other cash crops and this project was known as the Royal Agriculture Project. The brainchild of King Rama IX, the project proved to be very successful and is active still today.

Now, that opium cultivation is illegal, the Thai hill tribes have resorted to other cash crops

Are the Thai hill tribes tours are fake, simply because they have a church in their villages?

“The Thai hill tribe tours are terrible. They are not even authentic; I saw a church in one of their villages.” Of the many derogatory comments directed at the Thai hill tribes tour, this is perhaps the nastiest after the “human zoo” description. Just because you are visiting a village of a tribe, does not mean, you expect people to walk around wearing leaves, carrying bows and arrows. And even if they do, these communities share our planet and have every right to choose which lifestyle they wish to follow. Deviating from their own faith does not make them fake or not authentic, because culturally they still uphold their social and artistic values. However, it is true, that all hill tribes are essentially animist although their religious practices differ from tribe to tribe and even within communities of the same tribe. A lot of the hill tribes were converted to Christianity by missionaries who came from Myanmar between 1824 and 1948. Funnily enough, some of the hill tribes, despite being several generations of Christians, still follow a religion which is heavily peppered with their original animist beliefs.

There is a lot of debate about the authenticity of the Thai hill tribes tours

The problems of the Thai Hill Tribes and how ethnic responsible tourism can help

Today, the biggest problem facing the Thai hill tribes is the fear of assimilation into the local culture. Since they live in close proximity to the Thai people, sociologists believe that in just one or two generations, the Thai hill tribes would end up losing their own culture, artifacts, and traditional lifestyles. This would be a major loss to human socio-cultural history and so, it is extremely crucial to find ways to maintain the identity and traditions of the Thai hill tribes. Due to their opium cultivating past, the Thai hill tribes often face stigma in the regional society and many wonder, if, in such a double-edged scenario, an introduction of responsible ethnic tourism can be a good solution. On the other hand, as has already been proved, mass tourism can make matters worse and the fine balance lies in how ethnic responsible tours are conducted.

Recommended Read: Yemen, where tribes still matter

Thai hill tribes tours are often called human zoos

Would you call this a human zoo?

The social impact of Thai hill tribe tours

By buying unique products made by the Thai hill tribes directly from them, the travelers leave a positive footprint. This sale supports keeping their unique art and craft alive and the additional income can make a difference, especially if they are in dire need enough to decide to move to the city looking for work. However, it can get quickly exploitive, when coach tours bearing dozens of tourists descend on a village only to walk around, take a few pictures, and go away without investing in the local community. In such cases, there is often no exchange of experience, knowledge, and respect. While economically this is seen as a good situation for the local community, it can be very damaging to the tribe’s culture and even self-respect. Such a situation makes some visitors uncomfortable and they feel like they are visiting a human ZOO. This is especially true for tours to see the Karen “long-necked women”, who are famous for the metal rings which elongate their necks. In fact, they are such a lucrative tourist “attraction” that the Thai government supposedly refuses to allow them to seek asylum elsewhere, for the fear that it might affect the local tourism industry.

Is tourism a way to protect the Thai hill tribes culture?

Things to remember before booking a responsible ethnic tour to the Thai hill tribes

  • Treat with respect; you are a guest at someone’s home – Every visitor to tribal villages should always respect the people, their homes and the communities they are visiting. It is the duty of the tour company to talk with the tribal representatives before they bring visitors to their village. The visit should be in accordance with the wishes of the community and that they are aware of the impact this visit might leave on their people.
  • Go with the mindset to learn – The group size and nature of their visit are also of immense importance. What equally matters greatly is the size of tourist groups that visit a tribal village and the nature of their visit. Small private groups of visitors, interested in understanding the new culture is a better option since they visit remote villages to learn about the way of life of the local people.
  • Stay for lunch, hire a hill tribe guide, live at a community homestay, volunteer – These groups also invest locally by staying for lunch to meet the locals and even spend the night in the village. The guests also have an option to buy some local products and help the village’s economy this way. Villagers from the community are hired by the tour company for this purpose, thus fostering jobs. The local community in such cases feel respected and the locals also get a chance to learn from the visitors.
  • Say NO to Long Neck Karen villages – There is no doubt that the Long Neck Karen ladies are extremely photogenic. Most of their villages are conveniently located by the road so as to be easily accessible to large groups of visitors that visit them daily. Although, their traditional dresses and products are on display for tourists, in reality, their way of life is badly affected. While the Long Neck Karen women and children sell their products and pose for the tourists all day, their men in most cases don’t work at all. Easy income has made them neglect their farming traditions and unemployment rates among them are as high as 90%.
  • Say YES to local shopping and look out for OTOP signs – When you’re shopping during the Thai hill tribe tour, try to buy from direct local villages, and look out for OTOP signs. OTOP stands for “One Tambon One Product” and each village which is involved in it has one unique product that they are particularly good at creating; so if you buy directly, the money goes straight to them.”
  • Recommended Responsible Ethical Company – Thailand Hilltribe Holidays is a company dedicated to the upliftment of the hill tribe community. They offer several private tours which range from full-day tours to tours lasting more than a week. There is also an incredible photography tour if that’s your thing.
  • Recommended Tours – The Karen Hill Tribe for the local cuisine cooking class, Farming techniques of the Hmong tribe

    Opt for responsible ethical tours of the Thai hill tribes

    My own Thai tribal hill tribes tour experience

I once went for a small group Thai hill tribes tour. It was part of a photography assignment. We went on a             day trip to the Golden Triangle and it was an unpleasant experience. The tour was hectic, took us to too many places, there was no explanation given by the guide, and the inclusive lunch was bland. Needless to say, it was very cheap and we got what we paid for. Despite being bad, the experience was still okay, until our coach went briefly off the main road to visit one of the Thai hill tribes. It was, of course, one of the infamous Long Neck Karen villages and I remember spending exactly 30 minutes there. There was once again no interaction with the villagers, and we just walked around gawking at the posing Long Neck Karen women, while taking endless photographs. The ladies had really long necks which were elongated by the rings, and they even had some sample neck rings for the tourists to try on for taking pictures. Much to my horror, even some of the girl toddlers wore them as well. Maybe she was just following the age-old tradition of her tribe, but to me it was similar to female genital mutilation. The sight shocked me so much that I simply ran back to the bus, without glancing back.

An experience which I terribly regret

Did it resemble a human zoo?

Yes, it absolutely did and today, I regret participating in that kind of activity. A few years later, I went on another Thai hill tribes multi-day tour and it felt like a world of a difference. More intimate, closely interactive with the community, that tour was a wonderful experience and even my guide belonged to that tribe. I stayed at a homestay in the village, ate their food, walked around their agricultural land looking at their lifestyle, and even had the luck to witness a wedding. Though a bit expensive, I will always recommend choosing Thailand Hilltribe Holidays, a company which is dedicated completely in responsible ethical Thai hill tribes tourism.

Isn’t she too small for this?

Many Thai hill tribes tours lack authenticity

Would you question the authenticity of this tour?

A Long Neck Karen lady

And another lesser known Thai hill tribe lady.

I somehow cannot accept this child to be dressing up like this to earn money.

There are responsible ethical ways to do a Thai hill tribes tour.

Just participate in delving deeper into the community with their permission

And purchase their handicrafts directly from them.

Have you visited any of the Thai hill tribes? How was your experience? If you haven’t visited them, would you?