If you’ve been to Chiang Mai, Thailand, you have probably been offered a trek to visit villages where Thailand’s indigenous people (“hill tribes”) live. Several ethnic minority groups live in the mountainous areas in Northern Thailand; some are native to Thailand and some originally came across the border from Burma, escaping the military regime.
First of All…It’s Not Real Thailand
A hill tribe trek usually involves a couple of days of trekking and a night in a so-called hill tribe village. They are sometimes advertised as a way to experience “real, authentic Thailand”. Except that it is not really real Thailand, because you are on a tourist trek.
I talked to Lisa M. Nesser from Thai Freedom House: a community, language and arts education centre for refugees from Burma and for indigenous people in Thailand.
– I understand that people want to visit a village and they want to see the real Thailand, but I think they have to understand that it could not be the real Thailand if it exists in place that tourists are visiting every day, she pointed out when I talked with her in Chiang Mai about responsible travel. – Oftentimes these villages are not in the original place the village was, and they’re not with the original people. And the people are getting a ‘stipend’ to live there and to be on display.
The Controversial “Long Neck Village” Treks
The most controversial treks are those that take visitors to the so-called “long neck villages”, homes to the Padaung who are refugees from Burma. Padaung women are sometimes called “long neck women” because of the brass rings that have been traditionally fitted around their necks. The rings give the illusion that the neck is long, when in truth they press down on the woman’s collarbones and causes a deformation of the shoulders and the chest that makes it look like the neck is elongated.
I found out in my research that some years ago, the traditional practice of putting rings around Padaung women’s neck had almost disappeared. The practice was then started again mainly to attract tourists to the villages. The Padaung, like all Burmese refugees in Thailand, are in difficult position since they could not return to Burma, but they also lack many rights in Thailand, including the freedom to travel.
Treks to the Padaung villages have sometimes been referred to as a human zoo. There has been controversy about these treks for years, but they are still being offered and tourists are still going.
When I spoke to Lisa, she did not recommend any of the “hill tribe treks” as a way to experience “real Thailand”.
– It’s not something like “oh I wandered into this village and they were doing this ancient ceremony”. No, it’s put on for you like a show.
She points out that if you have not been invited into a village, you are intruding. I read on some traveller forum recently (I can’t remember now where, but I will post the link if I find it) that people who had gone on these treks were surprised because the villagers did not seem welcoming, or they even looked hostile. So maybe check before you go whether you actually are welcome.
Of course the issue is complicated: the livelihoods of the villagers are now dependent on the treks. Unless something is done to provide the hill tribe villages with other options for making a living, it is difficult to say “just stop the treks”.
So how can you see “real Thailand”, then?
– If you want to see how people live in rural Thailand, in villages, you have to spend some time here. Make some friends and go visit their home and their village if you really want to see the real Thailand.
That, of course, would mean that you would have to spend a bit more time in Chiang Mai than the average visitor who seems to stay only a couple of days…