Thailand Hilltribe Holidays -
A Different Kind of Tour in the North
by Melissa Ah-Sing
The hill tribes of Northern Thailand are a key attraction for visitors to this region. Their rural and traditional ways of life inspire curiosity and wonderment in many. Hill tribe tourism has brought with it advantages and disadvantages for both tourists and hill tribe communities alike. The ethics and impact of tourists on hill tribe villages is a controversial matter, the most debated being the topic of Karen Long Neck Villages - "To go or not to go?" is a moral quandary many tourists find themselves in. Exploitation of hill tribe communities by tour operators, voyeuristic tourism, disruption of local economies and land use, offending villagers by being unaware of village etiquette are a few of frequent concerns whilst benefits have included increased income and preservation of customs and traditions as hill tribes are given a freshly instilled sense of pride in their culture. Even without tourism the make up of hill tribe life is changing. Technology and infrastructure bring hill tribes closer to modern day living and further away from their traditional and time-honored ways of life.
A multitude of travel agencies in Chiang Mai all advertise tours to hill tribe villages, most of which have been set up for visitors. People have romantic notions of what visiting a hill tribe village is like, only to be disappointed when they arrive to see that despite being very 'hill tribe' there is one problem: it's not real. The hill tribes have been eagerly awaiting the bus load of tourists so they can start their performances and demonstrations of village life, whilst others will try and sell trinkets and souvenirs often not made themselves but bought from a factory.
Tourists nowadays are increasingly seeking something more authentic than this type of model village they want the real thing - no set ups, no souvenir shops, just something completely natural and un-staged. More importantly the ethically conscious travelers of today aware of these issues concerning hill tribe tourism now want to visit the hill tribes in a way that does not offend or harm the villages and the surrounding environment.
An ethical and authentic experience of the hill tribes may be difficult to find, but there is one such travel outfit that offers just this. Thailand Hilltribe Holidays established little over a year now, set up and run by an English born-Chinese and Thai couple (Pat Mongkorn and Melissa Ah-Sing), who saw the need to offer the tourist something different - something that would allow them to experience hill tribes in an authentic and responsible way, what's more they also seek to channel tourism in a way such that it actually benefits them.
Based out of Mae Sariangm a less well travelled part of the North, they offer tours and homestays in Karen and Lawa hill tribe villages nestled in the mountains of Mae La Noi district in Mae Hong Son province. Tours can be organized for 1 day or more, and can include an overnight in the villages at a homestay. Typical tour activities include; a visit to the village school, spending time with the children, nature walks to the surrounding farmland and rice terraces where you will learn about how the hill tribes cultivate and live off the land. They also offer a silver workshop with the village silversmith who uses age old techniques passed down through generations in his family to create custom hand-made pieces of hill tribe silver. Tours also include a visit to Huai Hom a Karen village renowned for its coffee as this is where Starbucks source their coffee from, here you can enjoy a cup of good fresh coffee amidst great scenery and fresh mountain air. Back at the homestay you are invited to cook and share meals with your homestay family and try traditional Lawa or Karen dishes.
An overnight at a homestay is with a family in their traditional bamboo or wooden stilt houses - an experience suitable for all ages and highly recommended for families and children. Accommodation is very basic but, it is also how the villagers live so expect bamboo mats on floors instead of mattresses, a vat and bucket of cold water instead of a running hot water system. For those that need a bit more comfort there is alternative lodging of a more modern standard at one of the King's royal agricultural sites.
There are two kinds of hill tribes in this area, Lawa and Karen. The former being the least well known hill tribe and hardly talked about. It is thought that the Lawa originated from Cambodia and were one of the first inhabitants in Northern Thailand. Over many years the Lawa have integrated into Thai society, and now only pockets of Lawa settlements can be found between Hod and Mae Sariang.
Apart from telling you about the Karen and Lawa culture and traditions, your guide will delve deeper and explain about the social and economic issues these communities now face, such as migration to the towns, erosion of culture and health impacts from pesticide use on the farms. Thailand Hilltribe Holidays feels that spreading awareness of these issues and giving tourists a greater understanding of these underlying matters concerning hill tribe life is important.
Unlike fixed package tours, these individually focused tours are not rushed and allow you time to interact with the locals and talk to them through an interpreter (your guide). Groups are kept small (6 or less) and constructive interaction between the villagers and tourists is encouraged through cultural and knowledge exchange.
Unlike other tours where you pay one all inclusive price, with Thailand Hilltribe Holidays you pay each person for their service along the way. Part of its responsible tourism policy is that the hill tribe villagers should be paid directly. This is the greatest form of price transparency: you know who gets what and how much.
They also recruit volunteers for schools in the villages. Volunteers are welcome from all backgrounds and ages to teach not only English but any skills and knowledge they can share. They are also welcomed to help try and promote handicrafts of the village.
Their specialist tour of the Lawa and Karen hilltribes in Mae La Noi (suitable for all ages and highly recommended for families and children) can be done as part of the Mae Hong Son loop, but they also run tours to Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai with an emphasis on non-tourist parts, aspects of local life and hill tribes. Tours are custom made and typically start from Chiang Mai or Mae Sariang.
The outfit has received great feedback, mainly from clients who have thanked them for offering such an authentic and eye-opening experience. Volunteers have also expressed their thanks for such a unique opportunity in an idyllic location and many vow to make repeat visits.
A year into its inception Thailand Hilltribe Holidays still aims to accomplish much more to help these hill tribe communities. They continually seek volunteers, and aim to find a market for village handicrafts and develop a training program so that local youths from the village can become guides themselves. Everything is done with responsibility and sustainability in mind. The founders know that these words are easily used but difficult to achieve.