Suggestions From a Trek Guide
I have been a tour guide and trek leader in Chiangmai in the north for over fifteen years. As a young boy, I spent almost all of my free time trekking and exploring the mountains and valleys and getting to know the various hilltribe people as well as the northern Thai villagers. My experiences have been rich and rewarding and as you prepare to go trekking or visit hilltribe villages, I would like to offer some suggestions and information which should provide some understanding and insight into the people and culture you are about to visit.
The people of the various ethnic hilltribes have inhabited the mountains of northern Thailand, Burma, Laos, southern China and Vietnam for nearly 100 years. Each tribe has its own distinctive culture, history, customs and traditions, of which, they are rightly proud. They are a strong and resourceful people who have survived little changed by the elements, social changes, and political upheavals. They are to be admired and respected as a unique group of people.
In general, hilltribe people, as well as rural Thai people, warmly welcome visitors to their villages. If visitors display a sincere interest in them and their culture, they are usually quite happy to show you their villages and explain their customs.
When visiting these villages, try to forget your cultural inhibitions regarding privacy and join in their activities to show your interest. If people are sitting outside their houses or on their porch, ask to join them. They will probably bring out a stool for you and serve you food and drink. Join in whatever they are doing - the more interaction you have with the people, the more both you and they will get out of it. These people are just as curious about strangers as strangers are about them.
Hilltribe people clad in their colorful traditional costumes are a photographer's delight, but remember to be courteous when taking photos. People throughout the world either mind or don't mind having their photo taken. Therefore, it is always a good idea to take photos when people are not aware or to ask their permission. They are most likely not to mind if you have already spent some time making contact with them. Sometimes, they may ask for money - this is especially true with children. On the other hand, many people like the Akha, hold the belief that having their photograph taken will take away their soul or spirit. In this case, they must pay to have a ceremony performed to restore it. There are, of course, some enterprising individuals who are making a business out of asking for money. When you encounter these people, it is best to use your own judgement and if you decide to refuse, do it as politely as possible so as not to allow them to lose face. It is kind, but not necessary, to give gifts to people you visit. Some suggestions or alternatives to sweets and cigarettes are balloons and other inexpensive toys, cosmetics, medical supplies, antiseptic, mild painkillers such as aspirin, food, fruit, clothing, sewing supplies and foreign coins.
Follow the advice of your guide, don't be afraid to ask questions and respect the fact that you are a guest visiting the homes and villages of these people. You, personally, can show the hilltribe people that foreigners are genuinely interested in them. Your friendliness, sincerity and goodwill are the most precious gifts you can offer.
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