What to expect on your Hill Tribes visit in Chiang Mai

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Every time we set out on our travel journey we look to connect to people and figure out their roots. And if the place has indigenous people still holding on to their roots then the curiosity increases ten folds. And Northern Thailand is peppered with Hill Tribes like that. I have seen pictures of the Long Neck Karen tribe and have been fascinated by the brass rings around their neck. I keep wondering why they wear it and how does it look to see in person. And so on my visit to Chiang Mai, I decided to keep a day aside to visit these hill tribes. You get to visit these tribes from Chiang Rai as well as Chiang Mai. I was at Chiang Mai and when I saw the pamphlet which read a trip to visit the tribal villages, I signed up immediately. And I did get to meet the tribal people. Though the pamphlet read trip to the villages, it was not exactly like that. So here is what you should expect when you visit the hill tribes of Chiang Mai. 

long necked karen tribe
Long necked Karen woman with her work

Who are these people?

Hill tribes are usually people who migrated from the other countries into Northern Thailand. I don’t remember meeting even one who is native to Thailand. The tribes are from Tibet or Myanmar or Vietnam and unrest in these regions pushed them out of their territory and they decided to settle along the hills of Northern Thailand along the border. Which means they were not citizens of Thailand and did not get those privileges as such. This also created a sense of unrest in Thailand because migrants were occupying the reserved forests of their country and were looked upon as threat. Though the government has now stepped in and made things better, some of them still do not have a Thai ID card. Tribal people live a sustainable life. They predominately do farming. they weave their dress, wear ornaments made of natural substances. Though it sounds like they are people who will take care of themselves and no need of intervention, clashes between the tribes are quite common and end of the day you need the government support. 

hill tribe house
Traditional hill tribe house made of bamboo

Baan Tong Luang – Hill Tribes Village

So the Thai Government did step in to recognise and protect these tribes. Not just so to give them privileges, but also to preserve the ethnic groups. With modernisation and civilisation catching up, everyone is moving towards the comforts of the life. So the Government has set up eco-agricultural villages across Northern Thailand where they bring various tribes together, the tribes can sell their handicraft stuff and make an earning out of it too. With tourism involved the culture gets preserved and then we get to see a glimpse of their life. We get to see their houses, their way of living and the farms around the place too. One such eco agricultural hill tribes village is Baan Tong Luang about 30km away from Chiang Mai. Now, how ethical it is to hop around and watch these tribes is a question of debate. I will be as honest as possible in this post.  

Baan tong Luang
Walking in Baan Tong Luang

On that particular day morning, the van came to pick us up from the hotel I was staying. All the tour and travel operators in Thailand do that way if you book a day tour or any tour with them, no hassle. After filling up the van with people from many other hostels and hotels we headed towards Baan Tong Luang village. The village is about 30km from Chiang Mai and the scenery starts to turn greener and greener. It was monsoon time as well and the hills looked very pretty as we approached the tribal village. A detour from the main highway took us through farms after farms, mostly fruits and paddy fields. We stopped at the base of what looked like a resort. Am not sure if you can stay there. We were the first to arrive that morning and the place was waking up from the slumber. So I could not make out much. After a quick climb with a small stream by our side, we reached a place where there were shops or stalls in a ground. A tribal woman was busy weaving something and there were colorful shawls shown for display. First glimpse of Long Neck Karen. 

hill tribe village chiang mai
The stalls at hill tribe village

It was not exactly how I had pictured in my mind. The place had stalls adjacent to each other and each stall was represented by a tribe.

Padaung Karen Tribe

The Karen are the biggest hill tribe group found in South East Asia. A majority of the villages you see in Northern Thailand are also occupied by the Karens. They are also called Kayan as they were original occupants of Kayeh state in Myanmar. And now they have relocated to Northern Thailand. The Karen women are known for their brass rings around their neck. They are called long-necked Karen but it is actually the torso that is small because it cannot take the weight of those brass rings. The brass rings are added to the girl’s neck in their young age itself. It starts with a couple of rings and with time as you age, they add more rings to the neck. When I asked why, they said for fear of predators eating them. For, if a tiger attacks a prey the first thing it would do is to catch hold of the neck. And so apparently they started adding the brass rings to the neck. Only women wear this because they are home protecting children and tough for pregnant women to defend themselves. Men, on the other hand, go for hunting and seldom found around the home, hence they do not wear. Now, these brass rings are really really heavy. I could not understand how they are wearing it and going about their daily chore. Cos I needed two hands to hold this and they are placing in on their neck! I swear you cannot bend or do anything with these rings on! 

Long neck karen tribe
They are so used to being photographed that the kid posed the moment he saw a group

Karen women are known for their weaving skills and it was very evident. The lady was weaving shawls sitting in front of her house. Her house was a simple bamboo hut. We cannot enter in but we do get to see how the structure is. Considering the influx of tourists to this place it is only fair that they will not let you in. It is also very evident between the new age Karen girls and the old age. The old age women who have been wearing it for many years can be distinctively identified. Their face structure is different as opposed to girls who wear the rings not permanently but once in a while. After 45 years or so they need not wear these rings is what my guide mentioned. And after marriage, the man comes and stays along with the woman and does all work for her. They marry within their community and many children are considered as prosperity. More the children, more hands in the farming.

Padaung Karen Tribe
Showing her skills on weaving – Padaung Karen Tribe

You could have seen them with a yellowish paste applied on their face and hands. This paste is called Thanaka. The Thanaka powder is made out of barks from the Burmese Thanaka tree and it is said that it acts as a sunscreen, helps to cool your skin. Women don’t chew paan or tobacco in this tribe but am not sure how they get that red tinge on their lips. They speak their own language. But now with kids attending the schools, they are learning Thai. They don’t wear brass rings to schools and thus the younger generation is not seen wearing them. Am just gonna say, thank God. Umm, actually they don’t follow any religion so let’s just say thanks to the spirits. 

Karen tribe
A long necked Karen family with Thanaka on her face

Kayaw Tribe

Kayaw tribe are a subdivision of Karen tribe. They are also called the Big Ear Karen Tribe. They wear earrings that stretch your earlobe into a big hole. And the brass rings go on their leg. It looks even more painful to see your calf muscle squeezed into a heavy brass ring. Why did it move from neck to the legs, I have no idea. They start by stuffing their pierced ear with bamboo sticks until it turns into a big hole. They then adorn it with silver earrings.

big ear karen tribe
Look at her ear

Kayaw tribes have proper villages with houses made of stone and cement now. Initially, they were the biggest cultivators of opium. Every three years they would settle in a mountain, cut down the trees and grow opium. And once the yield is done, the nutrition of the soil is sucked out, they move on to a new place. The Thai kingdom took notice of this disappearing trees and decided to step in. They started to give jobs to Kayaw tribe so they would stop cutting down the trees. Initially, with the manufacture of opium, the men would just smoke around, have many wives, etc. Things have changed now in favor of women with time. They wear a handwoven jacket which is like a cotton shirt. Also, they are Christians as missionaries have taken over them. 

Kayaw tribe
Kayaw tribe woman with brass rings in her leg

Also read: Looking for more cultural experiences? Learn how to give alms to Buddhist Monks – more here

Palong Tribe

Palong tribe are the smallest tribe in Thailand and all of them can be found in and around Chiang Mai itself. They came in from Myanmar side and hence we can see them around the border. On this tour, we later got to visit their village as well. They can be distinctively identified by their pink and blue jacket and hip belt. They have a thick hip belt or loops called as Nong wong. One made out of the bark of a tree and other that looks like wires. Every year they keep adding on more loops to their hip. These were pretty heavy too. The more you wear around the hip, the more you look pretty. But seriously this is like pulling dead weight along. 

palong tribe chiang mai
Palong Tribe woman with her hip loops by the side

Akha Tribe

The most ornamental people are from the Akha Tribe. they had so many kinds of headgear to wear and everything was so ornated. Their handicraft shop also was one of my favourites because it was filled with junk jewellery. They are also known for their embroidery. Even their dress is a jacket with embroidery on it. This was one of the ladies who was bright that morning and was very welcoming. I tried on one of their head-dress and it looked super funny on me. Like Karen tribe, their houses are also made of bamboo and on a raised platform. 

akha tribe chiang mai
Akha Tribe Woman with her headdress
akha tribe headdress
Different headgear from Akha Tribe

Lisu Tribe

Lisu tribes are from the Tibet and have settled here about 80 years ago. They were also one of the tribes who followed animism. Animism is praying or giving respect to nature and spirits around you. But with recent developments, most of them have got converted to Buddhism or Christianity. Lisu tribe can also be identified by their colorful dress with embroidery or designs painted on the clothes. Their unique headgear also looked beautiful. Those were not for sale though. 

Lisu tribe woman
Lisu tribe woman

Mien Tribe

The Mien tribe is also called as Yao in Thailand. The mien tribe are known for their skill of working with silver and creating beautiful ornaments. They all seem to be wearing a black cotton robe with a thick red wool pattern running around their neck. 

Mien Tribe Woman
Mien Tribe Woman

Visit to the Palong Village 

After our visit to the hill tribe village, our tour proceeded to walk through a Palong tribe village. This was about another half an hour drive from the eco-village. This is a real settlement by the Palong tribe. The mud road was wet with the previous day rain. We walked through the village. The village had a school, a church, a shop and bamboo houses on raised platforms. Apart from the church, everything else was in a precarious state. The village still does not have electricity. Does not have a proper pipeline bringing in water to the village. In front of their houses, they have huge drums which collect rainwater. They were dressed normal and only on occasions they actually wear the tribal costume. The word spread that a tourist van has come to their village.

palong village
Water storage system, note how bamboo pipes are directing to it
Palong tribe woman in her village

I saw an elderly woman dressed in the traditional way going about the village. She was wearing all the loops around her hip and still managed to walk past us pretty fast. We were just six or seven people group. The women folks of the tribe had however very quickly assembled with their handicrafts for sale. Though there was a language issue, here we were able to interact better and have some lighter moments. 

palong tribe woman
Sharing a lighter moment with a Palong tribe grandma

How was the hill tribe visit experience?

There is a debate that these hill tribe villages are nothing but a human zoo. I would definitely differ with this opinion. It is a platform for them to show their handicrafts, make a living out of it and you get to see and learn a little bit about their lives and lifestyles. There is, however, a small voice at the back of your head that keeps reminding you that you are the privileged one. They welcome you with a smile and pose for a pic. However, it is common courtesy to buy something if you are taking their portrait. So by the end of this tour, I had collected shawls, trinkets, chains and much more stuff that I do not really need. The village visit was similar too. People bought stuff even from the tiny ration shop hoping that in some way you are helping their economic status. It is not like you are forced to buy or tricked into it or not even like taking you on a guilt trip but somewhere you will definitely have the thought that you need to contribute. The other debate is that these hill tribes are not authentic. You can see them using smartphones, tabs and a bit of modernisation has peeked in. But they are also holding on to their culture and tradition. I mean, if you expect their younger generation to not get ahead along with the world that is very unfair. In some years you might be able to learn about these tribes only from the tribal museum, so now is the best time to interact with these indigenuous hill tribes. 

If you are looking to book this trip from Chiang Rai here is how you can book it – Click here 

Souvenirs to buy hill tribe village
Souvenirs to buy

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2 Comments

  1. Maya January 20, 2019

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