“Nobody’s ever asked me about the people or their histories – just places to go and what to see.”
But, how can you truly see a place, really see anything if it has no context?
The lights of Chiang Mai were a halo on the horizon from our candle-lit existence above. To see the glow of the future and actively live in the flickering past must be strange indeed. In recent years, Thailand’s hill tribes have become something of a circus act for curious westerners. Yet, this poverty tour has had little effect on their basic existence.
It took a full day of uphill trekking to reach the mountaintop village of Hoi Kup Kop. On an eight-man tour, we drove north from the moat-lined city of Chiang Mai leaving behind the old-world, gated opulence of the temple to temple city for the jungle. We traded the bookish intellect of the jewel city of Thailand for the simple pleasures of life in the tribes.
Chiang Mai attracts a different kind of tourist than the beach-lined coasts of the south. Travelers venture here to learn Thai massage, Thai cooking, muay Thai, or to embark on other intellectual pursuits. Its peaceful Buddhist charm offers wanders a chance to be still, to breath, and to understand the country and its culture in ways not possible in the tropical south. It also offers a surrounding landscape of tree-studded mountains with a people whose life has hardly been touched by modern times.
The teetering girl’s smile curled all the way up her face to her bow-topped bald head. In her hand were four bunches of purple wildflowers, an impromptu welcome to her village. Like everyone here, she was improbably happy and incredibly curious.
Six major hill tribes live separated into their own isolated pockets in the mountains of northern Thailand between the Burmese and Laos borders. The Akha, Lahu, Karen, Hmong, Lisu, and Shen each have their own distinct language and culture. The Lahu people, whose hospitality I enjoyed, are of Tibetan origin. Forced out of Tibet, they migrated southeast to Burma where, faced with years of political turmoil, many crossed into northern Thailand. There are several sub-groups of Lahu and each are known by the traditional color of their dress. I slept in a village of Red Lahu, a self-sufficient group of farmers and crossbow hunters (also productive poppy farmers, opium producers, and spiritual smokers – a problem the Thai government struggles to control).
In the Lahu family tree, husbands and wives marry and divorce several times. Polygamy is widely practiced in this community of 70 or so families. As a result, clans of small children wander the red dirt roads and lounge in packs on haphazard cloth hammocks. The football field was packed with barefoot, bare-chested boys cradling the ball towards a makeshift goal while girls sat on the side sifting dry beans on a large thatched disk.
On this three-day tribe trek, our guide’s name was Blake. This had me questioning how Asians chose their Western names. Nevertheless, Blake’s family was of the nearby Karen tribe (the most populous and prosperous in the region) although he was raised in downtown Chiang Mai. He had a sister in San Francisco and dreamed of going there one day to listen to good American hip hop. He was confused that I didn’t like 50 Cent, “but all Americans are hip hop,” he said with some obligatory gestures.
Blake led these tribe tours for poverty-curious Westerners when he wasn’t busy on the Thai/Burma frontier. He worked as a guide in times of relative peace when his services as a Thai/English/Karen translator for UNICEF were put on hold. Under the amber glow of a stick candle, Blake told of the KNPPP’s (Karenni National Progressive Party) armed rule over the northeastern corner of Burma along the Thai border. In October, the KNPP attacked government troops based at Pon Bridge, completely destroying the structure. His role was much tougher in the conflict zone and he explained that several times he has feared for his life. Blake was most sad that he would never be able to visit his Karen family in Burma because of his work. But the pay was good, “Verrrrrrry good!”
Not long after we parted with Blake, KNPP ambushed another Burmese military convoy of 20 government trucks, killing several technicians who were working on a nearby dam construction project. I can only guess where Blake is now, acting as a guide for a different sort.
At midday, after a starlit evening in the Lahu village, we descended the far side of the mountain. The brusque chill of the alpine night melted into blistering-blue sunshine as the mountaintop scrub grew into dense forest. By early afternoon, we reached a village of the Hmong ethnic group. Believed to have been the original inhabitants of the Yellow River Valley in ancient China, the expansion of neighboring Chinese and ensuing wars led the Hmong to migrate south. Their riverside settlement had a distinct Chinese flair and small-scale bustle of modern China.
Further into the valley, we stopped to swim under the pounding force of a two-tiered waterfall. Thatched houses nearby could barely contain the bouncing kids who sold refreshments while simultaneously begging for our snacks.
I sat for a late lunch by the river watching a chicken chase after frolicking yellow butterflies. A small girl danced the butterflies away and joined me by the rocks. Soon after, she stripped off her clothes and jumped cannonball into the water, collecting some drifting rubbish. Returning to the riverbank, she sat with the trash like new toys, arranging each piece in its proper place in the sandbox. She looked at me with a wild smile when suddenly she reached for a large stone and bashed her collection of new toys. Giggling hysterically, she grabbed her clothes and ran away.
For our final night, we slept further down the river in a small camp run by local villagers. With the Lahus, we had the distinct luxury of an automatic (cold) shower. At the camp, we got a bucket of water and a scoop. It was a refreshing touch of the true tribal life.
My trip into the hill tribes of northern Thailand was by no means a telling portrait of their world. I was given a glimpse of the lives of groups who’ve opened their arms (and pockets) to tourism in hope of a better life – a glimpse at groups who’ve allowed themselves to become an exhibit.
From the start, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go on this trip. There were freakshow photos of long-necked women in exotic attire hanging in glossy finish above every travel desk in Bangkok. The intrigued travelers were bussed north on ridiculously cheap package tours with bamboo rafting and elephant rides to flesh out a busy itinerary when the cameras were not pointed squarely at naked babies and ethnic ladies. Intrepid trekking groups were kept at a safe distance from each other to give the affair a dash more integrity, but it still felt under the big red tent. In our shrinking world, it takes more homework to find a taste of the truly tribal. Authenticity does not come so neatly packaged. If anything, the hill tribes were an amuse bouche, a sample of what was to come as I stepped back in time and into Laos.
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