Hill Tribes in Northern Thailand

Continuing on with the photography tour, one of the places I visited in Chiangrai was a settlement for the ethnic minority hill tribes. The most well known of these hill tribes are the Long Neck Karen tribe. I’ve been fascinated by them ever since I saw their photos in National Geographic when I was a kid.There are several of these hill tribes settlements in Northern Thailand and the one that I visited is one of the larger settlements. As the settlement is outside Chiangrai,  getting there requires that you find your own transport like hiring a car or van. There are also local land tours that include a visit in their itineraries.

The entrance to the settlement is on top of a hill and there is a small shelter for visitors to pay an entrance fee. There are also pictures of the various tribes that live there and a sample of the brass rings worn by the Long Neck Karens.

A sample of the heavy brass rings worn by the Long Neck tribe. It weights almost 5kg.
A sample of the heavy brass rings worn by the Long Neck tribe. It weights almost 5kg.

After a short look around and feeling the weight of the brass rings, we walked down the slope into the settlement. I was feeling excited as the chance had come to see the Long Neck tribe in real life.

A short walk through shady trees and I came upon the village. Wooden houses stood on both sides  of a sandy track, and the late afternoon heat and humidity was really getting to me. Other groups of tourists were already in front me and taking photos of these human oddities.

One of the older women in the village. The older women have longer necks as they add more rings as they age.
One of the Long Neck Karen women that sat at the front of the village. Being the first house near the entrance ensured that she got the most attention from visitors.
A younger woman with shorter neck rings.
A younger woman with shorter neck rings. As a woman ages, more rings are added, thus extending the length of the coil.

As intriguing as they are, the Long Neck Karens are not indigenous to Thailand. They are actually refugees from Myanmar (Burma) who have fled insurgency fighting with the military regime in Myanmar. Although they have settled in Thailand, they are not allowed to leave their villages or work in Thailand. There are many articles online about the morality of visiting these settlements which are akin to a human zoo and the exploitation of them as tourist attractions. Initially, I did feel that way as the women and children would sit quietly outside their houses while tourists gathered around them to take photos. I could see the look of boredom and resignation in some of them as they faced yet another camera, another curious visitor.

Although they don’t speak much English, by interacting with them through simple phrases and hand signs, playing with the children, it doesn’t feel like a human zoo anymore. I guess if we came here just to photograph them and leave satisfied with another bucket list achievement or winning photo, then yes, it would be a human zoo. But if we took the trouble to understand their world and treat them with respect then it would be a different feeling.

Each family has a wooden thatched house, and the women would sit outside their houses dressed in their traditional dress and  brass rings. At the same time, most of them will be selling handicrafts and souvenirs while posing for photos. There is no obligation to buy anything from them even if you took countless photos with them, and they did not hassle us to buy from them either. Every house is selling almost the same things, so it doesn’t make any difference whom you buy from.

I could see that despite the rudimentary living conditions,  each house had electricity with at least a TV or refrigerator, there was clean water and a school for the children to attend. As I understand from our guide, they also receive a monthly allowance from the government. This is definitely a better life than being in a refugee camp, or living in fear of being killed by warring factions. With the political situation in Myanmar improving now, I guess some of them may also think about returning to Myanmar.

A mother and her daughter pose for a photo as they sit outside their house.
A mother and her daughter pose for a photo as they sit outside their house.
Boys do not wear the rings, and they are dressed very simply.
Boys do not wear the rings, and they are dressed very simply. The men were mostly out of sight.
She was obviously bored with all the photos, but she still gamely continued to pose.
She was obviously bored with all the photo taking, but she still continued to pose for the cameras.
We had a fun time interacting with this little girl and her mother. We ended up buying souvenirs from them.
We had a fun time interacting with this little girl and her mother. We ended up buying souvenirs from them.

As to why the women wear the neck rings, there are several theories. One theory says that it is to protect them from tigers. Tigers kill their prey by biting their necks, so the brass rings protect the neck. Another theory says that this is to make the women look undesirable to avoid being captured as slaves by other tribes. However, the most likely reason is for beauty as women with long necks are regarded as beautiful. Although their necks look elongated, in reality the length of the neck remains the same. The brass rings push down the collar bones and gives the illusion of a long neck. Besides the neck, they women also wear brass rings on their legs and arms.

Boys and men were mostly absent, although I did see this boy having fun by himself.
Boys and men were mostly absent, although I did see this boy having fun by himself. The Long Neck Karen are famous for their weaving skills and many of the houses sell colorfully weaved scarves and clothing.

Besides, the Long Neck Karen, the other main tribe in the settlement were the Akha. They came to Thailand in the early 20th century to escape war in Burma. However, they are originally from China. They are well known for their elaborate head dress worn by the women. The Akha are also one of the poorest of the hill tribes and live on subsistence farming.

An Akha hill tribe woman and her very elaborate head dress. The style and design of the head dress defines her age and marital status.
An Akha hill tribe woman and her very elaborate head dress. The style and design of the head dress defines her age and marital status.
She gamely posed with her chickens.
She gamely posed with her chickens.
The men quietly did the household chores while the women pulled in the tourist dollars.
The men quietly did the household chores while the women pulled in the tourist dollars.
The day was ending and sun getting lower. And so we had this old man pose for a 'back from the fields' shot.
The day was ending and the Sun getting lower. And so we had this old man pose for a ‘back from the fields’ shot.
A communal hall which is used by the various tribes for activities. When I took this picture, a Christian pastor was conducting a service for the believers in the settlement.
A communal hall which is used by the various tribes for their activities. When I took this picture, a Christian pastor was conducting a service for the believers in the settlement. After the service ended, the hall was used by the Akha for a dance show.
The day drew to a close and the villagers were back in their houses for dinner. This tricycle will have to wait for tomorrow morning to be ridden again.
The shadows grew longer as the day drew to a close and the villagers had returned to their homes for dinner. This tricycle will have to wait for tomorrow morning to be ridden again.

Besides, the settlements, the hill tribes have also moved into the villages and towns and wear their traditional dress only for festivals and ceremonies. And of course for photography groups like us who want the winning shot. So it was that our guide arranged for some early morning shots with the Akha. Waking up before dawn, we made our way to the top of a ridge facing east. While waiting for the Akha to show up we had some time for astrophotography.

The Milky Way appearing above the forest as a campfire burned.
The Milky Way appearing above the forest as a campfire burned giving warmth to the cold night. A shooting star made this one of my favourite photos.

Although it was late November, the weather in Chiangrai is generally hot at around 35°C. But in the mountains it was really cold in the night with temperatures at 15°C or lower. As we braved the cold waiting for the sun to rise, our Akha ‘models’ arrived and it was time to get busy with our cameras.

Dawn came and our Akha were busy preparing breakfast.
Dawn came and the Akha were busy preparing breakfast while we clicked away.
The beauty of the mountains in layers just before the sunrise.
The beauty of the mountains in layers just before the sunrise.
One of the Akha traditions is the Swing Festival, also called the Akha New Year. A giant swing is erected and the Akha will swing on it.
One of the Akha traditions is the Swing Festival, also called the Akha New Year. A giant swing is erected after rice planting and the Akha will swing on it as a celebration of the coming harvest.
Kids enjoy the swing the most.
Kids enjoy the swing the most. I wonder if it’s because the swing goes out the edge of the ridge that makes it so fun.
I managed to capture this Akha kid with the Sun behind her.
The joyful feeling of floating through the air as the Sun rises.
An Akha child in her traditional dress.
An Akha girl in her traditional dress. She wears the child’s cap but will change it to a girl’s head dress when she turns 12 years old.
Later in the day we went to a tea plantation where a few Akha 'models' were harvesting tea leaves. While this makes for good photography, I don't think it's really practical for plucking tea leaves in 35°C heat.
Later in the day we went to a tea plantation where a few Akha ‘models’ were harvesting tea leaves. While this makes for good photography, I don’t think it’s really practical for plucking tea leaves in 35°C heat.
The real tea leave workers.
The real tea leave workers in more practical garb. There were many of them working the tea plantations that cover the hill sides.

After our time with the hill tribes, it was time to go back to Chiangmai for the Loy Krathong and the Yi Peng Fesitival. Along the way, we passed by Mae Salong. This is a village on the mountains of Northern Thailand that has a distinctive Chinese feel to it. The restaurants serve mainly Yunnanese food and Chinese characters adorn many of the shop fronts. The Chinese influence came in the form of the Kuomintang army that fought against the Chinese communists. A force of Nationalists soldiers did not flee to Taiwan after the fall of the Kuomintang, instead they retreated from Yunnan to Thailand in 1949 where they continued to fight against the Communists. They funded their arms purchases by growing opium for the drug trade. In the 1970’s the Thai government offered them legitimacy and Thai citizenship in exchange for their help to fight the communist insurgency in Thailand instead. At the same time, they had to stop growing opium and switch to oolong tea which is now the main export for Mae Salong.

A Chinese main gate with the Kuomintang symbol on top of it.
A Chinese main gate with the Kuomintang symbol on top of it.
I would say Mae Salong is a 1 street town.
I would say Mae Salong is a 1 street town. A day market lines 1 side of the main street.
Colorful umbrellas form the roof of the market.
Colorful umbrellas form the roof of the market.

I spent 2 days in Chiangrai and it was quite an experience seeing the hill tribes and their way of life which has been impacted greatly by tourism and commercialization. I surmise that many of their traditions will be lost forever as modernization catches up with them and their children abandon the nomadic life to look for a better future in the cities.

In my next blog post, I will feature the Sky Lantern festival in Chiangmai, so stay tuned.

As a prelude to my next blog post on the Sky Lantern Festival, here is a picture of Akha girls preparing a sky lantern for Loy Krathong.
As a prelude to my next blog post on the Sky Lantern Festival, here is a picture of Akha girls preparing a sky lantern to be floated away.

 

4 thoughts on “Hill Tribes in Northern Thailand

  1. What interesting places you got to visit! The Karen long neck tradition brings mixed feelings. It would be interesting to know what happens if a woman does not want to wear the rings or if they want to quit being tourist magnets. Also it does seem a bit like foot binding – something that other thought beautiful but brought pain and suffering to the children/women having to go through with it. I read somewhere that the women’s going out to the city is discouraged bc then the tourists won’t come to see them and pay for it.. 😦 Who knows!

  2. Edwin, you have here a treat for the eyes and senses…fantastic photography and writing of this world. What a beautiful countryside and from your accounts, beautiful people as well. It is almost heartbreaking to see the young girls having to wear these rings…not because of a desire to do so, but because of culture. Reminds me a bit of foot-binding. Stunning account of this place and people, very well done.

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