THE FRIDAY FEATURE: Exploring the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand
Earlier this summer I had the fantastic opportunity to visit and stay with 5 different hill tribes in Northern Thailand. There were two main motivations for these visits. First, one village represented a potential place for volunteers to live and teach English. I had to go and check it out. Second, a co-worker had plans to lead a tour in August to take groups to learn about hill tribe shamans and the basics about hill tribe culture. I was invited to be the co-leader of the August trip.
Before I start on my impressions of the trip, I want to lay some basic groundwork about hill tribes in Northern Thailand. “There are seven broad hill tribe groupings: Karen, Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, Akha, Mien, and Padaung. However, within these categories, there are sub-categories and clans that further divide the groups.” Estimates including sub-categories are around 12 different hill tribes in Thailand. Some migrated from China while others have roots within Thailand.
What is so fascinating is that every hill tribe has a distinct culture, language, and traditional dress. The majority of hill-tribe people are farmers and for the most part live off the land. The traditional dresses are known for their bright colors and unique designs. Over the two-week span I visited Karen, Lahu, Lisu hill tribes, and spent extended time in a Lawa village (Northern Thai language Lawa is called ‘Lua’).
As beautiful as their traditional dresses, language, and culture are there are many hardships that hill tribe people face. Three major problems are trafficking, obtaining citizenship, and discrimination.
The UNESCO Bangkok newsletter from 2008 hits it right on the head, “Lack of citizenship is the single greatest risk factor for a hill tribe girl or women in Thailand to be trafficked or otherwise exploited, according to United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) research.”
Being from a hill tribe very often brings discrimination and many Thai people believe people from hill tribes are in a lower class. With those three problems outlined, plus lack of a good education, it mixes into a problematic situation and an uphill battle. It is not all bad news though; progress has been made. The Royal Project Foundation, which taught and assisted farmers to switch from growing opium to vegetable’s and coffee, to many great organizations that have built schools, modern facilities, and help with education. (http://www.samsara-foundation.com/ is a great example).
One thing that stuck out in my mind that was common across all the villages was the feeling of community and the lack of selfish behavior. Although the villages did not have police or police stations, it was very apparent that everyone takes care of each other. This feeling of community really struck me when I was at the Lawa village. One day, we went walking to visit a friend and along the way were followed by a man who was clearly intoxicated and wanted us to come with him to drink whiskey. He came with us to the friend’s house and ended up spending the whole night with us. No one was ever nasty to him even though at times he was clearly annoying some. Everyone treated him nicely and they referred to him as their ‘brother’. I was thinking about this situation and compared it to how it would probably be handled elsewhere.
Adding to the notion of community, it was overall simply a wonderful feeling to be in that environment. Being born and raised on the east coast of the United States, there were times of community feelings, but generally the outlook is to take care of yourself. I am not sure how else to describe the feeling other than that it felt so natural and so warm. When we walked through these villages everyone always offers for you to come inside their home where they would offer food and drink. A common custom in the hill tribes is to drink out of the same glass and pass it around. Everything was meant to be shared and everyone was welcome.
During our trip we visited my girlfriend’s sisters new home where there would be a house blessing. House blessings are very common in Thailand and it is a ceremony preformed by Buddhist monks after a new house is finished being built. It is meant to bring good luck to the new home and its residents and also to wish them happiness for the future. The night before the house blessing was a time for the family and village to come together and prepare for the ceremony and also to enjoy good food and good drink.
After my visit to the Hill Tribes I realized another thing that makes them so special. The overall sense of pride from the people from each village. It is a pride that I often miss when I reflect on my own heritage and culture. A pride that meant more than any materialistic things. A price worth recognizing.
I am very hopeful that the project to bring volunteers to teach English and learn the unique culture and lifestyle will be a success. The experience even though it was brief, affected me in an extremely positive way.
Check out this short video to see the school and children from the village. (Change to 1080p for maximum viewing pleasure!)
David is 26 years old and is a native of Simsbury, CT. He graduated Moravian College with a BA in Business Management in 2008. In 2009 he relocated to Chiang Mai to join the ATMA SEVA team. Since 2009 David has created, developed, and run the ‘Wat Doi Saket project’ with monks Komjon and Insorn. He started and maintains the ATMA SEVA social media outlets and is the driving force in developing ATMA SEVA and all its projects.
 “Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand – Thai Hilltribes – 1stop Chiang Mai.” Http://www.1stopchiangmai.com/. Web. 12 Feb. 2012. <http://www.1stopchiangmai.com/culture/hill_tribes>.
 “Stories Are Retold. Songs Are Repeated. But Problems Remain.” UNESCO Bangkok Newsletter 13. Http://www.unescobkk.org/. Web. 12 Feb. 2012.
If you enjoyed this post by David, here are a few more that are worth checking out:
- Wat Doi Saket Project: Changed Thinking Killed the Anger
- Atma Seva: Meet and Hear from our New Intern Katherine
- Wat Doi Project: A Typical Day
- Wat Doi Project: Ordaining Novices