The North of Thailand is famous for its diverse hilltribes, with roots coming from neighboring countries like Myanmar, China, and Laos. There are around 2 million hill tribe people in living in Thailand, including people from the Hmong, Lisu, Mien, Lanu, Yao, Shan, Akha, and Karen tribes. Many people from these ethnic minorities lack Thai citizenship. Because of this many are restricted on traveling to different regions, the ability to work, the opportunity for children to attend school, and the threat of deportation. Many people have learned to make a living by selling their handicrafts in the thiving tourist culture that has developed in the region. Trekking and tours to visit these different hilltribe communities have become very popular in recent years. This type of tourism has recieved both positive and negative responses, some referring to it as a “human zoo” while others claiming that it supports these minorities. In my recent trip to Chiang Rai I did a tour where one of the activities was to visit an Akha and Karen village.
First we breifly visited the Akha tribe, famous for their embroidery skills. They dress in bright colors that are highly ornamented and wear a headdress lined with silver coins. The area we visited was set up like a market, with women selling their goods in different stalls. The women I encountered here spoke Thai and the children went to school, unlike the next tribe we visited, the Karen, who did not understand Thai and many of the young girls are denied access to school. Within each tribe there is a lot of diversity. The Karen tribe, the largest of the hilltribes with a population of about 400,000, has at least 4 different groups within it, with different languages and cultures. It is one of these subgroups that wears the famous golden neck rings, hence giving them the nickname “The Longneck” tribe. These golden rings appear to elongate the neck.
Karen women wear these rings beginning at the young age of five. They start by wearing a piece of metal that wraps around five times. From then on every three years they add three more rings until the women gets married or turns thirty. The story is that the neck rings originated long ago when many people from the tribe were being attacked by tigers, especially on the neck. Women started wearing these metal rings as protection against them but, overtime, it became grew to be fashionable and women started to wear metal coils around their legs as well. It also was a way of marking the women as being part of this tribe, since in their culture they are not supposed to marry outside of their tribe.
I was a bit nervous about doing a tour to these hilltribe villages because of some of the negative things I had heard. In the end though, I enjoyed the trip and learned a lot. I became more aware of the cultures of these groups and the challenges they face. I can see how people are uncomfortable going into another's village and feel like an “intruding” but if you take the time to interact with the people, buy their products, and learn about their culture I think it can be a positive experience for them and yourself.
You can read more about the Karen people here: