Visiting hill tribes in Thailand to learn about their history, culture and cuisine was something I really wanted to do during our three week Thailand itinerary.
What is a Thai Hill Tribe?
Hill tribe (chao khao) is a modern-day term used in Thailand as a catch-all for the various ethnic groups that have mostly inhabited the mountainous regions of North Thailand, and both sides of the border areas between Thailand and Laos, and Thailand and Burma. In such remote and rugged places, the tribes have traditionally lived as subsistence farmers, some with a migratory history in which they moved when natural resources were depleted or they were forced to do so by conflict with other populations. Today, while some of the younger generation have left their tribal communities to live and work in the cities, others continue to maintain tribal traditions and culture in the modern-day world. Tourism has been an increasing source of income for some of the communities, both by hosting visitors, and selling traditional handicrafts.
Thailand is home to seven main hill tribes, these are the Akha, the Lahu, the Karen (of which one group, the Paduang, is often referred to as long-necks in reference to the distinctive neck rings worn by the women), the Hmong, the Lisu, the Palaung and the Yao. The tribes (and often even sub-groups within them) each have a distinct language, history, culture and traditional dress with significant variations across clans and regions.
A Sustainable Way to Visit Hill Tribes in Thailand
Unfortunately, a lot of the tours I found in my search take tourists to purpose-built tourist villages, many of them populated by hill tribe refugees from Burma (officially known as Myanmar). These villages seem to provide a pastiche of hill tribe tribal culture – a show for gaping tourists; the people in them are expected to wear traditional costume, and to allow tourists to take photographs. They are provided with basic food, a pittance of a wage and permission to sell craft souvenirs. I have read that most of the money (from entrance fees and souvenirs sold) goes to the owners that run the sites, and only a small amount to the community members themselves.
I also got the impression that these hill tribe tourist villages pretend to preserve an ‘authentic experience‘ by denying the reality of mobile phones, wi-fi, mass-produced clothing, modern electrics and plumbing… But culture isn’t stagnant and evolves as humanity implements new ways to improve quality of life. Preserving a tribe’s cultures and traditions should not be mutually exclusive with its people benefiting from modern technology, health and other developments.
Other tours I found require hardcore trekking to reach very remote villages (and I am not entirely convinced that some of these villages get much say in whether or not they wish to welcome tourists).
I wanted to visit a hill tribe in a sustainable way; I wanted to participate in the kind of tourism that is run by and supports the local community, gives the community a way to share their traditions and culture with visitors on their own terms, and gives younger generations a way (and for some, an incentive) to stay in their community and make a decent living – one of our village hosts explained how she had previously moved to a nearby city for work, but was truly delighted that the (recently launched) tourism initiative for her village allowed her to return home and create a viable business there.
In the community we visited, there was preservation and huge pride in the community’s history and culture, alongside adoption of many facets of modern-day life.
Organising a Hill Tribe Visit
Having read many online articles and debates about tourism to Thailand’s hill tribes, and how one might best plan a sustainable ethical visit that respects and supports the communities, I got in touch with Local Alike, a Bangkok-based social enterprise organisation that works with small villages across Thailand. Local Alike help villages to initiate and develop tourism on their own terms, assist with marketing, and also serve as an agency to bring tourists to those villages.
I explained that I was keen to learn about one hill tribe community’s history and culture. I added that I would love to observe small scale agriculture including production of coffee, and that I’d love to learn how to make some of the traditional foods and crafts of that community. As I have some mobility issues, I also needed the village to be readily accessible by road.
I didn’t stipulate which of the various hill tribes I wanted to visit, rather I was keen for Local Alike to suggest a community they felt would be a good fit for my interests and access criteria, and was open to overnight tourism.
They proposed an Akha hill tribe village in the mountains north of Chiang Rai, and organised a 2 day 1 night private trip with guide. As we also needed to transfer between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, they picked us up from one city and dropped us in the other at the end of the tour.
Our Experiences in Baan Pha Mee
The community we visited was Baan (‘village’) Pha Mee, an Akha hill tribe located high in the mountains along Thailand’s border with Burma, just over an hour’s drive from Chiang Rai centre.
We travelled to Doi Pha Mee in a comfortable spacious passenger van, our driver and guide up front and us in the front row behind them.
Our Local Alike guide Krishna (nicknamed Bic) served as our translator, and we were hosted by two lovely ladies of the community, Ms Phakakan Rungpracharat (known as Meow) and Mrs Siriluck Borisutpot (known as Toy). They are both active members of the community’s nascent tourism initiative and accompanied us throughout our visit, enthusiastically telling us about their history, culture, crafts and food.
Once we’d met Meow and Toy we switched to local vehicles better suited to the off-road terrain we navigated to visit some of the community members’ farms and to reach our overnight accommodation.
During our time in Baan Pha Mee, we experienced a traditional welcome ceremony, visited coffee and orange plantations and had a chance to pick some ripe fruit ourselves, and learned about how coffee is grown, picked and processed from freshly plucked berry to roasted bean.
We also observed and participated in tutorials for local handicrafts, took two cookery lessons where we made local dishes, and enjoyed more tribal dishes for lunch and dinner.
We spent the night in a beautiful home-stay high in the mountains, with the most stunning views of the landscape.
The homestay is situated at the village’s original site, still culturally significant to the Pha Mee Akha, not least because it’s still the home to the Akha Swing. Much more than the children’s plaything a swing represents to me, our hosts related its role in their annual Swing festival in late-August or early-September, about 3 months after the village has planted its rice crop. The festival centres on offerings to the spirits for a good harvest, and also brings together the wider Akha community (not just from Baan Pha Mee but other Akha villages in the region) for a celebration culture and community.
Traditional costume is proudly worn; the young women in particular dress in ornate clothing and elaborate jewellery and head dresses which they have made by hand, and which give clear outward notice that that they are single and of marriageable age. This festival has traditionally been the time when Akha women seek prospective husbands, and this is where the swing comes into play; young men take turns in showing off their strength and balance by swinging as hard and high as they can. The better they are, the more desirable they are to Akha women (and yes, of course, there’s more to it than that)!
We also learned about rituals associated with the Akha belief system. The Akha believe in a female creator god who gave life to Earth and the Akha people, and provided the guidelines for life, known as Akha Zang’, (the Akha Way). There is a strong emphasis on respect for people, nature and natural resources, and a belief in the protective guardianship of spirits. We are taken through the Akha village gate, near the swing, and considered to be a representation of the boundary between the world of humans and the world of spirits. Akha life includes many rituals and offerings to the different spirits sharing their world.
As a food lover, one of the highlights of our visit was the opportunity to try the local cuisine and indeed to learn how to make some of the dishes.
For lunch, we visited a local cafe restaurant and were taught how to make Sa-Pee-Tong, a chilli paste served as a dip with Ho-Pa-So (a salad of local vegetables). We were also served Nga-Cha Si-Ma-Chae Tae-Eum (steamed fish with local herbs) and Ho Pa Ja (a vegetable and pork soup).
For dinner, we enjoyed Ho-Chae-Pa-Loo (stir-fried local vegetables), Theu-Kho-Ja (local melon soup), A-bae-Loo (stir-fried peanuts), Kajee-Cho-Jeu-Loo (stir fried ginger and chicken), A-La-Sa-Bien (spicy fried minced pork) and Sa-Chi-Loo-Ko (a spicy pork curry). All served with steamed rice, and enjoyed watching some of the community members demonstrate some traditional local dances for us.
We also learned how to make a pounded rice treat called Kao Pook, much like Japanese mochi. The rice was first crushed coarsely by a foot-operated pounder, before being pounded in a very large mortar and pestle until the rice was finely ground. Water was added and the pounding continued until the mixture was glutinously sticky. Pulled into small balls, rolled and patted in sesame seeds, each piece was wrapped in a leaf and ready to eat.
The History of the Akha of Doi Pha Mee
Meow and Toy were particularly keen to share the community’s recent history, telling us the stories of how the village came to move to its current location, and establish its coffee farms.
Baan Pha Mee is most of the way up a mountain, just half a mile as the crow flies from the border with Burma. Originally, the village was located even higher up the mountain, much closer to the border itself. In that location, the community experienced conflict with other minorities at the border, and struggled to find enough water to irrigate their farms.
The mountain is question is Doi (‘mountain’) Pha Mee, part of the Daen Lao Range straddling Burma’s Eastern Shan State and Thailand’s North Eastern Chiang Rai Province. The village and mountain are not marked on Google Maps (though some of the individual businesses there are), but it’s about 2 miles north of Doi Nang Non, 5 miles north of Doi Tung, as the crow flies. The village is within of the Wiang Phang Kham subdivision of Mae Sai District.
The village’s move to the lower current-day location is thanks entirely to the late King Rama IX, his majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej (who passed away to intense mourning from his subjects in 2016). Having a genuine interest and concern for all the people living within his country, King Bhumibol made many visits to hill tribe communities in the northern provinces. When visiting Baan Pha Mee in 1970, he made the suggestion for the Akha community to relocate to a new site further down the mountainside; a far better location for farming, and crucially, also sufficiently removed from the border to avoid further skirmishes.
At the same time, he encouraged them to move away from the farming of opium by initiating the farming of Robusta coffee instead, providing the training and expertise needed for the community’s farmers to establish their coffee plantations, and learn how to best grow and process these new crops. This also heralded a move away from slash-and-burn farming methods that were contributing to deforestation.
During a subsequent visit to the village to check on progress, the King realised that Robusta was not the best fit for the local climate, and instead encouraged the community to switch to Arabica coffee, which they still grow today. They also started growing other crops such as lychee and citrus fruits, as well as peanuts, macadamia nuts and tea.
The eradication of opium farming and successful establishment of coffee and other crops was greatly assisted by the Doi Tung Development Project, initiated in 1987 by the King’s mother, her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra. She also moved her residence to the region at around this time, living here for the last several years of her life. Princess Srinagarindra was already heavily involved in social welfare and environmental conservation via her Mae Fah Luang Foundation (originally named the Thai Hill Crafts Foundation), and the work of these organisations encompassed environmental and agricultural initiatives (not just coffee but also flowers, fruit and vegetables), the preservation of hill tribe craft skills and assistance in marketing the products to generate income, education and healthcare for those who had scarce or no access previously, and a very successful drug rehabilitation centre that helped many of the Pha Mee community and others in the area overcome the addiction to opium that was rife at that time.
The more details we learned about this history, the more I finally appreciated the depth of reverence and love for their King that the Thai people hold. In his reign of 70 years, the King was devoted to improving the lot of his people, and there is a deep and lasting gratitude on the part of those he helped.
A Three Week Itinerary For Touring Thailand
We visited the Pha Mee Akha community as part of an independent holiday, which we organised and booked ourselves. Check out our comprehensive three week Thailand itinerary, including tips on sightseeing, hotels, food and transport.
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