Published: May 3rd 2011May 2nd 2011
A Rain Stop
Caught in a village in the mountains during a brief rain storm. Thais call these little "rest pavilions" or "Sala" (in Thai. You can find them in rice fields, in villages and on highways throughout Thailand.
I am sure there are "authentic" hill tribe villages out there, at least in terms of their rustic appearance: thatched roof houses with mud floors and people adorned in colorful apparel. (But we did see a few people traditionally garbed and gathering mushrooms in the forest while carrying their children in little baskets on their back). However, it is perhaps no surprise that I have mostly seen such hill tribe tradition only in photographs, travel blogs, at museums or (in terms of dress) around places where tourists congregate. (For example, I see more people dressed up in various hill tribe gear in Bangkok and Chiang Mai in tourist zones than I have ever seen going around the countryside, but I haven't spent that much time in the countryside yet.)
On my recent trip driving Honda scooters around Chiang Mai province with my friend Tate, who is working on a documentary about Thai boxing, we looked for scenes of hill tribe life. The mission to find them provided the "get-up-and-go" necessary for our expedition. Some of the young Thai boxers Tate has gotten to know and interviewed come from a hill tribe background. Although we didn't find exactly what we expected,
There were many different styles.....this girl was talking to her friend much of the time.
it was long journey with plenty of "voyeuristic treats" along the way. As such, we sparingly had a chance to interact with the locals. But specific aspects of the landscape and the people we did encounter were authentic in the sense that we discovered something fresh. Imposing our will was not going to be in the cards so our somewhat unstructured journey provided us with at least a few surprises.
Perhaps the most surprising was a parade marching up Suthep Mountain which looks out over Chiang Mai city. We caught a procession of dancers, villagers, officials, monks, and other photographer/tourist/adventurers like ourselves. It was quite a spectacle and we had managed to arrive at just the right time on our way to visit one of the Hmong hill tribes on the Pui Mountain, right next to Doi Suthep. We took our scooter up the winding paved trail which soon narrowed eventually turning to grooved and very uneven dirt roads. It was tough going but worth it. Along the way we saw the procession I just mentioned, a coffee plantation where we stopped for some coffee, a Hmong village, bamboo forest, hill tribe based agriculture and a number of villagers
going about their daily business.
On the previous day we had taken the scooters about 90km from the city to check out a joint Karen-Hmong village. This village was in a kind of little valley between the hills and was quite settled already. Even though it appeared quite poor, cars, motorbikes, satellite dishes, roads, schools, Christian missions and a lively agricultural economy gave it a look that was hard to distinguish from a poor Thai village at first glance. But the architecture of the houses, the style of agriculture, language and the dress of older people gave it away as ethnically distinct from "Thai". What surprised me was how "Thai" it did feel in the sense that the villagers lived a lifestyle probably not too much different from Thais living in the area. Although this is my feeling, I am sure on closer inspection more distinctions would become obvious. As we were leaving, a young man came and spoke to us in English asking if he could help us. We told him we were looking for a more traditional village. Immediately following this, we were invited to come drink with a truck full of three villagers. One of them
The best of hilltribe based agriculture
This appears to be irrigated rice (and other crops) and not just rain fed like much agriculture in the mountains.
jumped out of the truck and peppered us with questions about ourselves. Communication, in English, was difficult and I knew we had to move on so I just let it go while the man seemed to revel in practicing his English with Tate. This was the kind of scene that could have happened in a village just about anywhere in Thailand.
On the first day, we had gone to the closest village, with Tate and I on the same bike.....(groan!!), about an hour ride up Suthep mountain. From a distance it just looked like a cluster of shacks with a parking lot for tourists. The village just seemed like any other poor Thai village as it seemed to be a gateway for tourists to come in groups (or like us) and shop for "junky" souvenirs and walk through the various gardens they had set up (including an opium garden with no obvious opium flowers). It had a parking lot and various fees were charged for doing different activities such as following particular trails. Although villagers still spoke the Hmong language, the economy and the lifestyle they were leading seemed more modern and Thai in the sense that they seemed
to be making their primary living off of tourism. There were people at every step looking to try and sell you something. Unlike the other villages where we walked around and people pretty much ignored us, the most interesting thing I can say about this particular hill tribe community was that it appeared differently from the others. In fact, each village had something different to say. This particular one had the most support from the Thai government and seemed to be best integrated into the Thai way of life. The others seemed to be following the same path but at their own pace. (This particular village had received support from the royal family. There was a nice pavilion high up overlooking the village dedicated to the king where Tate and I got a good look at its placement in the mountains).
"Hill Tribes" in Thailand are numerous and difficult to define holistically as there is even one group still hunting and gathering. (The Mlabri or "yellow leaf people" in Naan for example are different from more settled communities) When they came to Thailand, location, religion and where they came from are some of the most basic differentiating factors. Most
Part of the procession. These Hmong were from one of the villages we visited
of them are relatively recent arrivals to Thailand coming from China, Burma, and Laos after having been driven out by various instabilities there over the last two hundred years. Many have recently come over from Burma after suffering from forced labor, military confrontations or poverty. This is especially true closer to the borders where several refugee camps are set up and where there is still quite a lot of incoming migration from Burma.
The most common thread perhaps, is that they make their lives in the mountains and the hills rather than the valleys, at least until they been integrated into the Thai state and culture. for a generation or more. (Thais often call them chow cow which loosely translates to "mountain or hill people") The land of the mountains less fertile than the valleys so the crops such as rice or potatoes often require alternative irrigation techniques. Opium has long been one of the most popular crops for them to grow although this has been greatly reduced or eradicated in recent years. Tobacco seemed to be the main cash crop of one of the villages we visited. Outside of agriculture, one of the most obvious traits that I
Jerryrigged electric lines
The tourist Hmong village had electricity thanks to very "Thai style" engineering....this is like some of the lines in Bangkok. Ha ha ha.
noticed was between young and old. The older people tend to wear more traditional dress and are more visually "ethnic" while young people, outside of speaking their own languages to each other, look almost indistinguishable from Thais. (And they may in fact be officially Thai in many cases.) They ride motorbikes, wear modern fashions, have satellite dishes at their homes, and are educated by Thai teachers in Thai schools. Even though agriculture appears abundant and well kept up, I am also guessing that few of the young aspire to be farmers like many of their parents and elders.
There are more photos below