Hilltribe Exploitation in Northern Thailand and Laos

While visiting Chiang Mai, my driver stopped by the Hilltribe Education Village, which is ostensibly a snapshot of hilltribe life featuring representative from the Akha, Lau, and Karen (long necks) tribes.  You arrive at the village and the fee is a whopping $10USD, which compared to other ‘attractions’ in the area is a bit expensive.  As I looked around and asked questions about the experience, I immediately got the ‘no’ feeling.

The eager Thai man agent informed me that I could just walk around to each hilltribe and that each of them had a tract of land.  He then got excited and pointed out that the long necks were the finale.  The finale?  These are are people, not circus animals.  Feeling uneasy with the reality of my walking around viewing people like they were a human zoo, I declined to support the so-called tour.

In full disclosure, many years ago, I happen to catch a NatGeo episode about the Karen (longnecks) tribe in Thailand and was really looking forward to visiting with them and learning more about their culture. When I arrived at the Hilltribe Education Village, I was really disappointed in myself for nearly supporting something that felt so wrong. Talking with my driver, I discovered that the tradition of incrementally placing rings on the necks of Karen women had become nearly extinct until the hilltribes realized people would pay to take pictures with them if they were donning rings.

Later during my trip, as part of my slow boat journey down the Mekong, I was once again faced with the prospect of visiting hilltribe communities, except this time, it wasn’t a contrived attraction, but their actual villages.  I had read up on these stops from others who had taken the slow boat and they encouraged visitors to bring school supplies along for the kids, which I did.  I became an instant celebrity among the many children who crowded around me hoping to snag a pen.  While the children were sweet and endearing, it felt wrong, all of it.  It felt wrong being there, stopping by the village to ogle and take photos.  And, when I thought about all the boats that stopped here everyday, I figured it must be a very exhausting existence for them.

Giving pens to eager hilltribe children near Pak Ou Caves.
Giving pens to eager hilltribe children near Pak Ou Caves.

For those unfamiliar with hilltribes, they are peoples who live typically in very rustic, minimalistic environs, often with scarce resources.   The level of poverty is astonishing; many of the children do not have shoes or proper clothing and the communities lack things like running water and depend on rain water as a source of hydration. Many of the children tend to end up victims of human trafficking and as a whole, members of the communities meet resistance and rejection when seeking medical attention and trying to enroll their children in schools.

Many of those in the communities do not have Thai citizenship and have been continually displaced and exploited by Thai and Burmese governments.  Many do not speak Thai and have little to no means of securing employment to earn a living wage. In some cases, tour operators have capitalized on this opportunity and the curiosity of tourism to turn these communities into attractions, which is really a shame.

After visiting two villages on the way to Luang Prabang, some of the people on my boat started having conversations about responsible tourism and about how intrusive our visits had seemed.  I walked away from the experience with a renewed commitment to really thinking about how and where I am traveling and making sure my presence is delicate communities is not just as a spectator but that it has purpose.

Two adorable hilltribe girls seeing our slow-boat off in Laos.
Two adorable hilltribe girls seeing our slow-boat off in Laos.

Have you every visited somewhere where you felt like and intruder or like your presence was doing more harm than good?

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14 thoughts on “Hilltribe Exploitation in Northern Thailand and Laos

  1. I think “I walked away from the experience with a renewed commitment to really thinking about how and where I am traveling and making sure my presence is delicate communities is not just as a spectator but that it has purpose.” is a wise and honorable statement.

    I do think it is tricky to figure out what actions are most honorable. My Mom doesn’t like supporting beggars on the street, with the belief it encourages that behavior. Especially pushing children to beg (the same with encouraging kids to sell to tourists at tourist attractions). What I do is give to charities where I am going to travel (in poor countries – I don’t do this when going to rich countries).

    For doing things like visiting Hill tribes I think it is confusing without knowing the details (which often are not easy to get). In some ways it can be very beneficial and allow them to earn money while largely maintaining their way of life. I don’t often do these kinds of things though. Partially for the reasons you mention, partially I just don’t do tour stuff hardly at all.

    I did go to a Maasi village in Kenya and it did feel a bit intrusive but it was also interesting and I could see how it would be very helpful to those living there also. At least for situations where it is arguably good (not purely bad exploitation) there are likely people supporting both sides (and people in debate with themselves on the issue) of pursuing tourist dollars.

    There was another Native American village attraction in New Mexico that seemed intrusive (and a bit expensive) that really wasn’t worth it but it was right on my path so I tried it. There were really expensive new cars all over which was not common in Native American. I did a bit of research and economically that village did very well. People can still argue about the benefits and costs of chasing tourist money but when there are significant economic benefits that the people actually get (that are not taken by others) it is very hard for me to say it is wrong.

    I do get a bit annoyed at people from rich countries that downplay the importance of money. It is easy to say other things are more important when you have lots of cash.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, John. You raise some good points, especially surrounding the economic gains these communities might otherwise miss without tourist traffic. One of the hilltribes I visited actually distilled Lao Lao, the national whiskey of Laos, and we were able to see the (dangerously unstable) process and purchase a small bottle for a dollar. I walked away from that visit feeling like I was at least leaving behind a dollar that I had directly handed to someone in the village. The other visits where we simply walked around and ‘looked’ were the most uncomfortable. I took a boat whose fee ostensibly included ‘a donation to the hilltribe communities along the way.’ If you do the math though, ~20 people on board at $15 each and ~10 sailings a week, there is no way anyone can honestly say, looking at the heartbreaking living conditions, that these communities are seeing a contribution even close to what the company is bringing in. And that, that is my issue. There are lots of groups out there working on the other side of this trying to actively combat the rampant exploitation of hilltrbies communities and as you suggested, I found a donation of both money and time proved to be the best way for me engage.

  2. wow. I was so caught off guard reading this article and I feel your sadness in the feelings you walked away with. I have no experience with other cultures, but speaking for myself, feel so sorry for this way of life, especially the children which could end up in trafficking situations. Things like this happen for a reason, and your experience will either touch you, or one of your readers, and something good will come of it. For myself, I will be cautious when entering situations of the unknown and use my best judgement as to how to handle. Thank you for sharing your story.

  3. What a moving and thoughtful post. Your discomfort comes through and I can certainly see why since experiencing someone else’s culture should not feel like seeing them as zoo animals. But I also hear your ambivalence, since these people are living in poverty and tourism is a source of revenue. It sounds like you will be investigating ways to be a responsible tourist, something we all struggle with when we travel. I look forward to reading more from you.

  4. Thanks so much for informing us about the Hilltribes of Thailand. My hope is that as we expand our borders via travel that we can responsibly add to the fabric of these communities and not exploit them. It gives us such a burden for many of these nations.

  5. Thank you for this post! I wish I had known about this community when I visited Chaing Mai. I know when I went to Kenya, I wanted to volunteer and feel like I had a purpose there so that’s what I did! There is nothing like giving back and respecting a place at the same time.

  6. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I think of this often as most of the places I want to visit is with the intention of seeing and understanding the real culture and communities. But it’s clearly a fine line to walk and this post has inspired me to give that more consideration.

  7. I’m so glad I found this post. And I’m so glad your instincts kicked in when you visited the hilltribe village because I can tell you that that place and the Long Neck Karen villages are all completely fake.

    10 years ago I lived in Chiang Rai (three hours north of Chiang Mai) working amongst the disadvantaged children of the hilltribes. We ran an orphanage for the kids who had nobody and also ran a prostitution-prevention program in an attempt to equip the teenage girls with skills that would help them to avoid the sex industry. We helped about 200 kids in villages dotted all throughout the mountains, and also ran a boarding home for the kids who simply could not get to school due to distance. I’m Australian but all my coworkers and best friends there were either Karen or Lahu, and I was in a serious relationship with a Lahu guy. (Nearly ended up married to him). I haven’t written about many of my experiences on my blog but if you’re curious, there are 2 posts on my site you might like. One is called GlobeDrop: How Travellers Can Give Back and the other is called Elephant Tourism and the Power of Hindsight.

    The poverty these communities experience is harrowing and life is hard. My boyfriend’s sister got married at the age of 12 and had her first kid at 14, and that’s normal. Unfortunately most villages have about four options: growing rice, sending their daughters to work as bar girls, selling drugs and tourism. Obviously living in a place like this tourist village is preferable to options 2 and 3 but it’s still not ethical for us to take part in it. As you said, they’re not animals in a zoo for us to gawk at.

    I visited that Hilltribe Education Village when my parents visited me. It really is a zoo. First of all, the hilltribes don’t live close to each other (some of them prefer the valleys, some of them prefer the mountaintops). Each tribe and even each sub-tribe has their own language or dialect so the tribes don’t really communicate with each other. When I saw the way they put them together I knew it was fake but I thought perhaps they were still real hilltribe people in those houses. But I knew this was not the case when I saw an elderly supposedly Karen woman pounding rice. Unmarried Karen women and girls all wear white dresses, and married women wear colored dresses. It’s very unusual for an older Karen woman not to be married (when she reaches a certain age she’ll be married off) so I said to my guide, “Is she not married?”. I figured, hey, who am I to say what the rules are, perhaps for some reason she was just never married off. The guide said, “No, she’s married”. I replied, “Then why is she wearing a white dress?” My guide had no answer. Later she admitted to me that I probably knew more about the hilltribes than she did.

    The Long Neck Karen villages are fake too. As someone else pointed out, the rings were once a real tradition but now it’s only done to attract tourists. If they have no other way to make money then I can understand but the idea of people driving up to their villages just to stare at them is still really icky.

    The thing is, if somebody’s got no other option then I’m happy to go and visit them, buy something from them, eat a meal in their restaurant, etc. But I’m not willing to objectify them and gawk at them as though they’re subhuman. If people really want a taste of TRUE hilltribe culture there’s only one way to do that and that is to volunteer with a real NGO working in the mountains. (There are tons of them, it won’t be hard to find a position). Real life in a hilltribe village is far less glamorous than those fake villages paint them to be but I would far rather see what’s real and help a person out instead of encouraging fakery just so I can get a couple of photos.

    Sorry for the essay. lol. Well done on discerning right from wrong in this situation and all the best as you endeavour to travel ethically in the future.

  8. This is a great article. I wouldn’t want to intrude on people’s lives and I wouldn’t want to take advantage of people or gawk at them like animals in a zoo. Tour operators shouldn’t treat people like tourist attractions. It is one thing to go to a place and want to interact with people living traditionally, but not at their expense. Very thoughtful article.

    I also just wanted to mention really quickly – thank you for linking up with #WeekendWanderlust – if you wouldn’t mind adding our badge to the bottom of your linked article as well as a link back to the host blog where you originally linked up, that would be great. Just so other people can find the link-up and join in on the fun. You can find the badge where you added your link. Thank you! 🙂 If you have any questions, please feel free to ask me on the Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1460798264201279/

  9. This is such a thought provoking post. When we were in Chiang Mai, we visited a place that was a miscellaneous assortment of various hill tribes gathered together in one convenient spot for tourists. I was also worried about the human zoo aspect. It’s interesting that when we’ve visited an Aboriginal cultural center in Australia or a living history museum in America, I didn’t have similar concerns. Going through the northern Thailand hilltribe village, I made a point of speaking to people, not just taking a photo and rushing off to the next hut. We purchased some of their handmade items, too. I asked one long neck Karen woman what she thought of working and living there. She said that it was so much better than her old job of working in the fields. Those metal rings were so hot in the sun. She preferred being able to sit and weave scarves in the shade while talking to tourists about her people’s culture. In her particular case, she seemed to think that being part of a tourist attraction was the better option. It was a way to preserve the Karen traditions instead of letting it die out as they assimilate into the modern world. Sure, I would have preferred a more authentic experience like visiting an actual village and interacting with them, but perhaps that would have been even more intrusive.

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