As a tourist one of the key attractions in Northern Thailand are the hill tribes. Their old ways of life and culture inspire curiosity and wonderment in many.
With such demand to see the hill tribes, visits to hill tribe villages and hill tribe treks have become a money making business giving rise to many ethical questions over how this is being carried out. There are concerns about the impact of tourism to villages, erosion of local culture and the environment and whether the villagers are getting a fair deal from tourism.
Almost all tour agencies in Northern Thailand advertise tours to hill tribe villages, unfortunately most of these are to villages which have been modified for the tourist, so the experience is not in its natural setting. These villages typically charge an entrance fee and stands are set up inside where villagers sell souvenirs and handicrafts. Even the souvenirs and handicrafts are not handmade by themselves but sourced from town. Some also argue that the hill tribes are being exploited by the company that manages the entrance fees, and do not receive a fair pay.
With a little bit of research it is possible to find tour agencies that offer an authentic and ethical experience of the hill tribes.
So when inside a village what are the “do’s and don’ts” and how do you make sure you a responsible tourist? Here are some tips:
• Always ask for permission before taking photos. Communicate this through body language or ask your guide to help
• If you want to make a donation the proper channels should be used, so talk to your guide as they will know best how to do this.
• Avoid creating a culture of begging by not handing gifts or money out individually
• Show respect for religious symbols or spirit catchers which are often at the front of the village or house
• Support their livelihoods through buying handicrafts they make. This is a great way to help and a more sustainable option than donations
• Dress politely and modestly
• Common sense and courtesy should prevail. Remember a smile goes a long way!
• If you minimise your cultural and environmental impact you can’t go far wrong.
You might com across the Shan when you skim over your Lonely Planet...
Who are they except from the fact that they are related to the Thai?
They originate in Burma and have migrated to the area during the 19th and 20th century. In fact, they are still migrating as their villages beyond the border are frequently blazed down by the Burmese troops.
No exotic dresses, mates, but if you look closely, you will see ladies with broad straw hats, at the morning markets and so.
And they do speak different. Maybe not to you, but when they are among themselves, your petty knowledge of Thai won't take you very far.
If you want to impress them, say "mai soong khaa" instead of "sawatdee" (the greeting bit)
If you want to say thank you, you may opt for "jom lee khaa"
There is no Shan course anywhere - but maybe you are lucky and the locals will teach you some phrases in the temple....
When staying at a hilltribe village home (which you do while on trekks) you must always take off tour shoes! Just an important note!