Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Hill Tribe Villages in Chiang Rai, Change and Continuity 2

In Part 1 we discussed how the present context of hill tribe villages depart from the images
frequently presented in tourist oriented brochures and publications. A variety of factors have
combined to accelerate  changes in hill tribe culture to the point that it is near impossible to
find villages following traditional life ways. Of course it would be unrealistic to expect any 
culture to remain in a "museum state" forever especially in the face of modern technology 
and communication. This does not mean that culturally sensitive visits to hill tribe villages 
would not be of interest especially if they are done with respect and from a perspective of learning and sharing. 

There are several options for tourists interested in visiting a hill tribe village. A few villages 
even if some residents have converted to Christianity still attempt to follow traditional ways. 
One such village is Ahpa village in Chiang Rai Province. Here they have a basic guest 
house and a mix of traditional and modern house styles. Satellite tv dishes are abundant 
as are motorcycles and the occasional pickup. However the village maintains its spirit 
gate and swing which is used in August at the time of the "womens new year." If you 
happen to visit the village at the time of a funeral you may witness an exorcist scare 
away bad spirits from the village.

Other villages have cooperated with such NGO's as The Mirror Art Group or PDA to establish sustainable and appropriate tour programs in select villages. Visits to these villages usually require a small entrance fee which entitles one to a village tour and brief demonstrations or video presentation of cultural activities such as hunting, music and dance, looming, blacksmiths etc. At the Akha Ban Lorcha visitors can usually enter a typical house to have a view of domestic life. Crafts are available for sale at a single point and monies generated from tourists are shared back to the villagers.

Another option for Lanna Thai Villa guests is to visit with us tribal friends we have made over the past 30 years. We may be invited to a wedding or we may pay villagers who would like to put on a performance of typical songs and dances. In this way participation is voluntary 
and is rewarded. With the use of translators we are able to sit and learn from each other through discussions on life ways and problems. Our approach is to meet each other with respect and the desire to learn and honor each cultures way of answering life's demands 
and questions.

Yet another way of accessing tribal cultures is by visiting hill tribe display villages which were discussed in Part 1. These typically involve walking a path which connects mini villages of several different ethnic groups. Each village will have a few houses typical of that village's culture. A brief culture show may be included along with the sale of souvenirs which may or may not have been produced by the given ethnic group. "Villagers" will have been drawn from Chiang Rai villages save for members of the Palaung and Padaung (Long Neck Karen) tribes which originate in Burma. Some of these villages have their own school for children. 
Residents are reported to receive a monthly wage plus proceeds from craft sales etc. Residents are permitted to return to their home villages and to go out for visits to the 
doctor or shopping. In general, residents report being better off than in their home villages, 
especially those from Burma. Nonetheless many view  this set up as a human zoo 
though in some ways it does not differ significantly from accessing Ban Lorcha to 
view that Akha village.

It should be noted that some hill tribe people are not happy to let tourists come in to inspect village life and that wish must be respected. Some feel that they are being put on display and being encouraged or forced to wear their most ornate clothing or to perform ceremonies that have no meaning when done out of context. 

Finally, at various times of the year there are public or open events which can be observed without negative attachments. For example in Amphur Chiang Kham there is an annual
Lue cultural festival that lasts 2 or 3 days and features parades, cultural performances and ethnic food. Every February in Amphur Thoeng the Hmong celebrate Dop Sio Ban near Phu Chi Fah. Here you will find performances, contests and many traditional items for sale. 
Some Hmong and Akha New years celebrations are also open to the public and feature 
many people in their finest clothing along with performances both traditional and modern. 

We believe there is much to learn from people of all cultures and if the interaction is based on mutual respect and honoring what we can learn then both sides will have gained.

Village Swing at Ban Ahpa

Village Spirit Gate at Ban Ahpa
Exorcist Preparing for Ceremony Ban Ahpa
Exorcist with Hammer and Phallus to Exorcise Malevolent Spirits at Ban Ahpa Funeral
Ban Ahpa Residents Viewing Proceedings in Mixed Dress
Pahmi Akha Guide at Ban Lorcha
Figures at Ban Lorcha Spirit Gate
Demonstrating Snare at Ban Lorcha
Looming Demonstration at Ban Lorcha
Traditional House at Ban Lorcha
Wedding with father and bride (right) in traditional dress, sisters in western dress

                                                    Paying Bride Price to Brides Father  
                                                          Loimi Akha Wedding Guest

Sermsri Enjoying Lighter Moment with Akha Elder
Lahu Culture Show at Hill Tribe Display Village

Akha Culture Show at Hill Tribe Display Village

American and Padaung, Making Friends at Hill Tribe Display Village

UK Couple Learning About Akha Housing at Hill Tribe Display Village

Donating to School in Hill Tribe Display Village

Lue Women Parade with Ceremonial Flags

Shopping at the Lue Culture Festival

Performance at Lue Culture Festival

Sword Dance at Lue Culture Festival

Visiting Traditional Lue Home

Making Friends at Hmong Dok Sio Ban Festival

Colorful Hmong New Years

Hmong Beauty Contestants

Dance Performance at Hmong New Years

Photo Op at Hmong New Years

Reception Line at an Akha New Years Celebration

Dance Performance at Akha New Years Celebration

Village Dance Performance for Lanna Thai Villa Guest

Joining in at Village Performance

Peace to All Who Read This

Monday, July 14, 2014

Hill Tribes in Chiang Rai

Hill Tribe Villages in Chiang Rai,Change and Continuity  1

One of the things that draws tourists to Chiang Rai is the opportunity to experience an encounter with one or another of the tribal peoples who inhabit both upland and lowland sites. A first encounter may be via photographs in websites or tourist guides which usually feature a woman or young person wearing a beautifully crafted, unique and colorful suit of clothes adorned with decorative headgear and leggings.Often further adornment is evidenced by abundant silver ornaments, bracelets, earrings etc.

In order to keep ones expectations in line with the on the ground reality some aspects of the situation confronting tribal peoples must be acknowledged. Though tourist brochures and sites emphasize the exotic appearance of tribal groups these are most often staged and can provide a false sense of day to day life. It would be very rare to encounter a village living totally by traditional means. Cultural change of course is part of human existence and cannot be halted so one should not expect peoples to remain in a "museum state." Besides this natural process there are several other factors which have affected the life of Thailand's tribal peoples.

Royal Thai Government policy has tended to look at tribal peoples as not Thai and hence inferior to the dominant culture. Migrating to Thailand over the past 100 - 150 years (or longer in some cases) it is only recently that some have managed to obtain Thai citizenship thus opening the door to health, education and other services enjoyed by members of the dominant society. Security concerns in hinterland areas have resulted in the construction of roads which provide hitherto unprecedented access to formerly remote areas. Also part of security policy has been the relocation of many villages down to lowland locations where traditional agricultural practices are no longer possible owing both to the nature of the land and the lack of access to land. The Royal Thai Forestry Department has enacted regulations to limit the area which upland peoples can use in pursuit of their normal practice of swidden agriculture thus forcing many to enter at a low level the cash economy of rural Thailand.

Coming from outside the country has been the increased activity of Christian missionaries. As a result there has been significant impact on the traditional customs of tribal peoples.For example some "Christianized" Akha villages no longer erect or maintain village gates or perform various ceremonies such as the swing ceremony. The increase in tourism has also impacted traditional village life leading to both positive and negative outcomes.

Though older villagers who have been forced to relocate to the lowlands will express that they miss the upland village younger residents though recognizing the hardships of their new location feel overall that life is better. They cite access to schooling and medical care as examples not to mention modern material goods like motorcycles etc. Relocated villagers had to buy new agricultural land and those with little money had little if any farm land. Now more bonded to the lowland cash economy many have to work outside the village in construction, factory or daily wage labor. In its upland location Lipha village had no stores or churches but in the new lowland location there are four stores and three churches, one catholic and two christian all with Akha clerics. The village is now 100% Christian. Education levels are increasing and around three or four persons have graduated from university. Though families have a good suit of traditional clothes they are hardly ever worn. Western clothing now dominates as children and adults are uncomfortable wearing traditional clothing in lowland contexts as it can invite unwanted comments etc.. Lipha village no longer has the traditional village gates or swing.

The combination of the above factors means that well meaning tourists wishing to observe and participate in traditional tribal cultures will have to accept that they will be observing communities dealing with a  variety of stresses on their traditional way of life and undergoing rapid change. Material life has changed significantly over the past 30 years. Plastic containers have replaced hand crafted baskets,  aluminum ornaments have replaced the more expensive pure silver and hand made fabrics are being replaced by machine produced items from China. Villages that took hours to walk to are now accessed in minutes by motorcycle or pickup. Satellite dishes now festoon roofs that are finished with asbestos tiles instead of woven grass. Concrete is fast replacing wood as a preferred building material. Churches are now part of the architectural landscape of many villages.

On a positive note, NGO agencies like PDA and the Mirror Art Group have worked with tribal villages to develop sustainable and culturally appropriate tourist experiences. The Akha village of Ban Lorcha and the Lahu village of .Ban Jalae's Hilltribe Life and Cultural Center are examples whereby for a small fee access is granted to the villages and presentations on the group's spiritual and material culture are made. Souvenirs are sold at a central store only. The income from these ventures is then shared among all villagers.

Another type of experience, one which has both supporters and detractors are the hill tribe display villages. Composed of villagers from several ethnic groups who live in traditional houses and who follow some agricultural pursuits but otherwise are available to put on brief cultural shows and sell souvenirs not necessarily related to their particular group. These gained notoriety for the presence of long necked Karen who are not native to Thailand and also Palaung people both from neighboring Burma. Initial complaints focused on the lack of freedom of movement and possible exploitation of those installed in what was described as a "Human Zoo". Over time conditions have improved and when interviewed participants from Burma and Thailand suggest that their life is better than that faced at home in their regular village. In some "villages" schooling is provided for your residents. While offering the chance to see a variety of tribal people in a single location the decision to visit these operations is an individual matter.

Here at Lanna Thai Villa we afford the opportunity to see not only the villages mentioned above but also to take advantage of our long term relationship with numerous tribal villages in less traveled areas. Our contacts cover the spectrum from lowland Thai Lue villages to those still resident on mountain ridges such as Akha and Hmong. Though any visit is interesting we try to stay abreast of any special ceremony or other event which may offer the visitor a particularly interesting experience. Photography is permitted with the permission of the subject being photographed. When feasible we try to return prints as a way of thanking those whose images we take. We also encourage donations to appropriate projects within the villages we visit so that the experience is positive in both directions.

1983 View of Lipha Village with Sacred Trees at Far End

Main Street Lipha Village 1983
Traditional House Styles and Spacing at Lipha Village
Traditional Village Swing and Gate
Making Grass Roof While Wearing Typical Ornamentation
Traditional Akha Male Attire and Pipe
Learning by Watching and Doing
Main Street, Drying Broom Grass and Leading Pack Animal
Bringing in the Rice in Traditional Dress
Rice Pounder
Traditional Ulo Akha Headdress
Two Village Elders
Baby Sitting
The Ulo Akha Lipa village in its last incarnation in the mountains as shown above in the early 1980's was located on a high mountain ridge with forested hill slopes on each side. A small waterfall provided a source of water.  Access to lowland markets came by a 5-7 hour walk on a path. Here some products like broom grass and herbal or animal products from the hills could be sold for oil, salt and other supplies then carried uphill back home. There was no electricity, vehicle access or any modern means of communication. Houses were closely spaced with lighting by oil lamps or fires set in  a fire box on the living floor of the bamboo and thatch houses. Daily life was filled with farming  upland dry rice, hunting and gathering and some animal husbandry. Water was collected at the waterfall and carried in large bamboo tubes back to the individual houses. A good deal of time, energy and resources was spent on conducting various ceremonies related to the residents long standing animistic belief system. 

The resettled village is now spread out along a paved road with houses dispersed and of varying style many using modern building materials. Those in search of traditional village life will not find it here. Many people of working age are employed outside the village and indeed even in other provinces. The young attend school in nearby villages or in Chiang Rai. The new village is electrified and many houses sport satellite tv antenna and motorcycles and mobille phones are ubiquitous. Few if any residents wear traditional dress. 

The next Blog Post will detail some ways one can observe and interact with tribal peoples in 
the present context.
Main Street Lipha Village 2014
Dispersed Housing of Nontraditional Design
Nontraditional Akha House With Satellite Dish
Store in Lipha Village 2014
Grandmother Tending Youngster, Compare With Similar Picture Above
Road Passing Akha Village Bringing Power and Access and Change
Christian Church in Akha Village
Mosque in Lisu Village
Village Sale of Souvenirs and Replica of Images from Akha Spirit Gates