A sign emblazoned with the words “SEE LONG NECKS” doesn’t exactly intrigue me. In fact, it unhinges me. The people I have grown to love are advertised like a human zoo.
But if you travel to northern Thailand, these signs will be aplenty. As a tourist you will be bombarded by sensationalized fliers and eager tour guides boasting of two-day package trips to do a “Hill Tribe Trek.” Tour companies tout adventurous, action-packed treks through idyllic scenery, straight through the heart of an indigenous hill tribe village. The sights are picturesque, the people are exotic, and the photo opportunities will be endless. It’s tempting.
Hill tribe culture is not a spectacle to see; it is a lifestyle to experience. I beseech you—skip the hill tribe trek, and become a member of their family instead.
Thailand has six major hill tribes—Akha, Lahu, Karen, Hmong, Mien, and Lisu—that exist independently from the rest of the country, their numbers totaling around 2 million. They all have their own unique language, form of dress, religion, and customs and make their living as subsistence farmers in the remote mountains of northern Thailand. The majority of the 2 million are denied citizenship–an undertaking initiated in the 1980’s to curb a heavy influx of Burmese refugees battered by their civil war. Consequently, hill tribe people cannot vote, buy land, or work in certain occupations.
Stateless and often restricted to lands that no longer yield enough resources to sustain their agrarian livelihood, many hill tribes are disadvantaged and largely live in poverty. With tourism on the rise and hill tribes in need of sustainable income, many tour companies have started allowing tourists to trek through these villages for a fixed price.
The pervasiveness of such companies in Thailand almost makes them seem normal, innocuous. But, in fact, many of these companies are notorious for exploiting the villages they trek through, taking the bulk of the profits and perpetuating their livelihood as a tourist attraction.
Most tourists, most people in general, don’t want to actively contribute to the exploitation and further impoverishment of an indigenous culture. But, there is a certain disconnect between tourists’ benevolent curiosity and the hill tribe villagers’ need for privacy, respect, and income. What is the happy medium?
Cut out the middleman!
Driven by a desire for education through immersion, I joined Workaway.info and connected directly with a Karen hill tribe family. Our host Sao partnered with his South Korean and more computer-proficient friend to create a profile inviting travelers and tourists to stay with their family. There was a small daily fee of 150 Baht to cover the cost of food, payable upon your departure directly into the hands of Suwannee, the family bookkeeper. For a fare cheaper than any hostel or trek, we stayed in the mountains of Samoeng, living and working as part of a Karen family for 10 days.
Because we were immersed in hill tribe culture, rather than just passing through, we had the opportunity to truly get to know the people we were staying with, and for them to know us. Sao was a hilariously quirky and jovial man and his hardworking, lighthearted wife Suwanee often erupted into uncontrollable bursts of laughter at random.
Having taught English in Thailand before arriving here, I was dubbed “Teacher Jos,” and my boyfriend, “Teacher Boy.” They accepted us as their own, along with a handful of other volunteers who came and went while we stayed there. Together we forged a temporary community that functioned based on each individual’s skills and interests.
Our days began at 7:30am: We roused and headed to the hill for breakfast that was hot and ready for us by 8am. Breakfast was always made from fruits, veggies, plants, and herbs from Sao’s farm and served with rice and homegrown coffee. There was no itinerary or sense of urgency. We simply went about life as Sao and Suwannee would. We were extra hands for tasks that would be completed, with or without us there.
After breakfast, we worked in the newly built papaya nursery. We unearthed papaya seedlings that had sprouted haphazardly from papaya trees near Sao’s home and replanted them in compost pots, aligning them in the nursery. After some watering and tending, Sao will relocate them to a bigger area of land nearby to create a papaya forest. During our stay, we planted approximately one thousand papaya trees. They begin bearing fruit in about 3 or 4 years, so Sao and his family should have a plentiful supply of papaya well into the future!
We would take breaks often, in fact “take a break” was one of Sao’s favorite phrases. The instant he saw me wiping my brow of sweat or taking a second to rest, he would joyously exclaim, “Take a break, take a break! Teacher Jos, drink coffee, drink tea, drink coffee, drink tea!” And so “break time” occurred regularly, beginning around 11 am and usually lasting until hours after our noontime lunch.
After lunch, we would read, write, enjoy life. Sometimes we would run errands around the village with Sao, meeting his friends and familiarizing ourselves with village life. We watched his sister make fabric from a homemade loom and were given bottles of local honey from his friend, the village beekeeper. We picked fresh tamarinds and mulberries on our walks home.
Sometimes Sao took us on adventures through rice fields and to waterfalls, teaching us about the medicinal properties and practical purposes of the plants we encountered along the way. We learned just some of the infinite uses of bamboo. Sao and Suwannee use this wondrous plant to make houses, chairs, fires, shovels, drinking cups, lunch and dinner, showers, cell phone towers, and didgeridoos.
Though many phony trek guides will make hill tribe families hide their modern electronics to feign a facade of primitive living, Sao’s set-up was unapologetically TV, iPhone, and wifi free. He did however own a Nokia that he used like a house phone.
Master bamboo carpenter that he is, Sao crafted a mysterious cell phone tower, where his phone always stayed docked. For reasons unknown to any of us, this exact spot was the only place on the entire property that received service. If Sao removed the phone and put it to his ear, he would instantly lose service and the call would be dropped. So when making or receiving calls, he would bend down on his knees in order to be ear level with the phone without moving it from the magic spot. It was his pride and joy. He loved showing off his invention every time his phone rang.
As keen as Sao was to teach, he was even more enthusiastic to learn. He started studying English a year ago, was self-taught from a book and well on his way to being fluent. I spent many nights teaching him random English words like “import” and “export,” and he spent the entire next day compulsively repeating them and using them in context.
His favorite new word was “everybody.” Every night before dinner, Sao would proudly exclaim, “Everybody, not every people, dinner is ready!”
The philosophy Sao espoused was simple: live in harmony with the land around you, teach what you know, learn what you can, and laugh at anything and everything. I am forever grateful for this much-needed respite from city life and for the unbelievable warmth shown to us by Sao and Suwannee. I am positive I would not have had this same experience, had I just trekked through their village or spent one night with them.
It is not what I saw, but what I felt that made this experience so fulfilling. It felt good to share space with local people on their turf and to make my experience personal and intimate. It felt good to be informed of current issues in the community I visited, to know the destination of my dollar and the impact of my footprint. The purpose of travel is not to accumulate photographs or to be wowed by sensationalized sightseeing. We travel to understand people and to appreciate a culture different from our own. We travel to know ourselves through knowing others. To be surrounded by beautiful mountains and people, while helping out and earning your keep is to feel real peace.