Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Thailand's Hill Tribes

A visit to one or more of the Hill Tribes is on the itinerary for most visitors to Thailand who venture into the Chiang Mai area. While each has its own  distinct culture and costume, the women of most tribes do beautiful handwork - weaving, embroidery and other embellishments.

The Hmong, many refugees from Laos, were the first I visited. Theirs was a slash and burn culture, clearing fields with fire, planting until all nutrients were gone then moving on to slash and burn again, not unlike what you find among groups in Central America. The opium poppy was their primary crop.

Guides will tell you in great detail how the Thai government has developed resettlement programs for the Hill people, encouraging them, often successfully, to stay in one place and replace poppies with flowers for the international market.

Alas, clearing fields with fire is still all too convenient and from the moment we deplaned at the Chiang Mai airport the sky was a haze and the air was thick with smoke from the many brush fires burning around the city.

While the men were off managing fires, the women supplement the family income by producing exquisite fabrics from hemp, adorning them with a dizzying patchwork of cloth and silver trim. The tribe we visited was the Blue sub-group because the women's costume began with stunning pencil pleated skirts of three tiers - one a solid color, one of batik with applique and the third embellished with cross stitch - that take seen to eight months to make.

Malai, 23, who spoke English, took us behind and below her on-ground hut to the cellar in back to show us how the hemp was grown then processed to flatten and soften. All of the women spoke or understood enough English to show off and market their work which was hard to resist.

Tip: The ground underfoot is uneven and rutted and you will encounter some uphill slopes but don't let that deter you. Just take your time and watch where you step.

The next tribe presented us with a moral dilemma. The Padaung or Long-Necked Karen are a sub-group of the Karen who arrived in Thailand as refugees from Burma (Myanmar). The village near Chiang Mai is the only one that charges admission.

You probably remember seeing their pictures because the women wear brass rings around their necks, arms and legs. It looks as if the rings, put on at around the age of 6 with 5 kilo added annually, make the women's necks longer. Actually, the weight compresses the collar bone and vertebrae.
Once on and added to, the rings can't be removed without threatening the life of the wearer.

There are many legends but no definitive answer as to why and how this practice began and over the years, many families have stopped subjecting their girls to it. However, with tourists now paying to see them, it is increasingly difficult for mothers to say no because the family's income will suffer.

We - seven travel writers - debated about it and finally came to the decision to see for ourselves.

As we toured the village we tried to talk to the women, all of whom were weaving, asking about their rings and whether they would put them on their daughters. A few said no, but the most honest said yes or maybe.

I suspect pressure to bring in more tourist dollars will be impossible to avoid even though the village also grows rice and flowers.

Too bad because visiting the bamboo huts on stilts, seeing their rice paddies and watching their fabulous fabrics created - and buying them - would have been draw enough to visit.

To pay for it? Probably not, which means 20 years from now you'll still be able to gawk at and photograph long-necked Karen women.

In the end we left quickly and guiltily, feeling as if we had perpetuated this human zoo.


Shenandoah bed and breakfast said...

Thanks for this outstanding information and these pictures are awesome. Well, Thailand is one of the natural countries in Asia its Islands, beaches and historical temples are awesome. Surat Thani is the third biggest Island of Thailand if anyone wants to go there so I recommend to must visit this Island

September 17, 2010 at 5:28 AM

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