I had a read about the hill tribes outside of Chiang Mai before heading there and took in a large amount of discussion as to whether it was ethical.
There are many arguments for and against visiting the remote tribes. Some say western tourists shouldn’t visit and if so should be conscious and check that the tribe they visit isn’t being swamped with tourists bringing their western ways to these people who live isolated lives.
Some argue that it isn’t a negative as it provides the tribes with an income and helps them stay in their untouched lifestyle, living off the land rather than having to find their way to nearby towns and integrate. I asked our guide and he was adamant that he speaks to the people (who all speak different dialects to Thai) and they welcome visitors. I chose to go ahead as I was fascinated by their lifestyle and wanted to experience it first hand.
I was completely unprepared for just how tough the trek would be. It beat the 16 mile trek in a Tanzanian rain forrest I did a few years back and any other exercise I’d experienced. We trekked up steep hills, through tiny muddy paths and at the highest point reached 1,700 metres above sea level. I spent the uphill trek breathless, using a walking stick our local guide Sammy had made me out of a tree branch. The downhill was tough in a different way, much of it spent slipping sideways down the tiny mountain paths. We enjoyed a brief break at Morg Fa waterfall, where we bathed in the murky but cool waters before heading on.
It was only around 4 hours of walking but it was tough. It was all made worthwhile when we caught the first glimpse of Maejok village (inhabited by a Karen tribe). A smattering of wooden huts appeared on the hillside and as we approached the villagers were all coming out of their church. Interesting this tribe were all Catholics. They converted when Catholic missionaries visited around 50 years ago and helped them improve their facilities.
The people looked interested in our arrival but not unhappy about it. We made our way to our wooden hut cabin on stilts which would be our bedroom for the night and enjoyed a supper of various Thai dishes and a barbecue of pork and beef. We showered in a hut with running clean water before collapsing onto our thin mattresses.
These ethical debates are always tricky. I’m not sure I entirely understand the first argument – is it the loss of culture they’re concerned about? Because I bemoan losses of culture as much as the next person, but I think there’s also the argument that people should have the chance to choose for themselves, and not just be left in some sort of preserved bubble whether they like it or not. Or is it more to do with specific, negative elements being introduced?
I can’t be entirely sure… I agree, loss of culture is to be avoided but I guess with evolution is inevitable to some degree. So long as the tribes had no issue with us coming to stay, I was happy to head there and I saw no signs that they were resistant to us. Our local guide knew the tribe well and he was frustrated when I questioned whether it was okay for us to be there. He rightly said let the people decide and they were keen to interact, show us how they live and sell their handicrafts.