Northern Thailand is home to several distinct groups of ethnic minorities, often referred to as hill tribes. There are seven main hill tribe groups: Karen, Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, Akha, Mien, and Padaung. Within each of these groupings there are sub-groups that further divide the tribes. Each tribe has its own culture, spirituality, language and style of dress. Most of them live in the remote areas of Northern Thailand having originated from Tibet, Burma, China and Laos. They make their living on subsistence farming. Opium cultivation was a major source of income for many tribes although the Thai government has worked hard to eradicate it. They are generally viewed negatively by the Thais and survive in a sort of fourth-world state, often without citizenship or access to education, jobs and healthcare.
The hill tribes are struggling to keep their culture alive in the modern age. Because they lack citizenship, it is difficult for them to assimilate into mainstream Thai life (not that they should). Their lack of access to education and jobs puts them at risk for exploitation. Many of them are living in abject poverty which further complicates the situation with the Thai government. The hill tribes cannot own land and are often relocated by the Thai government, usually losing access to fertile growing areas.
Yesterday, I set out to visit a Padaung village. I hired a tuk tuk driver who took me roughly 30 km outside of Chiang Mai into the hills. The Padaung are often referred to as the long neck tribe on account of the women wearing brass neck coils that appear to elongate their necks. Girls first get neck coils at the age of five. As they age, each coil is replaced with a longer coil. The weight of the coil pushes the collar-bone down and compresses the rib cage. Contrary to widespread belief, the neck is not actually elongated. The illusion of a lengthened neck is created by the deformation of the clavicle.
The Padaungs are originally from Burma and fled into Northern Thailand during the 80s and 90s when military conflict drove them out. I had to pay to enter their village (500 baht or $16) which I paid somewhat skeptically wondering where the money ended up and if the village was authentic or if they were being exploited for commercial tourism. It ultimately didn’t matter. I had to see the women for myself. The dusty trails were surrounded by dense jungle forest. The houses and stalls were essentially bamboo huts, some on stilts. The women and young girls were sitting in their stalls working diligently weaving very fine scarves and fabrics. I’ve dabbled a little bit in silk imports from India but I’ve never seen such fine and elaborate work. Of course they wanted me to purchase their wears and I did a bit because I wanted to support them directly. The women told me it takes them 1-3 days per scarf which they then sell for 100 baht ($3.00). Some of them were more friendly than others. Many of the young girls appeared to be high as kites. Can you say opium haze? Several of them were gracious and kind and could speak a little English. I asked to photograph them and they mostly said yes. I felt a little strange about it; I didn’t want to treat them like animals in a zoo. Mostly I was interested in talking with them directly and looking into their deep, beautiful, black eyes.
I didn’t see very many men just women taking care of babies and working on their looms weaving their intricate designs. After a full tour of the village, I decided I should head out. I was the only American there and although they seemed authentic, it was commercial and that made me uncomfortable.
Upon my exit, I took a path in a different direction and I’m so glad I did. I ran into a handful of Akha hill tribe women. The Akha are Thai, said to have originated from Mongolia some 1,500 years ago. They practice a destructive form of slash and burn agriculture and opium is still widely used. They wear elaborate head dresses made of beads, coins and bells. They were incredibly colorful, approachable and fun-loving. The women were chewing paan which took me right back to India. Paan is a chewing tobacco wherein a betel leaf encloses tobacco, lime paste and an areca nut. It dissolves in the mouth and its users spit out a red paste. These women must use a lot of paan as their teeth were completely black. And I mean black as pebbles jutting out from their gums. They welcomed me in and we laughed, joked, danced and hugged. It was perhaps the single most heartwarming experience I’ve had in Thailand thus far. At one point, I went to leave with my tuk tuk driver but couldn’t tear myself away and returned to them. They seemed delighted to have me and I was delighted to be in their presence. I’d escaped the modern age temporarily and was among a group of loving hill tribe women who embody a traditional, tribal way of life. You might say that I traveled back in time. And there was no one with them but me. Unbelievable. Definitely one for the books. Thank you, Akha women!