Chiang Rai: Meeting hill-tribes in Northern Thailand

With the amount of rain we got in the last couple of days, there was no better time to lock ourself in our hotel room and sort out some of the pictures we’ve taken lately. As I anticipated in my previous post, we went to spend two days with a Akha family, in a tiny little village, close to the border with Burma, north of Chiang Rai. We also visited a Lisu village, not far from our hosts’ village and learned something about their cultures.

This time too, like some time ago in Laos, it was a responsible eco-tourist thing we went for – Natural Focus, the provider we chose, call this CBT, or community based tourism. The hill-tribe tourist business in Northern Thailand , as well as in Northern Vietnam and Laos is a quite controversial one (stories of exploitation, prejudice and racism are not unheard of) so, when we take tours like these we try to do it responsibly and only chose those providers who give back to these communities and help their development while also helping preserving their traditions.

The Akha

Akha people are an ethnic minority originally from South China. They first migrated to Burma, then some moved to Northern Thailand and Laos. All Akha people used to be animist, but in recent years a number of them were converted to Christianism by protestant missionaries from Taiwan and catholic missionaries from the US. While missionaries were accused by activists of attempting to ‘kill’ Akha’s traditions, it is also true, on the other hand, that the adoption of Christianisms put an end to some controversial cultural habits – for instance, if a woman gave birth to twins, she was supposed to kill them, as having twins was considered to be a bad omen for the village. If the women refused to kill the twins, then the community would expel her from the village. Christian Akha have dropped this tradition, and similarly they gave up some propitiatory rituals and festivals involving the ‘sacrifice’ of animals, like pigs and chickens – In the context of poverty, having dropped these rituals entailed more food available to the communities and less ‘religion-related’ costs. Traditionally Akha people where involved in the cultivation and the trade of Opium, which was (and still is) quite common in the so-called Golden Triangle. However it looks like more and more Akha people have quit this business over time. Akha people in Northern Thailand weren’t allowed to get Thai citizenship, with all the disadvantages that this entailed. However, 7 years ago, as part of a wider project started by ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, hill tribes, including Akha were recognized the right to education and health care, so more and more young people from many minorities are now going to school. Also, in the last years many minority villages have seen an improvement in their infrastructure, with some villages being finally reached by electricity.

Our hosts

Our host family was a big family. Archá and Buphae, grandfather and grandmother, their sons and daughters, most of whom we didn’t get to meet, and their granddaughters and grandsons. They all speak Akha, but the younger generation speak Thai because they learn it in school. Archá and Buphae live in a wooden house, with a veranda that allows amazing views on the mountains. They are both great cooks and we enjoyed their culinary abilities. They escaped from Burma 30 years ago. The escape took them 4 nights (they couldn’t walk during the day or it would be too easy for the military to spot them) and Buphae was eight-months pregnant, plus she had a two years old daughter. Finally they crossed the border and settled into Thailand. Archá and Buphae now have a shop, but they also run a little farm where they grow corn and other vegetables. Plus, they host some travellers, from time to time, through Natural Focus, which allows them to round up their income.

Click the pictures below to enlarge them.

Buphae cooking our dinner.
Pismai, Buphae granddaughter, taking a peek while her granny was cooking dinner.
Pismai, Buphae's granddaughter, taking a peek while her granny was cooking dinner.
Ratchaneekorn, another of Buphae's grandaughters. She is 12, a very smart girl, and a good student.
Ratchaneekorn, another of Buphae's grandaughters. She is 12, a very smart girl, and a good student.
Thidaporn, Pismai and Marisá posing for a picture.
Thidaporn, Pismai and Marisá posing for a picture.
Buphae wearing her traditional Akha headdress. Akha people wear their traditional outfits only in special occasions. This time she wore it for us so we could take some pictures.
Buphae wearing her traditional Akha headdress. Akha people wear their traditional outfits only in special occasions. This time she wore it for us so we could take some pictures.

Law Yo – The Akha village

Law yo is a small village with less than 50 households and less then 400 people. The majority of houses are made of wood and stand on high stilts, but there are also some buildings made of bricks and cement, including the kindergarden and the church.

One of the neighbours making a door with wood.
One of the neighbours making a door with wood.
Villagers doing community work in the main square of the village.
Villagers doing community work in the main square of the village.
Children playing in the square.
Children playing in the square.
A typical stilt house.
A typical stilt house.

The Lisu and their village

Lisu people are another ethnic group living in Northern Thailand and various regions of Burma and China. Lisu living in Thailand are animist and believe in ghosts and spirits. Lisu people don’t have first names, and when a new child is born they’re called boy, or girl, depending on their sex, followed by a number denoting whether they are the first, second,(and so on) son or daughter. For instance, the first girl is called girl 1, the first son is called boy 1, the second girl is called girl 2 and the second boy, boy 2.

Meet girl 1 - she showed her bamboo house. When we noticed there were no windows, we were explained that Lisu houses don't have windows, because they believe ghosts can get into the house through windows.
Meet girl 1 - she showed us her bamboo house. When we noticed there were no windows, we were explained that Lisu houses don't have windows, because Lisu people believe ghosts can get into their house through windows.
A child wearing typical Lisu trousers.
A child wearing typical Lisu trousers.
A child wearing her traditional Lisu dress.
A child wearing her traditional Lisu dress.
on the way back to Law Yo, we foundd these clothes on the roadside. It looks like in the Lisu tradition when someone gets sick, their family throw away their clother, as they are believed to cause their sickness.
On the way back to Law Yo, we found these clothes on the roadside. It looks like in the Lisu tradition when someone gets sick, their family throw away their clothes, as they are believed to cause their sickness.

As usual I will post more pictures on facebook, so check our page soon.