by Angelina Christy
I was in the Chiang Mai area last year and as most people who visit the region, I took a trek through the hills in the Doi Luang National Park. I didn’t go for a one day trek neither did I stay in the park for the two nights, three day tour. I stayed in those hills for 47 days.
I am an author, not one of those best selling ones, a mere self published author who has a passion for writing about people, especially those ethnic minorities that have been unfortunate enough to be persecuted because they believe in distinctive values and are devoted to the land on which they live .
When I left the town of Chiang Mai behind me in company my guide the clouds were gathering menacingly. It was 9.30 am on Monday March 23rd.
Unlike most of the tourists in the area I had no camera with me, I don’t need one, principally because I write down all I see and as most tribal people I find that when somebody takes a picture of you he or she is also stealing part of your personality. Of course, they will never tell any traveler that, as its part of the tourist strategy.
The hill tribes people in Northern Thailand and the Chiang Mai area are mostly rural and although these ethnic minorities are very colorful with their customary dresses, most lead a rural life and are poor, thus any opportunities to uplift their economy are always welcome.
This is why they accept the presence of tourist, for they would indeed prefer to be left alone and live their life in peaceful retreat. So don’t be duped, just because they welcome your arrival, does not mean they are particularly happy to see you, unless of course if you contribute in the daily tasks as I did during my stay.
This is not because they are displeased to have you, but let’s face it, can you imagine guests knocking at your door every four or five days and having to cook, prepare and make conversation? Are you making a concrete contribution to their community? Do we know what they really think, feel and dream of? No, of course we don’t, but I wanted to try and find out.
In the hills around Chiang Mai there are more than half a dozen tribes living with their own distinct customs, languages and dress and although you may see hundreds of tourist brochures depicting these ethnic minorities with their colorful dresses and funny looking headdress in order to attract tourists to their villages and purchase the handicrafts and silver jewelry they make, these tribes live in isolation and poverty.
Amongst the hill tribe groups are the Lahu, Karen, Hmong, Lisu, Padaung and Akha. These tribes are again divided into more clans and subcategories, which again have their distinct spiritual beliefs and unique costumes.
I was heading for one of the Akha villages located north of the River Kok, which originates in the Shan State, Burma and flows down through the Chiang Mai region, spilling into the Mekong River in the Chiang Saen district.
There is a definite reason I chose the Akha for my research, as these are the poorest and most down-trodden of all the hill tribes. They desperately try to resist being assimilated by the Thai culture but their utter state of poverty does not help. Interestingly enough they are also the most fascinating and vibrant of all the hill tribes, but due to the unpopular custom they have of eating dog meat and rarely washing, outsiders tend to consider them as the most primitive of all the hill tribes.
The Akha’s originally come from certain regions of Tibet and Burma and during the last decades many others have migrated to Northern Thailand due to the Burmese military regime and now number about 70,000. They are also known as the Egor by the Thai people, which is a derogatory name due to their lowest status level amongst the hill tribes and because of this they are considered worthless peasants often exploited by drug lords and abused by corrupt police.
What I wanted to discover was why it was that the most fascinating amongst all the ethnic minorities was the one that was undergoing such a depreciating campaign and was suffering such poverty, subjugated by all the other tribes and the Thai population. Although I thought I already held the key to the answer I wanted to find out for myself.
I had actually organized my stay with one of the Humanitarian Organizations that promotes the education and culture of the Akha people, as I thought that the best way to get to know how these people lived and what their real thoughts were was by living and working with them.
Daily schedules in the village were packed with activities, but funnily enough I still found the time to learn the art of taking time to live, as the family I was staying with always seemed to be busy with several tasks at a time but never in a hurry. More than once I found myself waiting for two or three hours not knowing what the daily schedule was.
This was obviously to emphasize how our lives are planned out months in advance, and when we are confronted with any slight changes we panic because our schedules have been upset; while for the Akha people daily tasks are set each day and this is their way of life so distant from ours.
When I finally reached the Akha village where I was to stay I found it nestled high up in the mountain side on a saddle leading to a higher mountain behind it and often I woke up to cool mornings with an impressive view over the thick clouds below. Although it was the hot season with temperatures reaching as high as 32°C, the evenings and early mornings could get cold up in these mountains.
The huts in the village were nearly all made of bamboo with grass roofs that are replaced each year and were divided into two sections one for the women and children and another for the men, sometimes you could be lucky enough to have an extra public area on the inside.
To view part two of “Trekking Through Chiang Mai” please click the link.