Meeting the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand

During my day trip to Chiang Rai, I had the opportunity to meet some of the hill tribes of Thailand. The journey was long, but worth the trip.


I've read a couple of things about the tourist villages in northern Thailand, but I had to see the place myself to get a clearer picture of things. I didn't want to pass judgement, I wanted to maintain an open mind as to why these tribes remain in these fabricated villages, specifically for tourists.

The Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand

Thailand's northern hill tribes are quite diverse. During my trip, I was able to meet four hill tribes; Akha, Karen Long Neck, Palong, and Yao.

Akha Tribe
The Akha people migrated from China into the mountains of Northern Thailand during the civil between Laos and Myanmar. The Akha people are primarily an agricultural society to this day. The Akha religion, known as zahv, is characterized by a combination of ancestor worship and animism. The Akha wear elaborated head pieces and create all sorts of handwoven products.

Karen Long Neck Tribe
The Karen Long Necks, also known as Kayans, is a tribe from Myanmar that migrated into northern Thailand because of the conflict that has been ravaging Myanmar for decades.

Karen Long Neck Tribe

Karen Long Neck Tribe
The rings around their neck don't actually stretch their necks, but pushed the collar bone down to achieve an elongated neck look. The rings are put around the neck as early as 5 to 6 years old.

Karen Long Neck Tribe
The Karen Long Necks are the most prominent among the hill tribes in the little cultural village designed for tourists. They had their usual array of handmade products that were on full display. But the main attraction was the Karen Long Necks and their distinctly ringed necks. The rings are worn by Karen women as a sign of beauty.

Palong Tribe

Yao Tribe
There were two other hill tribes in the cultural village, the Yao and the Palong. All the tribes were selling all sorts of products in the village. The Karen Long Necks are treated quite differently because you have to pay an entrance fee (I think it was 200 to 300 Baht per person) to get inside. The guide gave us a good background about each tribe in the village, even providing sympathetic anecdotes about the hill tribes living there.

These tribes were pushed into northern Thailand because of conflict in Myanmar or Laos. It seemed like the tribes were put on display solely for tourists. It didn't feel like a real experience in an actual village from any of these tribes. But I thought that would they be better off back in the countries where they came from, surrounded by conflict that they do not want to be a part of? At the very least, their stay in this fabricated village sustains their families and gives them a steady flow of income.

*A visit to the hill tribe village was included in the day trip I took from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, it cost me around 1100 Baht excluding the fee to enter the Karen Long Neck village.

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