Thailand's Hill Tribe People:
If you’re visiting northern Thailand, especially the Chiang Mai region, you’ll hear the phrase “hill tribes” thrown around a lot, especially by travel agents trying to sell you a tour, though it’s not always clear exactly what that means. The so-called “hill tribes” are essentially groups of ethnic minorities living in Northern Thailand. There are six main groups of hill tribe people -- the Akha, Lahu, Karen, Hmong (or Miao), Mien (or Yao) and Lisu. Because of their colorful traditional dress, dramatically elongated necks in the case of the Paduang subgroup of Karen people, and different customs and languages, they’ve long been considered a tourist attraction in Thailand. Scores of hiking companies and travel agencies offer hill tribe tours where foreigners hike out or are driven into the surrounding mountains to visit these people in outlying villages. During the visits, tourists are often charged an entry fee and asked to buy handicrafts made by these minorities.
In recent years issues have been raised about whether it’s ethical to visit the hill tribe people of Thailand, not just because contact with Westerners is likely to destroy their cultures, but because there has been growing evidence that these people are being exploited by tour operators and others who profit from their popularity among visitors. Some have described hill tribe treks as visiting “human zoos,” where the subjects are essentially trapped in their villages, compelled to wear traditional garb and paid little money for their time (obviously, this is one extreme, and there are examples of hill tribe villages that do not fit this description). The plight of these ethnic minorities in Thailand is made more complicated by the fact that many do not have Thai citizenship and are thus already marginalized people with limited rights and few options or avenues for redress.
The Long Neck Paduang:
The biggest tourist attraction among the hill tribes tends to be the long-neck Paduang. Seeing women wearing stacks of metal rings, placed there since birth, which distort and elongate their necks, is quite shocking and fascinating. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to find a tour that allows you to visit “authentic” Paduang, i.e., Paduang who aren’t just wearing the rings because they’ve been compelled to or because they know they’ll be able to make money off of tourists by doing so. If you’re looking for ethical travel options, it’s probably better to skip any tour that advertises the Paduang as part of the package.
All of this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to visit villages in Northern Thailand in an ethical way. It means that tourists who want to “do the right thing” just need to be a little thoughtful about the type of tour they go on and the tour operators leading it. In general, the best tours are the ones where you go in small groups and stay in villages themselves. These home stays are almost always very rough by Western standards (housing and toilet facilities are very basic, sleeping quarters are often just a sleeping bag on the floor of a shared room). For those interested in other cultures and looking for an opportunity to meaningfully interact with people, they can be very rewarding though.