Hill Tribe villages in northern Thailand

(Last Updated On: May 13, 2020)

We are to visit two adjoining hill tribe villages today – one belonging to the Akha and the other to the Yao (Mien). The villages are located along a dirt track, so at Mae Chan we transfer from the bus to songtaews (pickup trucks with seating in the covered bed) to make the trip.It reminds me of travel in Africa, but here I can only peek out through the small windows as we bump up the narrow, twisting road.

We are dropped off at a cluster of dusty buildings, most of which turn their back to the road.

The Akha are one of the poorest and most traditional of the hill tribes. Like the other hill tribes here, their traditional means of survival have become difficult to sustain. While not particularly welcomed by most Thai’s, their adherence to traditional dress and religious practices has made them an increasingly valuable tourist resource. It remains to be seen how well the Akha and the other hill tribes can maintain their balance.

From a group of handicraft stalls just off the road, we follow a shady footpath through the village gate.

I don’t have a sense of how much of this village is “authentic” and how much has been set up for tourists, but – despite obvious tourist accommodations like the endless stands selling handicrafts – it seems to also be a real village where people really do live and work. (Some “villages” are actually uninhabited mock-ups staffed by people who come in to work for the day.) Along with the frame for the ceremonial swing, there are many signs of daily life here: A mish-mash of laundry hanging on various clotheslines, freely wandering pigs, household items scattered just inside small homes, and handmade tools neatly arranged where they are being used.

On the other hand, we are continually accosted by adults and children alike, most dressed in traditional costume, all offering various inexpensive (and cheaply made) items for purchase and the opportunity to photograph them (for a small charge). This is certainly also a commercial venture.

But they are so beautiful and the costumes they wear are generally authentic — and most of the villagers (many of whom wear a mix of traditional costumes and “ordinary” clothing) are engaged in the tasks of daily life. Many women are gathered in the shady interior of their homes where I can see them sewing various textiles. Some, like the women patiently chopping banana stalks to mix into her pig chow, actually seem oblivious to our presence. However, once asked, this woman is clearly pleased to explain her task (Chris translating for us) and proud of the large, healthy-looking pigs she is raising.

Although we passed a few more substantial houses along the road, this appears to be a poor place – one dominated by the stalls that display the handicrafts and other merchandise available for purchase. I suspect the sale of these handicrafts forms the bulk of the cash economy in this village.

The Yao (Mien) village is just a short walk down the road. People from this ethnic group tend to be less traditional than the Akha. They practice a more sustainable type of agriculture and this village seems much wealthier than the neighboring Ahka village (although most of the village is set out of sight, far back from the road and not particularly accessible to tourists.)

Where we visit, the scene is dominated by the stands offering handicrafts for sale.

I have wanted to buy hill tribe jewelry and textiles while in Thailand, but have not seen anything that was either interesting or decent quality. Here I first find some nice embroidery, and then I find some that is incredible. Time to buy something.

The woman who made the finest piece I see is a tough bargainer, showing me how this piece compares to other pieces available for sale and then waving her slightly flattened finger tips before my eyes to show me the physical impact of her work. Being a seamstress of sorts myself, I know she isn’t lying about the amount of work that went into this piece and I also realize that she is probably also damaging her eyesight by doing such detailed work in poor light.

The piece costs more than I should spend, but I buy it and wish I had more time to shop here.

The hill tribes present one of those quandaries of travel – it seems a little exploitative to visit these villages and photograph their residents, but having seen the young women with their babies slung against their backs selling handicrafts in the streets of Chiang Mai at midnight, I really believe these village visits are a better option. The money brought in this way is significant and has a direct impact on their standard of living. I hope someday that the direct sales made here will allow those young mothers to spend evenings at home with their children instead of schlepping their wares in the city.

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