Hangin’ with The Hill People in Thailand

Underneath the warm blankets came the sound of squealing, grunting and farting. Residing underneath our bedding in the guest house built on stilts, the pigs roamed around all night oblivious to the difference between day and night. Needing to pee badly, I stumbled out the hut door, tripped over some clothes and meandered to the “bathroom”, a separate hut with no lighting, a pit toilet seat on the floor and a bucket and hose. Diane held it in all night.

giant pigs

Giant squealing pigs live under the house

Possibly the best part of our annual Expat Destination Research Vacation, our visit to a real village far away from the touristy main roads was fascinating from start to finish. Departing the main road, we embarked on a four-hour journey just to get there. Utilizing a long-boat to traverse the muddy river, a mahout to guide us up a narrow trail on an elephant, and a bushwhacking local to hike through the jungle back down, just reaching the Karen Hill People was an adventure.

Thailand was our first trip to Southeast Asia and holds a special place in our hearts. Instantly falling in love with everything, Diane remarked to me that she could live even there. Coming from a Canadian used to minus thirty winters and brief summers where 80 degrees is unbearably hot, this said a lot. Automatically set in our minds as PLAN “B, it all started here. Remaining our second choice if Malaysia somehow doesn’t work out, the visit opened our eyes to the magical Land of Smiles where the language is strange, a massage hurts like hell and the possibilities for adventure are endless.

thai trip logo 2This post is the first in a series about Thailand featuring pictures, descriptions and events from our experiences as wanna-be-expats. Starting with a format of most unusual or interesting as opposed to a travelogue or chronological format, please bear in mind that many things may have changed but I’m confident the Karen Hill People of Northern Thailand haven’t become You-Tube junkies yet.

Deciding where to go is extremely hard when two weeks of vacation restrict your life every year. Wishing to see as many regions as possible, we visited four major regions, opting for a bit of everything. Starting with a quick highlight of Bangkok’s most famous sites, we hopped a plane to Chiang Mai after four days and visited the Northern region including Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle where three countries meet at one time. Using a private guide, we toured the markets, temples, city, an amazing elephant conservation center and of course, The Hill People. From there, we hopped on another plane and flew to Krabi for some laid back beach time away from the party atmosphere of Phuket.

Many tour operators offer trips to see The Hill People. Too often, they take you by car to a sad and pathetic government subsidized tourist ripoff where some local people make junk. Determined to avoid such a trip, we decided on a small low-key company called Wayfarers Travel that offered real off the beaten path expeditions off . Usually conducted with English-speaking guides in air-conditioned small vans perfect for two travelers, private tours are the best way to see the country at your own pace.

 The  MOST COMMON sight in Thailand. We saw hundreds of Buddahs

The MOST COMMON sight in Thailand. We saw hundreds of Buddahs

Compliments of bigboyravel.com, the following excerpt explains a bit about The Karen Tribe, one of five major groups of tribal people who inhabit the high mountainous regions of Thailand. Others include The Skha, The Lahu, The Mein and The Hmong. Although Southeast Asian tourism has increased tenfold since our trip, government policy and isolation generally keep things the same sans perhaps some more smartphones.

The Karen are a tribal group who have historically lived in the hills on the Myanmar (formerly Burma) side of the Thai border.  Best recognized for their elongated necks, the Karen women wear heavy brass rings around their necks, forearms, and shins. While the Karen men are mainly field workers and farmers, the women have a rich history of crafting from wood carving to weaving.  Overall the Long Neck Tribes live a rugged, tedious, and simple lifestyle, but the fruits of their labor are colorful and very lively.

There are still around 40,000 Karen members today, but thousands have had to flee Burma over the decades due to political unrest.  Fleeing to Thailand was a very safe choice for many, but the ones that came are largely illegal immigrants and do not have options for gaining Thai citizenship.  While things are much better for the Karen that have fled from Burma, the lack of opportunity for the Long Necks has confined the groups to small pockets separate from most of modern Thailand.  On one hand it is beautiful they have been able to keep their traditions alive and on the other it is a struggle to balance the new world with the old.

Leaving the comfort of our van, we said goodbye to our guide and boarded a traditional Thai Long Boat for a scenic one hour ride down a murky river. Passing native villages, modern civilization soon disappeared, replaced by a spectacular backdrop of lush green fields. Travelling slowly, we eventually arrived at a small dock for part two of the excursion. Screaming some indiscernible language to the dock workers, our boat guide passed us to the capable hands of our next guide, a local mahout.  Boarding our taxi was unlike any cab as a large Asian elephant bowed over, allowing us to climb on in.

Transportation by elephant is not the world’s most comfortable mode. A two person padded seat mounted is to the rump while the mahout simply sits up front directly on the elephant. After a quick safety demonstration (how not to fall off), the elephant began a steep and sharp ascent up a single track dirt trail hardly suitable for a professional mountain biker. Meandering up the mountain,  the large elephant’s agility of such astounded us. An entourage followed close behind. Travelling to and from the village when tourists like us come by, the staff is usually local villagers that live in small huts by the river.

Slower than the boat, the trail allows an unparalleled view of life in the mountainous regions. Often allowed to harvest local rice fields to supplement income, we caught glimpses of an incredibly hard and tedious life albeit one devoid of many modern-day problems. Stopping for views of the rice plants and fields, we gained a new appreciation of real work complete with no cubicles or computers. Taking almost three hours, we began to catch the first views of our home for the night almost the dusk appeared. Set at the top of a mountain, the views of the valley stretched out below.

Arriving at the village, we stopped to feed the car a banana or two before meeting our host family.

A tip for the driver

A tip for the driver

Our overnight accommodations were inside the floor of a large hut constructed on stilts where a family of six lives.Although encouraged to ask questions, feelings of awkwardness are natural for travelers unaccustomed to a homestay. Even though this particular village receives several tourists per month, the route is not navigable during the rainy season and they might go six months without encountering another outsider. Lacking outsiders for long time periods, their reclusive nature is understandable. We learned a few basics about their daily life but nothing that really stands out years later.

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Cooking dinner in a wok on the floor of the house, the host served traditional Thai dishes with chicken, vegetables, moderate spices, rice and a sweet dessert. Served on a platter, we enjoyed the meal with our guide and the host. Noticeably absent was the rest of the family, possibly due to local customs or maybe just a lack of interest. Devoid of the typical sweet, salty and spicy combination usually found in Thai food, the chicken no doubt came from the scrawny things running all about. The enormous pigs which living under the house appeared to be pets or maybe pork is only for special occasions. Stomach irregularities weren’t an issue unlike the street food in other parts of Thailand.

Without much to do after dinner, we settled into our bed which was an area of flat floor in the space designated as the guest bedroom. Sleeping next door was the rest of the family. Electricity is available but very limited making flashlights the lighting of choice. While not any worse than camping, the fun starts later in the evening when the sounds of pigs squealing and dogs barking disturb the otherwise silent night. Living underneath the house, the enormous pigs make a cornucopia of sounds making a tough night for light sleepers like me.

Our bed for the night

Our bed for the night

 The toilet pit

The toilet pit

The next morning we set out to explore the village. Unlike many tourist traps, this village is a working village with real people engaging in their daily lives. Like all places, kids rode bicycles and played. Women washed clothes, made various objects for sale and attended to daily chores. We visited the local school, walked down all the streets and came away enlightened with a heightened understanding of another culture still thriving without a world of modern conveniences. (They do have cellphones but unlike most South American villages we’ve seen, no TV’s. This may have changed by now).

Almost ready to leave we posed for one last picture and visited the local school.

Waving good-bye to our hosts, we set off on the third and last leg of the journey; the hike back down the mountain.Unlike the relatively easy ride up, the hike down involves a serous trek through an undeveloped jungle. Similar to Himalayan Sherpas, navigating tough terrain requires a knowledgeable local. But not just any local. Using hand-made machetes made from giant local pods, our guide for the hike walked first hacking away at various obstacles as he cleared a path back down the mountain using a series of semi recognizable switch back trails.

Sweating profusely by mid morning, the hike was our first attempt at backpacking through the torrid heat and humidity of the tropics. Remembering the agony reminds me why I named the blog “Experimental Expats” instead of something more permanent sounding. We’re older now and Diane is an Alberta native. For most Canadians, trudging through the jungle with 100% humidity ranks up there with a Team Russia Olympic Gold medal victory in hockey. Fainthearted weekend hikers need not apply.

large insects on the trail

large insects on the trail

After passing a beautiful waterfall, some funky plants, and countless tropical insects, we eventually reached the bottom of the valley. Greeted by a little boy akin to a Travel Channel Poster Boy, the guide showed us a funky arch that had something to do with an ancient burial ground. Another beautiful little remote Thai village and a cold bottle of Coke was waiting as we graciously thanked our fearless guide for getting us safely down the mountain.

our friend at the bottom

our friend at the bottom

Rejoining the private tour, we felt refreshed and awakened despite the sweat pouring down our faces. Ready for the air-conditioned ride back to Chaing Mai, the memories of hangin’ with the hill people stayed with us then and now. Awesome experience and highly recommended.

They gave us a ride back to the van after the long hot hike

They gave us a ride back to the van after the long hot hike

Recommendations If You Go:

Stay in Chaing Mai. Try Sira Boutique Hotel for an excellent cozy stay close to everything. Look for an authentic excursion that requires hiking, boating and perhaps overland transportation by elephant to avoid being ripped off at one of several communities dubbed as “Hill People” but looking more like roadside tourist traps designed to earn the locals a quick buck. We stopped at a few of these places on the drive back; The pictures are incredible but sadly, the community looked like a government propaganda brochure. Several famous “long-neck” tribes live right off the main highway. Visit them if time is very limited.

And for another fabulous and educational experience, be sure to visit Patera Elephant Farm (post based on our trip to follow)

Has anyone recently taken a similar trip? We’re interested in a dialogue about current conditions in Northern Thailand’s Hill Tribe Country for a possible visit once we’re settled into our new lives in Penang.

Start a conversation or leave a comment !!




5 thoughts on “Hangin’ with The Hill People in Thailand

  1. Pingback: Papaya Salad and Pad-Thai, please | Experimental Expats

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