Hill People

When we were in Northern Thailand a couple of months back, we spent several hours in two villages where Hill People (or Hill Tribes) had been resettled. I will admit that I had very mixed feelings about visiting these villages. While I had a strong desire to see how they lived and to get a glimpse of their culture and way of life, the concept of a government-sponsored resettlement village struck me as a bit too close to the approach that zoos have taken over the years to move animals from cages and other enclosures to larger, more expansive, naturalistic settings. A “progressive” zoo can attempt to create a Serengeti-like environment over acres of land, but I expect that the captive wildebeests, zebras, and elephants are not fooled. (Why does the word progressive always terrify me? And why does the phrase government-sponsored make my skin crawl?) Despite my misgivings, we made our journey and I am glad that we did.

Hill People is a generic term given to tribes that have migrated south from China and Tibet and who currently live and move between Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. There are six main tribes — the Akha, the Hmong, the Karen, the Lahu, the Lisu, and the Yao (or Mien) — with many sub-tribes as well as smaller tribes. The largest tribe, the Karen, is subdivided into the White Karen and the Red Karen; the White Karen is composed of the Sgaw, the Pa’o and the Pwo, and the Red Karen is composed of the Bre, the Padaung, the Yinbaw, and the Zayein. Each major tribe has its own language, distinctive dress, culture, customs, and beliefs.

Collectively, there are several million people in these tribes, and these people are typically not citizens of any country. Somewhere between three-quarters and one million Hill People live in Thailand. These people are given identification cards and they are allowed to live and work in Thailand, but their movement is limited. As we drove through the mountains of Northern Thailand, we went through numerous police checkpoints. The checkpoints were nothing for a tourist — we were typically just waved right through, often without the car even stopping. Our guide explained that the police were looking for drug smugglers and for tribal people who were outside of where they were permitted.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, many of the Hill Tribes produced opium using slash-and-burn agricultural techniques in the mountains of Northern Thailand. Opium was a very lucrative crop for them, but it was destructive of both the environment and of the lives of many Hill People who became addicts. The Doi Tung Project was started by the Princess Mother in 1987 (see: http://khunkurt.wordpress.com/2011/05/21/mae-fah-luang/) to address the interrelated problems of opium production, environmental destruction, and lack of economic opportunity for the Hill People.

Traditional Akha Headgear

The first village that we went to was home to about 150 Akha people. The Akha are subsistence farmers who will hunt for small birds and game;  the women produce handicrafts, most notably highly decorated hats (picture below.)  Silver coins, beads, feathers, sea shells, and fur are all used to decorate these headdresses.

The Akha women chew betel for a mild stimulant (like my morning coffee!) Three ingredients are used to make the chew — the leaf from the betel plant, a nut from the areca palm, and lime (the mineral not the fruit.) These ingredients are cut up and mixed together with a mortar and pestle. The betel causes lips to become very red and teeth to blacken, but it apparently helps protect teeth from decay and aids digestion.

Akha Spirit Gate

Like most of the Hill People, the Akha believe in spirits (animism). Since most Hill People are illiterate, the teachings are passed from generation to generation orally. The Akhas are able to trace their male lineage back to Sumio, the first Akha. To make it a bit easier, the Akhas use the last syllable of the father’s name as the first syllable of the son’s name. Nevertheless, Akhas need to learn the male names back 50 to 60 generations (and I thought that the Mormons were good!) Before two Akhas can marry, the parents need to recite the names to make sure that there have been no common ancestor for the past six generations.

At the entrances to the village are spirit gates that are designed to keep the bad spirits out and to let the good ones in. New gates are built each year, but only by the males of the village.

Nothing Too Subtle Here

Or Here

The house that we visited was built directly on the ground, not on stilts like so many tribal houses. The house had a dirt floor, woven bamboo walls, and a thatched roof. It was raining quite heavily on the day that we visited and the paths outside were very muddy. Inside the house, everything was dry and quite comfortable. The house had electricity (not sure it was up to code) and a fluorescent tube provided light. There was also a TV and DVD player for entertainment.

Exterior of Akha House

Interior of Akha House

Bamboo Walls

Thatched Roof

After we left the Akha house, we walked through a local market where Akha women were selling their handicrafts. We bought a traditional hat as a souvenir and then headed down the hill to a second village. This village was home to the Karen and the Lahu tribes.

The Karen are the largest tribe of Hill People in Thailand with a population of over one-quarter million. The Karen people are known for their work with elephants, and mahouts  (elephant drivers) are often from the Karen tribe.

Young Karen Girl with Neck Rings

The Karen are probably the best known Hill Tribe because of the Padaung, or Long-Neck Karen, sub-tribe. The Padaung Karen women have brass rings placed around their necks, beginning when they are adolescent girls with additional rings added each year. Since the rings are made from a continuous brass coil, the old rings must first be removed before a new set can be put on. This process can take a full day to complete

The rings do not cause the women’s necks to get longer, although it sure looks that way. Instead, the weight — 10 to 15 pounds — and constant pressure of the rings causes the collar-bone and ribs to compress. Since the rings also cause the neck muscles to weaken, a woman who takes off the rings initially has a difficult time supporting her head without them. Historically, the rings were made from gold and the story is that the rings were used to protect the women from animals biting their necks when they slept at night. Frankly, I wonder how they can sleep at all with these rings.

The Karen women are noted for their dyeing and weaving. Of course, all the dyes are organic –they are made from roots, leaves, seeds and bark from plants, e.g., jackfruit, turmeric, rambutan, etc. The resulting colors are bright and the weaving is done by the women in the village.

Young Girls In Front of Hand-Woven Items

Karen Woman Weaving in the Background

We also visited a Lahu home in the second village. Like many Thai homes, it is built on stilts to provide protection from flooding. Firewood and animals are also kept beneath the home. The interior had a bamboo floor (with a small trap door that opened to the ground below), electricity that was used for a TV, a single light bulb, and a rice cooker. The Lahu house had simple, thin boards for walls, unlike the woven walls of the Akha house.

Lahu House on Stilts

Interior of House -- Note Rice Cooker (on Left) and Smoke on Roof from Cooking

Lahu Woman -- Note the Large Discs in Her Ears

Exterior Walls Are Thin Boards and Not Woven

A good source for more information on the people of the Hill Tribes is: http://www.hilltribe.org/index.shtml

Kop Khun Krab.

© 2011 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.

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