204th Meeting – November 2000


Eco-Tourism and Hill Tribes in Northern Thailand

A talk by John Davies


A summary of John’s talk:

Tourism amongst the hill tribes of northern Thailand is a relatively recent phenomenon. The more accessible villages were reached over thirty years ago, but there are still villages in the remotest areas which have rarely seen a westerner. The organization and advertising of hill tribe tours is still largely controlled by Thais, there is as yet little interest from the big western travel agents, so tribal tourism is generally local, small scale, unsophisticated and inexpensive. Facilities on the tours and treks are basic; there is no attempt to coddle, so its appeal is largely to the young and slightly intrepid tourist. There are enough of these for the trips to make a reasonable profit for local tour agencies, but no way to produce the large profits needed to make hill tribe tourism attractive to the major western agent.

In recent years the increasing popularity of ecotourism has seen some attempts to move the hilltribe experience up-market, providing comfortable accommodation within or near hilltribe villages and employing staff from those villages. However, the typical hill tribe tourist is fairly young, single, traveling cheaply through Asia, staying in cheap local hotels or guest houses, eating at outdoor food markets, trying to live within the local culture rather than observing it. They will be a student, teacher or professional person who has taken several weeks or months off to ‘see the world’ – the modern equivalent of the Victorian grand tour.  They will be interested in ‘experiencing’ the culture they are seeing, they will tend to be liberal politically, be very environmentally aware and try very hard not to be patronizing in their attitudes to the locals. They may prefer to be called ‘travelers’ rather than tourists. They will probably have experimented with illegal drugs, perhaps looking towards a hill tribe trip as an excuse to sample opium and marijuana cheaply and openly.

Most tourists arriving in Thailand are unaware of the existence of the hill tribes. Since Chiang Mai is the second city of Thailand, many tourists visit and only then decide on a hill tribe trek.

To appeal to the type of tourist described above, the tour agencies need to project an alluring, unique image upon the traveler. The hill tribes, of course, are not promoted by themselves, but by the Thai agents.

The hill tribes are portrayed as living a life close to, and in tune with, nature. They are put forward almost as ‘noble savages’ living in a quaint and fascinating way, untouched by western civilization. The sight of a plastic plate, transistor radio or T shirt spoils this image for most tourists. If too many of these are seen, the village is ‘spoilt’ and the agencies are always looking for new, more remote and apparently untouched communities to exploit.  Nearer the cities, manicured hill tribe villages, whose populations depend almost entirely on tourism, are the alternative for the less adventurous, more comfort conscious tourist.

As communications, especially roads, improve in northern Thailand, more villages become accessible without the need for exhausting treks through the hills, so it is possible for the more sedate middle aged tourist to experience the hill tribes. Their limitations are likely to be time rather than money, so the comfort and speed of a coach trip to a hill tribe village is appealing, and profits to the tour agent correspondingly larger.

These tours tend to be organized by the larger, more prestigious Thai travel companies, often acting as operators for western agents. For the generally younger and fitter ‘traveler’ with plenty of time and not much money, the physical effort of the trek to remoter areas adds to the challenge and satisfaction. Some of these young travelers may organize treks themselves, with the considerable risk of robbery or death, not from the villagers, but the bandits who operate in some areas. Without a guide, they are unlikely to be aware of the etiquette and taboos of the tribes, causing animosity and a poor relationship between the tribes and westerners.

Most of the younger trekkers go out on the standard jungle tour; three or four days walking, staying in the villages of two or three different hilltribes. Usually included will be an elephant trek for half a day and a day’s rafting down a river. For the majority of these tourists it is a worthwhile and deeply enjoyable experience. The authenticity of the villages is rarely questioned, nor the economic links between the tour guides and the villages.

Hill tribe tourism is rarely conducted for the benefit of the hill tribes. They have no say in its organization or regulation. They are simply an attraction, a useable resource, a source of profit, albeit meager, for the tour companies. Interaction between the villagers and the tourists is not encouraged or desirable, as this may spoil their integrity and therefore their usefulness.  You may feel, amongst the hill tribe people, that you are in a human zoo, but not be quite sure which side of the bars you are on at times. To counteract this undesirable trend, Lisu Lodge, Mae Taeng, is one of the new breed of tourist accommodations that are run by the tribes themselves and provide a new source of income for a few hilltribe villages.

The peoples of the hill tribes are generally hospitable towards strangers – it is an important part of their culture, as we have seen. Their first contacts with westerners, however, caused much fear and consternation. With further contact, it became apparent that the tourists meant no harm, and a sequence of changes in attitudes took place. At first, tourists were treated with traditional, and lavish, hospitality – attempts at payment would be refused.  Further contacts led to benevolent but passive indulgence. This may be followed by exploitive attempts to take advantage of the tourist, by begging or the hard selling of handicrafts. Finally, the most visited villages become dependant on tourism, devoting all their efforts to the manufacture of artifacts to sell to the tourist. This last stage has only happened in the most accessible villages which may have several hundred visitors a day.

On the ‘jungle tour’, visitors stay overnight and are not separated from the tribes people, who may be sleeping in the same house, usually the headman’s, as would any other guest.  The host family will probably cook for the tourists, but they will be segregated in a separate room. There will probably be little interaction between tourist and villager, apart from singing or dancing performed for the tourists by villagers, and sometimes vice versa. The main barrier is language. None of the villagers is likely to speak any European language, although most now speak Thai. The guide is the only source of information, and is likely to be selective in what he says, but will usually explain to the tourist the basics of the hilltribe life and beliefs. The guide is of great importance to the hill tribe as well as to the tourist. He will prevent friction between villager and tourist by explaining the importance of correct behaviour and taboos. He will negotiate the terms on which the group stays with the village – where they stay, what food is to be cooked, what payments are to be paid and to whom. To the villagers, the guide is an important link with the outside world. He brings regional, national and foreign news, current developments and fashions and often modern goods that the villagers will not have seen before. He frequently brings photographs of previous trips which many of the villagers are eager to see. In some villages the people are eager to have their photographs taken as they know they are likely to see themselves the next time the guide visits.

Hilltribe guides are all trained by the government and have to pass a difficult examination to qualify. All have graduated from college. There are good reasons for this, but unfortunately the number of hilltribe people themselves who are sufficiently well educated to qualify is very low. The great majority of hilltribe guides are Thai, who frequently do not have a very positive view of their own ethnic minorities.

If tourists become too common an event, the emphasis of the tourists becomes less an interesting diversion and easy source of cash for the villages, becoming instead a routine carried out solely for financial gain.

Tourism is a seasonal and a fickle business. It is dangerous for a village to become reliant on tourism, as at any times numbers can drop significantly for reasons quite outside the control of the hilltribes. Regional or international political problems cause regular large fluctuations in the numbers of tourists visiting the region.

Villagers may come to see themselves as anachronistic curiosities, performing quaint tricks for the curious foreigners. Their belief in the value and depth of their own culture may be undermined, ultimately destroying it. This is not to anyone’s advantage, and tour agencies try to avoid the over exposure of all but the most blatantly exploited ‘show villages’.

There are both potentially beneficial and harmful consequences of hill tribe tourism. There is no doubt that the small amount of cash which reaches the hill tribes through tours and the sale of handicrafts is a useful contribution to their income, and may reduce the debt problem with all its damaging effects.

Apart from the few villages subject to intensive tourism, there has not as yet been a great touristic impact on the culture of the hill tribes, although some problems have been created or aggravated. The interest of many tourists in opium tends to aggravate the drug problem in the hills.  In some tribes, opium addiction in older adult males is over 30%. This is a major cause of ill health and loss of earnings, and contact with eager westerners gives many of the villagers a more positive image of the drug and tends to increase addiction. The cash derived from the sale of opium to tourists is frequently used to support the drug habit of the dependent villagers so aggravating the situation.

Recently the drug problem has come not from opium but from methamphetamines – known as Yaa-Baa which means ‘mad medicine’ in Thai. This unpleasant highly addictive drug which frequently produces violence in its addicts is produced across the border in Myanmar and is smuggled into Thailand.

Tourists bring to the hilltribes direct contact with the western world and western values.  The most obvious manifestation of this is the consumer products worn and used by the tourists. Villager may see these as highly desirable, spending what little cash they have on them.

Traditional clothing is being abandoned for western clothes, reducing the value of the traditional spinning and weaving crafts. There is a danger that the subsistence economy will decline as the hilltribes are pushed into the market economy in striving to obtain the cash to buy these consumer products.

There is also a danger that exposure to curious tourists may cause loss of personal dignity amongst highlanders. They may come to think of themselves as objects rather than subjects with a personality of their own, performing tricks for the tourist in return for a few coins.  Begging is the worst example of this, but posing for photographs, mimicking foreign words and performing songs and dances without their normal ceremonial significance all tend to dilute the self worth of the hilltribes.

According to research I conducted in hill tribe villages, it is clear that mountain people have strong feelings and opinions concerning tourism in their villages. They are almost unanimous in the following points:

- Tourism is seen by most as a valuable addition to the economy of the mountain peoples

- Visitors often offend hill tribe people. The villagers recognize this as (usually being) ignorance and are forgiving, but stress the need for education of visitors

- Despite the above, tourists are generally very welcome, and the experience of meeting them is usually interesting and enjoyable

- Tourist guides often give false information to their guests, for a variety of reasons, including lack of knowledge and understanding, and pursuit of their personal profit

- Cooperation between guides, tour companies and hill tribes would greatly improve hill tribe tourism

- Hill tribe people in the villages should be more directly involved with guiding, either as registered guides, or village guides, appointed by the village and tour operators

- Profits from hill tribe tourism should be more equally shared between operators and villages.

If hill tribe tourism could be monitored and regulated to address negative aspects and limit contact to an acceptable level, then it can be an acceptable and non-damaging contribution to hill tribe economies. Without these controls, as hilltribe tourism expands, the societies which have survived for thousands of years, longer than any western culture, will gradually disappear.