Tuesday 12 January 2010

Hill tribe trekking

Hill tribe trekking must be the most popular activity anywhere in Southeast Asia that has hills. A variety of hill tribes with different names, costumes, customs and beliefs play host to teams of trekkers looking to enjoy the stunning scenery and learn a bit about the way of life of the tribe they’re visiting. Frankly, I’m not always convinced by the authenticity of the experience. In Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, for example, it’s hard to believe that there are enough hill tribes to go around for all the operators offering the tours, and we’ve read that the Karen women’s tradition of wearing solid brass rings round stretched necks that can no longer support the head without them would probably peter out if it weren’t for the tourists queuing up to take pictures. Some people told us that tribes on very popular routes have a set-up specifically for tourists, away from where they actually live – understandably, I’d say. How much fun is it to have a bunch of sweaty, muddy tourists traipsing through your village to take pictures with fancy cameras of your ‘primitive’ way of life? Certainly, it’s much easier to do a hill tribe trek than it is to think about all the ethics. Ni and I did two hill tribe treks ten years ago without thinking about them at all. The first was in a group of 13 and we all stayed in our own hut, separated from the tribe. The second was much more intimate, organised privately with our leader from the first trek, with only four of us in the group making it far easier to socialise with the village residents and we came away with a much better experience.

If you are concerned about the ethics, and I think we should be, you can either avoid the hill tribes altogether and camp, or use a company that takes all those considerations seriously for you. The operator we chose had a detailed list of dos and don’ts to follow when visiting the community such as: don’t bring gifts of money or sweets as it encourages begging; do bring books, writing or education materials; don’t give gifts to individuals, give them instead to the village chief to manage and distribute. Being aware of customs and taking care not to disturb spiritual and sacred sites was also comprehensively covered. We decided to do a three day / two night tour, just the two of us, costing $90 US each; we would camp for the first night and stay with a remote tribe that we were told didn’t see many visitors on the second. We would be leaving the next day, which all seemed a bit sudden to me. The difference between talking about doing it and doing it always does.

Muang Sing

We’d first seen the spectacular scenery around Muang Sing during the bus journey from Luang Namtha as it wound its way between steep hills following a river that kept switching sides from the road without me noticing, no matter how hard I tried to keep track of it. Hill peaks that seemed close to each other were separated by deep gorges meaning that a distance between peaks of maybe a few metres involved an up-and-down distance of, I don’t know, 200 metres. What we need here, I thought, preoccupied by our impending trek, is a network of bridges.

The town itself is surrounded by rice paddies and beyond them lies the horizon made bumpy by lush, forested hills. A pretty, low-key main road with a handful of guesthouses, restaurants, tour operators, an atmospheric temple and no ATM anywhere cuts through it aiming directly at China, only 6km away. While Alex checked out some of the tours, I got chatting to some of the Akha hill tribe street-sellers congregating around me. They were all women that barely reached my shoulders, the faces of most of them lined with deep wrinkles radiating around mischievous smiles. The sellers in Muang Sing know better than any others how to charm “No, thank you” into “Oh go on then”. Across the road, a small group of young Laotian girls with sleek hair, velvet skin and impossibly high cheekbones were watching with amusement from the little bamboo-constructed shop they shared. They waved and beckoned me over, but I couldn’t face any more sale negotiations that day and pleaded, “Wan jan!” They laughed. “You speak Lao!” they called back, “Okay, no problem, see you Monday, wan jan!” A reprieve.