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.

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