Hill Tribe



David Whitley plots his course around Thailand, and wishes that visits to hill tribes weren’t part of the mix


There are a lot of things that appeal to me about Northern Thailand. I like the idea of trekking in the mountains. I like the idea of riding elephants. I like the idea of boat rides along the Mekong River. I like the idea of learning about the opium trade. And given that I’m going there very soon, I’ve been looking into tours or guides that can help me arrange to do a couple of these things. After all, trekking around without a map isn’t a particularly good idea and I’ve no idea where I’d commandeer an elephant from.


However, almost all of the options seem to include something that I’m not at all interested in – visiting hilltribe villages. I’ve no problem with walking through villages, staying or eating in them – they’re as good a place as any for that. What I’m not interested in is visits to such villages being promoted as some sort of cultural experience. That’s blatantly going to mean some poor sod doing a traditional dance whilst women follow you around trying to sell “handicrafts” made from cheap beads.


But for many people doing these trips, the chance to meet people from the remote hill tribes will be the main attraction. And I really struggle to understand why. Living in a village that’s not particularly well connected to the world doesn’t necessarily make someone interesting. In fact, there’s a strong chance that their life is going to be incredibly mundane.


I grew up in a village. It was really, really dull. I don’t see how transplanting a village to a Thai hillside and filling it with people who have a different ethnicity to most of the Thai population makes it worth seeing.


If the sole reason for going there is to say you’ve met someone from a particular tribe, then it’s little more than a slightly sinister trip to a zoo. Any interactions are likely to be highly contrived exercises in small talk that are just awkward for both parties. It’s experiencing a different culture in the same way that eating ready meal pasta is experiencing Italian fine dining.


Just because something’s there it doesn’t mean it’s worth seeing. That applies to people as well as places. Everyday life in a Thai hill tribe is no more or less interesting than everyday life in a suburb of Northampton. But neither makes for a good tourist attraction – and that they’re even looked upon as a tourist attraction is somewhat disturbing.


Does the idea of visiting remote hill tribes appeal to you? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.