Responsible Trekking in Northern Thailand

Photo credit: melomeloTrekking is an extremely popular activity among tourists in Thailand, with thousands of acres of ancient old-growth tropical forests, hills and mountains to explore, and some stunning waterfalls to discover along the way. With large parts of the countryside protected by national parks Thailand has done a lot to protect its natural heritage, and provided you trek with a reliable tour operator and respect nature as you go trekking can be a fantastic way to discover the immense natural beauty on offer.

Yet while most tour operators will brag about their environmental credentials they often neglect to mention their social contributions. In many areas, particularly around the border regions between Laos, Burma and Thailand, the areas trekkers visit are populated by 'hilltribes', indigenous peoples of varying ethnicities who live in a sustainable and traditional manner high up in the hills away from mainstream Thai culture.

Members of these 'hilltribes' are rarely registered as citizens of either Thailand, Burma or Laos and so receieve little support from the government. Indeed many living in Thailand have migrated across the border to escape persecution in Burma or Laos. As a result they are often very disadvantaged and lack access to basic state services such as healthcare and education, as well as concrete protections such as land rights, risking arrest should they visit a Thai town.

Photo credit: lionocheDespite the difficulties these groups face, their unique lifestyles have inspired many visitors and as a result have become a tourist attraction in themselves. Many trekking operators will include a visit to a hilltribe visit as a selling point to their trek, a 'unique cultural experience' - but the sad fact is that rarely are the hilltribes willing participants nor do they gain any direct benefit from the tour groups.

The end result is that in many cases tourists visiting villages feel harrassed by villagers selling souvenirs or begging, and the villagers feel tourists are intruding into their private lives, taking photos without permission and not respecting their customs or way of life. In these cases the only people who benefit are the tour operator themselves, so we wish to propose the following advice for those undertaking a trek to a hilltribe:

a. Educate yourself - Do you best to read about the histories, beliefs and cultures of the hilltribe(s) you are visiting. There are several distinct ethnic groups in Thailand with very different ways of life, customs and beliefs. The more you know about the people you are visiting the more you will appreciate your visit; and the less likely you will cause offence. If at all possible we recommend a visit to the excellent Hilltribe Museum in Chiang Rai before taking your trip which has an excellent exhibit explaining more about all the key groups in Thailand - http://www.pda.or.th/chiangrai

b. Choose a responsible tour operator - Don't pick the first cheap trek you spot near your guesthouse, actively seek out an operator that promotes pro-poor tourism and that involves the hilltribes themselves in designing and/or operating the tours, and includes an element of community development in the pricetag.

c. Dress appropriately - Displays of flesh in tribal visits are unwelcome - be sure to wear long sleeved tops, long trousers and to cover yourself so as not to cause offence.

d. Ask before taking photographs - Some hilltribes feel a photograph takes away a part of their soul so naturally they can get very upset if you take a photograph without asking permission first. Be sure to get permission before taking photos of people or buildings of religious significance in the village.

e. Don't bring unsolicited gifts - Though well-intentioned, bringing gifts of toys, pens and the like to hilltribes can lead to a culuture of dependence and dilution of the hilltribe's own culture. If you wish to bring something to the village please first discuss with your tour operator and if possible the hilltribes themselves to see if you can bring something they truely need.

f. Spend your money wisely - Remember that participating in small acts of trade with the residents of a village can help put money into their hands, so buying souvenirs can help support the village. However please ensure you only buy new souvenirs - due to the poverty in some villages some inhabitants have sold precious antiques that have been in their families for generations and are irreplaceable for a pittance - taking these artefacts home to Europe and America contributes to the destruction of the unique cultures of the hilltribes.

g. Long Necked Karen - Some tours highlight a visit to a 'Long Necked Karen' village as a part of their trip. Although there are Karen people living in Thailand, the 'Long Necked' Karen only live in Burma and have come to Thailand as refugees. This means the villages you visit are not living, breathing villages - you will see no agriculture or commerce here - but effectively human zoos set up by local entreprenurs. As the Long Necked Karen have no legal right to leave the 'village' and risk deportation to Burma and persecution they are trapped, and receive no benefit from the buses of tourists who come to ogle and take photos.

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