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I'm currently in Chiang Mai, getting ready for some trekking, but it seems all-too-common here. With such an influx of travllers doing the same thing, I want my footprint to go the right direction in helping, not exploiting hill tribes, elephants, the environment, et cetera. If this means I have to skip trekking altogether, so be it. Whilst reading some of Paul's entries, I came across a reccommendation to trek with the Mirror Art Foundation out of Chiang Rai. Another group, the Akha Heritage Foundation is pretty antagonistic and had written that MAF is condescending towards the Akha people:

"...noting comments from staff in the early years tended to illustrate this. Both Thai and western staff seemed to have the erroneous and depressing attitude that Akha culture was 1. Inferior to Thai culture. 2. That all Akha people were just dying to be Thai. 3. That the Akha are incompetent 4. What is "human rights"? In other words there is not much mention of the human rights situation that is creating extreme problems for the Akha in the area. Even the killings of Akha and other tribe people near to the Mirror Art Group are not protested by the Thais, and if so, certainly not sufficiently, which would give more an impression of patronizing relationship."

On another note, they seem to be criticizing the goverment's general treatment of the whole of Thailand:

"... Oliver Jufer, a Swiss man, was arrested and charged with insulting the King of Thailand for painting over pictures of the King. Charged with "Lese Majeste", he is now waiting sentencing.
The case is a classic reminder that the King and Queen of Thailand are above the law, above criticism, and do not give the people of Thailand the freedom to express what they really think or demand the democracy they deserve. Most of Thailand is subservient to who ever is pushing them around at the time. Thaksin calling for the killing of anyone put on a black list, the Army taking over the country, a history of many bloody coups and the murder or disappearance of large numbers of protesters or students. All during the King's rule.

Born in the United States, the King of Thailand would not allow his own people the freedoms he would enjoy in a western democracy. He generally remains silent during brutal oppression imposed by police or army. Both organizations operate without transparency and are particularly brutal to the hill tribe peoples. Add to this that the Queen's Royal Projects are directly involved in confiscating Akha lands, a case now at the UN for two years.

In Thailand there becomes a great air of impunity for the violation of the rights of the people.

As historic hatred of Monarchy's grow, the least of a Royal's worries will be getting the likeness of one's head painted."

If you're still reading at this point, my question(s) are, bearing in mind that I have been in Thailand for only a month, and am not even close to grasping the culture:
1. Is the AHF group just sort of spinster group, or are they making valid points regarding MAF?
2. Who/how/where should one trek with, and should one avoid going to see hill tribe peoples? Is this exploitive and damaging, or are there legitimate ways of interacting on a genuine level?
3. Is the ciritcism of the monarchy by AHF really overboard and biased, or are they raising valid points that are relevant and need addressing?

Any help would be much appreciated - I wish I had more time to research, stay, integrate, understand, but I'm kind of just stumbling through this like everyone else on a quick schedule...

Cheers, MacK
Hi Mack,
I will bet Paul will have great information for you.

2. Who/how/where should one trek with, and should one avoid going to see hill tribe peoples? Is this exploitive and damaging, or are there legitimate ways of interacting on a genuine level?

I remember being in Northern Thailand my first year there. I wanted to do a trek but had the same thoughts and concerns as you do now on the whole thing. I didn't have the time back then to do the proper research so I never went on a trek. I was too consumed with the possibilty of choosing the wrong trekking company and being very unhappy with the experience. I had heard some pretty bad stories.

Years later on another trip to SEA we met a Canadian fellow in Luang Prabang who was married to a Khmu women, both really beautiful people thru & thru. He ran treks to certain places in the area with an option to have a wander through a Khmu village. I've always felt in some way that no matter how culturally sensitive the visit is, I would still feel odd and perhaps slightly fear that in some ways maybe it is an insensitive thing to do. We had a wonderful trek. We did go to the small Khmu village and at first the people seemed extremely wary of us. We were the only ones there with our guide and I felt at first that we had a made a mistake.

We talked with the head of the village for some time. We had an amazing conversation and slowly the rest of the tribe came closer and closer until they were close enough that I started interacting with some of the women and children. Long story short, it turned out to be one of the best experiences I have had and after some time, the tribe seemed genuinely happy to have us there. It meant so much to us for them to share a small bit of their lives with us. They asked alot fo questions about us and we of them. It was is still quite vivid in my mind.

They offered us Lao whiskey and showed us around their village. They even slaughtered a pig and shared it with us that evening! We ditched the rest of the trek and stayed on with them. It seemed the right thing to do. It was a wonderful exchange. Once a year I send a package of clothing to our CDN friend and his wife takes it back to that same village and distributes it (while talking to the head of the village, he expressed concern over the children not having enough clothing.) It's a small thing, but I believe it makes a big difference.

I think it depends on who takes you and to where and I believe it can be difficult to find the right organisation that upholds a sensitivity to the culture itself. It is awful to be taken to a place where you feel you should not be there, and the people are put on a type of display. I don't know of a more uncomfortable and awkward feeling.

Okay sorry, I've rambled on enough and meanwhile not answered any of your questions!

Have a fun time and I hope you find the right trek for you.
Hi. Thanks for starting this topic. I will try to answer it in a readable way, but could write volumes on this topic and still only get part of the information across.

For a start - I think for the sort of people that seem to comment on this forum, yes, be careful of whom you trek with. There are lots of companies available from Chiang Mai, but some are good and some are not. How can you tell? You can't until you have done the trek. I think there is one in Chiang Mai called Track (or Trail) of the Tiger. They sound good, but no personal experience. Actually maybe this forum could grow into one that records what people think of the trekking companies in Chiang Mai. Who is good and who is not?

What is a good vs a bad trekking company?

Bad - goes into the village, talks down to people, sees the people there as an oddity to be exploited and made money from, perhaps allows tourists to act inappropriately regarding dress, behaviour and drugs. Generally not knowledgable or interested in the Hill tribe people, their culture or life.

Good - knows lots about the hill tribes and passed that on to you. Is friends with the people you are visiting and helps you interact and get some personal contact. Treats people well and fairly and is interested and concerned about the impact of tourism. Is concerned that the money is distributed throughout the village and that tourists act in appropriate ways. Encourages the hill tribes to benefit from tourism, but also keep their culture and traditions and skills alive. This can be done by buying food from them, buying handicraft from them. Being involved in local dances, celebrations etc.

OK, that is a pretty basic overview. If you get further involved, you notice more and more how all actions have affects and balancing the positives and negatives is difficult. But even more reason to use a knowledgeable and caring and wise guide.

Regarding the Akha Heritage Foundation. I think the people there are passionate about their cause and they are trying to save Akha culture and lifestyle and get the Akha a good life. I think trekking with them (if that is available - I know they promote volunteering with them) would be a great way to learn much more about the Akha and their current situation.

A little while ago I also read what they have to say about Mirror Foundation and since that time I have been in correspondence with them to try to clear up some of the mis-perceptions. I have had some good chats with the Western guy there and it is a pity they haven't updated their website yet. I do belive they have got things a bit wrong. But I also believe, for sure when Mirror (mainly Bangkok people at the start) first moved to Chiang Rai, they had a huge learning curve about the people in that area and how to help them. Now the staff is also full of various hill tribe people and Mirror Foundation has been a part of Chiang Rai for 10 years. I have been involved for about 3. I have watched carefully. I take on-board previous experiences and AHF statements and try to see if they are true or if there are major problems. I am happy to say that I feel Mirror Foundation is doing a very good job, understands the various problems in this area and is helping and is compassionate and caring.

Akha Heritage Foundation is about Akha people. They are just one of the people living in Thailand. I feel Mirror Foundation understands a wider perspective. Akha Heritage Foundation are very passionate about what they believe in - which is great but tends to blind them to other ideas and views. Reading over their comments again about Mirror - they are simply wrong and a view that they got from a distance without coming and talking about what they thought. Oh well. Mai Pen Rai. I still think Akha Heritage Foundation are worth looking into and they are trying to and perhaps achieving some good.

About their comments re the government. Hmmm, I like criticizing governments also. Mirror Foundation also criticizes the Thai government about some things (although not as strongly as AHF), but to be honest, as far as governments around the world go - the Thai one isn't too bad. Has areas to improve.

Next - the comments regarding the monarchy. This is offensive.
I find it highly offensive and what is said in there almost causes me to not want to talk with AHF, although that obviously doesn't achieve much.
My background- my family are mainly Scottish - they lived next to the Kelly's (of Ned Kelly fame) when they moved to Australia. I grew up not liking the concept of monarchies. They seem inherently unfair and often cruel in European history.
So it surprises me also that I have very quickly grown to love the King of Thailand. He has done much for the people and for the Hill Tribe people. AHF could operate for 1000 years and I doubt they will achieve what the King has in helping the Hill tribe people. The land. Actually all of Thailand was owned by the King historically. The Akha are very recent immigrants to here. If they had arrived in Australia, USA, Britain in the same way, they would have been locked up. So, I am not overly critical of the Thai government. I want to help the hill tribe people. I want them to have a better life, but I see no point in abusing the people that have helped them so much. Biting the hand that feeds you i think that is called. The Thai King has done much to push democracy. The Thai King has told people he wants them to discuss and disagree with things he does in order to improve the life of the people. But the Thais will not. They have as part of their culture a huge level of appreciation for the man that has worked so hard and given them so much. It is not acceptable to Thai people to have their King criticized, not because this is his wish, but because it is extremely impolite. The idiot who wrote those things about the King is impolite and only further divides the Akha people from the Thais. This doesn't help them at all. Showing some appreciation would have been a better idea.

Lastly (almost) - if you do go to Chiang Rai (which is much nicer than Chiang Mai) and try to organise a trek with Mirror - be aware that this is not their primary business and they have no staff dedicated to arranging this. Make sure you organise things in advance with them and maybe even go sleep there the night before or go and personally visit. They are still a bit disorganized regarding the treks. Actually just getting a guide and getting started is disorganised, but the route and places you go and see - that is organised well. I hope to help with this in the future.
But if you do get things organised with them, I think they easily fit into the good category of trekking guides. The guides will probably be someone from the hill tribes and so their knowledge is high and so is their respect for themselves. YAY!!! Good luck.

Also (although even less organised for trekking) are my friends in Pangmapha - if you read that pod and seeing what they do interests you. Let me know.

Oh - my ex monk Laotian friend, who used to live in a remote Karen village is another option to run treks. He now works as a tour guide in Luang Pra Bang. I think his prices are a bit high at times, but I don't know what his expenses are.

OK, that is enough. Did anyone read that far?
Oh - lastly regarding the title "NGO - hill tribe relations" I think NGOs (and missionaries etc) are generally good people and trying to do good. But I must say I think most have very little idea of what they are doing and often come in with very foreign ideas and little understanding. There are some very good ones, but, yeah, it isn't necessarily the case that they are good, just because they have lots of money and are trying to do good. It also takes a huge amount of understanding, background and long term vision.
Thanks for the help, Paul! Yes, I read the whole text, and could handle lots more. This is a really interesting issue to me, and I fear that I might not have given it the right amount of time and effort yet. Thanks for your help, again. I'm going to research some more, try to get something arranged with MAF, and failing that, try out track of the tiger per your suggestion. There are many other operators I've talked to today, but as you say, there is little way to tell who is good and who is bad until one had tried out the tour. One guy I talked to seemed to have all the right tourist-footprint answers, but my gut was telling me he wasn't sincere.

Another group that is popping up is 'common interest', a micro-loan group. They charge 15% interest to villagers who need money, and drop it to 8% if it is paid back sooner than 1 year. Seems shady, but many operators are associated. Aren't there goverment / bank programs that do this?

Another issue is accountability of the amount of money actually going to villages that comes from the tours. Operators are telling me that they 'give back' up to 50% of their income, but that really conflicts with other stories I have heard about how much goes back to villages. Plus, from a cultural-imperialism / ethnology-dissapearance standpoint, at what point does foreigner contact with hill tribes destroy or efface their culture? Should I even be here? I guess that's some Bauilldriard speaking, but I wonder if this is even a legitimate undertaking in the first place, especially with the huge influx of tourists. I am starting to drift towards feeling like really should not be here.

At any rate, I would love to hear other's experiences... Maybe, as Paul says, this can serve as some help for the next person going trekking in NT.

As for the intentions of missionaries, NGOs, et cetera, don't you think the methods of helping are pretty obscure as well? Everyone has a different opinion on how we should 'help these people'. More often than not, maybe they don't need/want to be helped...
Hi Mack, I am just rushing my packing for a weekend away, so can't answer your questions now. Although would like to. I will get back to it after weekend, but worry you need to get yourself booked in to a program by then.

So, I reckon contact MAF and go and talk to them and look in the villages. And then you tell us what you think.

About being here. It is OK. Things change and we have to accept that to some degree. As stated many of the hilltribes are recent arrivals, that have adapted their cultures to a number of different places over the years. The Thais themselves are changing their culture to fit into modern life also. But if they can change and develop in a controlled and sensible way - and that control being in the hands of the people it affects (ie hilltribes in this topic) then that is best. Better than change being forced on them by tourists, missionaries, NGOs, whoever, who might not really know and understand exactly what they are dealing with.

Do people want to be helped? Yes, within reason. They don't want people telling them what to do, but if there is a way to make some improvements and gain some extra benefits from the world, then yes, lets consider that. What will the impacts be?

OK, enough. It is a fascinating topic. But I gotta go pack and get the family into shape.

We are going to a National Park in Rayong and I am going to dive and pick up rubbish under the water. Should be interesting. And free. YAY

Have fun

QUOTE(Paul @ Mar 23 2007, 06:03 AM) *

We are going to a National Park in Rayong and I am going to dive and pick up rubbish under the water. Should be interesting. And free. YAY

Have fun


Hey Paul,

thanks for putting so much effort into your responses, it is much appreciated, and shows genuine care for people. I hate to deter you from your packing at this time... Hope you have a fantastic weekend even if you aren't sunbathing. Don't touch any stonefish! tongue.gif Cheers, and hope to talk to you soon!
Hi - just quickly wanted to write more.

There is a book called ???? Bugger can't find it right now - remind me on Monday. Something like "Development or Domestication" I have only started it. It is pretty dry, but maybe interesting for you.

I wish I had the time to come up and be your guide and discuss these issues as they do interest me and it makes me happy to hear of tourists (sorry to call you that) that are interested.

If you do go to Mirror (telephone numbers available on, there are a number of people who could be great guides for you.

Cartoon an Akha girl speaks the most English, so maybe her
Aacha would be great - has never spent a day in school in his life but can speak about 5 languages - another Akha
Mental blank- rushing too much - but another Akha guide is an ex village headman of a Christian village. He is great also.
There are a number of guides from the Lahu villages also.

Make sure you get to see the video and hill tribe museum at Baan Jalae - that explains more.

If you can get Khun Moo for any length of time (hard as she is so busy and has a 2 month old baby to care for) - she could tell you much more about the work and the situation in the area.

Ha ha - if you are really interested go and spend lots of time up there. They are good people and the topic is large and interesting as you are discovering. Seeing things for yourself is best.
Hi - I am back. Had a good time.

Surprised this conversation hasn't moved on.

The other thing I thought of as I walked out the door is: There are some Thais reading (and writing?) in this forum sometimes. Maybe ask them.

There is one guy called AllThai that sometimes writes stuff. I think he is a Western guy that has lived here a while and runs??? a tour company? or knows lots of tour guides. Maybe ask him or get him to ask his tour guides their thoughts on this subject.

Anyway, no matter what you do. Please report back on your thoughts. I am interested to hear.
QUOTE(fourloves @ Mar 22 2007, 05:42 PM) *

2. Who/how/where should one trek with, and should one avoid going to see hill tribe peoples? Is this exploitive and damaging, or are there legitimate ways of interacting on a genuine level?

Any help would be much appreciated - I wish I had more time to research, stay, integrate, understand, but I'm kind of just stumbling through this like everyone else on a quick schedule...

Cheers, MacK

Hi Mack,

Very good of you to be such a concerned traveler.

A good tour operator (or NGO) should follow three basic rules for real eco-culture friendly tourism in Thailand (or anywhere):

1. The willingness and ability to maintain or improve the environment.
2. The ability and the willingness for proper control when visiting ethnic peoples and villages in such a way that they can continue to maintain their natural being, customs, traditions and lifestyle.
3. The ability and willingness of the tour operator to donate some profits to help Thai and/or hill tribe people in need and in helping protect and improve nature and the environment.

It doesn't mater in my opinion if they are a tour operator or NGO. If you find some one who follows these rules you will have a wonderful experience. These people are passionate about sharing the Thai experiences with others and helping people and the environment at the same time.

Have fun,
Randy and Ning
Hello Randy and Ning,

Thanks for your help and thoughts! Unfortunately, I found that many tour operators in CM were willing to give lip service to the virtues you list here, but it was very difficult to actually discern who follows these. Due to this and many other reasons, I chose not to do any 'cultural' trekking here, but to leave such activities until another occasion when I have plenty of time to come and understand. I have met a few people volunteering in Thailand, and it seems to me the best way to truly understand - spend some time and care. To sum up, I didn't feel like a three day blazing trek, for me, is fair to my own edification or to the tribal people who must deal with the influx of tourists everyday.

Paul, I saw the book you mentioned - Development or Domestication, and read a few essays out of it. Thanks for the info, it was a good read, although having been written in 1993, I would really like to see the new figures put into the equation. It was said that there were three hundred tourists per day back then - how much more now!? Maybe this is something for me to talk to someone at the University's social science department about...Sounds like they have quite a bit of involvment with such issues.

Incidentally, at the meditation retreat I went to, I met a girl who has been volunteering with MAF for the last month - it was good to talk to her and some of the monks about their own opinions. Basically, it boiled down to whether I was just going to snoop, or going to actually invest some of my own life into this. The answer being no, I chose not. So for someone else deciding on this, I would in no way judge if they came to an opposite decision. Kind of like the whole burma/no burma issue I suppose.

My hat is off to everyone who is or has been volunteering, though - and thanks for the input, it is definitely an area of the world I will be carrying next to my heart.
Oh - who was it you met at the meditation?


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