Chiang Rai Area Hilltribes

Trip Start Dec 26, 2009
Trip End Apr 10, 2010

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Today I ventured off to Chiang Rai area to learn more about the different village hilltribes. I say "I" because Norm decided he wanted to just kick back and hang by the pool instead of spending another day in a minivan driving through the small mountain range sight-seeing and enjoying the likes of the weavers in the villages. It was a small group today - only 7.

As the photos indicate, these are different hilltribe people from those we visited in Vietnam. I was fortunate to be able to meet up with a few of the women and children from the Long Neck Karen, the White and Red Karen (with the big hole earings), and the Akha. I was told by the guide that all of these people originated in Burma. There apparently is a bit of overlap of hilltribes between China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Burma. However, those I had seen during our travels all appear to be very much their own people as their attire, language, and customs vary from place to place. Their lifestyles were similar, but time during our daily adventures only allowed for a very minimal education of any of their other practices. Being unable to communicate in what would be considered an ordinary fashion also hindered the speed of learning, but let the truth be know that it made for a far more interesting day to try and figure things out by not being able to speak the same language.

During this particular adventure, I would say that I probably spent the most time with the Long Neck as I was very curious about their practices and intruiged with their neckware. From what I understand, the brass neck-brace-like-necklace that is worn by the woman is replaced every three years until the age of 25. I didn't get an actual name for the item so I'm not too sure what to call it. In one photo, you will see one of the women holding a brass fitting that had been removed from someone's neck. I was not there to witness the procedure, however did get to hold it. If you can imagine the weight of it - being brass - I found it to be rather heavy. My Thai guide translated, what was part of my days worth of education, to let me know that the brass is heated so that it can be stretched out and shaped around the neck of the females that adorn it.

Another one of the women explained that mothers of today are choosing to not put such fixtures on their female children anymore as it limits their opportunities outside of village life. Given the age of time, there now seems to be a stronger interest in allowing future generations to explore the world outside - be it with education or work. All in all, it appears that they want to embace what the rest of the world has to offer their women beyond their immediate surroundings. More importantly, women are given a choice to make their own decisions.

When I asked, I was told that the brass fittings were not uncomfortable, nor were the leg braces that were worn just below the knee. I'm not too sure of that, however I suppose one would 'get use to it' - referring to the weight and feel of such foriegn objects on a persons body. I wondered the same about the large earing hilltribe women and asked it their ears felt pain as, to me, they appeared so over-stretched. They, too, suggested that there was no discomfort in the jewelry that adorned their earlobes. In fact, the one lady popped her silver earing out of her ear and allowed me to feel how heavy it was - it was not heavy at all. It just seemed so different to me (of course). 

You will see in the photos, that some of the older women had black stained teeth. It is my understanding that during WWII the men in the villages gave their women something to eat (not sure what it was) in order to stain their teeth and make them look less attractive to the white British soliders who use to take the women from the villages and have their way with them. Even today, such tactics of raping women and using them as tools of war is very common. A very unfortunate truth that has repeated itself over and over again only these women are literally stained for life - in order to perhaps have saved their lives.

The last of the group that I saw was the Akha. These hilltribe people, I was told by the guide, were not as 'poor' as the others and that I should spend money with the other two groups instead. I did as was suggested as these women seemed far more savy when it came to dealing with the foriegners and much more aggressive with their 'sales pitch'. What was either fortunate or unfortunate, I suppose is in the eyes of each individual as most every village I went in to had somewhat of a 'commerical zone'. Be it a few small huts or a stretch of vendor shops which would almost depict a 'plaza-like' feel has all been introduced to the villages due to tourism.

There are certainly pros and cons to all things, but like many others I just can't figure out which side of the fence I sit on when it comes down to it. As I, too, have been invited to visit most of the villages through a tour group - with the exception of the one day Norm and I spent with 'our sons' from Laos. Again, time just hasn't allowed for us to be around any one place long enough to build deep relations that could otherwise allow us to visit the local hilltribes in a less intrusive way. I'm not sure if I was able to share as much of my life with the hilltribe people as they were able to do with me as I only had a few photos to help introduce our family to them.

However, I do feel blessed to have had the opportunity as I have learned a great deal about this part of the world and more so about these particular groups of people. I am not sure how long these hilltribe people will last as their numbers get smaller and smaller as time passes. It has been a privilage to have seen what I have seen and to have spent what little time I had to offer in order to learn as much as I was able to have taken away with me. I was able to enjoy the basic conversation - via hand signals and other bodily gestures - in order to figure things out.
Overall, it was a true pleasure to watch the women weave and to have the opportuntiy to buy a few simple items that were made by the vendors who made them with their own hands and tender love and care. It was amazing how much one can learn, but more interesting to just be a part of what I found to be so far removed from what life back in Canada is really all about. Simiplicity made for many smiling faces in this part of the globe - unlike what wealth seems to do to people in our western societies. 

My day-trip was very interesting - especially the villages. On route back, we also stopped at an orchid and butterfly farm, a hill-top temple overlooking a village in the valley, a cave, and had a quick bite to eat. By the time I got back Norm had almost completed his book (novel) and was nicely bronzed from the warm sun. I will suggest that he may have had a few too many beers (as the photo indicates) - however, this particular photo was actually 'staged' one day when we were having lunch in Laos - it wasn't even taken in Thailand. I just thought I include it as I think Norm got the short end of the stick having stayed by the pool all day with such little adventure!

Enjoy the pics.

Sharon and Norm
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