The Inauthentic Hilltribe Experience

Having devoted a considerable proportion of summer 2010 to reading On the Road and The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, my spirit had been suitably roused for a whirlwind adventure. Fortunately those dreams were realised this summer when armed with travel buddy, backpack and camera, we jetted off to absorb the culture of East Asia. 

After researching essential ‘must see attractions’ in Thailand we decided to head off to the remote mountainous areas of Chiang Mai to visit the Akha, Hmong, Lisu and Long Neck Karen tribes. Having built up an imaginary scenario in my mind’s eye of becoming bosom buddies with the hill tribe members, gleaning stories of their experiences and generally sharing smiles all round, it became apparent that my expectations were to be rapidly deflated as the ugly reality reared its head.

We immediately found ourselves asking the pivotal question; has it reached the stage where travellers are interrupting and even insulting indigenous cultures, rather than exploring and developing cross-cultural relationships with hill tribes?

After paying an astronomical fee of 500 baht (the equivalent of £10) for entrance to the hill tribe villages, it was instantly evident that these villages and their local natives had become little more than human zoos, fed and maintained by a flood of eager western tourists. Travellers and families were to be spotted brandishing cameras without modesty in the faces of the native people in the most insulting manner, clamouring for the capture of a prize photograph, which would be the trophy of their ‘cultural experience’.

Not ones to admit defeat, we proceeded to wander through the villages observing the handcrafted jewellery, the embroidered bags and clothing with respectful admiration and smiles. However, when I stared into each person’s face, I could detect no trace of hospitality or even curiosity; only boredom and disinterest as they swiped flies from their skin.

In short, the afternoon left me feeling awkward, uncomfortable and wishing that I had never ‘toured’ through villages, which dehumanise people in such an obvious manner. It is sad to realise that such cultures now sell their traditions to tourism and have unfortunately become objects of amateur anthropology.

Helena Murphy


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