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Thailand: The spirit of the hill tribes

A homestay with the hill tribes of northern Thailand’s Golden Triangle means a trek through dense, cool forests — and a chance to honour the spirits of these remote reaches

Thailand: The spirit of the hill tribes
Inside a house in Ban Muang Pam. Image: Slawek Kozdras

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Roosters are terrible timekeepers.

It was 1.15am when the cockerel directly beneath me started crowing and led a menagerie of ducks, pigs, dogs, cats, geese and chickens on an all-night cacophonous chorus. The Lahu people build their houses on stilts, and all that separates me from their farmyard below is the wafer-thin slats of bamboo matting that precariously bends underfoot, laid across a few support joists. Between the planks of wood that make up my bedroom walls, the first beams of daylight can be seen. They cast rays of light on to the smoke that drifts into the room from the kitchen fire, like a crude laser show, and dance across the fine gauze of the mosquito nets that hang over a huddle of mattresses on the floor.

This is not a sanitised, artificial experience set up to entertain tourists. None of the four guests I’ve shared this room with have slept all night, but there’s a sense of serenity in this remote shack. It’s evident even as my host, the mononymous Pichai, throws birdseed to the chickens that congregate underneath my bed to the sound of a clucking chaos that continues with renewed vigour.

We’re only a two-hour drive from backpacker paradise, Pai, in northern Thailand, where narrow streets are full of cheap restaurants peddling pad thai to gap-year kids sporting meticulously braided dreadlocks. It’s also where local tour companies advertise trips to see the Long Neck Karen tribe. I’ve booked my hill tribe trekking experience with an international tour operator, many of which refuse to visit the Long Neck tribes — or the Padaung — due to concerns over exploitation.

Padaung tribes represent a small subset of the Karen people, who fled the military regime in Burma (now Myanmar) and came to Thailand to seek sanctuary. The women of the Padaung tribes famously wrap their necks in brass coils, which compress their collarbones and ribs, creating the illusion of having abnormally long necks.

Many organisations, including the UN, have since claimed these refugee villages have become little more than human zoos run by profiteering locals. They’re descended upon by coachloads of holidaymakers, who are presumably hoping for a cultural experience, but are instead greeted by ersatz hill-tribe hamlets, which consist almost entirely of gift shops and phoney photo ops. This isn’t that kind of trip. Over the course of my three-day rek to visit the remote Lahu hill tribe of the Ban Pha Mon village, and onwards to the Karen settlement of Ban Muang Pam, I’ve not seen a solitary tourist, other than the 12 people that constitute my hiking group. There are no roads big enough to accommodate coaches, and these villages are populated by farmers and weavers: you can buy groceries or textiles here, but not fridge magnets.

thailand hill tribes-shaman

The village shaman. Image: Slawek Kozdras

There are more than 200 hill tribe villages in this part of northern Thailand. This is a geographically agnostic borderland, where nomadic groups with ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds from China, Tibet, Myanmar, and Laos once roamed, and used slash-and-burn agricultural techniques to farm these heavily forested lands. Today, though, the majority are Thai nationals.

“I’ve been to Thailand seven times before,” says fellow hiker Barbara, a sturdy-looking German woman in her early 30s who’s very much dressed for trekking. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, long-limbed, and decked out in hiking gear, she looks every bit as if she’s about to shoot an Alpen advert, but this clearly isn’t her usual holiday style. “I’ve been to Bangkok, Phuket, Koh Samui, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Chang, Koh Pha-ngan, Koh-Lanta, and Koh Samet.” All the Kohs then. This is her first time in northern Thailand, having, in seven visits, only ever seen the south of the country.

There, golden Buddha statues are backed by cyan skies, and aquamarine seas lap at dazzling white sands: a palette slathered with typically tropical vibrance, overexposed into hazy pastels by the sun’s glare. This is not that Thailand. Up here, deep in the forest, viridescent vistas darken to dappled bottle greens, deep soil umbers and ochres, and twisted timbers speak of earthy fertility.

Our first day’s hike is just three hours long. We permeate dense forest, weave between gigantic limestone boulders, and pass pastures of onions, garlic, rice, and corn, bordered by passion fruit vines, papaya trees, and baby green aubergines that shine like peridot jewels.

Step by step

The Lahu only congregate at their temple once each month. It’s an inauspicious looking structure: a bamboo and timber shack on stilts, just like the rest of the village dwellings. Nearby, a clutch of vertical, white, feather-like flags are stabbed into the earth beside an otherwise identical building.

“That’s the shaman’s house,” says Namasue, a 47-year-old matriarchal figure who is showing my group around Ban Pha Mon village. “The white flags represent long life, happiness, and purity.” The position as village shaman — always male — is a lifelong one, elected by the former incumbent on his deathbed.

The shaman remains as mystical and elusive as his title suggests, leaving Namasue and her friend Sumalee, who is shadowed by a three-year-old child, to lead us into the temple. It’s unlit and looks exactly like my bamboo-walled room, except for a nook that’s hung with white flags and small clay offerings neatly organised on the floor beneath.

“If you’re sick or have a problem,” Sumalee explains, resplendent in traditional garb and looking younger than her 37 years, “you buy a white flag to hang, you dig up some clay, and you bring it to the shaman. He’ll use it to diagnose the source of the problem, and give you advice.” She adds: “I kept getting headaches, so I brought some clay here to the shaman and he lit some candles and spoke to our ancestors and, in the clay, saw my very beginnings and my roots. From then on, I had no more headaches,” she beams with the look of a child on her birthday.

I ask if the little girl being scooped up in Namesue’s arms is daughter to either of them, and they both chuckle. “My daughter is 18 years old,” Sumalee laughs. “She’s my granddaughter,” says Namesue. “I have two sons and two grandsons, and now finally a granddaughter. She’s the first girl in the family since me. My son lives and works in Chiang Mai and his daughter stays here with me. I never want to give her back.”

thailand hill tribes-lunch

Lunch packed in banana leaves. Image: Slawek Kozdras

Sitting in a ramshackle, thatched temple next to the house of the village shaman with no running water, no electricity, and a communal toilet that — so far from urban light pollution — offers pin-sharp views of the stars at night, I’m a little surprised to learn that Namesue’s son works in construction in the city, and her daughter-in-law is a waitress.

“Of course,” says Sumalee, “if you stay in the village, you have a lot of land and a big house, but no job. Last year, one kilo of corn sold for three baht [seven pence], so alternatively you can work in town, live in a one-room place, with just a bed, a toilet and a microwave, and return home each month with powdered milk for the children, with food, and money.”

“Times are changing,” says Namesue. “We used to not be allowed to marry outside of our tribe, but now one of the girls from our village has even married a white man. He’s English; she met him in town, and lives in the UK now.”

I’m especially aware of my own Englishness when, a couple of hours later, after the sun has gone down and the house in which I’m staying is lit only by the cooking fire and our torches, the taciturn woman of the house, Nalong, emerges from her bedroom, laden with folded, intricately embroidered, multicoloured garments. I wince as she offers them to me and my new housemates, worried that I’m about to become part of a cringeworthy tourist experience, despite being up in the dense highland forests of the Thai-Myanmar borderlands. I reluctantly take an outfit, realising the very fact that she has one in my size — big enough to fit a 6’2”, barrel-chested Westerner — confirms that this isn’t going to be an entirely bona fide experience.

Outside in the dusty, unpaved, brick-red space that forms a courtyard between dwellings, a bonfire is already lit and women from the village encircle it, along with the remainder of our hiking group who – the flickering amber fire light reveals — have been similarly dressed by their hosts. Although my tunic easily engulfs my body, and the black velvet of the my trousers makes a 540-degree circumnavigation of my waist, the four-inch wide, colourfully stitched bands that hem the bottom of my trouser-legs stop just below my knee, leaving my calves completely exposed, like a skater boy’s.

Nevertheless, I join the rest of the group as they gleefully mimic the Lahu women’s simple dance steps that inevitably take an indirect route anticlockwise around the campfire. Apparently, I’m the only one feeling self-conscious, although that’s perhaps because I’m looking especially ludicrous wearing garments tailored for a morbidly obese Oompa Loompa.

“What does this dance signify?” I ask my tour guide, Laksamee, who has appeared by my side in the circle and taken my hand as we begin a kind of tribal hokey cokey. “It’s to celebrate big occasions, like weddings and new year,” she says. “And they do it when tourists come to visit, which is every two weeks.”

The second day’s hike is seven hours long, but much less steep and sticky. The trail criss-crosses a stream through the shade of a cool forest and, when it emerges, expands to road width in places. Scooters occasionally zoom past us regardless of the size and condition of the track. As we close on our destination, signs of sustainable farming and agricultural infrastructure are present, from industrial dams to neatly laid-out rice paddies.

“We’ve only been visiting the Lahu of Ban Pha Mon for a couple of years,” says Laksamee, “and on my first trek we had to flee back to the road because of a forest fire they’d intentionally started to clear land. Ban Muang Pam is nearer to Pai and a little more modern.”

As I enter the town I’m still surprised to find cement roads with white lines, a local shop selling big-name brands, and a mobile phone top-up station. After wearing a head torch in bed the previous night, though, I’m mildly pleased to see an electricity meter on the wall of Jit and Nongkran’s house — my hosts for the night — although it turns out there are no lights in my room and no running water today.

High spirits

Nongkran winces as she takes a sip from the communal cup that would look more at home filled with tea in a 1960s kitchen than dripping with whisky. At least, that’s what the locals in the Karen village of Ban Muang Pam are calling the rice-wine firewater being passed around the group.

With screwed-up eyes, her face is a picture, framed by a 1960s crochet hat and sharp Vidal Sassoon bob. With her traditional, knitted, varicoloured overcoat, fending off draughts imperceptible to the rest of us, she looks as though she’s dressed for Carnaby Street throughout the Swinging Sixties, except she’s in the mod era from the neck up, and entirely flower power south of her collarbones. Her clavicles are correctly located since this is not a Long Neck village.

Her husband, Jit, is having no such trouble. This traditional ceremony — performed twice a year to ask and give thanks for good health and an abundant harvest, and whenever visitors come to stay — is clearly a good excuse for a party.

After dinner, sitting cross-legged on the concrete patio that adjoins his house, Jit produces a tray of offerings, laden with candles, eggs, tapered sticks of sticky rice, and — of course — homemade rice wine, and each of us has to take a bite of the offerings, and a sip of moonshine. For every shot he pours for his assembled friends and guests, he knocks back a cup himself, appropriately with all the fuss and fanfare as if he were downing a mug of builders’ brew.

Buddhism and Christianity have both come to around 70% of the hill tribes of northern Thailand, according to my guide, but even where adopted, these religions merely supplement their animist beliefs and traditional ancestor veneration. The Karen people believe the spirits of their ancestors live on in their homes, alongside them, and this traditional welcoming ceremony is introducing us to the ghosts of their forefathers. It seems that the most powerful method for expelling spirits is by first consuming a lot of them.

thailand hill tribes-wedding moonshine

Wedding guests enjoying moonshine in Ban Muang Pam. Image: Slawek Kozdras

“It’s so they don’t haunt you in your beds,” explains Jit, bespectacled and looking like a Thai Harry Potter, as he bangs on the edge of the metal tray. “By knocking like this, we’re communicating with the ghosts of our families. Then we share food with them, and drink the rice wine with them, to introduce you as house guests, so they won’t think you’re intruders and frighten you away in the night.”

“It’s important we finish the bottle, though,” says Jit, opening a second, and pouring himself another inch of the spirit. Soon the rest of our group have returned to their homestays to turn in for the night, but Jit and Nongkran lead me into their lounge and, since it’s devoid of furniture, sit and finish the second bottle, watched over by a poster of the late King Rama IX, aka Bhumibol Adulyadej.

“We loved the ninth king,” says Jit, as Nongkran and our local guides, Archa and Sukham, down cups of rice wine, and nod agreement in a reverential reverie. “He gave us land and status. We used to be nomadic and move around the jungle, but 57 years ago the government came here and told us we could stay and keep this land. Now we have electricity and two schools. Back then there were only 18 families in this village, now there are 600 people across 130 families.”

“Tourists have come here for a long time,” adds Sukham, wearing a 1980s-style, geometrically-lined ski jacket, despite the balmy evening. “Backpackers would come from Pai on scooters, sometimes to try to buy opium, but things are different now. We have a community union to manage tourism and spread visitors over 18 homestays. The government and tourism have done great things for our village. We no longer fell trees, we farm sustainably, we recycle.”

“Tourism is a big help,” adds Jit, who explains that his son has become a commercial electrician and moved to Bangkok, while Jit and Nongkran look after his young daughter. The next generation want more than to be subsistence farmers, and Jit, who is a year younger than his wife at 54, can no longer manage all of their land by himself.

“Last year, I planted corn, and corn sells for nothing. So this year I plant beans, and the corn price is now high, then suddenly, unexpected rains ruin my bean crops. I plant rice and I have to pray for rain. Tourists come steadily and reliably, all year and give us a reliable income.”

As I wearily make my excuses and decline yet another cup of rice wine, and head off to bed, Nongkran bids me goodnight and reminds me to take a moment to thank the spirits for welcoming me before I go to sleep. After seven hours of hiking in the sunshine, seven cups of moonshine, and seven minutes of sleep the night before, it takes me about seven seconds to fall asleep in my bed, and I neglect to thank our ghostly hosts.

Perhaps that explains my bedroom creaking and squeaking all night long, leaving me feeling like the undead when morning rolls around. The polished wooden floorboards bounce all-pervasive sunlight into the last shadows of the night before. Maybe, despite the reverential late-night boozing session, the village ancients still perceive Western intruders in their midst. But as a new dawn breaks, and the cockerel crows — finally in sync with the current time — I spend my last moments in the northern hills basking in the warming rays of day, and in the company of my new drinking buddies.

Essentials

Getting there & around
British Airways, EVA Air and Thai Airways operate daily direct flights between Heathrow and Bangkok. Flights from Bangkok to Chiang Mai operate with a number of carriers, including Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways, Thai Smile and Nok Air.

Transfers from Chiang Mai airport to the hotel can be organised by G Adventures for around £10.

When to go
To avoid the crowds, October marks the end of the rainy season with temperatures starting to drop. November through to February is ideal for trekkers, with warm days (20C-23C) and cool nights.

How to do it
G Adventures has a five-day Northern Thailand — Hilltribes Trek from £249 per person, excluding flights. It includes four nights’ accommodation, guides throughout, four breakfasts, three lunches, two dinners, open pickup truck and van transfers, plus trekking and rafting. 

Published in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)