Seeing the hill tribes is something I wanted to do while visiting Thailand. Me and a friend visited Baan Tong Luang Eco-Agricultural Hill Tribes Village, located just north of Chiang Mai old city. There are 7 hill tribes living here. Karen Hill Tribe, Lahu Shi Bala Hill Tribe, Palong Hill Tribe, Hmong Hill Tribe, Kayaw Hill Tribe, Akha Hill Tribe, and Yao Hill Tribe.
There have been a lot of reviews on TripAdvisor calling it a human zoo. One of our local Thai friends said the village is a good thing for the hill tribes and not a human zoo as some tourists have been calling it. On this recommendation, we took a motorbike and went there on our own to check it out. We had a different impression. We went early and got there around 10am before the tour buses arrived. The first thing I noticed when we walked in was how friendly everyone was. Each Hill Tribe greeted us warmly, and they were happy to show us what they were making, and also invited us in to see their home. One hill tribe even shared their cherries and other fruit with us.
Unfortunately, the older women didn’t’ speak much English, so we couldn’t ask them many questions. But we played with their children and one of the men showed us how to shoot his handmade slingshot equipped with a wooden arrow.
We did meet one vibrant little girl from Karen Hill Tribe named Maisie, who was just charming and spoke very good English. Quite the little sales lady too, she talked me into purchasing a beautiful scarf her tribe weaved.
We also met Sek from Karen Hill Tribe and was happy to talk with us at length about the tribes. Although his family is still in the mountains, he was able to go to Bangkok for school and just graduated university with a degree in Public Administration. He said, like him, some of the Karen Hill Tribe also came to this location to be near the city. It’s better for medicine if someone gets sick. If they get sick in the mountains, they rely on herbs to help them get better. Another main attraction to move here is all the children of the hill tribes go to school and get an education. All of the other Hill Tribes that are here also came on their own accord for a better life for their children.
When asked about the 500 baht entrance fee, Sek did say the fee we paid to get in did not go directly to the tribes. Before I could get in an uproar about it, he let me know that all the tribes live on the land rent-free and all the goods they sell is their money to keep. The compound also provides transportation for the children to get to and from school, free of cost, which is 15km away.
The one thing I was curious about was the Karen Long-Neck Hill Tribe and why they stretch their necks. Sek said the long neck came about as a fairytale. The women thought they’d be prettier, if their neck was longer. They also decide rank by the length of the neck. The longer the neck, the higher up your are, with the longest neck being like a queen. We met one lady of the Karen Long-Neck Hill Tribe who had the longest neck in the tribe. She showed us a picture of herself without the rings. Her neck is strong enough to wear without the rings.
The tribes hand makes the items they sell. They are weavers, painters, wood carvers, and sewers. All the items they produce are very beautiful. Again, anything you purchase from them goes directly into their pocket.
So human zoo? If you go there, solely to take pictures and stare, without interacting with them. Then yes, I could see how some would call it that. But, if you take the time to stop, say hello, play with the children and ask what they do, you’ll look at it a bit differently.