The best part of our trip in Chiang Rai (for me, at least) was undoubtedly the tour we did of some of the hill tribes in the area. On our first day in town, we went to visit the very interesting and informative Chiang Rai Hill Tribe Museum to learn about some of the tribes and get some info on tours and such. Lucky we went there first, because we discovered pretty quickly that there was some shady business going on with this hill tribe tourism kick - the most notable skeeziness comes in the form of the "long-neck" group of the Karen hill tribe. (Yup, this is where I start getting preachy.) You know the ones. Those ladies who wear the rings stacked around their necks to give them the appearance of a long neck (thus the nickname). Almost all tour companies in Chiang Rai offer trips to see the long-necks, and I must admit, I was pretty excited to go on one. They take you up to their "village" and show you their "authentic handicrafts" and their super stretched out necks, but they never mention that the whole thing is a farce. Boom. Bet you didn't see that one coming. Now check out this knowledge bomb:
The long-necks aren't native to Thailand (they come from Myanmar), and those who live there now have only come in the last ten years or so. The museum explained that the long-neck village was built as a scam to get money from tourists, and the tribal people don't see much or any of that money at all. According to the museum, people who live in the "village" aren't allowed to leave or live normal lives. The women are put on display like in a human zoo and forced to make "traditional handicrafts" for tourists, while the men sit in some back room gambling and drinking all day. Seriously. I don't know how much of this is true, but I felt it was better to boycott the whole thing altogether, so we decided to go a different route, and take one of the Population and Community Development Association (PDA)-sponsored tours through the museum.
Basically PDA is a non-profit organization created to promote family planning programs in Thailand, but it has since diversified into other areas, like educating people about HIV/AIDS and combating rural poverty. Click here to learn more. Anyway, through the museum, we were able to book a PDA tour, which is waaay better than any other tour because the guides are sensitive to the cultures of the various hill tribes, and are always respectful. They even have a community-based tourism development project in a village called Ban Lorcha where tourists pay a fee to enter the village and watch people doing their village activities - stuff you wouldn't see normally on a random day visit. Almost all the proceeds from this go into a fund that assists orphans, widows, and the village in general. How's that for responsible tourism? Danielle and I were pretty excited about this because after learning of the horrific long-neck zoo, we wanted to be sure we were participating in something that would help others, and not just satisfy our arrogant American tourist curiosities. (So pedantic, I know.) Anyway, after much deliberation, we decided against the Ban Lorcha tour and opted for an elephant trekking tour that visited four hill tribes. (Yes, the Ban Lorcha thing looked amazing and interesting and helpful, but honestly, who would pass up an elephant trek? I mean, they had elephants and trekking.)
Anyway, to put it mildly, our tour was fantastic. We rode on a boat for an hour on the Mekong river to see a Karen tribe (the long-necks are just a sub-group of the overall Karen tribe), which is based right on the edge of the river. The village was surprisingly modern, with concrete houses, a paved road running through it, and a big Christian church at one end. It wasn't quite what we had expected, but hey, it's 2010. Concrete houses and paved roads are the wave of the future.
See that Christian church? Not quite what I had in mind, either, but interesting nonetheless.
That's what I'm talking about. Rice fields at the foot of the hills in the Karen village.We walked along the road through the village to the elephant training camp where we would hitch a ride up the mountain on an elephant. In a word: awesome.
God bless, I love elephants. Ain't he/she a beaut?
Our elephant was a 42-year-old male named Lampang. He and I had quite the connection. Lampang took us up into the hills for two hours, traipsing over streams and through rice fields and jungles like it was his job (which I guess it was, in a way). We also had a mahout (elephant trainer) along with us, who drove Lampang and kept him in line; unfortunately I did not catch his name or age. Sorry.
The mahout driving Lampang through the stream.
About two-thirds of the way into our trip, our mahout jumped off the elephant and asked if we wanted our pictures taken. Of course we did. Did he even need to ask?
I know all my Facebook friends have already seen this, but it's such a good picture!
After this picture-break, the mahout jumped back up and sat in my seat next to Danielle and let me ride Lampang's neck for the rest of the way. I know what you're thinking, and it's true: I really am that cool. I was kind of scared and almost fell off a few times, and I kept getting elephant snot all over my feet, but it was worth it. Totally. Anyway, Lampang took us all the way up to the Lahu (or Akha, I can't remember... so much for responsible tourism, eh?) village, where we ate lunch and visited with an ancient lady who sold us some handicrafts. Of course she did. It was worth it.
After lunch, we "trekked" (really we just walked back down the hills... not much trekking involved) over to the main section of the village where the school was. The school seemed to be really well-maintained and even had several computers for the kids to use (all of this made possible through solar panels set up throughout the village).
Our guide was really amazing and seemed to know all the people in all the villages. Also, he speaks all of the different hill tribe dialects (there are many), so he was able to translate for us. Later we walked down to a waterfall, and then visited a Yao and Akha (or Lahu... jeez that's embarrassing that I can't remember) village, which had sort of a combination of bamboo houses with thatched roofs and more modern houses.
Our guide at the waterfall.
Hill tribe village. That one in the back is painted with an aluminum roof. They got big money back there.
I think that about sums up our Chiang Rai hill tribe experience. Whew. Sorry it's so long... I won't do that again. Takes way too long to write out. I guess that sums up my Thailand adventure as well. After Chiang Rai, we flew back to Bangkok, and then I flew back to India (complete with a six-hour layover in Mumbai's beautiful domestic terminal), and the rest is history. The hill tribe tour is definitely up there on my "Best Things I've Ever Done" list, thanks mostly to Lampang the elephant. The End.