Tha Ton Hilltribe Trek

Tha Ton Hilltribe Trek Thailand

Trekking in Northern Thailand 3

October 18, 2017

Awright, so, last time I wrote about my first day of trekking in Northern Thailand, in the district of Mae Ai, near Tha Thon, and this time ’round I’ll tell you about my second day out there. My first day Tuk-Tu and Utu took me to the jungle, while on my second day, Renato, Tuk-Tu’s father, guided me up and down squat mountains and through golden rice fields to a trio of Hilltribe villages.

While the jungle was impressive, the views on this trip were absolutely staggering.

Tha Ton Hilltribe Trek Thailand
Tha Ton Hilltribe Trek Thailand

See that little shack atop the hill in the last photo? We eventually passed it, crested the hill and descended into another valley. It was a hot and sunny day but Renato, well into his fifties, led me along as though we were taking a leisurely stroll in a park. In fact, at times, I came close to losing him in the rice fields.

Tha Ton Hilltribe Trek Thailand

The rice fields are not easy to navigate; it actually takes a certain skill. Though criss-crossed with paths, these paths are set along narrow ridges of dirt, with water and rice on either side. Walking carefully along these sort of medians between rice fields, you start to understand why Western countries keep losing wars and getting kicked out of Southeast Asian countries.

We visited three villages. The first was an Akha village. They are primarily Baptist, having been converted by missionaries decades ago, and most of them came down from Myanmar and still speak more Burmese than Thai, though most are bilingual. We stopped into a small home, its walls bamboo, the roof thatched, and the floor earthen. The couple family there, a couple and their young daughter, were having lunch with the village pastor and his wife. They quickly invited us to join them. The food was spread out on an elevated bamboo platform with everyone seated around the dishes. At night, the platform served as the couple’s bed. The food was delicious and consisted of chicken, lots of rice, and a fantastic spicy cucumber salad.

I tried my very limited Thai out on the couple’s daughter, offering her some pineapple and asking her if she liked it. Before taking his leave, the pastor blessed the home and all within. It was a Christian blessing but delivered entirely in Burmese, so all I understood was the closing “Amen,” which sounded weirdly innocuous. As I left I noticed a painting on the wall of what i believe was supposed to be God speaking to Jesus, but “God” looked suspiciously like Ian McKellan as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings movies. Anyway. Playing with an umbrella, the little girl came to the door to watch us go.

Tha Ton Hilltribe Trek Thailand

From there we hiked to a Lahu village, this one far poorer, but children played outside and took an immediate interest in the “farang” and his camera. Suffice to say that, in essence, kids are pretty much the same no matter the part of the world:

Tha Ton Hilltribe Trek Thailand

We trekked through further rice fields, over further mountains and across further valleys.

Tha Ton Hilltribe Trek Thailand
Tha Ton Hilltribe Trek Thailand

Interestingly, it seems the members of the Karen Hill Tribe are all proficient with the sling shot. Utu’s kids were playing with one when I first met him, and Tuk-Tu had me try hers (I didn’t even get half the range she did), while Renato brought his out to scare rats out of a copse of trees.

Tha Ton Hilltribe Trek Thailand local guide

Eventually, we came to the Karen Long Neck village. Though Karen, these people are not members of Renato’s tribe and he isn’t a member of theirs. They actually call themselves Long Neck, or Khaw Yao, due to the women’s distinctive use of rings to stretch the neck and lower the shoulders as a way to accentuate the length of the neck, a sign of beauty.

Tha Ton Hilltribe Trek Thailand

I’ll admit that my visit here made me uncomfortable. Tuk-Tu had even told me that, by and large, the use of rings is for the benefit of tourists alone, that the tradition would have been abandoned long ago if not for the tourist dollars it attracts. The village itself bore this out: once you’ve entered the grounds you are essentially corralled into a market space, really just women in traditional garb selling their wares, many though not all wearing the rings. I was told that there was no problem taking photos, and I did, but for the very first time, I felt rather bad doing so. I don’t really know how to feel about it. The Karen people have taken something they’ve done for decades if not centuries and, in a way, monetized it, something for which I certainly can’t fault them, but I guess I would feel better if they weren’t doing it for my benefit and that of others like me… then again, maybe it’s not my place or right to question it. Anyway, the market area felt very much like a stage and as Renato took me beyond the market, to the area reserved for actual housing and living space, I felt like I was getting a peak behind the scenes. Back there it was a regular working village. . . Still, a few days later, when I was again given the opportunity to visit a Karen Long Neck village, I declined. I guess I’m still struggling with ethical tourism. . .

Tha Ton Hilltribe Trek Thailand

On a somewhat brighter note, as we approached the Karen Long Neck village, we saw a man struggling to haul bags of cement using his scooter. He had a small cart, but he’d lashed it to his scooter using only a length of rubber tubing, He could barely make it up the rocky hills and going downhill meant that his heavy cart threatened to overtake him, slamming its handle into his back. So, with cries of “Pom chu-oi dai!”, I can help, we rushed over, pulling back on the cart during the downhill stretches and pushing uphill. Eventually, the man made it to the village, his load of cement intact.

Tha Ton Hilltribe Trek Thailand

Anyway, later that day Renato drove me back to my hotel in Tha Ton and I got plenty of rest, planning to take the three hour river boat ride from Tha Ton to Chiang Rai the following day.