Tribal Villages: a glimpse of local culture or a freak show?

Akha women, northern Thailand

Akha women, northern Thailand - notice the Coca-Cola T-shirt?

In SE Asia, and no doubt elsewhere in the world, there is a growing trend for tourists to visit ‘tribal villages’. These are marketed as communities of people living in accordance with their ancient traditions. By inference, we are encouraged to believe that the state provides protection for these minority groups and that we, as tourists, can come face to face with a different culture while helping them financially by our visit.

We visited a number of ethnic villages during our time in Thailand and Laos. Most were normal working villages, but the most uncomfortable by far was a hilltribe village tourist centre just outside Chiang Rai. We hadn’t been so keen to go, but our driver had already taken us to the brilliant Wat Rong Khun and we had hiked up to a waterfall in the nearby hills. With a couple of hours to kill before our bus to the Lao border, we agreed to her plan of going to see the tribal village centre.

Our reaction was purely personal, but for us it was a place we didn’t want to hang around. Made up of four tribal communities, each one separated by no more than 100 metres along a footpath, this complex housed people from these ethnic groups who would normally have a large swathe of land on which to subsist. Here, penned in like animals in a zoo, they waited for passing tourists to wander up to their station. They would then perform a dance or offer scarves and trinkets for sale, in the hope of raising a few baht. Others may have found the same experience to be a positive one, but I couldn’t wait to get out and just felt wrong for even being part of something that made me feel instinctively uncomfortable.

Lao village

I have since read numerous articles, including this excellent piece by Tony at Contemporary Nomad about the compulsory resettlement of tribal communities in Thailand, and the overall policy in neighbouring countries of forceably integrating these communities into mainstream society. This is clearly a hugely complex subject and not one which I would pretend to understand. In our particular visit, did these people benefit from being in their enclosure and capturing a few crumbs from the passing farang? Financially they probably do benefit (although I wonder how much of the 300 baht entrance fee reaches them, and how much makes its way into ‘other places’). Is this the life they would lead if given the choice? I somehow doubt it.

We did visit other villages along the Mekong in Laos that left us with a more positive feeling. Sure, I learned that financial arrangements were made between the river boat company and the village elders – call it a landing fee. That’s perfectly ok. When we wandered into the villages we were mobbed by curious children and greeted with reserved smiles by the adults. Those encounters were far more pleasant, although even here there is evidence to suggest a dark side to the recent history of resettlement of ethnic groups along the river by the Lao government.

What do we do as tourists in these situations? Do we visit the tribal cultures in these environments hoping that a little or our money does make it into their hands, or we keep away, stopping the demand for such circuses, but subjecting these people to the alternative, whatever that is? Who benefits in the long run? Not the questions that the tourism chiefs would want visitors to leave with, but if ecotourism is to evolve maybe we will gain easier access to the answers.

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4 Responses to “Tribal Villages: a glimpse of local culture or a freak show?”

  1. I’ve been to many villages all over Asia and I find that the best experiences are ones where you actually stay for a while. Any time you simply go to ‘look’ for a few hours or a day – then it is a ‘zoo-like’ experience and that’s terrible for everyone.
    Stay and actually volunteer at the village, work with local volunteer organizations and make sure you go to remote villages; I did this in Nepal.
    The organization I traveled with in Mongolia was the best I had ever experienced for seeing local culture but integrating into it as opposed to just ‘seeing’ it. Check out, they were a finalist in the National Geographic Geotourism Challenge.
    My best advice – pick your tour companies carefully and spend some actual time in the villages – it’ll be a more rewarding experience for everyone!

    February 5, 2010 at 4:03 pm
  2. I agree with you Sherry. There’s no doubt that staying a while will be a better experience all round. The challenge remains for the majority who are on short itineraries and will only be passing through: is there is a value, for any side, to them stopping in these villages, especially the ones artificially created to cater for the tourism market?
    Thanks for sharing the Ger to Ger link. If your great stories from Mongolia are anything to go by they should be highly recommended.

    February 5, 2010 at 4:23 pm
  3. dudeness #

    Plenty of excellent homestay programmes now in N. Thailand – just spend a little time researching the best ones and these can be a brilliant way to have an interaction with a local community and, more importantly, for them to a) control the tourism that is taking place b) get their hands on your money. Check CBT-I out in Thailand – they’ve won a lot of prizes for their “responsible tourism”

    I’m sure a few stingy backpackers might whinge about how much these programmes cost but one such homestay group in the south used a proportion of their income to successfully launch a campaign to preserve their fisheries and push out the factory ships, thereby ensuring the survival of their community.

    We can’t have it all ways – demand “authentic” places to visit and then complain when these same places want to take control of their communities and regulate the number of travellers that visit.

    Of course, ultimately, if you don’t want somewhere to change, don’t go there!

    February 6, 2010 at 2:19 pm
  4. Thanks Dudeness. I’ve come across CBT programmes elsewhere and agree that they seem to be the best solution all round. Yes, a few might complain of the extra cost but I would rather see projects where money is channelled to the local community.

    As to your last comment, well that’s the start of another debate. I think it’s closer to the truth than most of us would want to admit.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    February 6, 2010 at 2:38 pm