Pat was our guide when we visited the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand. With his straggly beard and woven shirts, Pat channeled a laid-back hippy vibe. He drove us around in a beat-up minivan equipped with semi-functional a/c and fully functional speakers. Pat was a Bob Marley fan and we listened to the song Exodus as we bumped along the hillside dirt roads.
The Hill Tribes refer to the ethnic groups living in the mountainous regions of north west Thailand. They inhabit both sides of the border with Laos and Myanmar. As far back as the 19th century, the tribes lived in the mountains and were the largest non-Buddhist group in the region. That combined with their relative inaccessibility might explain their historical isolation from the dominant ruling groups. For the most part, the ethnic Thai occupied the fertile basins and valleys, while the less powerful groups lived in higher elevations.
There are seven major hill tribes – the Akha, Lahu, Yao, Lisu, Palaung, Hmong and Karen – each with a distinct language and culture. The Karen people are the largest with a population of about seven million across Thailand and Myanmar.
The Karen region in Myanmar was recently in the news, with reports of military airstrikes against Karenni villages on the borderlands. Hundreds of villagers fled for safety, crossing the border into Thailand. Over the past seventy years, armed ethnic groups including the Karen and Shan, have been fighting the Myanmar military and each other, for greater rights and autonomy. With the recent coup and crackdown on dissidents, many of them have supported the protests and condemned the military takeover.
Pat was an artist. I don’t remember his medium, just that he looked the part. He showed me photos of the time he visited Berlin. He was bundled up in a heavy winter jacket, one arm around his sister, his hair pulled back in a ponytail. He told me that his father was a Shan revolutionary and that many of his friends had expected him to follow his father’s footsteps.
Pat said he never wanted that life.
I hadn’t heard of the Shan before and when I looked them up, I discovered that they were ethnic Han Chinese who lived on the Shan plateau and other parts of modern day Myanmar since the tenth century. In recent times, the Shan have struggled for independence, resulting in intermittent civil wars.
During conflicts, Shan civilians were often burned out of their villages and forced to flee into Thailand. Some of the worst fighting occurred in 2002 when the Burmese army bombed the Thai border town of Mae Sai to flush out militant factions who’d fled there for safety. The conditions inside Burma led to a massive Shan exodus to Thailand. Although Thailand offered them refuge, they like other Hill Tribes, were not given legal refugee status.
Pat took us to Baan Tong Luang, a Hill Tribe ‘tourist’ village. Baan Tong Luang is well known for its cultural showcase of Hill Tribe life, the most controversial being the Karen long-neck women. Some have condemned the villages as ‘human zoos’ while others praise them for their restorative value.
While I have my misgivings on the Karen long-neck practice, it’s hard to disregard the educational and economic value of these villages. They provide income to the people, who as residents without status, receive no support or benefit from the Thai government. As a people, they fled an oppressive regime that outlawed many of their cultural practices. At least here, they have the freedom of choice.
Pat also invited us into some private homes. One was that of a Hmong acupuncturist, who I featured in an earlier post. Another was with two ladies who were busy making buddha cakes for a festival day.
At the end of the day’s outing, Pat took us to a mountain outpost. At the base there were market stalls, selling hand woven scarves, embroidered bags and other souvenirs. It was overcast, chilly and it had started to rain. Some of the vendors were packing up. Others paused when they saw us, risking a little rain for a potential sale.
It’d been a long day and I would’ve been happy to just leave but Pat wanted to show us something. We parked the car, purchased a couple rain ponchos and walked to the top of the hill.
“Over there is Burma,” Pat said.
And that was all he had to say about that.
Photos taken in Northern Thailand, 2015
This post took a little longer than most to write. It was triggered by recent reports of bombings in Myanmar and the military’s continued violence against protesters. I visited Myanmar in 2016 but we went to Bagan in the west and heeded travel advisories to stay away from the border states in the east. In 2015 when we visited the Hill Tribes in Thailand, I was unaware of the Shan and Karenni histories. Pat’s comments about his father have always stayed with me but their significance and that trip to Ban Nor-lae, is especially poignant now.
This is one in a series inspired by Just One Person from Around the World. Every week I write about ordinary people living ordinary lives, in places around the world. CadyLuck Leedy kicked off the weekly challenge and on her blog, you’ll find similar posts for Just One Person from Around the World. Visit her on Wednesdays when she’ll have a new post and links to other stories.