Sunday, April 24, 2011

Hanging with the Hill Tribes of Thailand

A good portion of one day during my recent travels around Thailand involved a bit of hiking, a bit of haggling and plenty of highland views of some wonderful landscapes.

We enjoyed these experiences while visiting a pair of Hill Tribe villages in the Chiang Mai area of the country.

Hill tribe is a term used in Thailand for all of the various tribal peoples who migrated from China and Tibet during the past few centuries. They now inhabit the remote border areas between northern Thailand, Laos and  Myanmar. These areas are known for their thick forests and mountainous terrain.

Ready to bargain for a purse
We spent time with the Palong (also spelled "Palaung") tribe, a group originating from China and Myanmar. We only needed about a half hour hike up a road through the forest from our van to reach the first village, set off the road a bit, which peters out as it goes further into the hills.

As soon as we arrived, three or four women wearing the traditional clothing of their culture began to spread out blankets and set out crafts to sell us.

Bartering is part of their way of life, so I quickly became embroiled in a bargain for a small purse. She wanted 150 Baht for it, I countered with 100, she came back quickly with 120, and I thought that was a good bargain, so I purchased it.

The most striking feature about Palong women is their teeth: they're dark black. Depending on who you talk to, it's caused by chewing betel nut combined with lime paste and palm nut wrapped in a betel leaf, done to improve the strength and health of the teeth (that's what our guide, Chan, told us); or, according to other sources, it's done through a painting process as the women consider it to be a form of beauty, much like we co, according to other sources.

While not all the women sport blackened teeth, and regardless of the reason or cause, it does produce a striking appearance.

Beyond the Lost Horizon ...
After chatting with some of the women through Chan's interpretation (most of the men were away from the village, working), we paid a quick trip to the village temple, then strode across a short bridge and began a trek that would take us high up into the hills above the village.
When we reached the highest point, we looked back down into the village we had left, and down and ahead to a beautiful valley below, seeing the village we were headed toward.

 We were about halfway between the two villages, in terms of the distance between them. The one we were headed for, far below, surrounded by hills and forests, reminded me of the mythical kingdom of Shangri-La, of the book and movie , The Lost Horizon.

Down we went, across the hills, past fields of crops, including coffee and pineapple plants. A short walk along a narrow forested path brought us to a bridge across a stream and into our second village.

We ate lunch, did some more trading, took some more pictures, then piled into our van, which had met us there, and our drive back to the city. 
A Palong woman weaves cloth the traditional way,
and listens to the less traditional radio.

Before leaving the village, though, we had an opportunity to observe a Palong woman using a traditional loom to weave cloth used by the tribe for their traditional dress as well as for selling to tourists.

It was a short trip in terms of distance - but it was a much longer trip in terms of time, if you consider it truly is a trip back in time to see an ancient way of life practised as it has been for centuries throughout southeast Asia.

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