A dilemma for travelers to Thailand and often the subject of much debate. The term “hill tribe” or “Chao Khao” in Thai, came about in the 1960’s and refers to groups of ethnic minorities living in Northern Thailand. Trekking companies and travel agencies offer hill tribe tours where travelers venture into the mountains to experience the day to day lives and culture of these people first hand. If you’re visiting northern Thailand, particularly the Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai regions, you’ll find that everywhere you go there’s travel agents touting tours to visit these hill tribes.

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Long Neck Karen hill tribe people, Chiang Rai

There are six major hill tribes in Thailand with a combined population of about 1 million people; the Akha, Karen, Meo, Yao and Lahu, and Lisu. Each have their own unique way of doing things and cultural traditions. For a long time these tribes lacked legal status because they were regarded as stateless people who wandered freely and didn’t recognize international borders or obey national laws.

Kayan Long Neck Hill Tribe

The Kayan Long Neck Hill Tribe are a sub-group of the Red Karen people and are originally from Myanmar. Because of political unrest in the late 80s between the military dictatorship in Yangon and the Karen National Liberation Army, and the violence that ensued, many of the Kayan people crossed over the border to Thailand and were sent to refugee camps.

Related: The Full Face Tattoos Of Tribal Women In Myanmar

The Kayan tribes quickly became a tourist attraction, mostly because the girls and women (sometimes referred to as giraffe women) traditionally wear brass coils around their neck. The brass pushes the collarbone down to compress their rib cage making their necks appear abnormally long. It’s unclear where this tradition came from; some people believe that their elongated necks are a sign of beauty and wealth, while others believe that the brass rings were used to make the women look unattractive to the slave traders who were hunting them down.

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Thai authorities decided to allow Kayan villages to move closer to Chiang Mai, thanks to the large tourist revenue they generate, and this made it easier for tour companies to promote their business. Today tourists still visit these hill tribes to see what they think is traditional living but what they see is usually completely staged.

I opted out of another Hill Tribe Tour when I was in northern Thailand the second time due to my experience from the first. There was nothing genuine or authentic about it, and I shouldn’t have been surprised. What authentic tribal village would allow groups of travelers to traipse through it all day long.

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Hill Tribe Exploitation

Concerns about visiting Hill Tribe Tours in Thailand arise not just because contact with foreigners is likely to negatively effect and influence their culture, but because there has been a lot of evidence to suggest that the Hill tribe people are being exploited by tour guides and operators. Very little of the money earned from hill tribe tours ends up in the pockets of these people. The Kayan women only receive a small portion of the money generated by tourism and most goes to the tour operators and agencies.

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Kayan hill tribe girls are at a disadvantage from a young age because they have little to no access to schools, healthcare, roads or even electricity. The girls and women with rings around their neck will never get to experience life outside of these fake tourist villages because the Thai government won’t allow them outside for work or higher education. They are far too profitable as a tourist attraction.

“The long-neck women are Burmese refugees who are being prevented by Thai authorities from taking up asylum overseas. As a lucrative tourist attraction, the women are forced to live in a virtual human zoo.”  Abigail Haworth for Marie-Claire.

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So should you visit hill tribes because the people in these villages directly rely on tourism to survive, or should you avoid what’s sometimes referred to as ‘human zoos’ to avoid furthering the exploitation?

Hill tribe treks got the nickname “human zoos,” because the tribes people are essentially trapped in their villages, compelled to wear traditional garb, gawked at and photographed by tourists like they would an animal in a zoo. Obviously, this is just one extreme, and there are hill tribe tours in Thailand that don’t fit this description, but still, is it ethical?

Yes and no. It depends on the tour company you choose. There are ethical tour companies in northern Thailand so if you want to experience hill tribes or even the Kayan Long Neck Hill Tribe culture first-hand, you can do. It’s really important to do your research before choosing a trekking company to avoid supporting those that exploit the villagers. The Akha Hill House tour company in Chiang Rai and Eagle House in Chiang Mai are worth checking out.

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