Visiting a Karen Hill Tribe

Chiang Rai, Thailand

My study abroad group visits the long-necked Karen hill tribes in Northern Thailand.


Human-zoo tourism is definitely a controversal subject.
On one hand, people from all over the world can come and learn about a culture from a primary source. The local economy is boosted, and the dying culture is preserved.
On the other hand, these cultures are forced to keep up a charade to give in to tourist expectations, and it is degrading to have people look at you as if you were an exhibit.
That being said, this is a consensual system. I’m personally not a fan, but my curiosity will always get the best of me, and I am glad I was given the opportunity to observe this part of the world.

Arriving at the Hill Tribes

July 2015

Driving up to the hill tribe site, we were geeted by giant looming statues in between the highway and the rice fields.


Statue honoring the persecuted members of the hill tribes

Our tourbus parked, and we were allowed to explore the small Karen village.


Traditional carvings in the Karen hill tribe village

We walked along a dirt road that had two rows of covered stalls.


Walking through a Karen village

Vendors in traditional dress, all of which were women or children, sold their homemade wares. Beautiful scarves and tapestries hung from every bamboo-thatched roof. Silver jewelry and carvings glittered on tables.


A Karen family selling wares & posing with tourists.

Some women sat at looms, weaving intricate and colorful patterns.


Statue honoring the persecuted members of the hill tribes


Statue honoring the persecuted members of the hill tribes

Children played in the dirt road and called out to us to buy things.


These pictures were taken by friends, I was a bit uncomfortable taking photos of people posing for the tourists.

The whole experience seemed very insincere. Myself and my friends didn’t feel like we were actually getting a look into what these peoples’ lives were like, other than their days at work for the sake of tourism. It was all a bit odd.


Karen Hill Tribe Tour


In addition to our free time allotted to explore the village, we were given the option of going to a cockfight. This was located away from the tourist-y row, and we had to trek across a dirt road in between some rice paddies to get to a covered building.


Cockfighting center

We unfortunately had to pay 200 baht to enter, and I hated contributing to animal cruelty, but the experience we had in the tent was definitely unforgettable.


Cockfighting ring in the Karen hill tribe

I barely watched the roosters tear each other apart. The real entertainment was watching the people.

While all the women worked, it seemed like every single man in the village was here, making bets and drinking Chang beer and laughing together.

We were the only westerners present, as well as the only girls present, beside the women collecting money at the front entrance. We sat on a rickety bamboo seat on stilts, that wobbled with any slight movement. Luckily, it allowed for quite a view.

Sometimes, a man would say something in Thai, and everyone around him would laugh boisterously. The men cheered at the roosters and shuffled around the building. The whole event was very jolly, and I never saw anyone lose their temper, which would normally be expected in a gambling situation in the U.S.

This was the only portion of the Karen village tour that really felt authentic, like we were getting a firsthand look into what modern life is like in the hill tribes.


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