We were in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. This mountainous region, being one of Thailand’s most popular tourist destinations, is famous for its beautifully scenic landscapes and Kayan people, or as they are widely known as the “Long-Necked Tribe”. You must be familiar with a picture of women, or even girls as young as five, wearing permanent metal rings around their necks, which makes them look longer, slender and supposedly more attractive.
I must say that before arriving in Chiang Mai, the prospect of seeing these people seemed quite appealing. I had never seen an indigenous tribe before and was looking forward to being like one of those National Geographic photographers capturing a mountainous tribe and their unique culture.
However, as soon as we arrived in the north of Thailand my enthusiasm gave way to scepticism. I had imagined them to be some kind of “wild”, undiscovered tribes, enclosed by the hilly jungle and almost impossible to get to. Instead, they turned out to be living in “Tribe Preservation Centres” advertised in almost any backpacker’s hostel, which could be reached with a guide during one- or two-day trips, also usually combined with elephant riding and white water rafting.
What put us off was not only the fact that it was extremely commercial and aimed at the type of people we wouldn’t like to spend the whole day with (young western girls and boys, probably first time abroad, finding themselves wannabe hippies but not interested in anything else than “having a good time”, expecting the locals to be at their service; you know the kind of people I’m talking about…). What we really didn’t like was the fact that they weren’t any genuine tribes; those “tribe preservation centres” often consisted of several different ethnic groups and were merely kept for the tourist’s sake. Run by travel agencies based in Chiang Mai, they made a lot of money, which in the main didn’t even reach the ordinary tribesmen. It was more of a human zoo, “tribe exploitation centres” created to make money from naive western youngsters who were prepared to pay loads of cash to have a picture with a long-necked child, which they could proudly show their friends back home.
Having learnt a bit more about the way these tribes were managed and exploited, we resolved that we didn’t want to be a part of it and we’d rather go for a hiking excursion instead. To our utter surprise, however, it turned out to be quite difficult to find a local guide (we needed one, you wouldn’t want to set off to the jungle on your own) who would organise a normal, decent hiking trip to the mountains. In the myriad of small travel agents’ shops and booths on every corner, offering zip-line experiences, white water rafting, elephant riding and what not, our simple request “only hiking” created astonishment and heads shaken in refusal.
In the end we managed to find a relatively non-commercial guide who was interested in hiking himself and agreed to take us to the jungle for a two-day trip. We set off the next morning accompanied by a couple of lovely gay Frenchmen who shared our view of the tribe exploitation and wanted a normal hiking trip themselves.
Our guide spoke some English and turned out to be an excellent hiker. Having grown up in one of the hill villages, he had spent his whole life going to and fro. His calves were like steel and no ascent seemed to be a challenge for him.
Having hiked in the jungle in Malaysia before (check out our story), we knew what to expect. It wasn’t the first time we had walked through a forest so thick and dark that it seemed like it was night; with the grass so high that you could hide behind it or lose your path; with sounds and smells you’d never experience in Europe; with plants and animals you had to be careful of; and with hot, sticky humidity clinging onto your body all the way.
This time it was slightly different, however, as having a guide who would explain and show us things we hadn’t been aware of before, made a big difference. He showed us weird plants which cowered if touched, lairs of massive black hairy spiders, trees covered in thorns and we even managed to spot a wild elephant walking about in the jungle.
The hike was tiring and challenging but very satisfying too. In the evening we found the village where we were supposed to spend the night. It was a typical Thai village with a dirt path going through the centre and about 10-15 houses made of bamboo and wood. The houses, as is typical in Southeast Asian architecture, were elevated on stilts, which is a clever solution if you live in a tropical climate and get flooded for six months every year. The area beneath the house is normally used for storage, crafts, daytime lounging or even livestock. To get into the house you have to climb a thin wooden ladder and the house itself is usually a one- or two-room area with a wooden floor and a bamboo ceiling. Inside there would be no beds, just mattresses and cushions laid down on bamboo mats and sometimes separated with mosquito nets. On the opposite side of the house there would be a fireplace for cooking.
What struck us, though, was the fact that the village was supplied with solar panels, which were the only source of electricity. Just imagine the contrast: simple bamboo huts with modern solar panels in the front yard.
When we arrived, we were shown around by our guide who rushed to organise some food and we went to the bathroom to freshen up a little. The bathroom wasn’t much but a wooden house with a squat toilet dug in the ground and a large basin (with rain water?) that served for a shower.
After having washed ourselves a little bit, we went to explore the village. Although it was the evening, the village was still full of live with dogs, pigs and children running around. Our arrival hasn’t passed unnoticed and all the encountered village people scrutinised us attentively, though after exchanging a couple of “sawatdees” (“hellos”) we felt more or less welcome. Some men even offered us glasses of locally distilled liquor and burst out laughing with joy seeing it disappear down my throat. Rare view, given the fact that Thai women don’t normally drink.
There was no central square but a flattened piece of land where a lot of people gathered. Some men caught and slaughtered a pig and started gutting it, right there on this dusty piece of land. As we couldn’t really communicate with the locals, we weren’t sure what it was for. Was it to give us a warm welcome or maybe it was a normal village procedure and happened every evening before dinner time?
Only after we managed to speak to our guide, who had disappeared for a while, did we learn that the locals were preparing for a funeral.
It may seem funny now, but then in Thailand, being surrounded by so many fake things made just for the tourists’ sake, a thought crossed our minds that it could have actually been nothing more than a show made just for our arrival.
Later that evening we noticed many scooters and 4x4s arriving in the village (did they drive through the jungle?) what finally made us believe that there was a funeral and they were mourners who came from far away villages to pay the last respect to the deceased.
After dark we directed ourselves to our hut, where our guide had been preparing some tasty Thai rice on the fire stove on the hut’s floor. After dinner, when we were almost ready to sleep, one of the tribesmen came by and asked us if we’d like to participate in the wake. We felt honoured and excited as attending a tribal funeral doesn’t happen every day. We put some clothes on, as the evening was quite chilly, and followed him to one of the houses on the other side of the village. It was a large ground-floor, one-room building, serving as a community house. We entered a barely lit room, full of people seated on the floor, whispering to one another. We were directed into one of the corners where we sat down obediently, feeling a bit out of place but still very excited. In the middle of the room, there was a large yellow wooden box which must have been the coffin. The atmosphere was quite solemn but very informal at the same time. There was someone playing a string instrument, people were singing and talking. Our guide told us there were talking about the deceased, reminiscing about him. We learnt that the deceased had been killed by his own brother in a family argument. Just before our arrival the police had come to arrest the accused.
Someone came up to us and handed us a metal tray with pieces of bacon. It must have been the pig we’d seen earlier that day. I’d never eaten such fresh meat before. The meat we have in Europe doesn’t smell of a living being; that pork did. There was also some of that locally brewed liquor being passed around and everybody got progressively more and more drunk.
We would have never guessed it was a funeral if we hadn’t been told about it before. It didn’t resemble the uptight European wakes, which you want to leave as soon as you enter. In that village hut we could really feel the sense of communal togetherness.
We went to bed quite late that night and woke up early the next morning to prepare for another day of hiking in the jungle.
Because the village people followed some branch of Christianity, there was a small graveyard and a wooden chapel where the burial took place the following morning.
We were getting ready to hit the trail again as we didn’t want to intrude upon the mourners’ grief. Having said goodbye to the hospitable locals, we disappeared into the forest, led by our unflagging guide. Looking back, from the top of the hill overlooking the village, we could make out the graveyard and the people gathering round for the last goodbye.
written by: Ania
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