South by Southeast: The hill tribes of Southeast Asia

Welcome back to Gadling’s series on backpacking Southeast Asia, South by Southeast. Southeast Asia is modernizing rapidly. These days, malls line the streets of Thailand and WiFi signals and cell phones blanket the cafes of Vietnam. But that doesn’t mean the ways of the “Asia of old” have vanished – in fact, in the mountainous northern regions of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, a patchwork of hill tribe minorities survive by largely traditional means, subsisting on farming in remote villages. Southeast Asian visitors have a unique chance to learn and help these people through numerous activities, ranging from multi-day hikes to volunteering their time or simply acquiring locally-produced one-of-a-kind souvenirs.

Whether you’re trekking through the pastoral landscapes of Myanmar, helping school kids with their daily English lesson in Laos or shopping for handmade textiles in Thailand, getting in touch with Southeast Asia’s ethnic minority tribes has never been easier or more enjoyable. And though the exploitation of indigenous groups remains a problem, there are increasing signs that tourism offers a great way to help these groups survive and prosper in the years ahead.

Ever wanted to sleep in a traditional village under a blanket of shooting stars? Help a child learn to read English? Drink moonshine with a tribal chief? Keep reading below for our South by Southeast guide to the hill tribes of Southeast Asia.

%Gallery-82697%
What is a “Hill Tribe?”
Southeast Asia is home to numerous ethnic minority groups, including tribes like the Hmong, Pa-O, Akha and Montagnards among many others. Though each of these groups encompasses a unique set of customs, beliefs and habits, typically the groups inhabit high-altitude mountain regions too difficult for traditional agriculture. The history of relations between the governments of Southeast Asia and these tribes has not always been pleasant, ranging from outright conflict to racism and deportation. There is, however, a silver lining, as a thriving tourism industry has provided these groups with a new means of economic improvement and sustainability.

Top Hill Tribe Experiences

  • Trekking – the range and quality of trekking opportunities in Southeast Asia is exploding. Typically a “trek” will provide visitors with a multi-day hike through wilderness, a stop at a traditional village and sometimes a homestay. Though there are hundreds of trekking hotspots across the region, some of our favorites are Kalaw in Myanmar, Luang Nam Tha in Laos and Sapa in Vietnam.
  • Volunteering - offering your time and talents in a hill tribe village can be a particularly rewarding experience and a great way to move beyond “just visiting.” Check out organizations like Big Brother Mouse in Laos and Starfish Ventures in Thailand.
  • Night Markets – another great way to explore the hill tribe cultures of Southeast Asia is by buying their affordable handmade products. From wildly colorful textiles to elaborate carvings, hill tribe crafts are unparalleled in their quality and detail. Check out the night markets in cities like Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang, where sellers offer all manner of fantastic finds.

Doing It Right
Everywhere you look in Southeast Asia, someone is trying to offer you a tour to visit authentic local cultures. But not all visits are created equal. In some cases, the tours are organized without the tribes’ permission. Even worse, in more popular areas literally hundreds of visitors pass through a village in a given day. The tours feel less like an authentic cultural experience and more like an opportunity to stare at “those strange tribe people.” It’s important if you’re going to experience a hill tribe you do so in a sustainable way and with an organization that ensures the tribes benefit from your visit. Check out companies like Green Discovery in Laos and Akha Hill House in Thailand for good examples.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.