It’s hard to believe that just two short months ago I was sleeping on the floor in a small room of a homestay in the highlands of Northern Thailand. Reflecting back on my wonderful adventures. during my study abroad trip in Chiang Mai brings back a flood memories and emotions. I have nothing but positive things to say about my experience, and about Thailand altogether.
While studying at Chiang Mai University, I was enrolled in an Anthropology course (taught by Professor Pongsak Rattanawong) that specifically focused on the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand.
As a part of the Hill Tribes class, I was privileged with the opportunity to visit a few of these Hill Tribe villages and learn about their unique culture and way of life first-hand.
Some of my most cherished memories of Thailand are from the homestays that we visited. Although the language barrier limited communication, we were treated with the highest respect and hospitality. They welcomed us in to their homes, gave us a place to sleep, cooked us delicious food, and demonstrated traditional dance, music, and other cultural performances.
You might still be thinking: Who are the “Hill Tribes” and why should I care?
The ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse groups residing in Northern Thailand are collectively referred to as the Hill Tribes. The Hill Tribes generally maintain a simple way of life, especially by American standards. Most, if not all, Hill Tribes are primarily agricultural societies. Each of the Hill Tribes has their own unique language, religion, customs, family structures, clothing, and so on.
The Hill Tribes became formally recognized by the Thai Government in 1959, and since then their presence in Thailand has continued to increase. Amongst Thai society, the Hill Tribes belong to the lowest rung of hierarchy.
Many of the Hill Tribe people enter Thailand illegally from Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and other surrounding countries. Most are escaping persecution and mistreatment by corrupt governments and militaries in their homelands. In an attempt to give themselves and their children a better life by escaping mistreatment, many are often forced to leave behind not only their family, but also their culture and traditions.
Those who enter Thailand illegally often have difficulty obtaining citizenship because of their lack of documentation. Lack of documentation then leads to inaccessibility to proper health care. Most villages do not have proper medical facilities, and instead they employ traditional methods of medicine. The location of the Hill Tribe villages in remote areas of northern Thailand often restricts access to education for many of the village children. Instead of receiving an education, many of the children must work to help support their family. The issue of education amongst the Hill Tribes has been very controversial in Thai society. However, there is effort being put forth to resolve these problems. For example, The Royal Project (founded by King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand in 1969) helps to educate the Hill Tribes by providing them with the knowledge to cultivate new crops and be self-sustaining.
In addition to The Royal Project, there are many NGO’s and non-profit organizations that fund education programs and projects to build schools for Hill Tribe villages. The needed improvements won’t be made overnight, but with proper recognition and funding, hopefully the conditions of the Hill Tribes will continue to improve.
Conclusively, I wanted to reflect on my experience in Thailand because it ties in directly to our current subject of focus for VoiceBox Media: Immigration. Although Thailand is thousands of miles away and on the other side of the world, the struggles that Hill Tribe children and families are facing are parallel to the hardships that displaced immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and other Central American countries are facing in the United States.
Additional photos from my trip: