There are over 40 distinct ethnic groups of people living in S.E. Asia, each with its own identity, language, culture and, often, religion. Some like the Thais, Burmese, Shan, Khmer and Karen have populations in millions, whilst others just a few thousand members.
During our adventures in Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, we have been privileged to meet some of these fascinating minority communities. Because they usually live in rural areas, often in the mountains, these groups have collectively become known as “Hill Tribes”.
Shan and Kayah States in Myanmar probably have the most diverse collection of hill tribes that are readily accessible, although long treks are sometimes required to reach the more remote villages. A guide is essential – one who knows the route and can speak the relevant tribal language.
Tucked away in the east of Shan State, the sleepy town of Kengtung still manages to retain the comfortable ambience of a British Raj hill-station. It nestles around a small lake and has a faded colonial air with its pagodas and ageing Buddhist temples. Because of its position close to the borders with Thailand, Laos and China, it has historically played an important role in the illicit opium drug trade, and is regarded as the capital of the Burmese Golden Triangle.
However, Kengtung is also an important cultural centre, surrounded by villages whose inhabitants belong to many different indigenous tribes.
Our ancient Toyota Landcruiser jolted its way slowly from Kengtung along dirt roads, through picturesque rice paddies and into rolling hills covered in lush green forest. We eventually arrived at a primitive Palaung village where the kids played football in front of an enthusiastic crowd of chickens, plump pet porkers and water buffaloes.
One of the tribal elders was making a three-stringed guitar, which he then played with considerable dexterity, producing strange melodic tunes. We always try and contribute something to the economy of tribal settlements and, in this case, gave a donation to the nearby monastery. The monks provide essential medical and educational support to these rural communities. Our next stop was at an Akha tribal village. The industrious lady residents wore ornate headdresses and sold brightly-coloured textiles to the few tourists who passed this way. The Akha, who originated in China, are very spiritual people, whose customs and traditions have passed down through countless generations.
We entered their village through a wooden ‘Spirit Gate’, judiciously designed to ward off evil spirits but invite in the benign sort!
Following a steep climb on foot for an hour through thick jungle, we reached our third and most interesting tribal village, belonging to the Ann people, alleged to be the happiest folk in Myanmar.
The Ann people are animists, believing that animals, plants and rocks have spirits just like humans. They live in bamboo huts, are self-sufficient with food from the forest, and trade artifacts made from bamboo to purchase what they can’t produce themselves.
Whilst we sipped a cup of delicious green tea, their cheerful leader and his family made us welcome and gratefully accepted the gift of basic medicines we had brought from Kengtung. The Ann women are famously called the ‘black-teeth’ ladies. When they smile, which is most of the time, they display rows of jet-black teeth. The dark colour arises from chewing betel nut and deliberate staining with charcoal! Black teeth signify beauty in this ancient culture.
This large and stunningly beautiful shallow lake in central Shan State is one of my favourite places on the planet. High hills rim the lake on both sides and its calm waters are dotted with patches of floating vegetation and canoes manned by the famous leg-rowing fishermen.
The Intha people make up the majority of the local population and live in houses on stilts around the lakeshore and islands. They are a hard-working agricultural and fishing community, with strong Buddhist beliefs, as evidenced by the golden spires of the many eye-catching temples.
The fishermen propel their flat-bottomed boats by standing on the stern on one leg and wrapping their other leg around the oar. This unusual and amazingly skilful balancing act allows the rower to free up both arms to handle the fishing nets. Intha children are taught how to leg row almost as soon as they can walk, but tourists who try to emulate the technique invariably end up in the water!
Tribes descend from the nearby hills to bring their produce down to Inle’s daily markets. Perhaps the best of these markets is held at Thaung Tho village, picturesquely situated on a river at the south end of the lake.
By mid-morning, the market stalls, tended by ladies from the Pa’O people, are buzzing with activity. The Pa’O are very proud of their identity and wear their traditional dress more than most other ethnic minorities. The men sport loose fitting trousers and jackets whilst the women whom invariably smile cheekily and bargain hard, wear black dresses and colourful red or orange turbans.
Leaving the market behind, we journeyed south by boat through Lake Phekon, another gorgeous stretch of water. A car collected us from a jetty at the far end, and we then endured a rough road journey into the hills to the remote town of Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State.
Loikaw is almost car free with just bikes, motorcycles and a few trucks occupying its wide boulevards. Eight ethnic groups reside in this mountainous state, according to Aye-Mar, our expert guide, who could recognise each group by its facial characteristics.
Our main reason to visit Loikaw was because Aye-Mar had arranged for us to meet a family from the minority Padaung tribe at their home in a nearby village. Here, in a simple bamboo hut, sitting around a central fire, we were privileged to spend a couple of captivating hours in the presence of two elderly sisters and a daughter-in-law with her two babies.
Padaung womenfolk traditionally wear a stack of brass rings around their necks, which push their shoulders down and give the impression of lengthening their necks – earning them the unfortunate nickname of the ‘giraffe women’. The two ladies seemed quite comfortable with their weighty appendages and had worn them for over 50 years. In the Padaung culture, such long necks are regarded as beautiful and legend has it that the women originally began to wear the rings to protect themselves from tiger attack!
We will never forget our time learning about the lives of these dignified and gentle women. It was a deeply humbling experience. Predicting just what may happen to minority hill tribes over the next few decades is difficult.
The trappings of western civilisation do not mix comfortably with indigenous people and their centuries-old traditions. Whereas in the colonial years, imperialists sought to exploit such groups for profit, some of today’s political regimes either try to urbanise them or open up the most conveniently placed villages to mass tourism of the ‘theme park’ variety.
The modern way may actually be doing more damage. Somehow, a balance has to be struck so that hill tribes can benefit from modern technology, medicine and education whilst still preserving their own extraordinary cultures. It will not be an easy task.
By Nigel Wright
Nigel Wright, and his wife Sue, moved to Portugal eleven years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.