When thinking of a trip to Thailand, it is very common for your thoughts to go straight to exploring the bustling city of Bangkok, hopping across the tropical southern islands and eating mountains of Pad Thai from local street vendors. We think it’s safe to say that the land of smiles has become a very popular destination that sits at the top of most people’s travel bucket lists.
Despite becoming a tourist hotspot over recent decades, Thailand and its people still face a range of developmental issues. Rural areas especially, are being left behind as they lack services that are becoming more available in bigger cities. Many people living in rural parts of Thailand are therefore, living on the poverty line with limited access to quality education, healthcare and income generation opportunities.
And it doesn’t get much more rural than the Hill Tribe communities of Northern Thailand...
The Hill Tribes
In stark contrast to the Southern regions of Thailand, the north is home to lush, mountainous terrain, and dense forests (a more serene escape from the hustle and bustle of urban life). Sounds so peaceful, right? To top it all off, here is where you will find the hidden gem of Northern Thailand, waiting to be explored and open to sharing their fascinating culture.
The hill tribe communities (known as ‘chao khao’ in Thai) are composed of several distinct groups, each with their own unique customs, beliefs, languages and culture. Visiting these communities offers a glimpse into a way of life that has remained largely unchanged for generations. A glimpse into a side of Thailand off the beaten track and more untouched by tourism. Some highlights of their captivating cultures include:
- Language: each hill tribe community has its own unique language and unique rituals. Many of these languages are only learned vocally, as they are not documented through an alphabet for writing.
- Traditional Dress: one of the most striking aspects of hill tribe culture is their colourful and intricate traditional clothing. One of the more remarkable accessories being the long, brass neck rings that the Karen women wear to elongate their necks (giving them the nickname “Long Neck Karen”).
- Agricultural Traditions: agriculture is the cornerstone of hill tribe life. As with many Indigenous groups across the world, the symbiotic relationship between the tribes and their land is evident in the harmony that they maintain with nature.
- Artisan Crafts: the hill tribes are skilled artisans, creating intricate handwoven textiles, jewellery and woodcarvings. These crafts not only serve as a source of income for their families, but they also embody their cultural heritage and traditions.
Healthcare in the Hill Tribes
While the hill tribe communities are rich in culture and tradition, they often face significant challenges when it comes to access to healthcare. The remoteness of their villages and limited resources can create barriers to essential medical services. However, through our work alongside the FutureSense Foundation to identify these issues, we are able to work towards bridging this gap and ensure that these communities receive the healthcare that they need (this is where you come in!). Through our Thailand Paramedic Challenge, our community of people who care are able to:
- Operate pop-up clinics within the hill tribe villages to provide basic healthcare services. These services include community health screenings and basic checks for community members.
- Design and deliver workshops to help train community members in administering first aid and treat themselves in the case of an emergency.
- Work with local health professionals in upskilling the volunteer network of first responders across the hill tribe communities.
- Embark on an incredible knowledge exchange, gaining insight into the traditional healing methods and herbal remedies that are often used (these age-old practices are an integral part of their culture and offer alternative healthcare options outside the realms of Western medicine).
“When I look back on the program, I think wow! We really learned a lot. We learned about communication between us and people who don’t speak English. We learned about the health in Thailand, the food and the culture. We learned about ourselves and each other, and the way different people work. I thought it was really cool to have six brains come together and use our skills, knowledge and our personalities to come make such a special experience.”
Global Citizen, Hayley
Cultural Sensitivity and Sustainable Travel
When visiting hill tribe communities, it is essential to be culturally sensitive, be open to developing your cultural awareness and understanding, and to travel sustainably. Here are some of our top tips in making sure you have a meaningful, impactful and respectful visit:
- As mentioned, be open to learning! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to totally immerse yourself in the customs and lifestyle of an utterly unique culture. Make a conscious effort to learn as much as you can, but make sure to always ask for permission before taking any photographs or videos.
- Take a piece of the culture home with you. Treating yourself to a souvenir directly from the local artisans not only supports the local economy but helps to preserve traditional skills. It’ll also make a nice change from the generic fridge magnet or keyring that you would usually stumble across on a typical tourist trip.
- Always pack reusables. As you can imagine, due to their remoteness, the hill tribes have limited access to a lot of services. The more reusable items that you take (bags, water bottles etc.), the less likely you are to negatively impact their environment through your visit.
- Contributing to community development projects and healthcare initiatives through our Paramedic Challenge is the perfect opportunity to give back. Not only will you have an awesome travel experience, but you’ll be able to use your skills to make a positive impact on the well-being of these communities and leave your mark on the world.
Thailand’s hill tribe communities offer a unique travel experience for anyone seeking to explore rich cultural traditions and breathtaking landscapes. It might seem far from your usual white sand beaches and tropical islands, but it’s an experience not to be missed. While healthcare access in these remote regions is extremely limited, our work alongside the FutureSense Foundation aims to provide essential services to these communities. In contributing to our Community Paramedic Challenge, you are taking a step towards becoming a global changemaker and acting on your passion to make a difference.
If you've been on a Challenges Abroad program in Thailand and would like to share your experience in the hill tribes, get in touch via Instagram! @challengesabroad