We spent much of our time in Chiang Mai but we wanted to explore the outside region, so we took a day trip to the villages in Northern Thailand. The tour was by mini van with 12 other travelers. We drove 1 1/2 hours north of Chiang Mai to a set of villages tucked away in the mountains down a bumpy dirt road. The first village was called Lisu with villagers of Christian religion. Upon departing the minivan, we were greeted by a group of women dressed in traditional clothes trying to sell us souvenirs. One woman was carrying a baby around her dressed in “traditional” gear and headdress. The baby was so tired falling asleep and finally she passed him off to her “husband”.
As we explored the village the woman continued to follow us offering souvenirs. We walked through the village visiting their huts, farm animals and saying hello to the locals chilling out during their lazy Sunday afternoon. We met the Lisu village “Spinster”, who was the oldest women in the village that had never been married. Brett had bought some lined notebooks and pens for the children while in Luang Prabang, Laos. He was handing them out as we passed through the village. The children seemed so happy that they could write or draw in their new books.
Handing out Notebooks in Lisu Village
At the edge of the village was their Christian chapel which was holding their Sunday service. Everyone in the church was singing and two little girls kept peeking out of the doorway laughing and smiling. Brett put his arm out with two more books and pens for the girls and they got very shy and giggly. Finally, they ran up and grabbed the books and put their hands together with a bow to say thank you. We kept looking back and saw them sitting on the edge of the church door writing in their new books. It was such a beautiful moment to know we could help make the kids day.
We left the village and headed back down the dirt road pass the second village of Chinese descent. Then we stopped at the third village called Ahja Village. The funny thing was as soon as we stepped out of the minivan…. we were greeted once again from our saleswomen friends from the first village. We later found out that they were actually from the Ahja Village and when they saw us driving to the Lisu Village they ran all the way up there and then ran back down to try to sell to us again. One man in the group gave them some money and said he didn’t want anything in return. But even then, they still tried to sell him more. The Ahja Village people seemed to be more aggressive and an active bunch all congregated by the road selling and bartering with each other. The stop was very hectic compared to the first village so we only stayed a short while before heading on our way.
Thum Phranon Cave
There are many huge cave systems throughout Northern Thailand. We visited one of the largest caves “Thum Phranon Cave”, which was used for Buddhist worship. The cave was incredible to walk through and definitely one of the largest caves we’ve ever been inside. We walked quite far through the cave for about 15-20 minutes before stopping at the last shrine. The cave and tunnels kept going and we were told that you can take one of the cave paths all the way back to Chiang Mai. We heard a secret exit route existed for times of war with the Burmese.
We had a wonderful lunch just outside the caves at this local restaurant. The family prepared such lovely meals and even took care with our vegetarian needs. It was definitely a pleasant surprise for a lunch that was included on the tour. They usually aren’t very good, but this one was delicious. And, we sat next to a newlywed couple from France and Mexico… about to move to New York!
Karen Longneck Village
After lunch, we headed to a Karen Village with women displaying their longneck tradition. Upon arrival, we noticed the village walkway was lined with stall after stall selling the same scarves, tribal gear and longneck souvenirs. Each stall had a designated longneck woman or young girl…. with some girls as young as six years old. The brass collars are applied as early as two to five years old to promote beauty with the mostly illusionary effect of an elongated neck.
The older women were pros and seemed like this was just their job for as long as they remember. So, they just smile and take in the tourist photos. The young girls seemed scared and when approached just kept saying “buy something, buy something” like they were programmed like robots.
Giving Notebooks to Girls in Longneck Village
We started handing out our books and pens to the young girls as gifts. They were very reluctant in accepting the gifts as if they were afraid to get get into trouble. Lets face it, their job is to sell stuff, not learn how to read and write. As we left the village, we saw the girls investigating the books and some even using them. The entire experience made us very sad to see these young girls and women forced into living a life as a “longneck” for the benefit of tourists like us coming and snapping some photos. The village was certainly a tourist trap and felt very made up for tourist dollars. We’re sure at one time the longneck may have been a traditional practice, but we got the feeling these women were being forced to live this way. Marco Polo was the first to document the longneck traditions in the year 1300.
Tiger Photo Shoot? Why?
The tour guide gave us the option to visit the Tiger Kingdom north of Chiang Mai. Christie had a feeling it was going to be more like a zoo of tigers caged up so her vote was no. Unfortunately there were some other people on the tour that wanted to visit the tigers, so we went to the tiger playground. And she was right, it was even worse then a zoo. As we entered the building we were greeted by a desk of sales people signing tourists up for photo shoot packages with the tigers. The prices escalated as the size of the tiger grew smaller (e.g. pay more to play with baby tiger). We walked beyond the entrance and were horrified by the huge caged rooms of tigers all being poked around by their tamers to pose with groups of tourists for photos by a professional photographer. It was a full out circus, with tigers that looked sedated laying on the ground while tourists posed laying with them.
Poor Baby Tiger
The baby tiger photo package costs the most, and you had this poor baby surrounded by tourists snapping photos. The entire circus made us sick and we had to leave the area. Unfortunately, a few of the tourists in our group opted to get the photo shoot, so we all had to wait around for 40 minutes until these loons got their photos laying over the sedated tigers.
Kids Playing inside Plastic Bubbles?
We sat by the nearby lake where there was this amusement ride for children to get into a large plastic bubble and roll around through the water. Christie had mixed emotions about the ride and wondered how friends back in the States would feel about putting their kids in one of these plastic bubbles.
Beautiful Orchid Farm
We ended the day with a last stop at an orchid and butterfly farm. We strolled through the grounds and saw rows of magnificent brightly colored orchids. We walked through the butterfly grounds but neglected to see any butterflies. They must have all been asleep.
The day trip to the northern villages was definitely worth the trip, but there were some disheartening realizations throughout the day. Yet again, tourism has ruined villages and exploited the ancient local traditions of the Thai people. The highlight of our day was Brett handing out the books to the village children. It seemed to make their day a little brighter and felt good to give back to the local community. We only wish we could do more to make some of these kids lives a little easier.
See our Photo Album:
Villages of Northern Thailand