Home :: A Night in a Genuine Hill Tribe Village

A Night in a Genuine Hill Tribe Village

by Diana McLeod

This story happened about ten years ago. I was in Chiang Mai, which is in northern Thailand. The main attraction in Chiangmai is a famous market called the Night Bazaar. The market is open from 6 P.M. until midnight, because the air is cooler at night. People go there for shopping, dinner, and to see shows. It is one of the best open air markets in the region. Chiang Mai is the center for handcrafted goods, so buyers from all over the world go there, as do hordes of tourists.

In the market, there are several large buildings set up to house market stalls, but they are never adequate for all the vendors. The smaller vendors rent sections of sidewalk space. I do business with many of these small sidewalk vendors. Year after year, I find them in the same location along the road. This story is about one such family.

The family sold little cast statuettes. They were very nice people, and I had been doing business with them for a long time. Each year, I would find them, and place an order. After a few days, I would return and pick it up. But one time, when I went to place the order, they brought a friend to translate for them. Through their friend, I learned that I could pick up my order at their home, in their village in the hills. I could go home with them, and the next day, they would drive me back into town, along with my order. I was being invited to spend the night with the family!

This was a great honor, and I knew I had to accept. Farang (foreigners) almost never get asked into people’s' homes. Besides, these people were tribals - they belonged to the Hmong tribe. If I was lucky, I would get to see a genuine tribal village and the inner workings of a tribal house. I was excited by their offer.

On the other hand, there could be problems. I would be going into the mountains, at night, with a family I could barely communicate with. I would have to pack very carefully. We didn’'t know each other well. I might have to leave, and in a hurry, if things went badly.

I went shopping for the expedition. I packed a small pack with warm clothes, jungle clothes and trekking boots, bug spray, lots of safe drinking water, a decent map of the area (in case I had to find my own way home) a compass, a flashlight, the Thai phrase book, some cash, and emergency rations. Then I bought gifts for the family. I brought food - fresh strawberries, expensive cookies, baked goods, chocolate, and of course, the obligatory small bottle of Mekong whiskey.

At 11:30 PM, they were packing up their stall as I arrived. I gave them a hand. The husband went off to get their vehicle, which turned out to be a startlingly shiny new Japanese pickup truck with four wheel drive. My new friends lived in a tribal village, but their wheels were nicer than mine at home! There were about 8 people, plus gear. We stacked the unsold goods in the back, then we crammed ourselves in behind the boxes for an open air ride, which was delightful in the warm night air.

We drove for about an hour. I actually knew most of the route, because we passed a famous temple, Doi Suthep, along the way. The road snaked up along a mountain ridge, and I could see the airport lights glittering in the far distance, far below us. I had seen this mountain plenty of times from the planes. The road turned with the mountainside, and grew rougher as we left pavement behind. We bounced along in the back, sharing smiles in the moonlight, as we hit bump after bump.

The village had no electricity. We passed small wooden houses, lit here and there by hearthfires and small lights. In the darkness, the candlelit cottages were charming. The truck pulled up to a large low building. This was a family longhouse. Multiple generations slept under one roof. Inside, there was a central fire pit and the main room had a dirt floor. On either side of the central area were raised sleeping lofts with plank floors. These were separated into little rooms. At night, each set of parents had their own privacy. Kids slept in groups, separated by sex. Walls divided each section on the side, and there were cloth curtains strung across the access to the central room.

I presented my gifts, and they were graciously accepted. Nobody touched the whiskey, but I knew they would all enjoy it at a later date. It was now 12:30 A.M. and we were all tired. They indicated that I should share a compartment with two of the teenage girls. I took my shoes off and crawled into the compartment. We all stretched out on a big sleeping pallet, and got under the coverlet. I was now part of the family.

It was a lovely night. The only problem was that, at about 4 A.M. I was awakened by loud knocking on the wall. My companions kept snoring. I got up, and looked around outside. There was nobody there. I found this very strange, but I went back to sleep.

I woke up to voices and crowing roosters. It was about 7 AM, and everyone was already up. Large family groups were congregating in the kitchen, which was a smoky little shed on one end of the longhouse. Women were preparing breakfast; a kind of hot sweet rice porridge. I took my toothbrush and went outside to the outhouse.

By daylight, the village was stunningly beautiful. Even the outhouse was cute -and extremely clean. A little mountain stream trickled down the mountain, supplying each house with clean fresh water. Each house had well tended flower and herb gardens, and they were all extremely well groomed. Little mountain trails led from house to house. It was all picture postcard perfect.

I went back inside. Breakfast was ready. We shared their food and mine. There were many family members. Some sat around a crude plank table, and others grabbed food on the run, as they took care of the children. I did my best to be an entertaining guest, even though we had no language in common. I played with the children, dandled a baby, and passed around my postcards of Vermont. These were a big hit, especially the picture of the moose, and the pictures of snow.

The young children were all dressed in full Hmong costume. Each tribal group in Northern Thailand has distinctive traditional clothing, often covered in elaborate embroideries and fancy quilted fabrics. The kids also wore the traditional collar necklaces, bracelets, anklets and decorated hats of their ethnic group. They looked great.

I was puzzled. Most of the adults were dressed in Western clothing. Usually, it’'s the older generation that clings to traditional dress, while they let the little kids run around in tee shirts with bare bums. I was beginning to get the idea that something was peculiar here.…

After breakfast, they invited me on a tour of the village. We saw the village school and the clinic. They were really fancy for a small village! This place was prospering! (I reflected on my friend’s' pick up truck). Were they all making a living from opium production? If so, the place seemed too tidy. Usually, where there'’s opium, there'’s also addiction, which leads to ramshackle villages with no work ethic at all. We went back up the path, and hiked over to the other side of the hill to a truly picturesque spot. There was a lovely waterfall, flowing down into a manmade fishpond. It was surrounded by large and beautiful gardens. On one side of this little park were picnic tables, placed carefully on well tended lawns. Somebody had gone to a great deal of trouble to make this place attractive...

We circled back along the road and there it was! We were inside the entrance gates of the village that the bus tourists pay to see. This whole place was making money off the tourists! I walked out of the gates just as the first tourists of the day came in. If I had come here on the bus, I would have paid $3.00 just to see the village!

A Japanese tour bus was disgorging eager tourists, who were bristling with cameras. The little children from my family group were starting their work day. They were posing for photos for money. They hammed it up in front of the cameras, capitalizing on cuteness. They were already seasoned professionals. They smiled and waved at me, and then they went back to work. The lovely costumes made perfect sense to me now.

A little further along, we ran into rows and rows of souvenir stands. There was a little mini-bazaar on the edge of town, and all the families were prospering from the crowds. My friends had a large stall here, and business was brisk. The bus parking lot was already full, and the incoming tourist tide was a bit overwhelming.

We got back to the house and settled up my order. My friend loaded the truck, and said he would drive me back to my hotel. I went and got my things, and thanked the family profusely for a very interesting experience. As we left, I finally solved the last mystery. The guilty party who had disturbed my sleep was chained up on a ledge outside my room. It was the family rooster!

My feelings were mixed, as we left the mountain. On the one hand, it was disgusting! I was abashed to have been a part of the gawking crowd. On the other hand, this was a wonderful way for a tribal village to prosper without opium. I thought about the school, and the quality of the teachers this village could afford. Young people would remain here, with their families, instead of fleeing to the cities.

In the end, I guess I just found it all pretty amusing. After all, I live in a tourist town, too.

Thanks for reading!

Sincerely yours, Diana

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