In the far north of Thailand, close to the borders of Myanmar and Laos, live the ethnic groups popularly collectively known to tourists as the Hill Tribes, a cultural feature of many tours to the country.

There are several ethnic groups living in the hills of the north, the most abundant of which are the Akha, Lahu, Karen, H’mong, Yao, and Lisu peoples, each of whom have their own distinctive culture and languages, traditionally mainly nomadic peoples who have historically roamed these border lands for centuries, employing slash and burn agriculture.

In former times, the production of opium in the golden triangle provided income for many of these peoples, but in the modern age this is no longer tolerated on the Thai side of the border and numerous, often spurious, extra-judicial police executions of ethnic minority individuals, ostensibly for drug offences, have been carried out by corrupt officials.

These indigenous populations underwent significant increases as many of their fellow communities fled from Myanmar (Burma) to escape brutal ethnic cleansing, leading in turn to an increase in the deforestation of the far north of Thailand, a situation which has resulted in the enforced resettlement of some communities to take them out of protected forest land and onto less fertile areas which, however, offer little opportunity to support their traditional ways.

Historic Thai mistrust of the Burmese, with whom they have in former times had many wars, also plays a role, with many Thais prone to discriminatory and derogatory attitudes toward the immigrants, a feature which is of course a common problem in the lives of many nations.

The Thai government, fearing further influx, has thus far refused to afford the majority of these groups established citizenship of the country, and though they are for the present granted leave to remain, the government eventually hopes to return them to Myanmar, if and when the political situation there improves sufficiently.

Because of these factors, there is considerable debate over the ethics of tourist visits to the ethnic minority villages of northern Thailand, with many villages experiencing great poverty, and denied access to medical services on account of their lack of citizenship, which also likewise excludes their children from education.

Many of these villages now depend on tourism to supplement their subsistence lifestyles and some visitors, often understanding little of the reality of their situation, occasionally complain about a lack of ‘authenticity’ as villagers are obliged to parade their traditional identities, colourful costumery and handicrafts for money.

Nevertheless, to the thoughtful traveller, despite the intrinsic exploitation, the reality is that tourism provides its own authentication, for these are and remain real communities with much to offer, trying to make the best of an almost hopeless situation.

Tourism, in a sense, helps in the protection of these endangered tribes, not only financially, but in terms of maintaining the focus of international awareness to their difficulties. Not providing a viable income through tourism also leads to highly unpleasant alternatives. Already in Chiang Mai, one in three sex workers, including children, are recruited from ethnic minority villages.

Whilst it may be an illusory tourist ideal to stray into a village and observe the timeless beautiful forest lifestyle of an ancient way of life, the reality of these communities provides a real world view of the issues facing minority cultures throughout the world today, some of whom may well eventually be forced into surrendering their traditions entirely, as indeed a great many around the world already have.

In truth, some tribes may even wish to choose a new life, given a real and equal opportunity to find a niche in the modern world. While tourists travel in comfort and style with expensive cameras and smart technology, seeing the delights of the world, is it really so surprising that future humble forest dwellers in diminishing landscapes might instead aspire to enjoy the same freedoms?