i was very eager to visit the karen hill tribes as soon as i arrived in chiang mai. it was the planned highlight of my trip. there are seven primary groups of hill tribes residing in the remote upland areas of thailand -- karen, lahu, hmong, lisu, akha, and mien. the karens are the biggest, and arguably best known because of neck rings and huge ear rings that their women wear.
the hill tribes survive on subsistence farming, and are given some allowances by the thai government to encourage them to showcase their culture and handicrafts as part of chiang mai and chiang rai's tourism routes. i doubt they get enough from all these, but i consoled myself by buying 2 scarves from 2 different stores -- even if each of the 20+ huts sold exactly the same thing.
on an ideal world, i would have gone on a gap year and travelled around indochina, while stopping to teach voluntarily in primary schools along the way. these are beautiful cultures that are interesting to see; children dressed up and made up as a cultural showcase for the curious; but on the human level, i wonder and i worry about how they will be able to survive this modern world.