Southeast Asia is rich in tribal societies, ancient customs, and traditional culture. Over the centuries, almost every tribe or group of people in Southeast Asia has migrated to or from somewhere, bringing their unique languages and traditions with them. Most have assimilated into the local cultures, but some have not, existing as islands amid the rushing currents of the modern world.
When you look at Southeast Asia on a map, it’s important to remember – at least from the perspective of ancient peoples who make their homes in more remote areas of the region – that the borders you see are not much more than lines on a piece of paper.
Recognizing and protecting these tribes is important, not only to provide a spiritual link to the past for millions of people who want to know where their ancestors came from, but also to educate visitors on a unique piece of Asia’s history. Over the years, Smiling Albino has spent a lot of time getting to know areas these tribes inhabit and the people who proudly carry on the traditions that their families have followed for centuries.
In the mountains of Northern Vietnam we visit with the Black Hmong hilltribes, who moved into this area from China in the 1700s due to political instability and a desire to find more fertile farmland. In Cambodia, we often share a local lunch with elders from a Khmer Loeu tribe, highland ancestors of the mighty Khmer civilization that once ruled Southeast Asia. Imagine the stories one can hear from an 80-year old man who has spent his whole life in the jungles of Cambodia!
Our trips throughout Thailand bring us into contact with the Lahu people, who are known for fierce tribal discipline and skills with agriculture and hunting, and provide a fascinating peek into one of Thailand’s largest ethnic groups. And in Myanmar, we occasionally spend time with the Chin, a tribe whose elder women proudly display their facial tattoos, a tradition that will sadly probably die out with the next generation.
There are others, too, who have set out to find better lives for their families over the years. Some to escape persecution, some grew weary of political trouble, and some simply needed to find more arable land. The stories and histories are almost as varied as the languages and traditions.
Tribes like these are a fascinating part of the fabric of Southeast Asia, and it is of vital importance that their communities and traditions are not absorbed and forgotten in the rush forward into the 21st century.
Our trips are designed around experiences shared by these and other local people whom we’ve connected with. Smiling Albino is very conscientious about any impact we may have on our friends’ local communities. We endeavor to enrich communities we visit with education and community programs while always being environmentally responsible.