A Hmong village in Chiang Mai preserves its heritage for sustainable tourism
It was the first organised tour of the area, both for the villagers and also for the visitors. The two-day trip would not be easy, the guide said, but assured us the natural beauty of the area would be worth the journey.
The guide, Sompong sae Tao or Sue, is a member of the Mon-ngo Tourism Committee. The 27-year-old served as head tour guide during the trip, which was to become a final chapter in the community-based tourism research he and other villagers have worked on for the past two years.
"Before we go, I would like to introduce the five rules for the trip," Sue said in his soft-spoken voice. Three of these rules were actions that could harm natural resources, while others concerned upsetting the village's serenity. He reasoned that the policy was made to preserve their local treasures _ the very idea behind this trip.
Located in Mae Tang district, 70km from downtown Chiang Mai, Mon-ngo is a habitat of the so-called white Hmong community, a type of ethnic group that migrated from China seven decades ago.
The village first gained worldwide attention when Hue Sengla, the Hmong with the world's longest hair _ as recognised by Ripley's Believe It or Not! _ was alive. Tourists from around the world travelled to this village to see him, but after the old man's passing in 1989, the name Mon-ngo started to fade from tourists' memories.
Sue said tourism has increased in recent years with more visitors camping on the mountain. The number has jumped from about 10 to hundreds.
''We set up an agreement to prohibit any deforestation and slash-and-burn [cultivation] practice five years ago and tourism started to come back,'' said Sue.
However, as things seemed to be getting back on track, the rapid change triggered locals' concerns.
''The overt number of tourists and flawed management might leave behind waste and ruin nature,'' said Kriangsak Namwongbhroma, head of the Royal Project Foundation of Mae Tang district. Over the years, he has seen many tourism projects transformed into shopping hubs and wastelands, which happened because of two things _ ineffective management and the voices of villagers being excluded.
''Any tourism projects in the past were made by the tourism academics and authorities from the city. When bad things happened, the villagers didn't know how to solve it, because they had not been involved, [even] though they are the ones to suffer,'' he said.
After noticing the ''possible consequences'', Kriangsak then suggested to the Mon-ngo Tourism Committee a research programme that would enable the villagers to develop their own tourism plan.
Initiated by the Thailand Community-Based Institute (CBT-I) in partnership with Thailand Research Fund, the community-based research aims to use tourism to help the villagers. Mon-ngo locals wanted to know if tourism could be done in an eco-friendly style and give the villagers management of tourism activities. The research was designed to meet such needs with supervision of the staff from the Royal Project Foundation and CBT-I, giving the villagers key roles.
After six months (from May to October 2010) of gathering information regarding the history, natural resources and potential tourist attractions of the area, Mon-ngo villagers crafted a travel programme and trained tour guides.
In 2010, Kriangsak sent his researchers for training at CBT-I. The organisation's highly acclaimed programmes have helped more than 500 villages in Thailand over the past 17 years.
The organisation is a finalist in the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards (community benefit category) in recognition of its efforts in promoting community development and maintaining the area's heritage. Winners will be announced this month at the World Travel and Tourism Council summit in Japan.
Kriangsak said the community-based research not only benefits the locals, but is essential to the development of the villagers' critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
''When problems occur in the future, they would know how to deal with them,'' he added.
The tour is one of the many research methods the group uses, inviting tourism authorities and tourists to join the trip and to give their insights afterwards.
Over two days they journeyed through the Hmong neighbourhoods inspecting their way of life, watching grains being milled and learning how to use herbs in health treatments. The tourists had a chance to taste traditional food and experience adventures such as jungle trekking and cave hiking.
At night the tour guides cooked Japanese pumpkins by covering them in ashes, while the small gathering sung along to the guitar played by one of the group. They also watched the Hmong ladies and girls in traditional attire play traditional music, before the group slept in tents in front of a bonfire.
The highlight, however, was the view at sunset and sunrise from 1,425m above sea level, looking down over the white bauhinia trees. The visibility, according to the tour guides, was not as good as in previous months due to the haze, but tourists were still able to see the rich nature the people have managed to preserve.
Jarun Anantachaisilp, a doctor who spent most of his leisure time travelling the world, praised the eco tour and says it triggered his interest in the culture of the northern mountaineers.
''When people came here [on this trip], they got to hear these stories. They saw the culture and liked it. That's when faith and happiness started to build up. For me, [the trip] made me want to learn more about other hilltribe villages _ the Karens and the other tribes of Hmong,'' he said.
Mon-ngo's research came to a close with the tourism season that opened last winter. Sue admitted he has seen some changes in his village, including plans for future tourism.
''The most fascinating thing I've seen so far was the way people embraced their cultural roots _ especially the younger ones. They know more about history and ancient cultures through the research and are really proud of it. I think tourism has brought back a sense of patriotism to our village,'' he said.