Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Minority cultures in
Southeast Asia are often time capsules of earlier lifestyles that have escaped the full force of globalisation’s effects. Consequently, they are a highlight for travellers to the region who want to get a sense of a country’s past…as it collides with the present.
Cambodia and the Central Highlands of provide a home to some minority groups in the northeast, but as they dress like lowland Khmer or Vietnamese, they have been less exposed to mass tourism than elsewhere. As for the effects of trekking on the host tribes, many agree that individuals within the village might financially benefit when the trekking companies purchase supplies and lodging, but the overall pluses and minuses are considered to be minimal compared to other larger institutional forces. Vietnam
But how do you ensure that while visiting, you don’t cause unintended damage or offence? You can show your respect for a culture by being educated about its ways, beliefs and taboos. Here are a few general guidelines:
1. Always ask permission before taking photos of tribespeople.
2. Don’t touch totems at village entrances or sacred items hanging from trees.
3. Avoid cultivating a tradition of begging, especially among children.
4. Avoid public nudity and don’t undress near an open window.
5. Don’t flirt with members of the opposite sex.
6. Don’t drink or do drugs with the villagers.
7. Smile at villagers even if they stare.
9. Avoid public displays of affection, which might be viewed as offensive to the spirit world.
10. Don’t interact with the villagers’ livestock; avoid interacting with jungle animals, which might be viewed as visiting spirits.
11. Don’t step on the threshold of a house, prop your feet up against the fire or wear your shoes inside.
Where to meet
Southeast Asia’s minority cultures
If you want to meet minority cultures, you’ll often have to get away from popular tourist centres; how far you’ll have to go depends very much on the country and how popular it is with visitors.
The trekking industry in
Thailand is very developed and a minority visit can be a disappointment for some, but much depends on the operator organising the trip. Northern Vietnam and the Xīshuāngbǎnnà region of Yúnnán have emerged as popular places to experience minority cultures, but as in Thailand, visitors need to travel further from the trail to have a genuine experience. Laos is really taking off as a destination to meet minority groups, partly due to its ethnically diverse population and in part due to the relatively small numbers of visitors venturing off the beaten path.
Lonely Planet has a suggestion of the top 5 spots for a genuine interaction with a minority culture in
Laos: Muang Sing
Thailand: Chiang Rai
5. Yúnnán: Xīshuāngbǎnnà
But there are many other important minority groups in the region, some rendered stateless by the conflicts of the past, others recent migrants to the region, including the many hill tribes.
The Cham people originally occupied the
kingdom of Champa in southcentral Vietnam and their beautiful brick towers dot the landscape from Danang to Phan Rang. Victims of a historical squeeze between Cambodia and Vietnam, their territory was eventually annexed by the expansionist Vietnamese. Originally Hindu, they converted to Islam in the 16th and 17th centuries and many migrated south to Cambodia. Today there are small numbers of Cham in Vietnam and as many as half a million in Cambodia, all of whom continue to practise a flexible form of Islam. Over the centuries, there has been considerable intermarriage between Cham and Malay traders.
The Hmong are one of the largest hill tribes in the Mekong region, spread through much of northern
Laos, northern Vietnam, Thailand and Yúnnán. As some of the last to arrive in the region in the 19th century, Darwinian selection ensured that they were left with the highest and harshest lands from which to eke out their existence. They soon made the best of a bad deal and opted for opium cultivation, which brought them into conflict with mainstream governments during the 20th century. The CIA worked closely with the Hmong of Laos during the secret war in the 1960s and 1970s. The US-backed operation was kept secret from the American public until 1970. The Hmong were vehemently anticommunist and pockets of resistance continue today. The Hmong remain marginalised, distrusted by central government and mired in poverty. Hmong groups are usually classified by their colourful clothing, including Black Hmong, White Hmong, Red Hmong and so on. The brightest group is the Flower Hmong of northwest Vietnam, living in villages around Bac Ha. The Hmong are known for their embroidered indigo-dyed clothing and their ornate silver jewellery. There may be as many as one million Hmong in the Mekong region, half of them living in the mountains of Vietnam.
The Jarai are the most populous minority in the Central Highlands of
Vietnam, northeast Cambodia and southern Laos. Villages are often named for a nearby river, stream or tribal chief, and a nha-rong (communal house) is usually found in the centre. Jarai women typically propose marriage to the men through a matchmaker, who delivers the prospective groom a copper bracelet. Animistic beliefs and rituals still abound, and the Jarai pay respect to their ancestors and nature through a host or yang (genie). The Jarai construct elaborate cemeteries for their dead, which include carved effigies of the deceased. These totems can be found in the forests around villages, but sadly many are being snapped up by culturally insensitive collectors.