Southeast Asia is home to many ethnic groups, but visiting them can make Westerners feel uncomfortable and occasionally cause local offence.
The difference between the material wealth of the traveler and the poverty of the villagers is on stark display, so it can be difficult to come to terms with the disparity of living standards. The last thing you want is to feel like a voyeur, so we have found some ways for you to get involved with the local people, allowing you to feel more like a guest.
Our specialists recount some of their experiences visiting some of the indigenous groups in Southeast Asia, as well as providing tips to ensure both you and the people you meet get the most out of your visit.
The Fullerton Hotel, Singapore
Palawan Beach, Sentosa Island, Singapore
Meeting indigenous cultures in Southeast Asia
Here, some of our Southeast Asia country specialists describe their own experiences of meeting local tribal people, and how you too can ensure your visit gives something back to the areas in which you spend time.
Iban, Batang Ai (Borneo)
Borneo is a truly multicultural country where a large number of ethnic groups can be found. The most famous are the Iban and Rungus, who inhabit the Malay states of Sarawak and Sabah.
I visited an Iban community and stayed with them in their longhouse. It gave me a fascinating insight into how they combine their traditional way of life with the few elements of modern life that suit their needs.
One thing that has certainly not faded is their warmth, hospitality and humour. Travelers aren’t new; naturally sociable, many of these groups have welcomed visitors into their homes for decades.
They relish the opportunity to share their cultural heritage and delicious food with people who are interested in learning about their culture.
Just visiting one of Borneo’s indigenous cultures positively contributes to their economy and enables these diverse and vibrant people to continue their traditional way of life.
Each family lined up to show me the handicrafts they had made, and I was more than happy to make a couple of purchases, helping to ensure that these expressions of tribal identity survive indefinitely.
My night was spent on the banks of the Batang Ai Reservoir and I was welcomed into their longhouse with traditional music and dance and plied with the ever-present tuak, home-brewed rice wine that seems to flow generously on every social occasion.
I don’t think I've ever met such friendly people and it remains one of my favorite memories of Sarawak.
Akha, Luang Nam Tha (Laos)
On my last trip to Laos, I stayed in the northern village of Luang Nam Tha at the delightful Boat Landing Guesthouse, perched on the banks of the Nam Tha River.
This eco-friendly guesthouse provides its own energy using solar panels and sources all food locally. They believe in small-scale, low-impact tourism and actively support many local wildlife and community improvement projects in the nearby Nam Ha National Park.
The mountainous area around Luang Nam Tha is surrounded by rolling primary forest, rich river plains and many colorful minority groups. There are no less than 25 different ethnic groups living in the Nam Ha province, and it is well worth spending a few days in the area to really get to know the people.
I was lucky enough to visit an Akha village and found its residents incredibly welcoming. Friendly and smiling, they were happy to have their photo taken with me.
There is a wealth of activities, such as trekking, mountain biking and kayaking available, all of which can be tailored to fit your individual requirements.
By visiting this region, you work in partnership with an established ecotourism project both owned and operated by the local community, which ensures it benefits directly from tourism in the area.
Such empowerment projects encourage villagers to appreciate and preserve both their heritage and natural environment.
Novotel Clarke Quay, Singapore
Floral offerings adorn the awning of a shop in Little India, Singapore
Karen, Chiang Rai (Thailand)
In the old Lanna kingdom, where the northern reaches of Thailand roll in forested hills towards the border with Burma, I only expected to find fauna and flora.
I hadn’t counted on the many indigenous cultures I’d come across, their villages scattered on slopes and mounts throughout this untouched part of the country. Stopping mid-trek along the lush mountain track, the generosity of the local Nor Lae village shone through as I was invited onto a wooden veranda for tea, freshly picked.
In these self-sufficient communities cocooned in their surrounding hills, kindness to strangers seems to come naturally – something that has long disappeared in the West – and was repeated again and again.
The villagers of Nor Lae are of the Palong, where the men spend their days hunting in the forest and the women are either in the fields or sitting on their verandas weaving silks for market. They always seemed to enjoy the diversion of an exchange of smiles.
Alongside the Palong, the Lahu Khob Dong, Ban Pang Ma and Akha are blessed with fertile soils, and in the past the main crop was opium. With help from the Thai government, the whole ethos has been changed, and now the crops are strawberries, lychees, tea and orchids that can be sold to visiting trekkers and to the markets in the large towns.
I found these villages gave me a fascinating insight into a culture that is steeped in tradition, but completely aware that a modern-day business sense is essential to preserving their heritage.
Hmong, Ha Giang Province (Vietnam)
Ha Giang Province, for so long isolated and cut off by the Vietnamese government, has remained almost totally unaffected by modern influences and is home to a number of indigenous minority groups.
It is thought that there are eleven minority groups inhabiting this remote and beautiful province and a twelfth that has not yet been documented.
I discovered a land free from the incessant march of commerce and industry, and people who had had almost no contact with the West. They were warm and hospitable, curious and inquisitive.
Their villages were quintessential images of the Vietnam of yesteryear; if it hadn't been for the occasional telephone line and scooter, the scene could have come from a century ago.
The best place to meet minority groups such as the Black La Chi, the Giay, the Flower Hmong and the Lo Lo, is at the weekly local markets, when they descend from their remote mountain homes.
Here, you’re not invading their space: they come to trade, drink, eat and gossip, mixing freely with each other before returning back into the hills, often a day’s walk away.
At a time when the central government of Vietnam is encouraging uniformity across the country, it is crucial to support the traditional ways and beliefs of the many minorities in the province.
We have set up a number of home-stays in the region and work hard to ensure that any interaction has a positive impact on their lives and the money spent in the area goes to help local people and support their economy.
Dao Lanten girls with their mother, Vietnam
Harbour illuminations, Boat Quay, Singapore
Tips for visiting local indigenous people
At Audley we have a strong responsible tourism ethos, part of which is to respect local customs and traditions. Accordingly, below are some simple guidelines you should try to follow when meeting indigenous cultures:
- Always ask before taking photographs of people.
- Ask your guide to teach you how to say hello in the local dialect.
- Ensure you are dressed appropriately. For example, if an indigenous culture doesn't bare their shoulders, ensure yours are covered, too.
- Ask what happens to rubbish left behind when staying in a local home. Some things they may be able to reuse, but others might be better disposed of in a town later on your trip.
- Bring pictures of your home, town and family to show them. They are likely to be as interested in you and how you live as you are in them. Ask your guide if it would be appropriate to take a gift, and if so what.
- Do not give sweets or money to children. It is normally best to give any gifts to the head of the village, so he can ensure they are evenly distributed.
- If staying in a remote village, be mindful of the amount of water you use for washing, as it can be a rare commodity.
- Be careful to observe any customs, such as removing your shoes before entering a building. Your guide will be able to advise you of anything specific for the people you are visiting.