Southeast Asia includes a large area of rugged peaks and ridges that have long been home for people of various ethnic backgrounds. A nice place to begin exploring the highlands is northern Thailand.
We headed out of Chiang Mai in a rugged Toyota van packed with 11 people. As we got farther from the valley city, the road got progressively rougher, steeper, and narrower.
Our hike began at a Hmong village. We would travel through forest and farmland, all on mountain slopes.
Since we visited during dry season the ground was very dry and dusty even though green plants were all around.
The forest gets so dry that fires are sometimes caused by bamboo branches rubbing against each other in the wind. It was a little odd to walk by smoldering ash, but our Thai guide was clearly not concerned.
The air was not dry, however. A thick haze hung over the mountains.
Fortunately there was a nice place to cool off under a waterfall.
After a swim and a lunch we walked through a number of agricultural plots. We were told that opium and marijuana were major crops in the area before a combination of government sticks and carrots changed the situation. There are also serious efforts to get local kids attending official schools.
In his book The Art of Not Being Governed, James C. Scott argues that the history of upland Southeast Asia has been a history of various peoples deliberately avoiding state control. An important force in regional history has been the relationship between the lowlands that were easier to control and the highlands that typically offered refuge from rulers. Scott also writes that the upland-lowland dynamic has changed in the latter half of the twentieth century as states have employed modern technologies to bring the periphery under control, diminishing its role as a frontier refuge.
Scott uses the term Zomia to describe the vast upland region stretching across parts of Southeast Asia, southern China, and eastern India. He credits his use of the term to Willem van Schendel, who argued that the region was distinctive enough to merit its own designation and labelled it with a word meaning “highlander” in several related upland languages.
A nice base town for visiting the highlands is Chiang Mai.
The city of about 135,000 people contains numerous restaurants and bookstores that cater to foreigners as well as beautiful temples. It is also a good place to see a Muay Thai fight.
Although it was very easy to find tours of the highlands (we booked ours at the front desk of our hotel), it seemed surprisingly hard to go for a hike without hiring a guide. Unlike many American mountain towns I am familiar with, it was not easy to find trail maps in Chiang Mai. None of the many small bookstores we visited had maps. We probably could have figured it out if we were in the area for more than a few days (and we would have been more motivated to try) but our tour was good and inexpensive. Some exploring could probably be done with a vehicle and some printouts from Google Maps or other mapping software, but it would be difficult to know which areas were off-limits to visitors.
While the highlands of Southeast Asia are being integrated into the valley-based nations that claim them, the adventure of the mountains has not been tamed. Perhaps areas with a common environment will develop a stronger regional identity as economic, social, and technological changes continue to impact the relationship between hinterland and establishment.