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Fascinating destinations and the indigenous cultures of Asia

Enchanting ancient cultures you can still interact with today!

Once again, we would like to lead you to explore the cultures and traditions of Asia’s Indigenous people.

It is always exciting to get off the beaten track, whether by vehicle or trekking and visit places that few have seen or are perhaps known only from books or seen on TV. Tourism offers a lifeline to many of Asia’s indigenous communities, creating opportunities for businesses to provide essential income for the community to develop and thrive and prevent the migration of the community’s youth which often rings the death knell of rural communities, and the ancient cultures that they housed.

Of course, getting off the beaten path to visit these ancient communities is often a challenge in itself, but often times the journey can provide as many rewards to the traveller as the destination itself.

Our teams of concierges are always ready to share their experiences of travelling to visit Asia’s indigenous peoples, as well as providing tips to ensure both you and the people you meet get the most out of your visit. Please don’t hesitate to contact our concierge team for more information. Without any further ado, let’s take another look at more of the fascinating tribes in Asia.

The Hmong – Thailand, Laos, Vietnam

The Hmong are one of the biggest “hill-tribe” groups in Asia. With communities living right across Southeast Asia the Hmong are found in the northern provinces of Thailand, northern Vietnam, and northern Laos. If you are travelling in these areas, or trekking South East Asia’s hills and mountains, they are one of the minority ethnic groups that you are most likely to encounter.

Many Hmong were recruited by the CIA during the Laotian Civil War in America’s war against the spread of communism, and were consequently exiled from the region after the war ended in 1975 with many going to North America and Australia as refugees to escape possible retaliation from the victorious communist government. Nearly 300,000 people also fled to Thailand where they were accepted as refugees. As the wounds of war healed a Thai-Lao cooperative was eventually set up to help repatriate many Lao Hmong.

The Hmong people of Asia are a subgroup of the Miao tribe of China with all the Hmong subgroups considered to have originated in Southern China. The Hmong ethnic group is subdivided into, for want of a better word, “clans”. Language, cultural traits and especially dress can vary considerably between the clans. The numerous subgroups that exist under the main umbrella term of Hmong, are often distinguished by the colours of their traditional dress, such as white pleated skirts for White Hmong subgroup. But it is not always so clear cut and dialect will be the key distinguishing the clan.

There are communities of White Hmong living extensively in the northeastern provinces of Thailand, Nan, Phrae, Phayao and Chiang Rai provinces, so you may encounter them around for instance Chiang Khong or when trekking the beautiful hills and countryside of Nan.

Blue Hmong are generally found slightly more to the west then their White cousins and their communities are found in Thailand in the provinces of Chiang Mai and western Chiang Rai areas.

Blue Hmong in Vietnam may look completely different from what are known as Blue Hmong in Thailand, and striped Hmong in Laos may well be called Green Hmong elsewhere.

The traditional houses of the Hmong are wooden and bamboo constructions built directly on the ground with beaten earth floors, unlike the stilt houses of their Akha neighbours. While in past times they were animist, most groups have since converted to Buddhism or Christianity.

In Thailand, the current population of Hmong is estimated at around 125,000people living in the country, making it the second largest minority after the Karen.

Known for their beautiful handicrafts, particularly their weaving and basket making, the Hmong-made items make ideal souvenirs of your trip to Asia. Many Hmong wear brightly coloured clothing with intricate embroidery on sleeves, hems and necklines, making Hmong handicrafts such as wallets, purses and shoulder bags some of the most popular items bought by tourists.

Keen agriculturalists, herbs and vegetables are widely used in rice and soup dishes both of which are considered Hmong staples. They also eat papaya salad a traditional regional spicy salad as well as Hmong barbecued sausage. Be sure to try out their purple sticky rice a celebratory dish that is served during festivals and celebrations.

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The Mlabri – Thailand, Laos

The Mlabri or Mrabri are a small ethnic group of Thailand and Laos have been called “the most interesting and least understood people in Southeast Asia”. Sadly estimates put the population at less than 400 people, with some estimates as low as just 100 Mlabri remaining in the world today.

A hill tribe that lives in northern Thailand along the border with Laos, the Mlabri live as nomadic hunter-gatherers, and it is probably this fact that has lead to their decline as the modern world’s many boundaries and borders sadly do not accommodate for such free-living lifestyles.

The name Mlabri is a Thai/Lao alteration of the word Mrabri comes from a term meaning “people of the forest”. Amongst Thais they are also known as Phi Tong Luang or “the spirits of the yellow leaves”, since they seem to vanish and abandon their shelters when the leaves begin to turn yellow.

In 1936, an Australian researcher named Dr. H. Bernatzik discovered the Mlabri living in Thailand’s Nan Province, in which he documented his converrsations with the ‘yellow Leaf People’ he encountered and studied. It is believed that the Mlabri originated from around Xayaburi, Laos. Historically their communities were found living in forested areas of 3,000 feet above the sea level. Their settlements are usually sited near water resources, in order to catch aquatic animals for food easily and their homes, always temporary, are built from palm leaves and bamboo-string. Also, they don’t use pillows, preferring to sleep with their ears to the ground in order to hear the sounds of people or animals approaching their settlement. Animists, believing and respecting the spirits of nature and the forest, this gentle people, the ultimate eco-community, are all too fast disappearing from the world.

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Maniq and Semang – Thailand, Malaysia

The Maniq, Mani or Semang are hunter gatherers living in the forests in Thailand’s southern provinces and Malysia’s northern provinces. An aboriginal people, of the Negrito race, they are small in stature with men rarely taller than 150cm. Even today this ethnic group lives largely unknown by most Thais and Malaysians. Estimated to number as fewer than 350people living in Thailand they are renowned for being a jovial people with a love of songs and music. Living deep within the forests, they hunt using a blowpipe and poison arrows and sleep under shelters made of sticks and leaves and are known to have an extensive knowledge of the medicinal benefits of the plants around them.

Divided in to around 15 extended family groups some have settled, but most continue to live a semi-nomadic lifestyle following food and water sources in the forest, moving on when they run dry.

Among the Malaysian sultans and rulers of the southern provinces of Thailand who ruled the Semang were often taken as slaves. Appallingly, it was once regarded as prestigious to keep Negritos in the grounds of their palatial homes as part of their collections of amusing jungle beings. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the king of Thailand, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) visited the southern regions of his country and met with the Semang people. In 1906, an orphan Semang boy who was captured and named Khanung was sent to the royal court, where he was perceived as the adoptive son of the ruler which led to the patronage of the Semang people by Thailand’s Royal Court. But sadly, as with all hunter gatherer communities around the world, their way of life will soon be found only in the history books.

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The Bhil – India

Bhils or Bheels are an ethnic group found in Western India. With their own unique culture and traditions as of 2013, the Bhils were the largest tribal group in India.

Bhils are listed as indigenous people of the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan—largely the western Deccan regions and central India and in Tripura in far-eastern India on the border with Bangladesh. The Bhils have a number of clans and lineages with most Bhils speaking the dialect of the region they reside in, such as the Marathi, Gujarati or Hindustani dialects. Their own language, Bhili, is also widely spoken across their clans but with possibly 36 regional dialects.

With communities distributed widely in upland areas of several states, from Ajmer in central Rajasthan on the north, to Thane in western Maharashtra on the south, to Indore in western Madhya Pradesh on the east, and to Surat in southeastern Gujarat on the west. A very decorative people their traditional dress is very colourful and incorporates a lot of ornate jewelry and tattoos. They are also renowned for their art, their style resembles that of Indigenous Australians, with pictures made up of multi-coloured dots of paint. Or the Pithora paintings of the Bhilala subgroup. A ritualistic artwork, the Pithora painting adorns 3 walls at the threshold of a house and is painted in thanks for an answered prayer. Images portray their creation myths, ancestors and deities and are executed and blessed by the community’s head priest.

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The Giraavaru – Maldives

This fascinating and philosophically modern ethnic group were the indigenous people of the tropical island of Giraavaru, in the Malé Atol, in the Republic of the Maldives. Sadly due to climate change and the rise in sea levels the island’s groundwater and wells became saline and the community had to be relocated from their ancestral home to the Kaafu Atoll and the capital city of Malé where many of this ethinc group have now assimilated with the modern populations of Malé.

Considered to have originated from the Malabar coast of India and possibly Sri Lanka, the Giraavaru are thought to have migrated to the Malé Atol more than 2000years ago. Philosophically they were a very modern society, with their communities always headed by a woman who, remarkably, were also recognized by the Maldivian Sultans to represent the Sultan’s civil authority on the island. The Giraavaru were very independent however, and many of the Sultan’s laws did not apply to the Giraavaru people. Strictly monogamous, divorce was not tolerated in their society.

Sadly as a result of the assimilation into Malé society, forced upon them when they were moved from their island home, it is thought that as a result of intermarriage there are now very few ‘pure’ Giraavaru left alive today.  

Indigenous cultures and their unique ways of life are fast becoming museum pieces across the world but ironically where travel is often blamed for the march of homogenization across the world it can also prevent the de-population of traditional villages and their unique communities.

Tourism judiciously and sympathetically applied by Responsible Conscious Travel Advocates like Secret Retreats, can make these small rural communities viable and create opportunities for the young and old of the community. These opportunities allow the young people to stay home, instead of migrating to the cities for work, and continue their traditional ways of life and preserve their culture for generations to come. All thanks to the business brought to their doors by intrepid conscious travellers and travel companies.

Explore the land of the Giraavaru, cruising the gorgeous waters of the Maldives with Secret Retreats

While international travel to Asia has largely been rendered impossible with borders firmly closed to international tourism, the good news is that travel to the Maldives is now possible, and without the need for quarantine on arrival too.

Of course, travel is a worry where covid is concerned, and so what better way to travel than by private boat. And with that, we are pleased to share with you news of our new Private Cruise in the Maldives.

The Secret Retreats Maldives Cruise is available for bookings from the end of February to June. The 1 cabin luxury yacht will accommodate a couple or a family of 4 and has 6 professional crew to care for guests onboard.

With cruise itineraries from 7days, it is the perfect opportunity for couples and young families to escape the winter and the stress and worries of 2020 by enjoying a luxury private cruise among the stunning marine scenery of the Maldive islands and atols. Options for extension stays at a hotel are also possible. This is really not to be missed!

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When we take a vacation it is often as much a quest for the new as an opportunity to unwind and relax – a change is as good as a rest, as they say. A new destination to explore, a new taste to discover, fresh views to gaze at. Sometimes however, it is the old and the ancient, not the new, that charms us. Increasingly we are seeing travellers are seeking something much more thought provoking, perhaps experiences that challenge our world view and question our lifestyles in order to take stock perhaps, or to appreciate what we have and to put one’s own situation in perspective. And encounters with ancient cultures that have managed to survive in the modern world, from whom we can learn a lot about appreciating the simple beauty of life, is definitely on a lot of people’s bucket lists these days.

The past decade has seen a great interest in travel activities and experiences where indigenous people are directly involved in educating people about their culture, traditions, beliefs and lifestyles. It is always fascinating to meet people from a different culture, discovering their history, music, and art, and in many cases having the chance to support their cultural and environmental conservation efforts.

“Tribal tourism”, as it has been dubbed, is on the rise. From Indonesia to India, Sri Lanka to Myanmar, tourists are increasingly drawn to the idea of visiting First Nations peoples, discovering cultures whose world view and way of life is entirely different from our own.

Here are our pick of the top destinations that explore, support, and celebrate indigenous cultures around Asia.

The Asmat
Silolona Sojourns Cruise
Komodo, Indonesia

The Asmat are a tribe that are found on the south side of the western part of New Guinea, an area that when the first European explorers ventured into the Asmat’s home range, considered to possibly be the fabled Shangri-La. The Asmat prefer to live near the sea on small islands with mangrove forests, saltwater and freshwater swamp land and lowland rainforest. Renowned wood carvers, their work is collected worldwide – unlike the results from the other skill they have long been famed for, as headhunters. They are perhaps the most famous cannibalistic tribe on Papua, a province of Indonesia.

The relationship of the Asmat carver to wood is totally sacred with their wood working skill highly prized amongst primitive art experts who respect the Asmat as woodcarvers of the highest order.  The Asmat believe that their creator carved their ancestors from trees and gave them the blessing of life. The artist strives to infuse each piece with the spirit energy of those ancestors creating a sacred bridge between the material and the spirit worlds. The first pieces of Asmat woodcarving that were taken back to Europe in the 19th C were said to have influenced western art movements including the works of Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso.

Headhunting raids were an important element of Asmat culture until Christian missionaries worked hard to convert the Asmat to Catholicism ending the practice of headhunting which according to some accounts persisted well into the 1990s. Headhunting was practiced both for revenge and to complete certain rituals. One of America’s famous son’s possibly came to a sticky end at the hands of the Asmat. Michael Rockefeller, from one of the richest families in the USA, was collecting Asmat art in the region and went missing in 1961. Some say he was lost to a river when his boat overturned…some say he was invited to a barbeque… Sadly, he has never been seen again.

All deaths, even by diseases, were treated with suspicion by the Asmat, and if bewitchment was considered to be the cause then a head of the bewitcher was needed to balance the acts and to satisfy the family’s ancestors. This could often result in an endless cycle of violence. Heads were also essential for the rituals associated with the rites of passage from boys to men. And as the old adage goes, ‘waste not want not’, so a successful headhunting expedition would result in families reaching for the spices and their best recipes for ‘great meals for cannibals’, after which a good cook-up would ensue…probably a barbeque, best not to eat the sausage.

The luxury Phinisi Yachts Silolona and Si Datu Bua are an excellent choice to embark on a stunning sailing charter adventure of a lifetime. Both yachts are based on the hand-crafted traditional Indonesian trading vessels known as ‘PHINISI’. Newly constructed using the finest tropical hardwoods by the Master Konjo boat builders of Sulawesi these two gorgeous yachts, the 5-cabin Silolona and the 3-cabin Si Datu Bua, are available for cabin cruises, private charters and tandem charters.

Both of the spectacular and very unique charter yachts are available to take you, your friends, colleagues or family on a romantic journey following the ancient Spice Island Trade Routes gracing their guests with captivating authentic cultural experiences with the Asmat tribe and Dani people in Papua.

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The Akha
Muang La Lodge

Muang La, Laos

The Akha tribe is one of the rarest indigenous hill tribes in the whole of Asia. Choosing to live in the most remote areas of the continent and originating from south China and Tibet, they are also now found living in the highlands of Myanmar, Northern Thailand, Northern Vietnam and Laos.

With a very distinctive national dress worn by the womenfolk, their indigo dyed handwoven clothes and distinctive highly decorated hats are often decorated with beads, shells, handmade silver and silver coins. The young women of marriageable age wear the most elaborate clothing, contrary to their elders, who wear clothing with less ornamentation. In fact the coins used to decorate Akha clothes often herald from the days of the British Empire and French Indochina. Those were times when the coinage of the British Empire, the silver rupee, and the French Piastre, were high in silver content and are very collectable today. Listen as you stroll the fascinating walkways of a Myanmar or Northern Lao country market and you will hear the bright ‘ching’ of silver coins in the hands of the dealers, as the coins are still highly valued and used as currency in the countryside – and often kept in the bank of ‘hole in the ground’.

The Muang La Lodge is nestled deep in the mountains of northern Lao, with the Akha and other hilltribes, the Khamu and Hmong, as their neighbours. The team at this delightful lodge have designed a variety of excursions that allow you to meet, share with, and learn about the typical ethnic communities of the region including the Akha. These hunter-gatherer tribes are called the “people of heaven” by the Lao people living on the plains. Their villages are found above 1,000m above sea level, built on the sides of the mountains, where the villagers retain their centuries-old, traditions and customs.

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The Vedda
Gal Oya Lodge,
Gal Oya National Park, Sri Lanka

The Vedda are the indigenous people of Sri Lanka. A forest-dwelling people, they have called this beautiful island home for more than 35,000years. As the earliest inhabitants of Sri Lanka, they have lived on the island since before the arrival of other ethnic groups in India and long before the Buddhists arrived, living off the land and at one with nature. Hunting and gathering in the jungles and forests they call home, one of the staple foods gathered by the Vedda is wild honey, which they collect by climbing trees where the hives are and burning dry leaves to ward off the bees as they harvest the sweet and energy rich honeycomb.

As with all the culture clashes around the world the ancient world of the forest dwelling Vedda is slowly disappearing as they are seduced out of the forest by the convenience of modern life, or pushed out by pressure on the forests and national parks making their hunter-gatherer existence untenable in these modern days of land-ownership and boundaries.

The team at Gal Oya Lodge have created an unmissable experience! Their neighbours are one of the last remaining communities of the Vedda people. They can arrange for their guests to visit the village chief and take a guided trek through the forest with the Vedda. The forest comes alive as your Vedda guide explains the tribe’s use of medicinal plants, takes you to the locations of their ancient hunting grounds and cave dwellings, as well as sharing the secrets of how as hunter-gatherers they have sustained themselves in the ancient jungles of Gal Oya.

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The Ladakhi
Lchang Nang Retreat, Nimmu House, Stok Palace Heritage Hotel

Ladakh, India

The remote lands of Ladakh, northern India, have long mesmerized visitors and explorers with their unique and at times other-worldly beauty. The scenery as deep as time itself, the stark almost moon-like mountain vistas, lush river valleys, great roaring rivers full with glacial meltwater and unique architectural styles that blend harmoniously both with the land and the environment – something we can all learn from these days – the scenery and atmosphere of Ladakh is truly magical.

The Ladakhi, the people of Ladakh, have a rich folklore much of which pre-dates the Buddhist era. As the Himalayan farming season is short, due to the severity of the winter in this region of the world, the Ladakhi only work for 4 months of the year. While there is no denying that life in Ladakh is often hard, the people certainly know how to celebrate and enjoy themselves, and they throw lengthy and elaborate weddings, festivals and religious celebrations.

Their ancient, rich and colourful culture is centered around the beliefs and practices of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, the predominant religion of Ladakh. During the eight winter months, work is minimal, and festivals and celebrations are almost a continuous affair, giving ample opportunity to display Goncha, the traditional dress.

Through their intimate understanding and ingenious use of scarce natural resources, these people have for centuries succeeded in providing themselves all their basic needs. And they have done so without undermining the integrity of their natural environment, without treating nature as an adversary to be conquered. Nor do the Ladakhi interact competitively with each other.  Life in Ladakh is infused with great stability, deep spirituality and peacefulness.

With the remoteness of Ladakh multiple destinations are needed to really experience and enjoy all the very best of this fascinating region and Secret Retreats can share this wonderful experience with you through our 3 members there – Lchang Nang set in the Nubra Valley, Nimmu House in the ancient village of Nimmu and the incredible Stok Palace, home to the royal family of Ladakh.

Choose a pace for your visit that matches your inner self. If activity is your desire, the property teams can arrange treks, rafting, guided visits to the ancient Buddhist monasteries, picnics, and excursions to any of the numerous sites that make this part of the world so enthralling. At Stok Palace you can meet the monks that have provided religious services to the Ladakhi Royal Family for generations and practice meditation in the monastery here that dates back to the 14th C.

Day trips are made easy with the help of each property’s friendly staff – leave early morning and return in the evening to the tranquility and comfort of your Secret Retreat, be it the beautifully restored nobleman’s house of Nimmu House in one of their Heritage Rooms or luxury tents in their apricot orchards, or your room or luxury tent at Stok Palace, or your traditional bungalow in the Nubra Valley set under apricot and walnut trees at Lchang Nang ‘The House of Trees’. And for the more restful, practice meditation and yoga in one of the most enigmatic destinations on earth, refresh your mind, re-align your chakras, allow your soul to sing as you realize the simple meaning and beauty of LIFE immersed amongst the timeless grand vistas of Ladakh.

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What are you waiting for? Contact the Concierges at Secret Retreats and plan your next holiday in Asia, you know you deserve it!

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