6 mins

Thailand: meeting the hilltribes on a trek through the north

Community based tourism has become one of travel’s buzzwords. Northern Thailand’s lush hills and diverse ethnic people seem like the perfect place to experience how it works

The rolling hills of Northern Thailand

The stilt-raised hut was dark and smelled of smoke and chillis. Underneath, a grey sow suckled her dozen or more snuffling piglets. A notched trunk ladder led to the bamboo-walled room where four of us would sleep on coconut-fibre mattresses draped with mosquito netting. Our hostess, Na-Ma, was hunched over a fire throwing quizzical smiles at  her guests as she sliced vegetables and boiled pots  of rice for the meal we would share later.

This was Pha Mon, a village of the Red Lahu people. It was the first overnight stop on a rugged three-night trek through the forested mountains and tribal settlements of Thailand’s far north-west, the centrepiece of our stay in the area.

Our group were assigned to a scattering of homestays around the settlement, in an agreement made between the trekking company and our hosts. The idea was that our visit to Pha Mon would be environmentally sustainable and generate income for the community in a spirit of mutually respectful cultural exchange: Community Based Tourism (CBT) in a nutshell. 

The concept of CBT is seductive: we can slake our thirst for thrilling travels, with scruples eased by the knowledge that our far-flung ventures to poorer parts of the world benefit our hosts as much as ourselves. But how do these projects actually work in action?  I had come to Northern Thailand to see for myself.

Community service

Grilling the locals: In Hloyo village, Phon cooks chillis for the guests (Martin Symington)

Grilling the locals: In Hloyo village, Phon cooks chillis for the guests (Martin Symington)

Our journey had begun in Chiang Rai, Thailand’s northernmost province, where my first host was the irrepressibly enthusiastic Pragasit Chermuego, nicknamed Yohan. He greeted me at his Akha Mud House Mae Salong homestay at Hloyo village, high on a remote but easily road-accessible ridge, an hour’s drive from Chiang Rai city.

Yohan, I soon discovered, has fire in his belly to match the chilli paste that his sister Phon was pounding with her pestle. Eyes alight, he told me: “We are Akha people, and keeping traditional Akha ways is not looking backwards. The opposite. It is the key to the future of our young people. You will see…”

Still in his thirties, Yohan has built his guest house on land inherited from his parents, in the customary style of the Akha tribe using clay and rice husk between bamboo frames. The dusty, brick-red courtyard was dominated by a giant, wooden swing used at an annual Akha festival “for women to relax on, after the shaman anoints it”, said Yohan, leaping athletically on to the contraption himself while Phon continued her pounding. Later, while we sat on a platform of vine-lashed bamboo watching the sun fade over darkening hills, Phon brought us bamboo bowls of lap-mu (minced chilli pork) with spicy shallots and a rhapsody of sweet-smelling Akha delicacies flavoured with turmeric, ginger and mysterious fungi foraged from the forest.

In Hloyo, there was more to CBT than the homestay. I found that after school, children act as guides leading Thai and farang (foreign, of European origin) guests around the village. We called on residents in their stilt-raised huts, such as an old lady called Apa who strings necklaces from millet seeds and harvests broom to make brushes. “All from nature, no plastic” she said simply.

Yohan led me to the ceremonial ‘spirit gate’ guarded by carved human figures, part of the Akha animist belief system, which is “the heart of what we Akha people are”. Catholics and evangelicals have long competed for the souls of Thailand’s hill tribes, with Yohan himself a devout member of the former. “Farangs are puzzled by people holding both Christian and tribal beliefs, but we see no contradiction” he said.

The following day I met the lean and energetic P’Archai from neighbouring Suan Pa village, for a forest walk in the hills of Doi Tung. Swinging a machete as long as his arm, he cleared undergrowth from a trail alongside a stream as we climbed to gushing Huay Sai Khao waterfall. We paused in places for P’Archai to show off some traditional jungle lore: he caught some freshwater shrimps with his fingers, and plucked leaves that are used for cauterising wounds.

P’Archai told me that this forest is second-growth, in places re-planted. Over recent decades the region has endured deforestation by slash-and-burn agriculture and the gruesome consequences of opium cultivation. These twin scourges have wreaked devastating social and environmental damage. However, with the support and financial motivation of the late ‘royal grandmother’ Somdet Ya, prime mover behind a ‘Doi Tung Development Project’, forests and viable alternatives to opium have proliferated over a wide area. “The project has been the saviour of many communities, including ours,” said the Suan Pa leader.

Our return walk was through arabica coffee bushes under dappled sunlight, filtered by teak trees. We ended at the project’s community cooperative where the beans are sorted, roasted and packaged, alongside cottage industries such as weaving and pottery. Shops then offer the wares to visitors, steering money directly into the community coffers.

Heading for the hills

Itinerant monks from a forest monastery (Martin Symington)

Itinerant monks from a forest monastery (Martin Symington)

Phon’s dishes at Hloyo (Martin Symington)

Phon’s dishes at Hloyo (Martin Symington)

A monk crafting metal (Martin Symington)

A monk crafting metal (Martin Symington)

But if the projects in Chiang Rai province were our CBT appetisers, my main course was the Northern Thailand Hilltribes Trek further west,  near the Burmese border. But how ethical can hilltribe trekking be these days? Numerous local agencies in northern Thailand’s largest city, Chiang Mai, advertise jungle yomps involving ‘cultural experiences’ at faux ethnic hamlets with gift shops and staged photo ops.

Some excursions come with the chance to gawp at so-called ‘long neck’ women as if they are creatures in a zoo. These members of the Pa Daung ethnic group, originally from Burma, have been disfigured from childhood by having their necks elongated with spirals of brass.

This is why I chose to join a departure with sustainable travel specialists G Adventures,  winners of a Responsible Thailand Award in  2019 along with their non-profit arm Planeterra. We would spend a night at each of three hilltribe villages, and learn a little about traditional life.  As Planeterra’s Jamie Sweeting put it, “Our guiding principle is that tourism should generate income for host communities earning their own money, which means that they do not have to rely on the Thai state for handouts if, say, their crops fail. Local people set the limits that guests are required to adhere to.”

Our trek leader – and guide to making this two-way interaction work – was Amphol Saipraisert, known as Pon. We started at a trailhead three hours by minibus north-west from Chiang Mai, with Pon hacking a bamboo walking staff for each of his charges. There were 14 of us ranging in age from early 20s to late 60s, almost all farangs. Off we strode, first into bamboo groves, then deeper into forests of teak and streams reduced to rocky trickles because it was February, height of the dry season. 

The trail emerged into open country and views towards the green mountains of Burma, turning gold with altitude in the hazy distance. We passed a small Buddhist forest monastery and contoured around slopes of dry, harvested rice stubble to soundtracks of insects trilling and clicking. While we walked, Pon told us about the hilltribes and their cultural bonds across the borderlands with Burma and Laos, as well as more distant connections with parts of China and Tibet. Pon himself is an ethnic Shan who grew up in Mae Hong Son near the border with Burma, from where his family had fled persecution.

As we approached Pha Mon for that first overnight stay, Pon explained how the Red Lahu had historically hunted monkeys, barking deer and wild pigs in the forest, but that they now subsist mainly on rice farming. And, introducing me to my hostess while she prepared our meal in her smoky kitchen, he told me: “Rice is more than a commodity. It has deep symbolism as a gift to be respected and shared”

The settlement is by no means completely disconnected from the modern world: scooters and even the odd pick-up truck bump up here on rocky dirt tracks. A few huts have satellite dishes and TVs powered by car batteries. There is a tin-roofed primary school, one tiny shop and a tumbledown Buddhist temple next to the home of a shaman who dispenses folk medicine and animist wisdom. My quest to meet the latter was unsuccessful because he was away, but I did find an old man with a hunting musket – homemade for the purpose from a piece of piping with a chunk of teak for a butt.

Na-Ma helped me understand a little about what offering homestays means to the Lahu village: “If crops fail or prices in the market fall then we have not enough money. The trekking groups, on the other hand, bring reliable income. Also, our children are introduced to farangs in the same way as farangs learn about how the Lahu live”.

Whisky for wanderers

Fording on the hillside trek (Martin Symington)

Fording on the hillside trek (Martin Symington)

Next day we hiked over twisted mountain ridges to a backdrop of grey-blue cliffs and gigantic limestone boulders draped with wild tresses of greenery. We forded a river, wading knee-deep while watched by water buffalo herded by villagers from Ban Muang Pam, the settlement of Karen people where we overnighted. There was time to see workshops where villagers were carving teak cutlery and embroidering bags and garments for the ‘market’ that they convened for us.

That evening our hosts shared a bottle of ‘whisky’ (home-distilled rice wine firewater) while we tried to take in some of the intricacies of inter-tribe relationships. These Karen are more affluent and integrated into mainstream Thai society, although there remain painfully complicated conventions that determined when marriages can take place between ethnic groups. But times are changing, apparently, especially with young people meeting in the cities – unthinkable a generation ago.

The trek ended at Ban Jabo, a Lahu settlement on the tarmacked road back to Chiang Mai. There is electricity here and even a café with WiFi, but the homestay was similar to the others we had stayed at with shared floorspace to sleep on and a barrel of cold water with a bucket for a shower. After dark, the moonshine flowed again and we were introduced to haunting notes on bamboo reed pipes played by Karen men and women.

On the return drive we stopped for a snack at Pai, the backpacker hangout town stretching along a drag of hostels, bars, tattoo-parlours and strings of trekking agencies. The sight of other travellers was a shock to the system. One of our group pointed out that over three days we had seen not a single outsider other than our own group. As we approached the end of our journey, that was about to change.

Silver travel

Textiles in Pha Mon (Martin Symington)

Textiles in Pha Mon (Martin Symington)

The ‘silver temple’ Wat Sri Suphan (Martin Symington)

The ‘silver temple’ Wat Sri Suphan (Martin Symington)

Sitting on the Ping river, Chiang Mai city was once capital of the northern Lanna Kingdom until it was absorbed by Siam in the 18th Century and is now north Thailand’s number one tourist destination by a long way. Nevertheless, hidden away amid the gilded temples, old city walls and humming night markets are some intriguing neighbourhoods.

“In these communities, tourism can help keep alive traditional crafts and ways of living forgotten by most in the modern world” explained my guide Noey from Bangkok-based Local Alike, another company that’s won a Thailand Responsible Travel award for its pioneering small-scale CBT ventures. 

Noey took me to meet the Wua Lai community of silversmiths who run workshops teaching skills that have trickled down over centuries stretching back to Lanna times. The most exquisite expression of these are at the glittering Wat Sri Suphan temple, originally hand-crafted entirely from silver and other metals by the ancestors of today’s artisans. Entering the ubosot inner sanctum felt like being trapped in a giant beaten-silver jewellery box studded with precious stones. The fact that women are not allowed inside may help explain why this astonishing temple is relatively little visited.

When I emerged, blinking, into the midday dazzle, Noey, who has lived all her life in Chiang Mai, sighed acceptingly: “I have never seen what you have and never will.”

I felt sheepish, but grateful to have had another layer of history pulled back for me. Before the day came to an end, we visited the Puak Tam community, scattered around a small temple and monastery. Despite being just a stone’s throw from Chiang Mai’s old town’s south gate, the area felt more like  a rural village. Cockerels were crowing and ribby dogs snoozed in the shade outside wooden-fronted cottages. I was invited into to meet Noi Jamiyan, a lady whose life is devoted to crafting artefacts for monasteries and Buddhist festivals, such as the layered brass ‘umbrellas’ that top Thailand’s temples. I watched her intently at work, moulding metal.

As I later headed out for dinner in the melee of Chiang Mai’s night market, Noi’s gentle hopes repeated over in my mind. “We worry that the next generation are not interested in traditional crafts and festivals,” she mused, translated by Noey. “But we hope that people from over the oceans will come and learn about the art and culture of Thailand.”

Just like Yohan – and P’Archai, Na-Ma, Noey and many others I met along the way – Noi too is looking forwards, not backwards. Projects like this don’t just help Noi conserve her culture but also to forge a future, one that glints like silver.

Northern Thailand highlights

1. Chiang Mai

Capital of the north with a walled old town at its heart and hidden pockets of ancient culture to explore.

2. Pha Mon

The most authentic-feeling settlement on the trek through far-flung mountains near the Burmese border.

3. Tham Lod caves

A vast network of limestone passages and cathedral-sized caverns hung with stalactites, accessed via rafts on a subterranean river. Now a major tourist attraction.

4. Hloyo

A welcoming village where Akha culture thrives in dramatic mountain scenery.

5. Baan Suan Pa Forest

Inspiring projects replacing deforestation and opium with sustainable agriculture and responsible tourism.

6. Chiang Rai

A small, relaxed riverside city with the gleaming white Wat Rong Khun temple and a fizzing night market.

Footnotes

The Trip

The author was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and also of G Adventures (0207 313 6938) whose five-day Northern Thailand Hilltribes Trek includes a night in a Chiang Mai hotel; three nights accommodation on the trek; all meals; transport from/back to Chiang Mai; a G Adventures Chief Experience officer and a specialist local guide.

Vital Statistics

Capital: Bangkok

Population: 70 million

Languages: Thai and its northern dialect Găm Méuang. Karen, Lahu, Akha and other ethnic minority languages are also spoken in numerous dialects. English is widely understood in the cities.

Time: GMT +7

International dialling code: +66

Visas: Not required for stays of up to 30 days.

Money: Thai Baht (TBH). Credit cards are widely accepted in cities, where there are also ATMs.

When to go

November to February: the north is cool (around 23°C) and dryer.

March to April: getting hotter, with temperatures often above 30°C and sometimes even breaking over 40°C, but less suitable for trekking because of smoke caused by slash-and-burn farming.

May to July: waiting for Aug-Oct monsoon season to start, when the region turns lush and green

Health & safety

See the FCO for latest travel information and entry advice.

Check out fitfortravel.nhs.uk to see which vaccines you specifically may need; it provides a malaria map. There is a risk of malaria – and also dengue fever – throughout Thailand. Pack plenty of insect repellent.

To avoid stomach upsets, follow the ‘peel it, boil it, cook it or forget it’ mantra and travel with your own water bottle, which helps avoid single-use plastic.

Getting there

Qatar Airways (0330 024 0125) flies to Chiang Mai from Heathrow, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh via Doha.

Getting around

Regular bus services link Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. International car hire companies have offices in both cities and there are numerous outfits offering scooter hire. In cities, the tuk-tuks are an easy and fun option but can be more expensive than regular taxis.

Visiting hilltribe villages independently is not recommended. Do choose tours to them with care. Ethical travel specialist company Local Alike offers trips to CBT projects in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, and to villages and regions in their orbits. A full-day Path Through A Forest, Baan Suan Pa excursion from Chiang Rai costs US$137 (£105) for up to five people. A full-day Lost Treasure in Chiang Mai tour costs US$75 (£57) pp.

Cost of travel

Thailand is excellent value by UK standards, the more so the further you travel from the cities. You can eat well in good-standard restaurants for no more than TBH400 (about £10), while a Chang beer is around BHT50 (about £1.25)

Accommodation

Tamarind Village. Low-rise, Lanna-style luxury amid garden setting near Chiang Mai old town.

The Legend. Tranquility and lush gardens by the Mae Nam Kok river, just outside Chiang Rai.

Akha Mud House Mae Salong. Comfortable  en-suite rooms at a modern, traditional-style homestay in a mountain setting north of Chiang Rai. 

Note that all homestays on the hilltribes trek are extremely basic with mattresses on the floor of shared rooms. Washing is with a bucket of cold water and toilets are holes in the ground.

Food & drink

Typical Lanna (North Thai) dishes are milder than southern food, with meat (specially pork) curries, steamed veg and deep-fried things, always served with sticky rice. More familiar Thai food is ubiquitous in the cities; many restaurants assume that foreigners don’t like it too hot; if this is not the case, ask for ‘local spicy’. 

In the hilltribe villages, you will be served rice and a variety of simple dishes including pork and veg, and also often offered ‘whisky’, the strong locally-distilled rice spirit.

Further reading & information

Thailand (Lonely Planet, 2020)

Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski (Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc, 2007) novel set in Northern Thailand.

Official tourist website.

Top tip

Exotic birds are profuse in the forests. Look out for the outlandish-looking great hornbill with its bright yellow head and 1.5m wingspan.

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