For years Chiang Mai has been a centre for treks into the mountainous northern areas inhabited by hill tribes. It used to be pretty exciting to knock about the dirt roads of rural Chiang Rai Province, do the boat trip between Fang and Chiang Rai and hike into the various villages of the Karen, Meo, Akha and Yao tribes and the Kuomintang settlements. You could spend the night in rustic surroundings and perhaps share some opium with the villagers.
Only a very few Thais living in Chiang Mai had the travel and linguistic knowledge necessary to lead adventurous foreigners through this area. Booking a trip usually meant waiting for optimum conditions and adequate numbers of participants, which sometimes took quite a while.
The trips began to gain popularity in the early 1970s and now virtually every hotel and guesthouse in Chiang Mai books hill tribe tours for countless tour organizations.
Soon the word was out that the area north of the Kok River in the Golden Triangle was being over-trekked, with treks criss-crossing the area in such a fashion that the hill-tribe villages were starting to become human zoos. When their only contact with the outside world was through a camera lens and a flow of sweets and cigarettes, it was no wonder that the villagers began to feel this way.
So the tours moved south of the Kok River, around Chiang Dao and Wieng Papao, then to Mae Hong Son where most of them now operate. It's only a short time before this area suffers from the heavy traffic as well.
Meanwhile, hundreds of foreign travellers each year continue to take these treks. Most come away with a sense of adventure while a few are disillusioned. What makes a good trek is having primarily a good leader-organizer, followed by a good group of trekkers. Some travellers finish a tour complaining more about the other trekkers than about the itinerary, food or trek leader.
Hill-tribe trekking isn't for everyone. Firstly, you must be physically fit to cope with the demands of sustained up and down walking, exposure to the elements and spotty food. Secondly, many people feel awkward walking through hill-tribe villages and playing the role of voyeur.
In cities and villages elsewhere in Thailand, Thais and other lowland groups are quite used to foreign faces and foreign ways (from television if nothing else), but in the hills of northern Thailand the tribes lead largely insular lives. Hence, hill-tribe tourism has pronounced effects, both positive and negative. On the positive side, travellers have a chance to see how traditional subsistence-oriented societies function. Also, since the Thai Government is sensitive about the image projected by their minority groups, tourism may actually have forced it to review and sometimes improve its policies toward hill tribes. On the negative side, trekkers introduce many cultural items and ideas from the outside world that may erode tribal customs to varying degrees.
If you have any qualms about interrupting the traditional patterns of life in hill-tribe areas, you probably should not go trekking. It is undeniable that trekking in northern Thailand is marketed like soap or any other commodity. Anyone who promises you an authentic experience is probably exaggerating at the very least, or at worst may be contributing to the decline of hill-tribe culture by leading foreigners into unhampered areas.
If you desire to make a trek keep these points in mind:
If everything works out, even an organized tour can be worthwhile. A useful checklist of questions to ask is:
TAT is making efforts to regulate trekking companies out of Chiang Mai and recommend that you trek only with members of the Professional Guide Association of Chiang Mai or the Jungle Tour Club of Northern Thailand. Still, with more than 100 companies operating out of Chiang Mai, it's very difficult to guarantee any kind of control.
These days there are plenty of places apart from Chiang Mai where you can arrange treks. Often these places have better and usually less expensive alternatives that originate closer to the more remote and un-trekked areas. Also, they are generally smaller, friendlier operations and the trekkers are usually a more determined bunch since they're not looking for a quick in-and-out trek. The treks are often informally arranged, usually involving discussions of duration, destinations, cost, etc., (it used to be like that in Chiang Mai).
You can easily arrange treks out of the following towns in the north: Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Pai, Mae Sai and Tha Ton. With a little time to seek out the right people, you can also go on organized treks from Mae Sariang, Soppong (near Pai), Mae Sot, the Akha Guest House on the road to Doi Tung and other out-of-the-way guesthouses that are springing up all over northern Thailand.
The downside, of course, is that companies outside of Chiang Mai are generally subject to even less regulation than those in Chiang Mai, and there are fewer guarantees with regard to trekking terms and conditions.
Organized treks out of Chiang Mai average from 800 Baht for a four-day, three nights trek to 2,500 Baht for a deluxe seven-day, six-night trek that includes elephant riding and/or rafting. Rates vary, so it pays to shop around. You can count on an extra 1,000 Baht for elephants or other exotic additions to a basic trek. Elephant rides actually become quite boring and even uncomfortable after about an hour.
Don't choose a trek by price alone. It's better to talk to other travellers in town who have been on treks. Treks out of other towns in the north are usually between 100 and 150 Baht per person per day.
The Professional Guide Association in Chiang Mai meets monthly to set trek prices and to discuss problems, and issues regular, required reports to TAT about individual treks. All trekking guides and companies are supposed to be government licensed. As a result, a standard for trekking operators has emerged whereby you can expect the price you pay to include: transport to and from the starting/ending points of a trek (if outside Chiang Mai); food (three meals a day) and accommodation in all villages visited; basic first aid; pre-departure valuables storage; and sometimes the loan of specific equipment, such as sleeping bags in cool weather or water bottles.
Not included in the price are beverages other than drinking water or tea, the obligatory opium-smoking with the village headman (how many travellers have I heard say '... and then, oh wow, we actually smoked opium with the village headman! '), lunch on the first and last days and personal porters.
Probably the best time to trek is November to February when the weather is refreshing with little or no rain and poppies are in bloom everywhere. Between March and May the hills are dry and the weather is quite hot in most northern places. The second-best time to trek is early in the rainy season, between June and July, before the dirt roads become too saturated.
Every year or so there's at least one trekking robbery in northern Thailand. Often the bandits are aimed with guns that they will use without hesitation if they meet resistance. Once they collect a load of cameras, watches, money and jewellery, many bandit gangs hightail it across the border into Burma. In spite of this, police have had a good arrest record so far and have created hill-country patrols. Still, gangs can form at any time and anywhere. The problem is that most people living in the rural north believe that all foreigners are very rich (a fair assumption in relation to hill-tribe living standards). Most of these people have never been to Chiang Mai and, from what they have heard about Bangkok, they consider it to be a virtual paradise of wealth and luxury. So don't take anything with you trekking you can't afford to lose, and don't resist robbery attempts.
Once trekking, there are several other guidelines to minimizing the negative impact on the local people:
Some guides are very strict now about forbidding the smoking of opium on treks. This seems to be a good idea, since one of the problems trekking companies have had in the past is dealing with opium-addicted guides! Volunteers who work in tribal areas also say opium-smoking sets a bad example for young people in the villages.
Opium is traditionally a condoned vice of the elderly, yet an increasing number of young people in the villages are now taking opium and heroin. This is possibly due in part to the influence of young trekkers who may smoke once and a few weeks later are hundreds of kilometres away while the villagers continue to face the temptation every day.
You might consider striking out on your own in a small group of two to five people. Gather as much information as you can about the area you'd like to trek in from the Tribal Research Institute at Chiang Mai University. The institute has an informative pamphlet that is available at its library. Don't bother staff with questions about trekking as they are quite non-committal, either from fear of liability or fear of retribution from the Chiang Mai trekking companies.
Maps, mostly distributed by guesthouses outside of Chiang Mai, pinpoint various hill tribe areas in the north. DK Books in Chiang Mai sell two excellent maps on the Wawi area, south of the Kok River and the Kok River area itself. Both lie in Chiang Rai Province and are considered safe areas for do-it-yourself treks. DK Books plan to produce a series of trekking maps based on Tribal Research Institute research.
Be prepared for language difficulties. Few people you meet will know any English. Usually someone in a village will know some Thai, so a Thai phrasebook can be helpful.
As in Himalayan trekking in Nepal and India, many people now do short treks on their own at the lower elevations, staying in villages along the way. It is not necessary to bring a lot of food or equipment, just money for food that can be bought along the way in small Thai towns and occasionally in the hill-tribe settlements. However, TAT strongly discourages trekking on your own because of the safety risk. Check in with the police when you arrive in a new district so they can tell you if an area is considered safe or not. A lone trekker is an easy target (see Safety section).
I won't make any specific recommendations for particular trekking companies in Chiang Mai. Many of the trekking guides are freelance and go from one company to the next, so there's no way to predict which companies are going to give the best service at any time.
The companies listed are recognized by TAT and the Professional Guide Association, which means that they should be using licensed guides. Just about every guesthouse in Chiang Mai works through one of these companies. The list represents a mixture of companies that are directly affiliated with hotels/guest houses and those which are not. Ultimately, the best way to shop for a trek is to talk to travellers who have just returned from treks.
The term hill tribe refers to ethnic minorities living in the mountainous regions of north and west Thailand. The Thais refer to them as chao khao, literally meaning mountain people. Each hill tribe has its own language, customs, mode of dress and spiritual beliefs.
Most are of semi-nomadic origins, having migrated to Thailand from Tibet, Burma, China and Laos during the past 200 years or so, although some groups may have been in Thailand much longer. They are fourth-world people in the sense that they belong neither to the main aligned powers nor to the third-world nations. Rather, they have crossed and continue to cross national borders without regard for recent nationhood. Language and culture constitute the borders of their world as some groups are caught between the 6th and 20th centuries while others are gradually being assimilated into modern Thai life.
The Tribal Research Institute in Chiang Mai recognizes 10 different hill tribes but there may be up to 20 in Thailand. The institute's 1986 estimate of the total hill-tribe population was 550,000.
The following descriptions cover the largest tribes that are also the groups most likely to be encountered on treks. Linguistically, the tribes can be divided into three main groups: the Tibeto-Burman (Lisu, Lahu, Akha), the Karenic (Karen, Kayah) and the Austro-Thai (Hmong, Mien). Comments on ethnic dress refer mostly to the female members of each group, as hill-tribe men tend to dress like rural Thais. Population figures are 1986 estimates.
The Shan (Thai Yai) are not included since they are not a hill-tribe group per se as they live in permanent locations, practice Theravada Buddhism and speak a language very similar to Thai. Thai scholars consider the Shan to have been the original inhabitants (Thai Yai means larger or majority Thais) of the area. Nevertheless, Shan villages are common stops on hill-tribe trekking itineraries.
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