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Hill Tribe Trekking in Northern Thailand

Hill tribe trekking is the major attraction of Northern Thailand. The area is a big contrast to the islands in the south of Thailand. The only resemblance is that this part is also visited by large numbers of tourists. Center of tourism here is Chang Mai, and that's where we are heading to as well.

Lisu Hill tribe girl

The rainy season

After a reasonable night in the train, we wake up only to see a sad landscape, drooling with rain. It is the rainy season, but we hope it's just a tropical shower. At Chang Mai railway station we quickly spot someone from Libra guesthouse, the one that was recommended by other travellers we met. We run through the rain to their van, which drops us at the guesthouse. There we have breakfast, and we retreat to our rooms, until the shower stops.

That takes a while, but after a few hours we can explore the city. Chang Mai has a city center that was once completely walled. Nowadays, only the moat remains, with a few stretches of wall at the corners and gates. Around the west gate is the area with budget hotels. But it is not an area like Khao San Road in Bangkok, it's a bit more scattered here. We can't decide whether that's a pity, or just for the better.

Obviously, we are visiting some wats, which seem even better here than in Bangkok. After a beer on a terrace, we visit the evening market, with lots of souvenirs. We see jewellery, cloths, paintings, statues, but are most impressed by the woodcarvings. Very expensive, but the details in the carvings are fantastic to look at.

When we've seen enough, we head for a restaurant. There are restaurants from all over the world here, and we fall for the Thai lady in traditional German clothes. A little later we are eating wiener schnitzels, and drink Weissen beer, in the middle of tropical Thailand. They even play schlagers.

Cooking course

As part of our alternative activities we book a Thai cooking course. After receiving a course book and a basket, we are transported to the local market. There, we are taught about the different vegetables, herbs, and fruit, while our baskets are filled. We also have to taste a lot, so it's a good thing we didn't have breakfast.

On to the course room, where we receive a cooking hat and start chopping. We are making a curry paste which we can make as hot as we like, by adding more chilli peppers. After chopping we grind it into a paste. And then we move to the woks, in which we are taught how to make a curry dish from our paste.

We learn to make another 6 dishes, which we can eat after cooking them. At the end of the day we learned and laughed a lot, and we are full. So it was a very successful day. We leave with the left overs in plastic bags, to enjoy later.

Misery in the Mountains

Crossing a riverFor the next days we book a hill tribe trekking through the mountain area around Chang Mai. We are all given a small waterproof backpack to put our gear in. And then we are guided into a songthaew, which will bring us to the mountains. The first part is highway, but after a stop at a marketplace the road goes up, with the inevitable winding. Not everyone can handle that well, and some even throw up from the open truck. After a few hours, the misery is over, we stop for lunch and the actual trekking starts.

We walk through a beautiful mountainous landscape. Our guide Pumpkin indicats that behind the mountain range to the right is Myanmar (Birma). Other than that, he doesn't say much. But this is a hill tribe trekking, so it is not about spotting wildlife, or learning about the jungle. So we settle with the announcement that it will start raining soon. The termites are indicating this by vibrating against the leaves, so everybody goes home.

It starts raining with small drips. But it soon changes into a heavy tropical shower. It is not far, according to Pumpkin, but we put on our poncho's and slip and slide through the mud. The profile on our shoes is almost gone, so we have the most problems with climbing up in the rain. In the end, we also manage to reach our destination, a village of the Lahu hill tribe.

Lahu hill tribe village

In the village a large hut is especially built to cater for tourists. We are told this hill tribe trekking is the only one visiting this village, but there is one almost everyday, so the people are used to tourists. After freshing up, the rain stops and we take a look around. Typical scene in a hill tribe villageThe people here live in huts which are mostly built on stilts. We walk along the huts, peeking around the corners to watch how the Lahu hill tribe people live. The children are very curious and want to play with us. After an hour, we've shot enough pictures of the people, children, huts, pigs, and landscape, and we return to our hut.

Pumpkin has a delicious meal prepared for us, and while we eat is a number of Lahu women gather around our hut. After doing the dishes, they attack, it's time for the evening market. Bracelets, bags, water bottle carriers, and hats are put on the table. Nothing of much value, but because of the friendly people everybody buys something.

After the market we are left alone in our hut. But then it's time for the Opium doctor. In a small hut next to ours he is laying down, and the ones interested can join him to smoke a bit of opium in a pipe. It costs 20 Baht per bit but it takes multiple bits to get a bit high.

The following morning we start early. It's dry, but the level of the river is too high to wade through it, as was the original plan. So we have to make a detour, on which we pass another, smaller river about 10 times. Then a steep climb and ditto descent we arrive at the river, to continue by raft.

Bamboo Raft

Bamboo Raft trip in Northern ThailandAfter lunch, with four people and two guides on a raft, we float downriver. The river isn't very wild, but we have to stand in order not to get wet. The guides are steering the raft through the roughest passages, but we arrive save and sound.

One of the guys from another raft, however, dives into the water, and floats past us. He thought the village where we will stay overnight was further down the river. Pumpkin jumps in the water to follow him. Meanwhile, we walk to the village, and install ourselves. After a while Pumpkin and the lost tourist arrive. He left the water when he saw no village, asked around and eventually found Pumpkin, who is a bit silent. Never before had he lost one of the tourists on a trekking.

Sing and Dance at the Lisu hill tribe

Lisu Hill tribe girl with her pigsWe arrived in a village of the Lisu hill tribe. These people still wear traditional, colorful clothes, but the rest is similar to the Lahu village. We explore the huts, pigs, children etcetera. After dinner there is an evening market again, but this one is followed by a sing and dance performance of the Lisu hill tribe girls around the campfire. Obviously, we have to join them, which is quite fun. After the show, there is the marihuana doctor this time, and some mind games to kill time. But is doesn't take long before we all hit our beds.

Elephant ride

When we wake up, there is another great breakfast on the menu, bread with jam and eggs. Then, the first elephant arrives in the camp. When everybody is packed, the other elephants arrive as well, so we can climb them and get going. The guides walk next to the elephants, who can partly decide for themselves which route to take. A very relaxed ride, including a river crossing and some butt scrubbing of our elephant against a tree.

Last part of the hill tribe trekking is a cave tour. We are brought there by a truck, but have to walk the last bit. The cave itself isn't just another cave, as we thought at first. With hand and feet we have to climb and descent through the cave, in which a small river is flowing. The guide keeps a fast pace, which is hard to follow, especially with only a weak flashlight. With a few bumps and bruises we finally leave the cave. And after another good lunch we walk back to the truck and go back to Chang Mai.

Our last day in Chang Mai is reserved for some rest. We rent a bike to bring us to a fancy hotel where we enjoy the swimming pool. A bit of luxury, which we think we deserved.

Northern Thailand is another backpackers paradise. Lots of opportunities for hill tribe trekking are on offer here, and it is great to take one. The only drawback is that it is just a little touristy, like the rest of Thailand. But that does make the hill tribes accessible to (almost) everybody.

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