Travellers that have had enough of southern beach life arrive in Chiang Mai hungry for culture, northern delicacies and the colourful vibrant hill tribe life. Wanting to experience something real, travellers often get disappointed on day tour to a hill tribe village, suspicious elephant camps or Tiger kingdom visit.
Here few tips for a non-touristy way to experience authentic life in Northern Thailand.
AN AUTHENTIC DIP INTO THAI HILL TRIBE CULTURE
As we all know, getting to know someone or something requires more time than a pit stop at the tourist route. Best way to get to know the local people is to live with them for a while, and participate in daily activities of the village. Homestay is a good option, a village stay even better.
Chiang Mai providence, Mae Rim, Mae Hong Son and Lamphun areas are dotted with charming little Thai villages, which are an excellent base for trekking, visiting national parks and exploring surrounding country side and the hill tribe villages near by. Our favourite is Tung Lakorn in Mae Taeng, nestled between Hmong villages and elephant sanctuaries
A HMONG VILLAGE FAR AWAY FROM TOURIST ROUTES
From the seven major hill tribe groups Hmongs are the second biggest Thai hill tribe. Hmong’s ancestors came from the Yellow River region of China and they are known for their colourful clothing. Women wear often traditional embroidered and pleated dresses and men pantaloon-style trousers with colourful hems.
Today Hmongs are focused on farming, and if you are staying for example in Thung Lakorn village, it is easy to pay a visit to the nearby Hmong village on the hilly slopes. Stop for a cold drink at non-touristic kiosk-restaurant-shop, watch kids play in the school yard and cabbage farmers working o the fields.
A chat with the elders hanging at the shop will soon lead to showing photos of the former king Bhumibol Adulyadej’s visit to the village and stories about how the king introduced new species for the farmers to improve harsh conditions of the mountain people.
Women wear often traditional embroidered and pleated dresses and men pantaloon-style trousers with colourful hems.
FAMOUS KAREN CULTURE, HOME OF THE LONG NECK WOMEN
The Karen, or Kariang as they are known in Thailand, have been living in Burma for many centuries. The biggest of hill tribes has 300 000 people scattered in small villages. Some Karen women still wear the heavy brass rings around their neck. The neck is not actually stretched, but the heavy rings push shoulders down and the neck seems longer.
Karen are very skilled weavers, which can been seen in their traditional woven colourful v-neck tunics and turbans. Unmarried women wear distinctive long white v-neck tunics. Karen are the most environmentally conscious of the hill tribes, practicing crop rotation and thus preserving the forest.
BEAUTIFUL KAREN VILLAGE IN DOI INTHANON NATIONAL PARK
On the slopes of Thailand highest mountain Doi Inthanon, in the national park of the same name, is a Karen village called Pha Mon. Spending a few nights here enjoying the hospitality of a local family opens traveller’s eyes to the culture on a very different level.
ANIMIST, UNTOUCHED VILLAGE IN THE WILDERNESS
In the middle of Lampang province, deep deep under the radar of the common tourist route lies a rural Karen village called Pong Nam Ron. To our knowledge only two times has a Westener slept here, so no fear of artificiality. People are warm and welcoming, and compared to those serving the tourism industry, truly curious about visitors.
While the younger villagers aren’t wearing traditional Karen clothes, unlike in Pha Mon, travellers find in Pong Nam Ron a real symbiosis between men and nature. Ghosts and spirits live naturally among people, and old time animalistic believes are full in bloom. The best way to experience this is to go trekking with the locals and learn about the surrounding wilderness.
DAY TOUR OR LONGER STAY: HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU NEED TO VISIT HILL TRIBES?
Trekking to see the villages is a good option, but organised treks too tend to be very commercial and ready-made experiences, as they are manufactured by companies serving tourists. A private guide with connections to hill tribes and villages would be the best option – recommended if you don’t have the time for a longer overnight village stay.
If possible reserve at least 3 days for a village stay to truly immerse into the everyday life. Opt for a socially sustainable village stay, where a traditional homestay is upgraded with activities with the host family – and where the money you pay goes straight to the locals.
Opt for an “all-inclusive” visit where you get to both cook and eat with the family, go to markets and village events and get to experience the local livelihood, for example weaving or farming coffee in a Karen village.
Opt for a socially sustainable village stay, where the money you pay goes straight to the locals.
SEEING IS NOT EXPERIENCING – WHAT NOT TO DO IN THE HILL TRIBE AREA?
We recommend healthy scepticism with the day tours from Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. These often take visitors to touristic hill tribe villages, that have been set up for visitors. Not much authenticity is to be found after paying the entrance fee.
Expect souvenir stands and ’traditional’ costumes, sometimes even humans (for ex ’long-neck Karen people) are put up for show. These shows, often called human zoo’s, should be avoided. As of course should unethical elephant camps and tiger shows too. Check out for ethical and socially sustainable travel tips here. Book a village stay with a hill tribe here.