Beyond the tourist attractions of Chiang Mai, there is a lot to discover about Chiang Mai’s culture and its locals. One of the best ways to experience the authentic side of Chiang Mai is to get out of the city to explore the verdant countryside and rolling hills, where Thailand’s ethnic minorities, known as hill tribes live.
There are around seven different hill tribe groups, each with their own unique culture, customs and language, part of the rich cultural tapestry of northern Thailand. Most live in remote highland areas and practice subsistence farming. Prior to the 1970’s many were involved in the cultivation of opium, until it was outlawed. With the help of the government and the Royal Project, they were able to successfully substitute opium for other cash crops such as coffee, cabbages and fruit.
The most populous groups are the Karen and Hmong, followed by Lahu, Akha, Mien, Lisu and Palaung. Traditionally they live in simple bamboo or wooden houses, with straw or teak leaf roofs. Their houses are often raised on stilts with animals living underneath. Modern villages nowadays will have cemented roads and even wifi, whereas older or more remote villages still have dirt paths and poor infrastructure.
A common scene in any hill tribe village is that of young children running around and playing together, chickens and pigs may roam, whilst grandmothers smoke pipes on the front terrace. Men and women maybe carrying logs or vegetables back from the farm, as a motorbike zooms by. It’s a cultural delight, to simply watch how daily life unfolds in a village.
Travel beyond Chiang Mai province, and there is even more to discover in the hinterlands of rural northern Thailand. If you have several days to spare, it’s worth exploring Chiang Rai or authentic Mae Hong Son- one of the least touristic places left in Thailand. Here you will find a slower and more traditional pace of life, pristine nature and lofty landscapes, not to mention some of the best views in the country.
If you want to visit a hill tribe village, we don’t recommend you visit on your own. It’s always best to do so with a local guide, you will receive a warmer welcome and have a much better experience all-round. There are lots of advertised hill tribe treks from Chiang Mai, and many of these package treks, can feel like a canned experience, traipsing in large groups through villages, which have seem umpteen foreigners pass by over the years.
Thailand Hilltribe Holidays are a Chiang Mai tour operator, which specialises in responsible travel around northern Thailand. They have a family of local hill tribe guides, who, unlike city guides, specialise in creating authentic and cross-cultural experiences between tourists and villagers, in a respectful way. An easy way to tell if a trek or tour is a responsible one, is from judging the type of reception you receive from villagers. Are they happy to see you and your guide? If not, chances are they don’t want to be disturbed, or have had negative experiences with visitors in the past.
So, what are you waiting for? If you travel to Chiang Mai, and want to experience some of its authentic culture, head out of the city and into the hills.