Northern Thailand is home to the majority of Thailand's more than 700,000 tribal peoples, many of whom emigrated from Laos, southwestern China, Myanmar (Burma), and Tibet, and retain their traditional costumes, religion, art, and way of life. Opportunities to visit these distinctive ethnic enclaves and to enjoy the region's scenic beauty make the rural north one of the country's most popular destinations.

Hill-tribes traditionally practiced slash-and-burn agriculture: burning forests to clear land; planting poppies as a cash crop; and then setting up new bamboo and thatch villages whenever their farmland's soil became depleted. This unsustainable practice has now changed.

Visitors should practice cultural awareness and encourage only positive methods of sustainable tourism (that is, trek with local guides and avoid littering or damaging the natural environment).

Both self-guided trips and scheduled tours -- by car or motorbike -- are great ways to get around the area. Hill-tribe tours and trekking are also very popular activities and bring visitors into intimate contact with the hospitable minority groups of the north. Many use Chiang Mai as a hub for forays into the surrounding hills. With its cooler climes and pleasant towns, it is a great region for getting adventurous and exploring.

Touring the Northern Hills

Beyond Chiang Mai and its satellite cities, travelers enter a lush, mountainous region replete with opportunities for adventure. Rugged landscape, proximity to Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, and the diverse ethnic hill-tribe groups living here distinguish northern Thailand from the rest of the country.

Connected by highways that undulate through forested mountains, descend into picturesque valleys, and pass through quaint farming villages, the country's northern points are best explored overland, in a rented vehicle (with a driver, if possible). There are lookout viewpoints along the way, and plenty of places to stop and eat, refuel, relax, and stay. Travelers can choose from a number of routes: from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai; north from Chiang Rai to the Myanmar/Laos/Thai border at the Golden Triangle; or the rugged area northwest of Chiang Mai, encircled by the Mae Hong Son Loop. Any trip in the region means mountain scenery and the opportunity to visit with unique ethnic groups; trekking by foot, jeep, elephant back, or boat through the forested hill-tribe homelands is very popular.