The face of rural life has changed in the far north -- a partial result of the tourist influx locally, and partly due to the steady development of Thailand's economy. Northern hill-tribe peoples have been exposed to the outside world and are being asked by Thai officials to stop slash-and-burn agricultural techniques and participate in the Thai economy by growing crops other than opium. Their children are educated in Thai and are discouraged from speaking their tribal language. Within the bounds of these influences, minorities struggle to maintain their cultural identities, livelihoods, and centuries-old ways of life.
Many travelers are drawn to the hill-tribe villages in search of a "primitive" culture, unspoiled by modernization -- and tour and trekking operators in the region are quick to exploit this. Companies advertise treks as nontourist, authentic, or eco-tours in an effort to set them apart from tacky tourist operations or staged cultural experiences. Do not be misled: There are no villages here that are untouched by foreign curiosity. In the worst cases, as with the camps of "long-neck" (Padaung tribe) from Myanmar, they have become nothing more than human zoos, with fees paid to individuals for photographs and zero long-term sustainability. This shouldn't discourage anyone from joining a trek or tour; just be aware and avoid any bogus claims. It is also advisable to leave any preconceptions of "primitive" people to 19th-century anthropological journals; rather, come to learn how these cultures on the margin of society grapple with complex economic and social pressures to maintain their unique identities. Awareness of the impact of tourists is also important: Practice cultural sensitivity. With this as a mission, visitors can have an experience that is quite authentic and, refreshingly, has little to do with preconceptions and expectations.
There are two kinds of hill-tribe operators in northern Thailand: tribal village tours and jungle treks.
Tribal village tours take large and small groups on day trips to visit villages that are close to major cities and towns. If you join one of these groups, you'll travel by van or coach to see up to three villages -- each inhabited by a different tribe -- and you'll spend about an hour in each one. These villages have had decades of exposure to foreigners and, because roads connect them to Chiang Mai, have many modern conveniences. Some trips include elephant trekking, rides downriver on bamboo rafts, and staged cultural performances of costume parades with music and dance. These short trips are great for a closer view of these cultures without undertaking a 3-day hill trek.
Jungle treks are more rugged trips with small groups of about 4 to 10 people trudging off to get up-close-and-personal with tribal people. Treks last anywhere from 2 days and 1 night to week-long itineraries. Every trek starts with a bumpy road journey before groups head for the hills on foot accompanied by a local guide, and many of these tours also have bamboo rafting and elephant trekking thrown in for variety.
The guides keep a controlled pace and even those who aren't particularly fit won't have a problem keeping up. Most guides have some knowledge of a few tribal languages and will serve as your go-between. Good guides will be familiar with the villages they'll take you to, will teach you etiquette and protocol, and will negotiate the terms of your "invitation" with the local village leaders. Your guides will also feed you "jungle food" -- usually simple meals of rice and fish. If you're a vegetarian, discuss this with your guide before setting out. Sometimes villagers will entertain guests with music and dance. All guests are invited to sleep in a separate area of the headman's house, which is usually the largest in the compound, but accommodations are very basic (straw mats and blankets). It is unwise to try to go trekking on your own, and, in fact, it is important to have a guide who can navigate local customs. Look for recommended trekking companies listed in each section in this book. Below are some important pointers.
Tips on Jungle Trekking
You won't have any problems finding a trek -- there are many companies, from small storefronts to hotel concierges, that offer treks out of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, and Pai; what presents some difficulty is finding the right mix of experienced and knowledgeable guides, an intelligent itinerary, a compatible group, and appropriate timing, all at a reasonable price. Be sure to ask for specifics before departure, because once you're out on the trail, there will no longer be any room for debate. Consider the criteria below for any tour.
The Guide -- If there's one single element of a trek that will make or break the experience, it is the guide. Few guides are native to these jungles -- although some have quite a few years of experience and most can speak the relevant phrases of a few hill-tribe languages (though their command of English is perhaps most important). All guides are required to attend a special 1-month course at Chiang Mai University and must be licensed by the Tourism Authority. Hill-tribe guides are familiar with the best trails, are well informed about the area and people, and are usually pretty interesting characters. Try to meet your prospective guide and ask lots of questions before signing on, though this is not always possible.
The Itinerary -- Several well-known Chiang Mai agencies offer regularly scheduled routes. Some companies can arrange custom tours for a higher fee. Be sure to get specifics about daily schedules. Most treks involve transport to and from the start and endpoint of the trek. How long does it take and what are the conditions? Expect 3 to 6 hours of unhurried walking each day. Gauge your fitness level and adjust to that or adjust the itinerary. When is lunch/dinner each day? What is lunch/dinner? What are the sleeping arrangements? Nearly all trekking itineraries list the various hill-tribe villages visited; try to read as much as you can and decide for yourself which you'd most like to see.
The Group -- You can end up making lifelong friends on trekking trips and, conversely, spend uncomfortably long days and nights in the company of folks with whom you wouldn't want to share a cab ride, much less days in the jungle. If you're planning a long, arduous trip, try to meet your fellow travelers before committing; you might find that their stamina, assumptions, interests, and/or personalities are not compatible with yours. Most agencies limit the number of people to about 10 per trek. Having at least 4 in the group minimizes personality clashes and adds conviviality.
What to Bring -- Most trekkers come to Thailand on vacation, totally unprepared for a serious trek, but trekkers should pack differently. Most routes require good sneakers or walking shoes. A wool sweater for evenings in the cool season and some outerwear to sleep in will come in handy (many trekking companies only provide blankets). It's best to wear long trousers because of dense underbrush, leeches, and mosquitoes. A flashlight, supply of tissues or toilet paper, mosquito repellent, and basic first-aid kit with blister remedies are also recommended.
Some groups bring gifts for remote villages. Ask your guide for specifics, because he may know the needs of the villagers in the places you'll be visiting. It sounds heartless, but charitable trusts in the Third World ask that visitors do not give away the likes of pens and sweets, as this reinforces unsustainable habits that result in begging and harassment of foreigners.
Price -- Most treks cost less than 1 night at a hotel and three restaurant meals, unless they are organized by top resorts or hotels, in which case the sky is the limit. Some negotiation may be in order, especially if you are traveling with a large group of people. Expect to pay between 2000B and 5,000B per person per night, depending on the itinerary. Typically, food, transport, and equipment (backpack, water bottle, and so on) are included in the fee. Caution: Be sure to get specifics about what is included. Once on the trail, there are no negotiations, and many a trekker comes down from the hills tired, angry, and feeling "taken," because of some minor misunderstanding. You get what you pay for, of course, but be sure that you know what you'll get before you pay.
Safety -- Never set out on your own on a trek. Despite the best efforts of local authorities, it is impossible to police the jungle and there are still some occurrences of banditry on village trails. Do not take any valuables with you on your trek. You can make arrangements with your hotel or guesthouse in town, or even the trekking company you go with, to stow things safely.
For jungle trekking, one of the most efficient and reliable organizations is Active Travel (www.activethailand.com; tel 05385-0160). Combining treks and village stays with multisport adventures by jeep, bicycle, and kayak, the folks at Active can cater a tour to any need and price range. They also offer more traditional itineraries with visits to caves, and relaxing bamboo-raft river trips, and their English-speaking guides are the best in the area. Treks from Chiang Mai stop at Lisu, Lahu, and Karen villages. A 2-day/1-night trip is 4,600B per person if you join their regular tour, or 5,600B per person for a private group trip. A 3-day/2-night trip, which takes you to a greater variety of villages, is 5,500B per person if you join their regular tour or 6,850B per person for a private group. Their office in Chiang Mai is at 54/5 Moo 2, Soi 14, Tambol Tasala.
Another company with lots of experience specializing in customized trekking tours (with a focus on bird-watching or rare orchids, for example) is the Trekking Collective (www.trekkingcollective.com; tel 05320-8340; 3/5 Loy Kroh Soi 1). Expect to pay around 3,000B to 5,500B per person per day, depending on the group size and itinerary.
A Note on Drugs -- This region (which is close to the famed Golden Triangle and smuggler trails from nearby Myanmar) is still notorious for the availability of drugs, especially opium and methamphetamines. Government crackdowns and programs to move hill-tribe economies to reliance on more sustainable farming of alternative produce have almost eradicated opium production, but there's a slim chance you may be offered a few pipes at exorbitant prices. If the dangers of taking illegal and addictive drugs in a rural village aren't obvious, consider the financial and cultural impact of supporting local drug economies and encouraging poor models of cultural exchange. Don't forget the corruption factor either. Narcotic use is illegal and the Thai government imposes a ruthless, zero-tolerance policy on drug use. Trek guides and tour operators run the risk of being shut down if found promoting drug use on their treks. Drug dealers or addicts are often executed. Foreigners, if they're lucky, merely go to prison for life.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.