Tucked away in the fertile forests of Chiang Mai, deep in the heart of Sameong district, lies a hamlet of traditional villages where the Karen hill tribe live. In these remote communities, the women still wear native handwoven Karen tunics, and the men herd water buffaloes to plough the farm, as they once did 50 years ago. Given their relative proximity to Chiang Mai city (only an hour-and-a-half drive away), these primitive villages are a rare find in Chiang Mai today.
Located away from the well-trodden routes of Chiang Mai’s hill tribe treks, you won’t find any other foreign tourists in this village, only the ones travelling with Thailand Hilltribe Holidays – a local tour operator in Chiang Mai that offers responsible and authentic tours of northern Thailand.
Thailand Hilltribe Holidays has received the Tripadvisor Award for Excellence 5 years in a row, specialising in trips to authentic hill tribe villages, and showing tourists what real life for hill tribes is like in a non-intrusive way. Travelling with their hill tribe guides and being invited into villagers homes, feels like an encounter with old friends. The experience of sitting on the terrace of a rickety bamboo stilt house, being served home grown coffee by a host family is an intimate eye-opener. With the help of their guides, travellers can ask questions about hill tribe culture and life in a respectful way.
Ethical and Authentic
Thailand Hilltribe Holiday’s focus on authenticity means that they don’t have fixed itineraries or activities. Instead, their tours follow the natural rhythm of village life, with their guests learning and engaging in daily hill tribe life as it unfolds. Depending on the season, guests could find themselves planting rice in the paddy fields with the Karen, weaving cotton on a back-strap loom or harvesting crops.
A typical day tour would start off with pick up from your hotel, driving out into the fertile countryside of Chiang Mai. Travelling along the scenic Sameong loop, the meandering road through sub-tropical forested hills, offers scenic rewards at every turn.
Along the way guests are introduced to aspects of local life, such as roadside markets selling seasonal delicacies from wild mushrooms to bamboo shoots. As the journey advances deeper into the countryside, the smooth asphalt road ends, and the off-road adventure begins. The winding dirt road passes fertile rice terraces and farmland, and the occasional villager herding his water buffaloes along the way.
Upon arrival at the village, there’s the chance to engage in village life. Guests can enjoy activities such as; sampling homemade rice liquor, visiting the village school or going for a trek. Treks can be customised depending on fitness level, and with the help of a village guide are a chance to learn about the local ecology and how the Karen co-exist with nature.
Hill Tribe Homestays
Their tours also feature the chance to spend an overnight at a hill tribe homestay – staying overnight with a hill tribe family in their traditional bamboo stilt house. Guests can enjoy helping to prepare meals together with their host family. A typical meal might consist of fried jungle ferns, hot chilli paste and an omelette. With scant electricity supply to the village, a sumptuous meal from simple ingredients is concocted under candle light over a handmade fire.
Tourism that Empowers
Beyond visiting ethically, Thailand Hilltribe Holidays also aims to improve the welfare and livelihood of villagers. They do this by channeling economic benefits of tourism directly to villagers. Unlike commercial tours, they don’t offer an all-inclusive package price. Instead, they let visitors pay villagers directly for their services. For example, host families are paid directly for their homestay, and local products such as hand harvested honey and coffee are promoted on their tours. This ensures villagers benefit directly from tourists.
The vision behind Thailand Hilltribe Holidays, is its founder – Pat Mongkron. A local to Chiang Mai of Shan descent, growing up in the Shan community, he saw how minority groups were marginalised and struggled for a basic quality of life. This gave rise to his strong desire to help the hill tribes, by providing them with sustainable opportunities for growth whilst maintaining their cultural identity.
Through humble beginnings as a tuk tuk driver and his experience working with foreign tourists, he saw how tourism, if channelled correctly could provide a livelihood for hill tribes – a much favoured alternative to helping them through donations. This gave rise to his idea of a responsible village tour and homestay where hill tribes could earn an income directly for hosting guests.
The little details from the heart, are also part of Thailand Hilltribe Holiday’s philosophy. If they have taken pictures of villagers on their tours, they will give a printed and framed picture back to them as a memento. This is often the first ever printed picture the villagers have of themselves.
If you’re interested in taking a trip with Thailand Hilltribe Holidays, they can be contacted at: