Hill Tribe Trekking in Northern Thailand

Gorp.com

Nestled in the lush, mountainous terrain of northern Thailand, centuries removed from the frantic urban-mania of Bangkok and the country's crowded coastlines, the Hill Tribes of Thailand offer a glimpse into the country's true cultural origins. The best way to penetrate this distinct culture? Your own two feet. Trek into the northern highlands into the region's dense jungle, crossing streams, rafting down rivers, and dipping into waterfall pools while following your local guide down elusive jungle trails. End each day in a different tribal village, dining on bamboo, banana, peapods, green pumpkin, and rice whiskey. Then relax on the porch of a teak house elevated six feet off the ground. Wake to a rooster's call and watch dawn push the mist off of the forest leaves before strapping on your pack and hitting the trail, ready to do it all over again.

The term hill tribes refers to the twenty or so nomadic ethnic minorities originating from Myanmar, Laos, and southern China who are now scattered throughout the Chiang Mai province. Each has managed to retain their own languages, cuisine, customs, mode of dress, and spiritual beliefs—but keep in mind, increased popularity in hill tribe trekking is starting to transform what was once a unique cultural excursion into a tourist-packed parade, reducing the tribes people to glorified zoo exhibits. To avoid such trappings, seek out more discerning trekking guides, ones with smaller groups, proficiency in the local languages, and intimate knowledge of the hill tribes.

Located 430 miles from Bangkok, Chiang Mai is Thailand's second-largest city and the best starting point for hill tribe trekking. Most treks take three to seven days and explore the area north of the Kok River in the infamous Golden Triangle, as well as south of Kok River, around Chiang Dao, Wiang Papao, the Mae Tong river, and Mae Hong Son. But consider spending some time in Chiang Mai itself before heading to the hills. Though western trapping such as Internet cafes, McDonald's, and Holiday Inns have sprung up, many consider the city much more livable than Bangkok, and with its high-quality accommodations, friendly people, and diversions like Thai massage, Raja yoga centers, vipassana (meditation), Thai cooking, and the many wats (temple-monasteries) in the surrounding wilderness, you'll have no trouble finding something to keep you distracted before lacing up the boots and strapping on the pack.


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