Chiang Mai Hilltribe Trekking and Hiking

Table of Contents

The development of hilltribe trekking

Chiang Mai Hilltribe trekking has been one of Chiang Mai and North Thailand’s main activities for tourists since the 1970s. A visit to North Thailand was not complete without trekking. The early guidebooks from the 1960s, such as the ones by Margaretta Wells and Roy Hudson, didn’t mention hill tribe trekking. In Tommy’s Tourist Agency’s brochure, a travel agent based in the Railway Hotel, from the late 1960s, visits to Hmong and Karen villages are featured but not hilltribe trekking. We don’t know who the inventor of hill tribe trekking was. Who was the first guide who took tourists trekking and staying overnight in a tribal village? Who knows. Hill tribe trekking is not always jungle trekking. If you really want to explore the jungles of North Thailand, please have a look here.

Trekking information on a wall

Southeast Asia on a Shoestring

The 1970s saw the beginning of backpack tourism to Southeast Asia. The Lonely Planet guidebooks “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” and “Thailand: a Travel Survival Kit” were instrumental in the explosive growth of backpack tourism to Thailand. The former was nicknamed the “yellow bible.” Almost every backpacker carried one of these books and followed Tony Wheeler and Joe Cummings’s instructions, the respective writers. Hill tribe trekking became immensely popular in Chiang Mai. Most guesthouses had their indoor guides. Trekking was a must for backpackers visiting Chiang Mai.

 

Village houses in the fog
Hill tribe house in the 80s. Photo by Willem Niemeijer

Chiang Mai Hilltribe Trekking in the early days

When I made my first hilltribe trekking in 1988 as a tour leader for Sawadee Reizen, it was still very primitive. We stayed in a tribal house. There was no toilet. You had to go into the forest. It was all-natural. The pigs took care of what you left behind. Villagers didn’t sell anything, no bottled water, no coke, no beer, nothing. There was no safe drinking water. We carried the typical green trekking water containers. Our trekking guide boiled water in the evening so that we didn’t have to drink warm water during the day. Upon arrival in the village, all the children came to the house to stare at these strange visitors. In photographs of the 1970s and 80s, you can still see villagers, mainly women, dressed in traditional dress. All the houses were of natural materials. There was no concrete, and there were no roof tiles.

Two girls in traditional dress
Akha girls in 1981. Photo by Don Oppedijk

Bamboo rafting and elephant riding

Hill tribe trekkings for three days or even longer were no exception. With almost nothing else to do than to visit temples in Chiang Mai, tourists went on multiple-day treks. Backpackers usually had plenty of time, of course. Over time bamboo rafting and elephant riding became ingredients of a standard Chiang Mai trekking. As far as I know, that happened in the early 1990s. Trekking itineraries were adjusted to include these activities. Elephant camps popped up in popular trekking areas. Along rivers such as the Mae Taeng, Mae Ping, Mae Wang, Mae Chaem, and the Pai river, bamboo raft camps were established. Trekking became an industry in itself. One of the early-day classic trekkings that are still very popular is the Huay Nam Dang trekking, originally a four-day trek in the Huay Nam Dang National Park. Overnights were in Lisu, Karen, and Akha villages.

feeding two elephants at Kantha Elephant Camp Elephant Adventure
Kantha feeding two elephants

Concerns about the trekking Industry

With the explosive growth of the trekking industry, there were growing concerns. In academic circles, visits and overnight stays of affluent western tourists in culturally sensitive communities were frowned upon. People started to wonder about the impact of treks. Most of the hill tribes were still involved in illegal opium cultivation. The availability of opium was one of the attractions of hill tribe trekking in the early days. Apart from the use of drugs, authorities became worried about the safety of tourists. Guides were not licensed and ill-prepared for emergencies. Authorities implemented a guide licensing system and obliged guides to register trekkers with the tourist police.

Five children in village
Hill tribe children in the 1980s

Development of Chiang Mai Tourism

The growth of tourist arrivals resulted in sweeping changes in Chiang Mai tourism after the year 2000. We saw the first boutique hotels popping up. The number of different activities for tourists multiplied: cooking courses, mountain bike tours, ziplines, elephant mahout courses, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, etc. Tourists still went trekking but the number of days spent on trekking decreased gradually. Animal activists started to target elephant riding calling it an animal-unfriendly activity. Over the years, trekking has changed as well. Villages now have purposely constructed bamboo houses for visitors to stay overnight. There are often western-style toilets, and villagers sell drinks and bottled water. Children are not surprised anymore to see tourists. Few villagers still wear traditional dress.

Tourist with hilltribe child
Trekking tourist in 1977 Photo by Don Oppedijk

Chiang Mai Trekking Nowadays

Trekking is now one of the many activities you can do in Chiang Mai. Most visitors still want to visit tribal villages but will do that on a one-day trekking or two-day trekking with an overnight. We offer a variety of one-day trekkings. One of our favorite one-day treks is the Doi Suthep Trekking which combines a great trek through Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park with visits to the Hmong villages Baan Doi Pui and Baan Mae Sa Mai.

Panorama of a village, forests and fields
Ban Mae Sa Mai village

One day Treks

Doi Inthanon National Park is one of our most popular destinations. We offer two-day tours, one for the rainy season and one for the dry season. These are more easy hiking than trekking programs. If you are more interested in village life, tribal culture, and hiking, our one-day Chiang Dao tour is the best choice. For those who are into “forest bathing,” the trip to Chaesorn National Park is ideal. During our trek, you will most likely not meet any other living soul. In Chaesorn national park, there are no hill tribes.
Wooden house
Karen village in 1977. Photo by Don Oppedijk

Two-day treks

One-day treks involve relatively a lot of driving. The trekking areas are not far from Chiang Mai, but you will still spend at least two hours in a vehicle on the day. Therefore we warmly recommend everyone to spend overnight in the village. It will make the whole experience so much better. The two-day version of the Opium Trail trek is the two-day trek Meet the Hmong people of Doi Suthep. Although most visitors opt for a day tour to Doi Inthanon, we think that this magnificent national park is worth a two-day trip with an overnight. Very popular are our two-day Doi Inthanon trekking and the Meet the Karen trip, which is a small group tour. For tribal diversity and light to medium trekking, the Chiang Dao overnight program is a good choice. The classic two days Huay Nam Dang Trek has the best bamboo rafting and takes place in Huay Nam Dang National Park.

Families on rafts on the Mae Taeng River
Huay Nam Dang rafting

Three-day Treks

For those with more time or maybe more interest in experiencing the tribal way of life, we offer several three-day treks such as trekking and rafting in Huay Nam Dang National Park trip and the three-day Doi Inthanon trekking. For tribal culture and daily life, the three-day trek to Chiang Dao is the best option. We have longer trekking itineraries on the shelf. We can also customize any of our standard tours to your requirements.

parents and children shopping in a village
Family trekking

Family Treks

We have done hundreds of family trekkings over the years. Another term we use for these tours is multi-generation trekkings or multi-generation tours. Our guides love working with kids and are just very good at it. The Chiang Dao area is most suitable for family treks. There are lots of villages and also lots of different trails to choose from. We can be very flexible.

All our family programs are private so that we can adjust the trekking to the children’s ability. The trekking should be a bit challenging but, above all, fun. Most of our family programs are multiple activity tours to make sure the kids don’t get bored. The most popular trip with elephants and the famous sticky waterfalls and the trip is combining whitewater rafting, Chiang Dao Cave, and an ethical elephant experience. Join our multi-generation and multi-activity treks!

Guest trying weaving Palong
Weaving at a Palong village

Working with communities

All the trekking areas where we organize trips we know like the back of our hand. We have been working with the host communities and homestay owners for many years. We carefully monitor our impact and discuss feedback of guests with the local people. Green Trails has helped some of the homestay owners in the Chiang Dao area with renovating their homestays. We will keep on doing that. We are paying villagers to maintain some of the forest trails that have not been used for some time. Chiang Mai hilltribe trekking has a bright future.

Mosquitonets and mattresses at homestay
Karen homestay