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 by Margaretta Wells and Roy Hudson, didn’t mention hill tribe trekking because no one was offering these kind of tours in Chiang Mai.

Tommy’s Tourist Agency was a travel company based in the Railway Hotel in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The brochure of this company featured guided tours to Hmong and Karen villages but not hilltribe trekking. Who was the first person who took tourists on a multipe day trip into the mountains and staying overnight in a hill tribe village? We don’t know.

Trekking information on a wall
Advertisement of Orbit Tribal Treks in Je T'aime guesthouse, 1977. Picture by Don Oppedijk.

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” by Joe Cummings and “Thailand: a Travel Survival Kit” by Tony Wheeler 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 in the footsteps of these travel writers.

In the early days of backpacking in South East Asia, Hill tribe trekking became immensely popular in Chiang Mai within a couple of years, boosted by these guide books. Young travelers didn’t stay in hotels, but in budget “guesthouses,” that offered multiple day trekkings. If you stayed in a guesthouse, the owners more or less expected that you would join a trekking, organized by the guesthouse.

two Lonely Planet guidebooks
Thailand Travel Survival Kit 1984 and the Yellow Bible 1981
Village houses in the fog Chiang Mai Hilltribe trekking
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 basic. We spent two night in a village house of Lisu and Akha people. There was no toilet and now shower. Our toilet was in the forest and we bathed in a stream or at a water pump in the village. Pigs, dogs, chicken and other animals were roaming freely around. Children gathered curiously around the house where we were staying.

There was no bottled water, no soft drinks. We carried the typical green trekking water canteens. Our trekking guide boiled water in the evening so it had cooled down a bit before we started trekking the next day. The water was not cool though and didn’t tasty great. In photographs of the 1970s and 80s, you can still see many villagers, mainly women, dressed in traditional dress. All the houses were of natural materials. There was no concrete, and there were no roof tiles, just dry leaves. It has a very special charm. The trekkings were often the highlight of people’s holiday in Thailand.

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

Bamboo rafting and elephant riding

In the early Hill tribe, trekkings of three days or longer were no exception. With almost nothing else to do than to visit temples or home industries in Chiang Mai, young tourists had a lot of time. Over time, bamboo rafting and elephant riding became standard ingredients of a 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 trekking routes are in the Huay Nam Dang National Park, northwest of Chiang Mai. In 1994, I was the tourleader of Baobab Travel, a Dutch adventure travel company. The four-day/three-nights Huay Nam Dang Trekking was included in the tour. Overnights were in Lisu, Karen, and Akha villages. I remember we rode elephants on the second day and the trip ended with a fantastic bamboo raft adventure on the Taeng River (Mae Taeng). We still offer a two-day, a three-day and a four-day trekking in this beautiful national park.

feeding two elephants at Kantha Elephant Camp Elephant Adventure Chiang Mai Hilltribe trekking
Visitors feeding elephants at Kanta Elephant Sanctuary

Concerns about the trekking Industry

With the explosive growth of the trekking industry, there were growing concerns about the impact of tourism in ethnic minority villages. In academic circles, visits and overnight stays of affluent western tourists in culturally sensitive communities were frowned upon. In the 1980s, many 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, and added to the adventure.

Apart from the use of drugs, authorities became worried about the safety of tourists. North Thailand was a wild area well into the 1980s. Drug trafficking and violent clashes between armed gangs were not unusual. In December 1982 hill tribe people fired at a tourist boat on the Kok River in Chiang Rai province. Two people were injured.

Guides didn’t have licenses and not prepared for emergencies. Later on, authorities started to regulate the trekking industry. Trekking companies had to register tourists with the tourist police before they take trekkers into the mountains. They also introduced special licenses for trekking guides, although that was abandoned quite a few years ago. Every trekking guide has to go to a guide training course and get a guide license.


Five children in village
Hill tribe children in the 1980s

Development of tourism and the demise of Chiang Mai hilltribe trekking “old style”

The growth of tourist arrivals resulted in sweeping changes in Chiang Mai tourism, especially after the year 2000. We saw the first boutique hotels popping up and many new activities for tourist were introduced such as cooking courses, mountain bike tours, zip lines, elephant mahout courses, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, etc.. Trekkings were still popular but most tourists started to go on daytours or two-day trekkings.

Tourist with hilltribe child Chiang Mai Hilltribe trekking
Trekking tourist in 1977 Photo by Don Oppedijk

The end of elephant riding

In the early days until the end of the 1980s, elephant riding probably was not an activity that was integral to trekking, but when I started working as a tour leader in 1990 it was. Our four-day Chiang Rai trekking included an elephant ride from the Kok River to a Red Lahu village. It was an optional activity and every one of my guests took this opportunity. For many tourists, it was an activity on their ‘bucket list’.

About 12 years ago, elephant riding started to come under increased scrutiny from NGOs such as the World Animal Protection

The campaign spread like wildfire to such an extent that more and more travel companies decided to ban elephant riding from their tours. More than 10 years ago, Green Trails decided not to offer elephant rides to our visitors anymore. We love animals and have actually never been in favor of elephant shows, elephant riding and activities with animals in general.

Development of the highlands of Thailand

The attraction of the early day trekking was the authenticity of the villages. Many villages could not be reached by road, only had wooden and bamboo houses, few facilities and many people who wore traditional dress. In the past 30–40 years, many villages have undergone a metamorphosis. There are now basic facilities, many more roads and the highland people’s lives have improved immensely, also thanks to the Royal Project, initiated by his majesty, the late King Bhumibol.

Chiang Mai Trekking Nowadays

Chiang Mai Hill tribe 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 Opium Trail on Doi Suthep. This trail combines a Fantastic trek through the forests of Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park with visits to the Hmong villages of Ban Doi Pui and Ban Mae Sa Mai.

Panorama of a village, forests and fields Doi Suthep Trekking
View on Ban Mae Sa Mai and Ban Mae Sa Noi villages

Our 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 Chiang Mai Hilltribe trekking
Karen village in 1977. Photo by Don Oppedijk

Our 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 National park, 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 Chiang Mai Hilltribe trekking
Huay Nam Dang rafting

Our 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

Trekking with the family

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 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 and very safe. 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, the Chiang Dao Cave Temple, and an ethical elephant experience. Join our multi-generation and multi-activity treks!

Guest trying weaving Palong Chiang Mai Hilltribe trekking
Weaving at a Palong village

We work closely 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
Homestay sleeping

Green Trails Chiang Mai Hilltribe trekking