Don Oppedijk Thailand Trekking

Chiang Mai Hilltribe Trekking and Hiking

The development of hilltribe trekking

Chiang Mai Hilltribe trekking has been one of the main activities in Chiang Mai and North Thailand 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 at all. In the brochure of Tommy’s Tourist Agency, 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.

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 the instructions of Tony Wheeler and Joe Cummings, 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.

Trekking information on a wall
Advertisement of Orbit Tribal Treks in Je T’aime guesthouse, 1977.

Chiang Mai Hilltribe Trekking in the early days

When I made my first hilltribe trekking in 1988 as a tourleader 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 natureal. 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.

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 is still very popular is the Huay Nam Dang trekking, which was originally a four-day trek in the Huay Nam Dang National Park. Overnights were in Lisu, Karen and Akha villages.

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 opium cultivation which was illegal. 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.

Forested mountains Chiang Mai Hilltribe trekking
Chiang Dao landscape

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 and so on. 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.

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 favourite 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.

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.

Kiw Fin viewpoint with signs
Kiw Fin viewpoint

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 Chiang Mai Hilltribe trekking
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 the 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 customise any of our standard tours to your requirements.

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

Working with communities

All the trekking area 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 been helping 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.

Two men walking the forest Chiang Mai Hilltribe trekking
Exploring old trails in Chiang Dao