Chiang Mai Hill Tribe Trek: Authentic and Fun Adventure (2023)
Thailand is best known for their beaches but the north is completely different. The northern region is home to many ethnic minority groups, each with its own unique cultures, traditions, and ways of life. Visitors to this region can explore these cultures through various activities such as homestays, trekking, and visiting local markets.
We thought that the best way to immerse ourselves in the local culture while satisfying our need for outdoor activities is through a 3-day, 2-night Chiang Mai hill tribe trek. What we found is that most tours in Chiang Mai are day hikes and we were looking for something a bit more challenging that would take us away from the city for a couple of nights. When doing our research, Chiang Mai Trekking with Piroon came up as the most recommended tour provided in Chiang Mai. They have received Traveler’s Choice from Trip Advisor for multiple years in a row.
Meeting Sunny the Guide
The hill tribe trek we picked covers an area in the northwest of Chiang Mai on the way to Pai in the Mae Hong Son Province, where different hill tribes live. We started early at 8:30 in the morning where a pickup truck with a carry boy—a variety of tuk-tuk in Thailand—picked us up.
When we got to the meeting point within the Chiang Mai Old City, our tour guide—Sunny—officially introduced himself. He had a very sunny disposition that fits his name, and an attitude that seems to express excitement for what he does for a living. We later learned that he is from Baan Mae Jok, a Karen hill tribe village, so the hike for him is a natural extension of his upbringing. Along the way, he narrated how he would wander in the jungle with his grandfather as a kid and how he learned everything he knew about hunting and natural medicine from him.
The journey started after we left our luggage at their headquarters and headed for the local market to get food and other supplies we may need. Another 30 minutes into the trip took us to the Mok Fa waterfall at the Doi Suthep National Park.
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Swimming at the Mok Fa Waterfall
The hike from the parking lot to the waterfalls itself is a short one, and on the way, we saw some local painters with their easels and acrylic paints. Surprisingly enough, no one was swimming when we arrived. Once we got to the water, we knew why. The water was shallow and very cool, but it was nonetheless nice to shower under the Mok Fa’s strong waters.
Lunch followed in a stop along the way to the trail head. You wouldn’t presume right away that it was a restaurant because of the lack of sign outside the establishment, but there are multiple tables and benches. I didn’t have big expectations coming in, but the food was fantastic. We had clear broth soup, mixed vegetables and roasted chicken, and some omelette. Sweet watermelon slices and the famous Thai mangoes were for dessert. While simple, the way each dish was cooked and prepared made it scrumptious. I think I may have eaten twice as much as I planned because of how delicious the food was.
Learning about the locals’ way of life
After another couple minutes of driving, we arrived to the trailhead where we’d begin our hill tribe trek. The hike started in a dense jungle within a couple of yards of walking. Sunny introduced us to the different trees and orchids in the forest. He even tried teaching us how they would imitate the sounds of prey using a certain type of leaf. His grandfather taught him this skill as part of hunting. We were sadly unsuccessful in our sad attempts to make this work, and we attracted no predator (to our relief). Sunny said that there are tigers within the area although with more humans staying within the national park, tigers are now a rare sighting.
Sensing that our group’s level of fitness was above average, Sunny asked us if we want to take the “Survivor” path on the way to our destination. We all agreed of course, so he took us to a muddy path that required a bit of scrambling into rocks and fallen tree trunks. It was not too exhaustive and it was a fun way to spice up the otherwise moderate hike. Sunny said that growing up, he hike for 2.5 km along the same path to get to school, so I can imagine that there would be a lot of single track trails for hiking within the area.
Homestay with the Karen Hill Tribe
Two hours into the hike, we reached the first village where we’d be spending the night, at the home of a family part of the Karen hill tribe. For the size of the family, they have a very large home. Wood was used to elevate the home, and underneath it are motorbikes and Pai wood for fire. A spacious kitchen is on the left of the entrance, and a large sleeping area sits on the right. With the design and layout of the home, you can tell that it was built to be a homestay. They also have a deck to hang out and a dining area with a long bamboo table and bench.
After a short rest, we took a short hike to see the sunset. It gets cold fast from where we were staying and soon enough we found ourselves bundling up in fleeces and jackets. There was a huge fire pit with stones and sand on it, but we were careful to make sure the fire does not touch the wooden edges of the fire pit since the entire house is built with wood, but I’m guessing that they built it with wood that is less flammable.
We helped prepare dinner by making the spring rolls and the banana wrapped in spring roll wrappers, and our host cooked the deep fried goodness as we waited by the dining area.
The spring rolls ended up really good so I had to ask what they had in there. In asian countries, spring rolls are a staple but each country has their own take on it. For the one we had that evening, it was just a simple concoction of Mushroom powder, Maggi sauce, Oyster sauce, Cabbage, Carrot, and Bean sprouts. Aside from the spring rolls and the banana rolls, we also had eggs and mushroom soup. The variety of mushroom in Chiang Mai is very meaty and flavourful, and it was difficult to distinguish the mushroom from meat.
After supper, we quietly sat by the fire to keep ourselves warm. We exchanged stories and jokes with each other as we prepared the bamboo we’ll be using for bamboo sticky rice.
The group we had on the hike come from many countries including Germany, France, Canada, and the United States. It was split between French and English speakers, but language was not a barrier and the night was filled with conversations about our itineraries and how things are back home. In my trips abroad, I found overnight treks to be the best way to make worthwhile friendships because of the common experience we create. I also learn more from them about their home countries and the places they’ve visited. In the process, I learn more about them and I get up-to-date information with the latest affairs outside my home base.
Preparing for the day’s hike
We were told that the sunrise is spectacular, so Riley and I woke up early despite the tiredness to see the sun rise from the east. It was worth missing the extra hour of sleep for this.
We had simple breakfast consisting of eggs, bread, and fruits. The highlight of the morning was the local coffee. The roasted beans were placed in a kettle with water and made to boil until ready. Whenever we want some coffee, it was dripped from thick hemp-like cloth. The beans were picked in the mountains by Karen hill tribe locals, and this made the coffee all the more special.
Day-to-day activities at the Village
After breakfast, we started the trek to a flatter landscape of rice fields and rolling hills. We passed through a Karen Hill tribe village where Sunny grew up. He showed us the things they do on a day to day from harvesting wood to processing the rice grains. For the grains, they use a massive mortar and pestle that helps break the husk and bran from the rice itself then they separate it using rice winnowing basket which are flat and round.
You use it by motioning in a circular pattern such that the lighter husk and bran will accumulate at the other end of the basket.
Three hours in, we arrived in a small hut in front of the rice fields. We had noodles for lunch and some fruits for dessert. It was the perfect time for a siesta so some napped a bit while the rest of us admired the water buffalos that are going through their day-to-day. The rest of the hike was more relaxing as we walk through the hills towards the mountain village of the Lahu people. Sunny found it easy enough that he was able to make bamboo cutlery for all of us as we walk. He also made cups for us as souvenirs.
We eventually sighted the Lahu Hill Tribe village where we’d spend the night just before sunset. It was sitting near the river and there was a steep uphill to get to our homestay. If you know Riley enough, you know by now that he was already itching to jump into the river the moment he saw it. As soon as we put down our bags, he was excited to dunk into the river. He was eager enough to convince me to hike with him to and from the river so he can bathe there.
The village that night was a bit more dirty compared to the one we had last night. It might be just that there’s more people in the village but difference is noticeable. We had supper as usual and slept in the sleeping quarters with mosquito nets over our beds.
Bamboo Rafting down the Mae Tang River
In the last day, there was only one agenda—relaxation. We started the day by floating down the Mae Tang River on our bamboo rafts. I usually am a very restless person but there was never a dull moment in the next three hours of just sitting down. The puppy from our homestay followed us for a full hour from the shore and that provided the entertainment for all of us. But even without the puppy, we would not have been bored because the scenery and ambiance made us all content. We ended the rafting in the Shan village where we had a huge lunch of pad Thai and fruits.
Feeding Elephants at the Sanctuary
We then headed off the elephant sanctuary where we prepared the elephants’ lunch, some delicious banana trunks and leaves. We learned that the elephants we were feeding were pets of one family and they have been passed down through generations. Like dogs, elephants are loyal animals and they only trust their owners. It also helps that they have a really good memory such that they would remember if you do anything to harm them even years after an incident.
After feeding them, we followed the elephants as they bathed in the river. It was an incredible experience seeing them in the wild and being part of their day. We said goodbye as the elephants went back to the jungle for the evening. We were told that they return every morning back to sanctuary to be fed and bathed. After bidding the grey giants goodbye, we left the rainforest and drove back to Chiang Mai.
The north is known for its beautiful mountainous landscapes, with opportunities for hiking and scenic drives. So while Thailand is often associated with its beaches, it’s important not to overlook the rich experiences that the northern region has to offer. After doing the Hill Tribe trek, I can say that the hike is the highlight of my stay in Chiang Mai.
I made good friends while getting to know the local culture—two things that I look forward to in my travels.
If this Hill Tribe Trek is something you’re wanting to do, I highly recommend booking with Chiang Mai Trekking with Piroon for the most informative and ethical hike. Also, be sure to check out my Essential Guide for Visiting Chiang Mai article.