Rarely will we ever again experience such an entirely different way of life.

Hill Tribes Trek

Sticky rice, cooked in bamboo

Top: Sticky rice can be cooked in bamboo, which is then peeled back.

Below: The people of the hill tribes live without modern conveniences such as running water or electricity — but their lives do not lack for color.

Hill tribe family, in a village north of Chiangmai


Related pages:

The Thai language

Making yourself understood

Mai pen rai: a slogan and a philosophy

Gay life and culture

Getting around Thailand

Thai customs

Basic travel facts

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This page describes one of the five dramatically different regions of Thailand visited on Honah Lee, a tour for gay men, lesbians, and friends. At the bottom of this page you can link to more information about this trip.

* * *

From Bangkok, an overnight train carries us to the walled city of Chiangmai in the north. Here we set off for what may well become your most treasured experience in Thailand: a trek to the remote tribal villages hidden amidst the endless hills toward the Burmese border. Soon the jungle envelops us.

Six tribes, with an estimated combined population of about 400,000, have settled in these hills over the last two centuries. Most arrived as refugees from Tibet, China, and Burma. Each of the hill tribes brought its own costumes and customs, its own traditions and history. 

In hundreds of small, semi-nomadic villages, with no electricity or running water, villagers have found their road to simple subsistence living. They all grow rice; all have chickens running loose; they all (we're convinced) own a village rooster that starts crowing well in advance of sunrise.

The Lahu augment their income by selling us colorful embroidered fabrics. The tireless Akha women, adorned in traditional headdresses with silver coins and balls, bring bracelets and necklaces.

Our guide cooks a remarkable 3-course dinner over a single wood fire, with a special treat: sticky rice cooked in a bamboo stalk. He then acts as translator while we and curious villagers ask a few questions of one another before retiring for the night.

Village homes are set on stilts, both to capture the cool mountain air, and to provide shelter for the animals. If you sleep through the rooster, the grunt of a pig below serves as an alarm clock the next morning.

Part of the journey is made by elephant, as emerald-green butterflies zig-zag amongst the trees. It's a welcome day to have the elephant, which slowly but steadily ambles up a muddy slope that we two-legged trekkers would have found difficult going. We conclude on a bamboo raft, navigating river rapids one minute, then enjoying the placid scenery as we reach calmer stretches of the river.

As the trekking ends, we're grateful to have seen a world so different from our own. And we're looking forward to a return to indoor plumbing and electricity at our next stop, Chiangmai.

* * *

The hill tribes of northern Thailand are on a collision course with fate. Many generate income from growing opium, a practice the Thai government is determined to stamp out. Others survive on slash-and-burn agricultural techniques, and will soon run out of suitable terrain. Already, the villages located within an hour or two of Chiangmai and other urban centers have exchanged many tribal traditions for televisions and motor scooters. For better or worse, within a generation, the lifestyles we are seeing will have vanished.

Other stops on this tour of Thailand:

Bangkok | Chiangmai | Rainforest | Phuket

Trip details

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