The Hill tribes of northern Thailand

Chiang Mai Travel Blog

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No hope, I was up all night, severely sick. Had to call the doctor in the end, she dosed me up and told me to stay in bed for a day. Felt okay when I woke up though, so I talked Jodie into still going on the trek.


Our trek was to see the hill tribes of northern Thailand. Each tribe has their own language, customs, dress and used to have their own releigion. The major tribes are the Akha, Lahu, Lisu, Mien, Hmong and the Karen.


The Akha are originally from Tibet, and are the poorest tribe.

The Lahu were also originally from Tibet, and are divided into five groups – red, black, white, yellow and Sheleh. The Lisu are from Tibet and are unique with a multi-tribe rulership. The Mien are from central China, while the Hmong are from South China. The largest group is the Karen, who are from Myanmar and are divided into Shaw, Pwo, Pa-O and Kayah groups. All the groups except the Karen have traditional opium use, but this has now been outlawed (successfully our guide tells us) by the Thai government, although since the north is all National Park, some hill tribe members take the five day trek into Myanmar (Burma) to use it (the tribal groups are actually spread over northern Thailand, southern China, Myanmar, Laos, Yunnan and Vietnam. The hill tribes all used to practise shifting slash and burn agriculture, but in Thailand this has been banned as they live in a National Park, and they have been forced to build permanent villages with schools and so forth, where they grow pigs, water buffalo, chickens, dogs (a delicacy to the Akha) and mountain rice.


Our guide for the trip were Cimi and his brother-in-law Te. They were both of the Shaw Karen hill tribe. The other people on the trek were a German family (Matthias, Brigit, Vera and Karen) and an Australian (Lisa). Three Italian boys were meant to come with us, but after some problems with them bringing prostitutes back to their rooms, thankfully they did not.


First we had an hours drive to Mae Malai (a village north of Chiang Mai) were Cimi and Te picked up our food for the next few days, then another hours drive to Huai Nam Dang National Park, where we stopped at a waterfall for lunch. We had a half hour climb up slippery slopes in the humid heat to reach a waterfall, which, while quite nice, just wasn’t worth it. Probably the reason was just to give Cimi and Te time to cook lunch. While there three Swedish boys that were running late joined the group, so for the next car ride Te had to ride on the roof.


Another half hour drive and we reached the end of the road at the hot springs. These geothermal springs were at 100° with metre high water plumes and massive amounts of steam being generated. They are hot enough to boil an egg in five minutes and cook vegetables (but not meat, Cimi tells us). Strangely though a herd of cows were grazing by the springs edge – I guess it wasn’t hot and steamy enough for them. From here we walked for an hour and a half to a Shaw Karen village called Pong Noi. The track was uphill for most of the way (until we descended into the valley where Pong Noi was), and it was terribly hot and sweaty, but at least it was not as slippery as the trek to the waterfall was.


We spent the night in the village in their guesthouse (they have tourists every night, but besides from building the guesthouse and wearing some modern clothes they have kept their traditional ways). The Karen used to practise Animalism and believe in ghosts, but 20 years before missionaries had converted them all to Catholicism. They kept pigs and buffalo to eat (especially raw meat heavily spiced) and grew mountain rice, and also hunted (which explained the lack of wildlife we saw in this ‘National Park’). Cimi told us about the time Te went hunting with dogs and another tribal man. The dogs found something, and barked at the base of the tree. The first man came along and saw a small iguana, so he climbed up after it, and as it climbed he went further up. Te came along, saw the barking dog and looked up. He saw a monkey shape and the red of a baboon’s bum (the guy’s pocket bag) and of course shot the monkey. After being airlifted to the hospital the other guy eventually survived. The Karen always shoot monkeys as they eat crops (they only shoot gibbons for food, as they leave the crops alone), but since monkeys are so clever, they avoid the hunters. Since the hunters are always men, they don’t flee from women, so when monkeys become a particular nuisance the hunters dress up as women (become ‘lady-boys’ as Cimi told us) to go and shoot monkeys. Cimi told us all this as we had tea by candle light. He also pointed out an ex-girlfriend of his which he nearly married (unlike some of the other tribes, the Karen are not promiscuous and only have post-marital sex). He said she is only a ‘black-and-white TV’ now, but when he was going out with her she was a ‘colour TV with remote control’. He was particularly fond of this metaphor (and also ‘old buffalo eats young grass’). He also told us that the Karen used to believe that getting tattoos made a man invincible to knives and guns, but a few incidents like Te’s has stopped that. We spent the night in the group dorm on the hard bamboo floor under mosquito nets.

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Chiang Mai
photo by: Stevie_Wes