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As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine August 2008 Issue
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Cultural Travel
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Trekking for the Inexperienced in Northern Thailand

A Tour to Thailand's Remote Hilltribe Region

Setting Sun over the Hilltribe region Thailand.
Setting Sun over the Hilltribe region in Northern Thailand.

From the moment of our arrival in an Akar village in northern Thailand’s Hilltribe area, it becomes exceedingly clear that hospitality is disproportional to wealth.

The Hilltribes of Northern Thailand are comprised of seven major tribes: The Karen, Hmong, Yao, Lahu, Lawa, Liso and the Akah. The descendants of the Hilltribe people migrated to the area from southern China approximately 100 years ago, and their way of life has changed very little despite a recent influx of tourism. The Hilltribe people are proud of their Chinese heritage, but also of their Thai nationality. Consequently in school the children learn in Thai in the morning and Chinese in the afternoon. 

Our tour with Intrepid begins with a night in Chiang Rai to organize trekking equipment and to visit a restaurant and information center called “The Cabbage and Condom.” As expected, an explanation of the bizarre restaurant name is quickly given by the guides. The Population and Community Development Association (known in the area as the PDA) use the restaurant as a not-for-profit venture with the profits from the tourist trade to provide support and information to local communities including the people from surrounding hill tribes.

The Liso and Akah people play host to small tours that trek through the area as part of Intrepid Tours. As inexperienced trekkers, we found that taking a guided tour that included small groups and local guides was the best way to experience the diverse culture of the area.

Hiking uphill for hours at a time, thinking a few more trips to the gym prior to departure would have helped, sleeping on thin mats under mosquito nets, and using squat toilets are some of the physical adjustments that trekking in northern Thailand forces upon a Western tourist. Once you have come to terms with these changes, the rich culture and beauty of the Hilltribe people and their environment becomes more apparent. The laughter of the school children as we taught them the “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and the fresh sticky rice were even more appreciated knowing that we had worked hard to get to the village in the first place.

Steps along the trail in the Hilltribe region
Steps along the trail in the Hilltribe region.

Physically, the trek from the outskirts of Chiang Rai through the jungle to the villages was very demanding at times. Sections of the track were steep and narrow, and some portions were scarcely maintained, but the porters and guides bought the group a confidence that could only be generated from local knowledge. The porters not only lightened the load by helping us with our bags but sang and told jokes to diminish our focus upon the physical trials of the trek itself.

The red soil that clung to our skin and stained out clothes as we trekked were reminiscent of the Australian outback. The pictures of English soccer stars plastered on the host’s walls were catalysts for thought. We spent time, while trekking, thinking about how aspects of Hilltribe life are similar to ours—coming from a consumer-based Western culture. The children racing down the hill—running away from the school—reminded us all of our own school days counting down the hours until the bell signaled the end of the day.

An eighteenth birthday for a typical Australian would traditionally be spent in pubs and clubs or with family, but my brother spent his with the Akar people who were our hosts for the night. Through thoughtful gestures, such as a small boy who bought a packet of his favorite biscuits as a birthday gift to our group when he heard of the birthday, to the porters who carried fireworks up from Chiang Rai to contribute to a birthday celebration, the Akar people became not only our hosts for the night but our friends.

Hilltribe children with brother
The little boy wearing the green hat took a particular liking to my brother. When he found out that it was my brother’s birthday he ran home after school and came back to our huts with a packet of wafer biscuits as a gift.

For our group, the prospect of having no hot or running water at all was daunting. The trek probably would not have been contemplated or even possible without the help of a guided tour. The Intrepid tour company leading us provided local guides who eased our transition to these small, remote villages. We all discovered how narrow our tolerance was for missing the usual Western comforts; taking steps into this tradition and rich new world was a revelation.

For More Information

Intrepid Tours can be organized through most travel agents or via the Intrepid web site: www.intrepidtravel.com.

Cabbage and Condom restaurant (run by the PDA): www.pda.or.th/restaurant.

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