Travelling with a Heart to the Hill Tribe Villages of Northern Thailand

  • Mika Santos
  • 1 December 2010

Every year, eager travellers set off to experience the legendary Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, for contrary to its notoriety, the region is not one in which visitors run any great risks. A journey along this leg of the famous ‘Indochina Loop’ is virtually guaranteed to provide a good balance between adventure, cultural awakening, natural beauty and just plain good fun.

One major destination in the Golden Triangle is the historic city of Chiang Mai, Thailand. The second-largest city in the country, it is a vibrant gateway to the spectacular northern region. Sitting comfortably at 316 metres above sea level, it is also a vital hub at the heart of a mountainous territory perfect for anyone seeking a cooler climate and opportunities to experience the rich and diverse cultures of the many ethnic minorities who reside in these hills.

Bamboo rafting in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Bamboo rafts along the river are one of the many modes of transport offered on tours around Chiang Mai, Thailand

Hilltribe Holidays

As the number of visitors to the Chiang Mai region grows, though, the availability of responsible and sustainable travel options – those looking out for the welfare of local cultures and environments – is a growing concern. Fortunately, there is a broad selection of hotels and a number of tours in Chiang Mai available to conscientious travellers who really want to travel locally.

One such outfit, Thailand Hilltribe Holidays, was established in 2007 by partners Pat and Mel to meet the needs of mindful visitors keen to step into the lives of the tribes that have resided in the area since 300 AD… and to do so in a way that both is an enriching experience for the visitor and makes a beneficial contribution to the local communities.

Pat and Mel, cofounders of Thailand Hilltribe Holidays

Pat and Mel (centre), the cofounders of Thailand Hilltribe Holidays, pose with a couple of volunteers

The Thailand Hilltribe Holidays tour along the Mae Song Hon Loop, for example, is a five-day four-night journey that hits the highest point in Thailand and takes in the remote villages of the Lawa and Karen hill tribes. Other highlights include the ancient pagodas and sacred sites of Vispasana and Theravada Buddhism, home-cooked Thai meals, several waterfalls and breathtaking views of the region.

Alternatively, those with less time can indulge in a two-day Hilltribe Villages tour, during which travellers live with a hill tribe and visit the amazing sites that form part of the culture.

For travellers passing through the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai, perhaps en route to Laos, the real Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai tour covers the distance by 4WD, elephant, bamboo raft and ox-driven cart. In the span of only three days, journeyers make their way through scenic mountains, pause at an opium museum and learn about local culture during visits to the towns bordering Myanmar and at an Akha hill tribe community-based tourism project.

Chiang Mai sunset

Beautiful sunsets like this are part of the daily routine in the mountain hills around Chiang Mai, Thailand

Sustainable Adventures

Just as important as the tours offered by Thailand Hilltribe Holidays is their proven commitment to giving back to the local communities. Care is taken to ensure that every trip makes a positive impact on the places they visit – purchasing locally made products and educating travellers about proper cultural and environmental practices – and several programs are now in place to support the tribes’ own sustainable tourism initiatives, all of which are important additional sources of income for the locals, the poorest of which have particularly enjoyed a marked increase in living standards as a direct result.

Through Hilltribe Homestays, for example, many village families now welcome visitors to stay with them. Their guests become truly immersed in their everyday lives as part of a cultural exchange that is immensely rewarding to both visitors and hosts. Pat and Mel of Thailand Hilltribe Holidays have also organised a Local Youth Tour Guide program through which young aspiring tour guides accompany experienced leaders and learn the values of responsible tourism.

Chaing Mai Volunteer English Teaching

A volunteer English teacher in northern Thailand has a great time at a local school with his eager students

On top of these worthwhile undertakings, Thailand Hilltribe Holidays can organise volunteer opportunities for travellers who wish to work as English teachers in local schools. The children benefit immensely from their exposure to other cultures and a chance to practice their English. Through the growing network of former volunteers and tour guests, the company has even raised funds for rural kids to continue their education.

When asked why they do all this, Mel simply says: “Because we have both experienced how tourism can negatively impact locals and communities. As tourism brings with it tourism dollars, the traditional values of once-peaceful communities started to erode. In particular Pat has seen these negative impacts on northern Thailand, his homeland, and this inspired him to try and change this. We saw how tourism, if managed responsibly, could be channelled in such a way that it would positively and directly help local communities. We are proud of northern Thailand and its beauty and aim to share with travellers this warm and friendly way of life.”

Visit the Thailand Hilltribe Holidays website for more information about their tours and sustainable travel programs in and around Chiang Mai.

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Mika Santos

Mika Santos is Regional Content Editor and Programme Development Manager for the WHL Group in the Asia-Pacific region. Born and raised in the tropical Philippine Islands, she loves the outdoors and anything to do with the ocean, from surfing and scuba diving to the laid-back lifestyle around it. She also lives to travel in her own country, around Southeast Asia and the rest of the world. She shares her love for the Philippines through photos here.
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adventure travel, Asia, children, ecotours, local knowledge, outdoors, South-Eastern Asia, Thailand, voluntourism, waterfalls, whl.travel,

2 Responses to “Travelling with a Heart to the Hill Tribe Villages of Northern Thailand”

  1. Laurene says:

    Admiring the time and energy you put into your
    blog and detailed information you present. It’s good to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same outdated rehashed material.
    Excellent read! I’ve saved your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.

  2. Teamworkz says:

    Sounds like a great adventure

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