The Hills Are Alive — Hill Trekking in Northern Thailand

Posted by - August 15, 2011 | Category: Asia, Escapes, Thailand

Northern Thailand Hill in the fog and rain

After renting a scooter in Pai, we wanted to get off the road by, well, getting off the road.  Well off the road.  So a hill trek in northern Thailand seemed to fit the bill. 

We had heard about a 2-day, 1-night excursion with consistently good reviews organized through a trekking company called Back Trax. We went to speak to them, and they offered a couple of custom options where we would visit Lahu, Lisu, and Karen tribe villages, but after I saw this sign in their office, I was sold.

Hill Tribe Donations Sign, Pai, Thailand

The part I was most looking forward to was not the trek itself, but staying with the hill tribe.  Mostly, just to see exactly what they did at night.  Would they complain about their day in the field like we complain about the day at the office?  Do the kids put up a stink when asked to do their homework?  Would Dad fall asleep on the couch watching reruns of Bonanza?   And since home rentals in tribe villages are not something you’re likely to see on Airbnb any time soon, I figured this was as good a way as any to get some answers.

We drove for about 30 minutes outside of Pai, just past the Kiew-Lom View Point, and started our hike through the bamboo forest…in the rain. 

Hill Forest, Hill Trek, Northen Thailand

Forest Trek, Thailand

Along the way, our guide Manit showed us the finer points of bamboozling – the art of cutting bamboo.  He explained the uses for various types of bamboo — some are good for catching rainwater, or used as bowls, while some are used for building or as walking sticks.  Some are even edible.

Thai Hill Trek Guide Carving Bamboo

If I had one complaint about the trek, it was the lack of wildlife along the way.  Maybe it was the rain, or maybe they were just in hiding that day, but we saw only a few spiders, some fuzzy caterpillars, and these beetles engaged in some jungle love.

Beetles, Northen Thailand

One other creature we did encounter is one we could have done without – leeches.  Our guide and the two other Canadians all had several run-ins with these bloodsuckers.  As the only person wearing shorts, I felt lucky not to end up a leech’s lunch.

There was also a small waterfall…

Waterfalls, Hill Trek, Northern Thailand

…and a cave where it was nice to get a break from the rain.

Cave, Northen Thailand

After 7 hours of wet trekking, we were happy to see the home where we would spend the night.  Manit explained that as part of an initiative by the Thai government a couple of years back, most of the hill tribe homes now had solar power.  Pretty forward thinking Thailand.

Hill Tribe House, Hill trek, Northern Thailand

My feet and hiking boots were soaked…

Wet Feet, Hill trek, Northern Thailand

Wet Boots, Hill trek, Northern Thailand

…so I had to wash off in the palatial bathroom that greeted us.

Outhouse, Hill Tribe, Northern Thailand

Thailand Toilet

It seems in this family at least, Dad did most of the cooking.

Hill Tribe Preparing a Meal, Hill Trek, Northern Thailand

Preparing a Meal,  Hill Tribe, Northern Thailand

Meal Time, Hill Trek, Northern Thailand

Bamboo soup made from bamboo our guide had cut earlier in the day.

Bamboo Soup, Hill Trek, Northern Thailand

Hill Tribe Eating Supper, Hill Trek, Northern Thailand

Grandma with baby, Hill Tribe, Hill Trek, Northern Thailand

After supper we took a walk around the village, but a combination of mud and fading light sent us back.

Hill Tribe Village at Dusk, Hill Trek, Northern Thailand

Hill Tribe Village, Hill Trek, Northern Thailand

Our sleeping quarters for the night were simple, but they did the job.  We had no trouble sleeping after the hike.

Sleeping Quarters, Hill Trek, Northern Thailand

The next day, we bid adieu to the family and hiked to a couple of more villages. These kids entertained us at one town – the kid on the right had all the makings of a mini-dictator.

Northern Thailand Hill Tribe Children

Northern Thailand Hill Tribe Home

Our final stop for the day was a school, and even though I had been looking forward to spending the night with the hill tribe family, this was the highlight of the trek for me.

Hill Tribe School 2, Hill Trek, Northern Thailand

The kids were nervous at first, but after a few minutes, they were all smiles and only wanted to play.

Hill Tribe Children 6, Hill Trek, Northern Thailand

Our guide said that normally, we could teach them a little bit of English, but since it was their lunch hour, learning was the furthest thing from their mind.

Hill Tribe Children 3, Hill Trek, Northern Thailand

Hill Tribe Children 5, Hill Trek, Northern Thailand

Hill Trbe Children 1, Hill Trek, Northern Thailand

Hill Tribe Children 8, Hill Trek, Northern Thailand

 If You Go:

  • Take good hiking boots. The trail (where there is a trail) is mud-filled, hilly, and slippery.  Expect to fall at least a couple of times.
  • Take flip flops so you can get out of your soggy boots at the end the day.
  • Bring insect repellent.
  • Check often for leeches.  You can’t feel them, so check your legs every 10 or 15 minutes.
  • Take lots of water. There is a store in the village you will stay in, but you need plenty to make it through the day.
  • Bring a flashlight.  The cave is pitch black in places.
  • Bring a gift for your host family.  Pens, notebooks, candles are much appreciated.
  • Don’t forget to tip your guide.

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57 comments - add one
  1. Sounds like a wonderful (if not entirely comfortable!) experience. A trek to visit the hill tribes is one thing I didn’t manage to squeeze into my first trip to Thailand earlier this year – darn, I guess I’ll have to go back! 😉

  2. I’ll be in Northern Thailand in just under two weeks, and even though your feet look um, okay…I’ll definitely be packing a pair of flip-flops!

    Thanks for the trekking company recommendo as well!

    1. You are most welcome! Juat took a boo at your blog — OMG you are NUTS! Love it!! Following you on Twitter, and I’m not better than you, so will be stalking on Facebook as well… 🙂

  3. I love to read posts like this about things I would never in a million years consider doing. It’s so interesting to read about, in the comfort of my own home with warm, dry feet!! (and no leaches)

  4. Bamboo soup…I got hives just thinking about it. I agree the fact that they not only set aside a portion of the tour fee for the citizens but has an outreach that encourages the tourists to donate is a definite winner in my book.

    1. The soup did kinda taste like boiled dirt, but I went into it with an open mind. I had read before to look for a company that actually gives some money back to the tribes — apparently some just waltz on through and don’t leave a penny.

  5. You’re so brave for taking off on a trek like this in such rain! Those kids are so cute. The second to the last one in the yellow is sassy!

  6. This trek sounds amazing. The only trek I have done was in Rwanda to see gorillas. I don’t know if I could ever do it again, either. I have this thing about hills … yeah … lame. And leeches. Ever since I saw “Stand by Me.” I’m headed that way in two weeks, so this got me all excited to go!!

  7. Whew! I thought you were going to say “…with the Sound of Music” (gag!)

    But seriously. The trek looks divine. Brings back dim memories of my own visit with the hill tribes in Thailand (back in Neanderthal times.)

    Indeed, the top priority when I hit the tarmac in Hanoi come November One – is to take the train to Lao Chai to likewise do a homestay/trek with the hill tribes in NW Vietnam.

    Hmmm… seems to me you should have fully exhausted Thailand by then – shall I meet you at the train station? 😉

    P.S. Oh, and those (pasty white) FEET? Uh, did you HAVE to ruin my breakfast?

    1. The only down side (other than the leeches and the mud) was that they were all in bed by 9:00 PM — there’s nothing to do there at night, and they get up crazy early…

  8. Awesome to see you went with a company that gives back to the hilltribes. Unfortunately that’s not always the case in the north. Sounds like fun!

  9. mini dictator. what an outfit!
    sounds like an incredible experience! just hanging out can definitely be the best part of any trip. and great to get some reward at the end of a tough hike. what its all about!

  10. Great article Raymond! That bamboo soup and enjoying a home cooked meal with that family must have been a great experience. Awesome photos and I really like that mini-dictator!

  11. What a great experience to stay with the family in the village. I would enjoy that. I would not however enjoy the spiders and yech to the leeches. Glad you were free of those. Those kids are adorable.

  12. What an amazing experience! The trek sounds awesome and meeting the family sounds even better. I’ve done treks in the rain before where (before I owned Gore-Tex boots) your feet are just so wet and icky…sounds like it was worth it though!


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