Visiting hill tribes in Thailand to learn about their history, culture and cuisine was something I really wanted to do during our three week Thailand itinerary.
What is a Thai Hill Tribe?
Hill tribe (chao khao) is a modern-day term used in Thailand as a catch-all for the various ethnic groups that have mostly inhabited the mountainous regions of North Thailand, and both sides of the border areas between Thailand and Laos, and Thailand and Burma. In such remote and rugged places, the tribes have traditionally lived as subsistence farmers, some with a migratory history in which they moved when natural resources were depleted or they were forced to do so by conflict with other populations. Today, while some of the younger generation have left their tribal communities to live and work in the cities, others continue to maintain tribal traditions and culture in the modern-day world. Tourism has been an increasing source of income for some of the communities, both by hosting visitors, and selling traditional handicrafts.
Thailand is home to seven main hill tribes, these are the Akha, the Lahu, the Karen (of which one group, the Paduang, is often referred to as long-necks in reference to the distinctive neck rings worn by the women), the Hmong, the Lisu, the Palaung and the Yao. The tribes (and often even sub-groups within them) each have a distinct language, history, culture and traditional dress with significant variations across clans and regions.
A Sustainable Way to Visit Hill Tribes in Thailand
Unfortunately, a lot of the tours I found in my search take tourists to purpose-built tourist villages, many of them populated by hill tribe refugees from Burma (officially known as Myanmar). These villages seem to provide a pastiche of hill tribe tribal culture – a show for gaping tourists; the people in them are expected to wear traditional costume, and to allow tourists to take photographs. They are provided with basic food, a pittance of a wage and permission to sell craft souvenirs. I have read that most of the money (from entrance fees and souvenirs sold) goes to the owners that run the sites, and only a small amount to the community members themselves.
I also got the impression that these hill tribe tourist villages pretend to preserve an ‘authentic experience‘ by denying the reality of mobile phones, wi-fi, mass-produced clothing, modern electrics and plumbing… But culture isn’t stagnant and evolves as humanity implements new ways to improve quality of life. Preserving a tribe’s cultures and traditions should not be mutually exclusive with its people benefiting from modern technology, health and other developments.
Other tours I found require hardcore trekking to reach very remote villages (and I am not entirely convinced that some of these villages get much say in whether or not they wish to welcome tourists).
I wanted to visit a hill tribe in a sustainable way; I wanted to participate in the kind of tourism that is run by and supports the local community, gives the community a way to share their traditions and culture with visitors on their own terms, and gives younger generations a way (and for some, an incentive) to stay in their community and make a decent living – one of our village hosts explained how she had previously moved to a nearby city for work, but was truly delighted that the (recently launched) tourism initiative for her village allowed her to return home and create a viable business there.
In the community we visited, there was preservation and huge pride in the community’s history and culture, alongside adoption of many facets of modern-day life.
Organising a Hill Tribe Visit
Having read many online articles and debates about tourism to Thailand’s hill tribes, and how one might best plan a sustainable ethical visit that respects and supports the communities, I got in touch with Local Alike, a Bangkok-based social enterprise organisation that works with small villages across Thailand. Local Alike help villages to initiate and develop tourism on their own terms, assist with marketing, and also serve as an agency to bring tourists to those villages.
I explained that I was keen to learn about one hill tribe community’s history and culture. I added that I would love to observe small scale agriculture including production of coffee, and that I’d love to learn how to make some of the traditional foods and crafts of that community. As I have some mobility issues, I also needed the village to be readily accessible by road.
I didn’t stipulate which of the various hill tribes I wanted to visit, rather I was keen for Local Alike to suggest a community they felt would be a good fit for my interests and access criteria, and was open to overnight tourism.
They proposed an Akha hill tribe village in the mountains north of Chiang Rai, and organised a 2 day 1 night private trip with guide. As we also needed to transfer between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, they picked us up from one city and dropped us in the other at the end of the tour.
Our Experiences in Baan Pha Mee
The community we visited was Baan (‘village’) Pha Mee, an Akha hill tribe located high in the mountains along Thailand’s border with Burma, just over an hour’s drive from Chiang Rai centre.
We travelled to Doi Pha Mee in a comfortable spacious passenger van, our driver and guide up front and us in the front row behind them.
Our Local Alike guide Krishna (nicknamed Bic) served as our translator, and we were hosted by two lovely ladies of the community, Ms Phakakan Rungpracharat (known as Meow) and Mrs Siriluck Borisutpot (known as Toy). They are both active members of the community’s nascent tourism initiative and accompanied us throughout our visit, enthusiastically telling us about their history, culture, crafts and food.
Once we’d met Meow and Toy we switched to local vehicles better suited to the off-road terrain we navigated to visit some of the community members’ farms and to reach our overnight accommodation.
During our time in Baan Pha Mee, we experienced a traditional welcome ceremony, visited coffee and orange plantations and had a chance to pick some ripe fruit ourselves, and learned about how coffee is grown, picked and processed from freshly plucked berry to roasted bean.
We also observed and participated in tutorials for local handicrafts, took two cookery lessons where we made local dishes, and enjoyed more tribal dishes for lunch and dinner.
We spent the night in a beautiful home-stay high in the mountains, with the most stunning views of the landscape.
The homestay is situated at the village’s original site, still culturally significant to the Pha Mee Akha, not least because it’s still the home to the Akha Swing. Much more than the children’s plaything a swing represents to me, our hosts related its role in their annual Swing festival in late-August or early-September, about 3 months after the village has planted its rice crop. The festival centres on offerings to the spirits for a good harvest, and also brings together the wider Akha community (not just from Baan Pha Mee but other Akha villages in the region) for a celebration culture and community.
Traditional costume is proudly worn; the young women in particular dress in ornate clothing and elaborate jewellery and head dresses which they have made by hand, and which give clear outward notice that that they are single and of marriageable age. This festival has traditionally been the time when Akha women seek prospective husbands, and this is where the swing comes into play; young men take turns in showing off their strength and balance by swinging as hard and high as they can. The better they are, the more desirable they are to Akha women (and yes, of course, there’s more to it than that)!
We also learned about rituals associated with the Akha belief system. The Akha believe in a female creator god who gave life to Earth and the Akha people, and provided the guidelines for life, known as Akha Zang’, (the Akha Way). There is a strong emphasis on respect for people, nature and natural resources, and a belief in the protective guardianship of spirits. We are taken through the Akha village gate, near the swing, and considered to be a representation of the boundary between the world of humans and the world of spirits. Akha life includes many rituals and offerings to the different spirits sharing their world.
As a food lover, one of the highlights of our visit was the opportunity to try the local cuisine and indeed to learn how to make some of the dishes.
For lunch, we visited a local cafe restaurant and were taught how to make Sa-Pee-Tong, a chilli paste served as a dip with Ho-Pa-So (a salad of local vegetables). We were also served Nga-Cha Si-Ma-Chae Tae-Eum (steamed fish with local herbs) and Ho Pa Ja (a vegetable and pork soup).
For dinner, we enjoyed Ho-Chae-Pa-Loo (stir-fried local vegetables), Theu-Kho-Ja (local melon soup), A-bae-Loo (stir-fried peanuts), Kajee-Cho-Jeu-Loo (stir fried ginger and chicken), A-La-Sa-Bien (spicy fried minced pork) and Sa-Chi-Loo-Ko (a spicy pork curry). All served with steamed rice, and enjoyed watching some of the community members demonstrate some traditional local dances for us.
We also learned how to make a pounded rice treat called Kao Pook, much like Japanese mochi. The rice was first crushed coarsely by a foot-operated pounder, before being pounded in a very large mortar and pestle until the rice was finely ground. Water was added and the pounding continued until the mixture was glutinously sticky. Pulled into small balls, rolled and patted in sesame seeds, each piece was wrapped in a leaf and ready to eat.
The History of the Akha of Doi Pha Mee
Meow and Toy were particularly keen to share the community’s recent history, telling us the stories of how the village came to move to its current location, and establish its coffee farms.
Baan Pha Mee is most of the way up a mountain, just half a mile as the crow flies from the border with Burma. Originally, the village was located even higher up the mountain, much closer to the border itself. In that location, the community experienced conflict with other minorities at the border, and struggled to find enough water to irrigate their farms.
The mountain is question is Doi (‘mountain’) Pha Mee, part of the Daen Lao Range straddling Burma’s Eastern Shan State and Thailand’s North Eastern Chiang Rai Province. The village and mountain are not marked on Google Maps (though some of the individual businesses there are), but it’s about 2 miles north of Doi Nang Non, 5 miles north of Doi Tung, as the crow flies. The village is within of the Wiang Phang Kham subdivision of Mae Sai District.
The village’s move to the lower current-day location is thanks entirely to the late King Rama IX, his majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej (who passed away to intense mourning from his subjects in 2016). Having a genuine interest and concern for all the people living within his country, King Bhumibol made many visits to hill tribe communities in the northern provinces. When visiting Baan Pha Mee in 1970, he made the suggestion for the Akha community to relocate to a new site further down the mountainside; a far better location for farming, and crucially, also sufficiently removed from the border to avoid further skirmishes.
At the same time, he encouraged them to move away from the farming of opium by initiating the farming of Robusta coffee instead, providing the training and expertise needed for the community’s farmers to establish their coffee plantations, and learn how to best grow and process these new crops. This also heralded a move away from slash-and-burn farming methods that were contributing to deforestation.
During a subsequent visit to the village to check on progress, the King realised that Robusta was not the best fit for the local climate, and instead encouraged the community to switch to Arabica coffee, which they still grow today. They also started growing other crops such as lychee and citrus fruits, as well as peanuts, macadamia nuts and tea.
The eradication of opium farming and successful establishment of coffee and other crops was greatly assisted by the Doi Tung Development Project, initiated in 1987 by the King’s mother, her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra. She also moved her residence to the region at around this time, living here for the last several years of her life. Princess Srinagarindra was already heavily involved in social welfare and environmental conservation via her Mae Fah Luang Foundation (originally named the Thai Hill Crafts Foundation), and the work of these organisations encompassed environmental and agricultural initiatives (not just coffee but also flowers, fruit and vegetables), the preservation of hill tribe craft skills and assistance in marketing the products to generate income, education and healthcare for those who had scarce or no access previously, and a very successful drug rehabilitation centre that helped many of the Pha Mee community and others in the area overcome the addiction to opium that was rife at that time.
The more details we learned about this history, the more I finally appreciated the depth of reverence and love for their King that the Thai people hold. In his reign of 70 years, the King was devoted to improving the lot of his people, and there is a deep and lasting gratitude on the part of those he helped.
A Three Week Itinerary For Touring Thailand
We visited the Pha Mee Akha community as part of an independent holiday, which we organised and booked ourselves. Check out our comprehensive three week Thailand itinerary, including tips on sightseeing, hotels, food and transport.
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Please leave a comment - I love hearing from you!38 Comments to "Culture, Coffee & King | Visiting a Rural Mountain Hill Tribe in Northern Thailand (The Akha People of Doi Pha Mee)"
Great intro to Thai hill tribes and how to visit sustainably. Thank you 🙂
I lived in Southeast Asia for 6 years and loved it. I visited Thailand many times and never tired of going there. Great post and thanks for bringing back some great memories of my time there!
NIce introduction to Local Alike. Authentic experience!
What an incredible experience and fantastic way to get immersed in the local culture. The Theu-Kho-Ja sounds delicious. I was just in Thailand in March and wish I would have known about Local Alike. I’ll have to check this out the next time I’m in Thailand.
What an amazing experience! I’m glad you were able to get the kind of experience you were hoping for. It reminds me of when we were in Tanzania and I was trying to find an authentic stay with a Maasai village, but all I could find were places that seemed like they were created for tourists and were putting on a show. Luckily I eventually found a homestay which I loved.
Will pin your post for when we make it to Thailand 🙂 Thanks for sharing this very detailed post.
Beautiful photos, and what an amazing culture! Thank you so much for sharing your visit!
I’m really glad that you did your research to find a real village where you can contribute and help sustainability – as a long-tem traveler I know all too well how many fake ‘authentic’ places portray themselves as villages and tribes but in actual fact they are just working to bring in tourists. So many travelers end up falling for it without really looking into it. It seems that you had an unforgettable experience with your home-stay a memory you will carry with you forever
What a wonderful blog you have here….I mean it’s so refreshing to see someone take the time to discuss sustainability, and not just post a few juicy photos of the Hill Tribe members.
Thanks for sharing your journey and inspiring others to (hopefully) have similar thoughts when they book their next trips!
This was a fantastic read. I visited Thailand last year but avoided the infamous hill tribe treks for the reasons you gave… I wish I knew about this company instead! It sounds like you had an incredible experience, immersing yourself in their way of life, even for just a couple of days. I completely agree that this kind of ethical, sustainable tourism is the way forward – benefitting the local people as well as providing tourists with a real view into a different culture. I’m heading back to Thailand early next year so I’m bookmarking this for future reference. Thank you!
This experience sounds really cool, I am so glad you researched and were able to find a sustainable tour to take to visit these villages. The food, coffee and experience sound just marvelous.
Oh yikes! I had no idea about tourist-designed hill villages. That really makes me sad. I’m glad you researched ahead of time so you could avoid those. That food sounds really tasty! I’m curious about that mochi!
Good to know there is still a way to visit the tribes in a more sustainable way. Your visit to Baan Php Mee sounds very interesting. I love the activities you’ve had including the local handicrafts tutorial, cookery lessons and picking of ripe fruits. Such a great way to understand the tribe and their daily living. Very curious about their traditional welcome ceremony too.
I love your writing and composition. When we visited Chiang Mai, we had similar questions about ethical hill tribe tourism. It seems like a catch 22, either the villagers are “forced” live in primitive ways or the village is sham. In fact, both fail conditions might be true. I am saving this post for our next visit to Thailand. It would be so wonderful to visit tribes and see them on their terms.
Really interesting post. Good on you for thoroughly researching it and finding a sustainable way to visit the hill tribes. Sometimes it’s all too easy to just follow the tourist crowds. The food sounds absolutely delicious! I love Thai food. The setting also looks absolutely stunning.
What a wonderful people, and incredible tour this was. I think it’s great that you found a tour that’s more authentic, and sustainable too. I remember seeing the Karen tribe many years ago, and feeling too that it was more for the tourists, than to actually integrate in their community. I’ll definitely be sharing this post, such an interesting read.
Interesting read. I have heard of this tribe before and seen them on British television (some doc on them) but for me, I would love to check out the nature and scenery in that area. It looks amazing and as a hiker, I could walk for miles. Hopefully I will get to this part of Thailand one day and say hello to the tribe. 🙂 Love the way you wrote this post, very creative and looks like you have done your research. I learnt more about them reading this post than watching that TV programme years ago.
This is one thing I would like to do in my travels. Living with the locals for a day or two (or even longer) – learning about their culture and how they live. Also, direct interaction with them in varied activities in their own habitat makes for such a wonderful experience. I have heard of the Karens but not aware that there are other tribes in Thailand.
Villages that create sustainability is something I would love to visit. I am glad that you found this and that you were able to experience it. I love living wiht locals. I feel you take so much more home. I would definitely do an activity like this.
I have never heard of Hill Tribe so this was a very informative read. It’s interesting that some of them are made up for tourists and not a real hill tribe.
So interesting. I love that the king thought enough of the people to help them get away from growing opium. It seems that the royal family has helped the hill people a lot. It’s very beautiful there. It’s great that you could see authentic people and not the ones for tourists. We had that experience with the Zuni tribe in New Mexico when I was a kid. My mom worked with members of the tribe and we were able to visit often and learn the real life of them and not the life on the side of the road.
Absolutely Fantastic, thanks so much for sharing. Visiting there in Nov. now I know how to make my finale around Chiang Rai! Excellent research & coverage!
This seems like a really interesting experience. I’m glad that you were able to find a way to visit the hill tribe in a sustainable way. Local Alike seems like a really interesting company. And it’s great that you got a little cooking lesson too!
Visiting hill tribes in Thailand to learn about their history, culture and cuisine sounds like it was an amazing experience. I would love to do this and definitely want to add it to my list of places to see next time I am in Thailand. I like that you learnt about rituals associated with the Akha belief system
That is a very nice experience. You seem to be so happy. We too would love to visit Aka Hill tribe in Thailand. Women head gear looks quite heavy. Those fresh fruits are mouth watering. Living in those views will be awesome.
This sounds amazing! I am so glad you took the time and effort to research your trip properly and find a way to visit the villages in a sustainable way which also benefits the people there, far too often these ‘cultural’ experiences become more of a show for the tourists which is such a shame.
Coming from Africa, I so get how you want to avoid the so-called tribal villages where the locals are exploited to put up an unnatural show for tourists. I’m always inspired by sustainable cultural tourism like what you experienced in Baan Pha Mee. I love how hands-on it was. And that home-stay looks amazing. I can’t believe it’s so close to the border with Burma.
This is a super interesting post and I was enthralled with it. First, I commend you on really making an effort to find responsible and authentic experiences. Your time with the Akha people was so eye-opening! Thanks for the tip about Local Alike – looks like they work with legit and interesting social enterprises and they are really doing some good in Thailand!
I really enjoyed your commentary as it is probably the closest I will ever get to experiencing a visit to a Hill Tribe Community in Thailand. But I am so grateful you chose an option that did not exploit the people or their community, but instead gave them the opportunity to share with you and teach you as well. What a perfect cultural experience!
I am always saddened to hear when a people group is taken advantage of. I like how you sought after a sustainable and ethical way to visit with the Akha people. My mouth was watering over the food…I love, love, love Thai food! And Mochi too, so I would love the Kao Pook I think!!
I want to visit Thailand to experience their unique food culture, health and wellness culture, to explore many beaches, and also to learn the local Thai cultures. Plus I wish to learn their way of farming. It is interesting how they can plan and cultivate these awesome goods they have.
Wow! I am going to Thailand this week. Currently in SG. Going to KL then Bangkok but if only I read this blog before I could’ve adjusted. We will only spend 3 days there and we will spend it exploring BKK. But I wish we could visit a place like this. Meeting locals, natives, and really learning and absorbing culture!
Wow the experience looks fantastic and I am happy that you found an ethical company that does the tour in a sustainable way, it is hard to find authentic tours for anything, especially in Thailand because of the extreme tourism that they have there. I love the idea of visiting coffee and orange plantations, picking ripe fruit, and learning about how coffee is grown, picked and processed.
This is so unique! When I’m in Thailand I really want to do this. I love learning about different cultures and ethnic groups, so this is right up my alley.
Great photographs. I love the idea of the home stay in a village like this. It looks like you got a good local experience.
This is both fascinating and inspirational. Fascinating in that you managed to unveil a hidden part of Thai ethnic culture. Inspirational in the way you went about it. I first learnt about the local tribes in this part of the world in the Ethnology Museum in Hanoi, and I told myself I would love to visit some of them and learn about their cultures and customs. But this post has enlightened me about a way to do this sustainably. Thanks for posting, this is now in my bookmarks.
Quite inspirational .Thanks for the awesome write up . It is great to see the focus on sustainability. I will save it for my Thailand trip 🙂
I hope to visit Chang Rai before long & a would love do a hill tribe trek. Your sustainable trek sounds amazing!
It was a wonderful experience. We didn’t do any trekking as I can’t manage that but we explored and chatted and learned and had a wonderful visit.