Trekking with the hill tribes

Trekking with the Thai hill tribes


By Michael Woods

I lay on the bamboo bed and looked upwards, past the ragged edge of the thatch, to the ridge high above where the trees on the fringes of the forest held out rigid limbs to create an elegant black tracery against the moon brightened sky. Then a distant rumble of thunder rolled indolently around the mountains and sluggish black clouds slowly began to stack about the peaks. Sheet lightning flashed with increasing frequency but without menace. Only twice did forked lightning hurl its searing thunderbolts earthwards to be followed by explosive roars of thunder which shook the bamboo house on its stilts. Soft rain fell in half hearted fashion but the season was not yet fully prepared and, after dampening the dust, the shower came to a fitful end, the clouds melted away and the half moon re-appeared.

My bed, or rather my camping mat and rectangle of floor, was in Pakluay village, the home of members of the Lahu hill tribe in the rainforested hills of northern Thailand, an area so different from the rest of the country that it felt like a secret kingdom. The last place we drove through before entering Chiang Dao National Park had an atmosphere close to that of an English dormitory village with detached bungalows set in gardens with high hedges, flowering shrubs and car filled drives. As soon as we went into the park, though, everything changed.

Steep concrete roads taken at a first gear chug by our jeep led to winding tracks cut into the hillside and overhung by soaring trees festooned with dense green vegetation. High on a ridge we stopped to look out over the forest canopy, the rounded tree tops in the valleys looking like a crop of giant green broccoli. A little further on, the track forked and a narrow trail led away to the right. The vehicle could take us no further.

We set off behind Hod, a fresh faced Thai trek leader who was never still nor quiet. When he was not imitating the calls of rain forest birds, he was dancing down the trail or plucking the leaves of a particular but very common shrub and bursting them over a cupped fist with the sound of popping bubble gum. The trail was littered with perforated leaves, the results of his antics. Nevertheless he knew the jungle intimately and every tree and bush had a tribal meaning or some medicinal purpose. He revelled in the fact that he had eaten almost everything from caterpillars to pigs' ears and was extraordinarily proud of the fact that he was one of very few people who had consumed the afterbirth of an elephant. "One in a million," he told me several times, "One in a million."

Hod had joined us the day before at Lisu Lodge, a comfortable place partly financed by John Davies, an ex patriate author who came to Thailand in 1989 and has written several books about the hill tribes. Built of local materials, the lodge is staffed by Thais from the Lisu tribe, who live in the surrounding Dton Loong village, and has been set up in part to ensure that they receive a direct benefit from foreign tourists by providing produce, selling crafts or simply working at the lodge. "But above all", says Davies, "It gives them self-respect."


John Davies is an authority on the various tribes who have all been refugees in the past and have been moving into Thailand for a little over a century from neighbouring countries, including China, Tibet, Laos and Burma, bringing with them original tribal skills such as distinctive embroidery, batik and other crafts particular to the regions from which they came. By writing guides to the hill tribes, Davies has been able to explain their background and way of life. But he has also opened up the region to western visitors and the potential disaster of mass tourism. His hope is that, by setting up small scale ventures like Lisu Lodge, he can help to contain the large numbers of westerners who may want to come here. At the same time, by opening similar lodges in other villages, he will spread the financial benefits they bring.

We followed Hod in single file along the path, finally dropping to a broad but shallow stream which we forded before climbing to the Karen village of Mae Kont Sai. The wooden houses, which clung to the hillside, were all carefully fenced to give a feeling of quiet privacy and exclusion, a real contrast to noisy and vibrant Pakluay where litters of tiny, white footed, black piglets vied with hens scratching through the dust and a dozen small children played shrilly among the houses. We had arrived in Pakluay after a jungle trek which, while it included dense rainforest in the valley bottoms, also took us along airy ridges among thickets of creaking and groaning bamboo from where we could hear the distant hoots of black faced gibbons.

And it was at Pakluay that we boarded our bamboo rafts to take us downstream and out of the forest. Bamboo rafts do not so much float as hang in suspension in the water and total immersion is a constant threat. We ran rapids, ducked beneath fallen trees and occasionally ran headlong into rocks. Fortunately our bags, hanging on a bamboo tripod in the bows, remained above the water for most of the voyage. At last we tumbled over a fish weir and landed on a small beach to join our elephants for a leisurely stroll back to the jeeps and thus to Chiang Mai.

Back in Bangkok on the following evening, I stood in the gardens of the Peninsula Hotel and watched a wonderful firework display over the river. Rocket after rocket hissed upwards to explode in a shower of stars above the city. The noise from the detonations reverberated around the buildings, echoing and re-echoing off the tower blocks in a much more dramatic way than the rather pathetic rumbles from the desultory thunder storm we had experienced in the mountains some days before.
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Photo credits: [Chiang Dao National Park: Andrea Schaffer]
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