Thai hill tribe holidays guide

Visiting a hill tribe as part of a tour of Thailand should be a two-way thing. The people living within these remote villages should benefit from the experience just as much as the people visiting. Keeping cultural customs alive and passing down tribal beliefs is just as important as learning to adapt traditional agricultural lifestyles so as to escape poverty cycles. Community based tourism plays a huge part in helping to keep hill tribes in Thailand thriving but without impinging on their traditional cultural heritage. These are the types of hill tribe holidays that we promote.
Hill tribe villages are very basic but also very heartening. Kids and elders will welcome you with open arms, especially if you learn one or two words in their language. However, this is not a zoo nor a photo op or gift shop; this is real life in some of Thailand’s poorest provinces.

Trekking in the jungle, tracking wild elephants and experiencing the night markets and spas of Chiang Mai can all be included on a Thai hill tribe holiday. Just remember to tread with respect and empathy, but also with a fair amount of optimism, as you learn about life off grid, and then some.

Who are the Thai hill tribes?

The term ‘hill tribe’ refers to the ethnic minority groups living within the forested mountain foothills of Northern Thailand and on the other side of the border in Myanmar, Laos and Southwest China.

The groups fall into several ethnicities: Karen, Hmong, Lahu, Lisu, Akha, and Mien or Yao as well as several sub-groups, such as: S’gaw (White Karen), Red Lahu and Hua Lisu (Flowery Lisu).

The Karen hill tribe population is the largest and there are literally tens of thousands of Karen people living in remote highland regions of Thailand that can’t be accessed by vehicle.

Each ethnic group has its own traditional customs, dress and language, and villages are well established, with surrounding slopes dedicated to subsistence crops, medicinal plants, and cash crops, including coffee, pineapples, tea and decorative flowers.
This wasn’t always the case. Hill tribes were traditionally migratory and would often move from place to place because they were being persecuted or forced out because of deforestation, or they’d all but exhausted natural resources through their own slash and burn farming methods.

Opium was also the major cash crop of choice for hill tribe farmers until the intervention of the Thai government in the 1960s, under the Royal King’s Agricultural initiative, put paid to this and encouraged the growing of alternative organic crops. It also encouraged the tribes to become more closely integrated with Thai society.

Efficient land use through irrigation, the switch to sustainable farming, and the protection of the Thai King, led to hill tribes becoming a more permanent fixture. Tourism, too, played its part with some villages opening their doors to travellers. Homestays, volunteer projects and organised trekking tours with a local Thai guide encouraged interaction with villagers on their terms.

The production of handicrafts, silverware, and hand woven scarves, bags, wallets and clothing have also help hill tribes to survive. Buying authentic items from villagers ensures tourist baht goes into their pockets, and is a much better alternative than buying mass produced items that are sold elsewhere.

Find out more about hill tribes in Thailand

What does a Thai hill tribe holiday entail?

Hill tribe holidays usually start from the city of Chiang Mai or the riverside town of Pai, in Northern Thailand. From there you’ll transfer by songthaew (open sided passenger vehicle) or minivan for around three hours to the start of a trekking trail head that leads to a hill tribe village. You can also visit a hill tribe as part of a self drive tuk tuk tour or you can stay in a hill tribe lodge after a short transfer by road. These are accessible alternatives to trekking and enable everyone to experience Thailand's ethnic minority and rural heritage without having to hike through the jungle.

Small group and tailor made tours are designed to include visits to one or several different hill tribe villages, depending on the duration of the holiday. Sometimes you’ll visit a local market, such as Mae Malai, or pause for lunch at a village midway through a hike. On other occasions a village will be the end goal where you’ll unpack, help with the evening meal or just rest with a beer or coffee around the fire. Some tours involve travellers staying with a host family, others involve becoming part of the whole community. You can take a tour of the village, feed the pigs, visit the local temple and meet the villagers, on their level.

Finding out more about the local language (it’s rarely written down), different hill tribe groups and how you can visit a hill tribe village, in the right way, is as much a part of responsible travel as ensuring your hard-earned Thai bahts are going into the pockets of those who need them most.

How can I visit a Thai hill tribe?

There are many, many tour companies in Chiang Mai advertising trips to see the ‘long neck’ hill tribe women, and they will happily take your money in return for a visit to a village by minivan or coach. On arrival you’ll be shown around and invited to purchase ‘authentic’ hill tribe handicrafts from market stalls.

The Karen or Kayan ‘long-necked women’ are refugees from Burma who are famed for the metal rings which elongate their necks. They are such a lucrative ‘attraction’ that the Thai government has refused to allow them to seek asylum elsewhere, for fear that it will affect tourism.

This form of mass tourism is the darker side to Thailand. Where there’s baht to be made then there are plenty of unscrupulous people willing to cash in. Hill tribes are not purely functioning for tourists. They’re not part of an entertainment package or exhibits in a human zoo. These people are either indigenous to an area that subsequently became known as Thailand or who have been forced to migrate by authorities on the other side of the Thai border in Myanmar, Laos or China. Thailand has always been or has become their home; a safe haven to continue to practise their traditions, customs and lifestyles, free from harm.
Visiting a hill tribe requires research so you know your experience will be just as worthwhile for your hosts as it will be for you. Joining a small group or tailor made holiday run by a responsible tour company allows hill tribes to benefit from the experience just as much as travellers.

For an authentic experience where you'll actually be staying overnight in a hill tribe village rather than just popping in for a couple of hours, you can either trek through the jungle with a local guide or travel by road to a H'mong lodge which is situated around an hour and a half from Chiang Mai.

Although trekking is often considered the more authentic experience, let's face it, hiking for approx three to four hours in hot and humid conditions isn't for everyone. There will be mosquitoes and you will get super sweaty. Hair will go into optimum frizz mode. And you will need to carry your own day pack – there aren’t any Sherpas to do it for you. Taking a minivan to the H'mong village or even a tuk tuk to tiny Karen villages offers an accessible and authentic alternative to a full on hike.

No matter how you choose to arrive, there will be the promise of a cuppa and food. You can rest around the fire, make friends with the kids or offer to help out with chopping a few veggies for the evening meal. Your guide will be on hand to translate if you have any questions for the villagers.

Where will I be sleeping?

Visitors to hill tribe villages will be invited to sleep in a communal wood or bamboo-built hut on stilts. There will be steps leading up to the hut and you'll be lying alongside travelling companions on rolled out mats. There are no beds, as such, just sleep space on a mat on a bamboo floor. It's actually quite comfy. OK, well, you'll be tired from the trekking so sleep comes pretty quickly. Or at least until the early morning cockerel alarm wakes you up.

You can also stay in the home of an indigenous Thai family living in a rural village. The lifestyles and beliefs of rural Thais are often very similar to that of Karen hill tribes. Your hosts will provide the food and show you where to sleep. Again, on a mat on a bamboo floor is the norm. There’s no electricity so no lights, nor air-con, but you will get a mosquito net and, perhaps, a citronella candle; it’s up to you to remember a torch. Bedding will usually be provided as well as a recommended packing list to bring with you. This is an opportunity to experience traditional Thai culture as well as finding out more about the differences between indigenous Thai and hill tribe communities that have migrated from other areas of Asia.

Small group or tailor made?

The majority of our hill tribe tours are for small groups with limited numbers (average 12 people) ensuring hordes of hikers don't descend on a village en masse. This also allows food to be ready within a reasonable time and for sleeping and bathroom arrangements to be organised without too much bother for travellers or villagers.

Small group tours will include a group leader to help with travel arrangements and to be a first point of contact for travellers. Local hiking guides will also be employed to help you negotiate the jungle tracks and to provide information on what you're seeing and what it's like for hill tribe people living in Northern Thailand. Unfortunately, unlike other small group tours, there won't be the chance for solo travellers to have their own room! However, the good news is that solo travellers can join a group of readymade friends so as to trek with confidence and camaraderie as well as ensuring they're travelling in the safest and most responsible way possible.

Tailor made tours which include visits and overnight stays in hill tribe villages tend to be more geared towards families. Families won't usually be sleeping in a communal bamboo hut with other people but might find themselves as guests of a local family or perhaps a village school teacher. This is a much more personalised approach to learning about the lifestyles of hill tribe communities and also encourages children to interact with local kids, on their level, rather than simply being part of a much larger group.

Tailor made tours can also be taken all year round and can feature as much trekking as you wish. There are also opportunities to combine a hill tribe home stay with wild camping as you track elephants through the jungle. Sometimes travellers on a tailor made tour will also join a small group of other international travellers. This will often bring costs down however, it's your call as to which type of tour you prefer. This should be seen as a once in a lifetime opportunity and it's worth getting it right so you can make the most of the experience in every way possible.

Our top Thai hill tribes Holiday

Northern Thailand and hill tribes tour

Northern Thailand and hill tribes tour

From gleaming highrises to the remote Thailand's hills

From £360 to £449 8 days ex flights
Small group travel:
Regular multi departures a week, normally at least once a week on a Saturday
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Thai hill tribes or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Best time to go on a hill tribe holiday in Thailand

Jungle trekking is going to get you hot and sweaty no matter what the time of year. Just spare a thought for hill tribes who have to contend with these conditions all year round.
Northern Thailand’s monsoon season can have a huge impact on hill tribe villages with many communities becoming cut off due to mud slides and flooding during May to September. Trekking in treacherous conditions is certainly not recommended and although sometimes a daily deluge will be over no sooner than it’s started, you’ll be much better off hiking in the relatively cooler, drier, months from November to February. Hot weather can also impact on crop production with droughts during March and April drying up precious water resources and decimating entire harvests. Small group and tailor made tours can be taken all year round although we think the best time to go on a hill tribe holiday in Thailand is from October to March – between the extremes.

Pai Weather Chart

 
MIN °C
MAX °C
RAIN (mm)
JAN
13
29
9
FEB
13
32
3
MAR
17
36
7
APR
22
37
51
MAY
23
34
177
JUN
23
32
180
JUL
23
31
207
AUG
23
31
250
SEP
22
31
204
OCT
21
31
121
NOV
18
30
39
DEC
15
29
15

Thai hill tribes, month by month

The mountains and cloud forests of Northern Thailand tend to experience the largest extremes of heat and humidity with hill tribe villages bearing the brunt of both drought and rainy conditions. January, February and March however, are relatively dry and slightly cooler making the start of the year the best time to visit hill tribes in Thailand. Depending how high in the highlands you are it can actually get a little chilly in the evening – worth acquiring a handmade hat to keep you warm in bed. November to March is peak season for hikers in the town of Pai. The town’s infrastructure is not geared up to accommodate lots of visitors and as such some of the roads grind to a standstill with water shortages and electricity outages both common occurrences at this time of year. April and May are far from cold with heat and humidity on the rise. Expect afternoon rain showers all the way through to September although they’re often over no sooner than they’ve started. Trek without a raincoat during June, July, August and September, at your peril. October, November and December are some of the best months to visit hill tribes in Thailand as the cloud forests are lush, waterfalls are at the peak of their powers and conditions – especially in the highlands – are much cooler when compared to the rest of the year.
Jub Yata works for tour operator, Intrepid Travel. Here's her advice on the best time to go trekking in Thailand: “The best time to visit hill tribes in Thailand is from November to February. This is because it’s in the winter time and the temperature (approx 10-15°C) is really good for trekking. There are also abundant rhododendron forests to be enjoyed at the start of the year. Another of our favourite periods is during the rainy season from July to October as the trekking trails are under lush greenery and the waterfalls are at their most powerful.”
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Charlie Marshall] [Who are the Thai hill tribes?: Gunther Hagleitner] [How can I visit a Thai hill tribe?: judithscharnowski] [Best time to go on a hill tribe holiday in Thailand: Laura Alblas]
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