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Visiting the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand

20 years ago I took an extended trek in Northern Thailand staying in various Hill Tribe villages in the Mae Hon Son area. We weren’t just staying in the villages in quickly banged up tourist lodgings, we were staying in the villagers’ homes. We carried our own sleeping mats, bags and mosquito nets and slept on wood and bamboo floors, sometimes on raised sleeping platforms, under bamboo or leaf roofs. Every morning we woke to the sound of rice pounding and the daily roosters’ alarm calls. We ate, packed up and trekked through jungle to the next village. It was a fantastic experience and something I wanted to give the kids a taste of.

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Long Neck Karen woman. Always ask if photos are OK.

We didn’t have the option of an extended trek with the kids, we had no gear with us. I remember the biting insects being fierce and the thick jungle heat intense. The kids would have complained. They would have complained a lot. The walking they’re fine with, they handled Everest like troopers but bugs and heat, no. Let’s keep this real!

Also, Chef and I took a trek out of Chiang Mai some years after my first experience, it was sadly disappointing and we didn’t see the real villages at all. Now we’re wary of booking such tours.

The Hill Tribes of Thailand

This year we wanted to introduce the kids to the idea of the Hill Tribes, give them a taste of what they’re all about, explain some of the history and traditions and hopefully, let them visit a village or two.

Most of you will know that we live for some of the year in a remote village in Romania. Our village is often described as the last peasant culture in Europe. I wanted the kids to see the similarities, the use of local materials in constructing homes, subsistence farming, vital traditional skills, adaptation to environment and strong cultural significance.

During that first trek we stayed in Lisu, Lahu, White Karen, Shan, Hmong and a few more villages. I’ve lost all the names to the fog of age. I believe my friends stayed with the Akha on the last night, I’d gone on ahead with a sick member of the group to enjoy hotel comfort and running water (no toilets and being on first name terms with every spider in the jungle wasn’t too great with a fever and tummy trouble).

So the real Akha, I never met, sadly. The villages I remember from that trip were very similar to those in Caz’s pictures of an Akha settlement.

As we drove over the mountain from Pai to Mae Hong Son admiring the stunning yellow Bua Tong in full bloom, I started to get a feeling I’d seen this stretch of road before. I spotted a simple wooded bus stop and asked Chef to take a right down the hill, into a village. It looked familiar. I remembered a pond with lotus flowers in the centre of the village, we turned a corner and there it was just as I remembered. The Lisu village I’d stayed in 20 years ago.

It was largely as it was, a little more concrete and corrugated iron, but mostly the same. Women in Lisu costume strolled the village, chicks and piglets foraged at the roadside. I couldn’t believe I was back in the same place.

We drove on to Mae Hong Son determined to find more Hill Tribes for the kids.

At the night market by the lake, the Lisu were out in force selling traditional-style tourist souvenirs. Yet another hat to add to our collection, and a friendly chat with the vendor.

Akha Woman Bangkok
Akha woman in Bangkok.

The kids’ first contact with “Hill Tribes” came in Bangkok, these women, wandering street traders, sport headwear typical of the Akha Tribe. Are they Akha? I have no idea, it doesn’t matter, They’re more than happy to sell their head-gear, but it’s a quick introduction to one of Thailand’s tribes and the idea of being distinguished as being of a particular tribe through appearance.

I’ve read stories of these women being forced out of their tribal lands by deforestation, heading to the cities to make a living under terrible conditions. I don’t know the truth and I doubt you do either.

These women are always friendly, loads of fun, great makers of memories. That is what we see as tourists. We talk, smile and buy another over-priced hat or a toy for the kids.

In Chiang Mai we chanced upon the (free) Hill Tribe Museum and Education Centre. I shared images and video clips on Facebook and Instagram of the kids watching educational videos like good little worldschoolers. They did watch with interest, they did enjoy the museum and learned a little of the tribes and their origins.

In Mae Hon Song we took a leap into the unknown. That trek 20 years ago didn’t take us to a Long Neck Karen village deeming it too controversial, but we had seen traditionally attired women on the streets and in the markets of Mae Hong Song.

I knew they were “real” just going about their daily lives, not dressed up and wearing their rings for the tourists. I would never take a tour or go with a group, I hate that human zoo feeling we got in India while travelling with a group of gawkers. If we go somewhere sensitive, we go alone and we go with respect. We will see it for ourselves and make a call based on what we find. I don’t know everything, I never pretend to, but I can tell you about our personal experience.

Lisu Woman Mae Hong Son
Lisu woman in Mae Hong Son. Yet another hat for the collection.

What little information we could find online told us that there were various Long Neck Karen villages and attractions in the area. Even in Pai there are ” Long Neck in Pai” cafés, we didn’t investigate further.

I’m calling them Long Neck Karen to distinguish them from other Karen groups, not all Karen wear the famous rings. We found that somewhere near Mae Hong Son was some sort of Long Neck Karen tourist village, a place that charged admission and where the women just come for the day. It’s their job, they come, have their photos taken and leave.

We didn’t want that, we wanted to try to find a real village without crowds of tourists. Our visit was as much about finding a real village for the kids to see, as it was about the women’s outfits. Little Boo finds the Long Necks “creepy”, I wanted him to see that they are regular people, just like us.

After more or less giving up on our online search for a village, the owner of our guest house gave us a map with a village clearly marked. Sometimes (most times) it’s better to just ask a local rather than the internet.

So we set off in our little hire car, the GPS leading us the nearest town, which after about an hour, we found. But here’s where it got tricky, the road ran out, dissolving into mud, ruts, and potholes with still 6 Km to go to the village. The Nissan was never going to make it and we wished we had our old Romanian truck with us, so we kind of stopped and thought about it a bit. James walked on to look at the road and came back shaking his head. No go.

At that moment scooter guy appeared.

“I take you Long Neck Village, I have taxi.”

OK, that sounded reasonable. He showed us where to park our car under a mango tree and disappeared for 10 minutes leaving us wondering.

taxi to long neck karen village mae hong son Thailand
Taxi! Without scooter guy, we wouldn’t have made it.

No problem, back he came with a pick up truck, swept out the back, put down a clean mat and motioned for us to get in. D called shotgun, we 3 bounced around in the back past rice fields, bamboo, a refugee camp and lush forest before the road opened onto the Long Neck Karen village just a stone’s throw from the Burmese border.

The Long Neck Karen Village

It was a typical Hill Tribe Village. Wooden buildings, leaf thatched roofs, dirt paths with a variously sized bunch of long-legged chickens scratching about. There were no other tourists.

At the beginning of the village there was a small village shop, I’ve seen these in every village I’ve visited. As we walked along the central path 3 women had stalls set up selling trinkets. 2 women were weaving, one just sitting chatting to a neighbour, all were wearing the traditional rings.

We greeted them and walked on through the village, it was more or less deserted. We could hear excited children’s chatter coming from the school, the health centre next door was locked up, the village football kit was drying outside a nearby house.

Visiting the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand. Typical Village House
A typical Long Neck village house, click on the image to enlarge.

This village is home to just 20 families, around 104 people, all migrants from Burma.

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Excited children’s chatter came from the village school.
Hill tribe village football team
There must be enough villagers to raise a football team.

Read other travellers’ experiences, ethics, justification and why you should, or should not, visit Long Neck Karen villages here.

Visiting Long Neck Karen Tribe Northern Thailand
2 of the women we met were busy weaving, we bought a sarf.

We looked, we saw, we took photos with permission. We thought it only fair to buy something from the women. Our tourist dollar went straight in their pockets, where it belonged.

We felt the experience was great, but of course, others will disagree. This is a very small-scale political hot potato. We read up on it and chose to go. To show our children and to show you, because that is my job as a worldschooling facilitator.

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Hopefully we’ll have time to visit more Hill Tribes while we’re here but our few weeks in Thailand are disappearing fast. We’re socialising a lot, we’ve been recognised almost every day here, the boys have made friends and now the festival is upon us.

I’ll just finish by telling you that we’re incredibly glad we picked Thailand for this trip, delighted to be here for maybe the 20th time and able to have a good poke about and visit places we’ve missed on other trips. It’s been good, very good, for us and the kids.

Hill Tribe Woman Mae Hong Song

For you for Pinterest.

Visiting the Hill Tribes of Thailand

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Visiting the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand. Typical Village House
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Long Neck Karen Village House near Mae Hong Song
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