Visiting Thailand Hill Tribe Villages

Advice when visiting hill tribe villages near Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai Thailand

“More than tours we offer experiences”

About the Author.

Joining a group trek or tour.

A local hill tribe guide to join you is a must or better is a hill tribe home stay. Village customs and traditions must be strictly obeyed, only a local guide or host family knows as every village has different rules. Here are a few tips when touring or trekking.

Playing a Karen Hill Tribe Harp

Ask to meet your guide first. Talk alone with your guide. Find out how much your guide knows about the village as you can. Tell your guide you want to give candy to children and pay villagers money for photos and if he or she says no problem find a different operator and guide. Many tour operators don’t care about the well being of the villagers and will say yes to anything you want to do.

Make sure you are not allowed to give candy to children or money for pictures. Fruit is the best option to give and can be purchased for around 25 Thai Baht per Kilo. Hill tribe children get candy any time their parents can afford it as it is very cheap but they never have enough money for fruit. Figure to purchase around 10 Kilos of fruit for a normal sized village.

Nothing should be exchanged directly between the visitor and anyone in the village. Give your gifts or fruit to the village headman, elder or teacher and they will distribute it. They know all the children and make sure everyone gets their fair share. If you do this yourself or the guide the older children will take it away from the younger ones. Another trick is a child will run back to their house and put it away and come back for more. The teacher or village headman will not let this happen.

Please be careful with trekking operators that advertise new area or village. Most good eco-culture friendly operators go to the same area and villages year after year. They have an excellent relationship with them so everything is in balance and harmony so they do not need to go to a new area.

Ask how many persons are going on the trek with you and get it in writing as part of your receipt. Many people are told a small number later to find out there are up to 15 persons going on the trek. If they come to pick you up and there is more than what they wrote on your receipt when you paid for the trek get your money back. 6 persons should be the maximum and the fewer the better and a private trek is best. The fewer people on the trek or tour the better the experience.

Riding in a tractor to a Rice Field

An eco-culture tour and trekking operator will keep the number of persons visiting a village small. The impact of even 50 visitors a month in a village is devastating and should not be allowed. Some excellent operators take visitor to a village only once a week and then no more than 6 persons. They have many villages they can visit so they can take tourists daily to different villages.

There are areas where hundreds of trekkers visit each month to the same villages. In many villages in these areas the villagers will run up to you and try to sell you trinkets made in China as soon as you arrive. You will need to pay money for photos or make a purchase from them. Once you buy something from 1 you will be bombarded by several more selling the same trinkets. The villages heavily visited by tour groups and trekkers are mainly the Mae Teang and Pai areas.

A village is a very communal place and what belongs to one belongs to all. Jealousy and hate between villagers can arise because one family or person received something from you and they didn’t. It is true that many villages that are visited by tourists drop drastically in population because of jealousy. Most move away to a different village. Usually that of another family member who is married to someone in that village.

Learning to weave in a Karen hill tribe village

Most hill tribe villages do not have handicrafts as they spend most of their time working in their fields. There may however be elderly women in the village taking care of young children that do make handicrafts. In this case there will be one home or area where handicrafts can be viewed and bought. No one will bother you to buy anything and you are not looked at as a major source of income.

Hill Tribe Home Stay:

For a wonderful experience making life long friendships and learning local culture a Hill Tribe Home Stay is a must. The best areas for a village home stay is Doi Inthanon National Park and the small village of Thaton, both away from the normal tourist crowds.

Karen Hill Tribe Home Stay Family

Although both are with Karen hill tribes they are much different in what is available to enjoy. At Doi Inthanon home stay you will experience hiking in the cloud forest, swim at the waterfalls, learn to roast coffee and enjoy village life. In the Thaton Home Stay You visit other hill tribe villages such as Lahu and Akha, learn to weave cotton, visit the local market, cook Thai food then a private long tail boat ride.

Both are at clean comfortable traditional homes in your own bedroom, clean toilets with showers and all bedding is provided. In both villages your guide speaks perfect English and in Thaton your guide speaks all the hill tribe languages.

If you enjoy hiking and the outdoors Doi Inthanon is the one. For a more culture experience the village in the Thaton area is best.

Visiting villages on your own.

Planting rice in the village

Some want to visit hill tribe villages on their own and most of these want to spend an evening with a family in the village. This is not a good idea. You must know the culture and customs of the village and each village is different. You can do a lot of harm by just entering the village from the wrong gate. Many have gates for visitors and gates for residents and the villagers believe if you enter from the wrong gate you could be bringing in bad spirits with you. They will then have to spend money for a ritual to cast out bad spirits that you brought in.

If you pay money to stay with a family the other families will be jealous and this could cause unbalance and arguing among villagers. They also barely have enough food to feed their family and will feed you and not have enough to feed themselves. They do not eat the same food as Thais so if you bring food they may not eat it. They do not use fish sauce but salt and they do not eat the white pig but black pig. Also they do not eat their own animals, not even eggs. They purchase eggs and meat from other villages to eat as they will not kill their own animals so sell them to other villages. If you give them money for food they will have to travel a long way to the market and will cost them time and money.

If you are thinking of staying overnight in a hill tribe village it is best to do a Home Stay that is included in your trek or tour not in a large group trek or going on your own. This way you will be treated like family not an unwanted guest. You will be able to visit local markets, visit neighboring villages and cook meals with your host family. You will make friends for a lifetime while enjoying a wonderful experience.

If you would like to visit a real hill tribe village find a tour or trekking operator that follow the basic rules of Eco tourism in Thailand They can provide a local hill tribe guide that knows the culture of the village and knows the villagers like family or has family in the village.

Eco-tourism is not cheap so before you go out to find the best price for a trek or tour, first think about who wins and who looses on a cheap tour or trek. No one wins. Think about it.

About All Thailand Experiences

About our Thailand Tour Company
All Thailand Experiences
and Founder Mr. Randy Gaudet

I first came to Thailand in 1968 while in the U.S. Air Force stationed in Udorn Thani in east Thailand. I was stationed here for 2 years before being stationed in Japan and Korea. I Loved Thailand so much I cried when I left and promised myself I would return.

In 1989 I had the offer to volunteer at Payap University in Chiang Mai Thailand for 2 years and accepted. Here I was supervisor of the communications department at Christian Communication Institute at the university where I supervised installing and training staff of the audio and video studio at CCI. While at the university I took the opportunity to take Thai language and Lanna Thai (North Thailand) history, culture and music classes.

Wat Thaton Temple
Bamboo school

After my commitment was finsihed at Payap University I lived in a remote area of north Thailand at Wat Thaton temple in the town of Thaton on the Myanmar border for more than 3 years. I taught English to Monks, novices, high school students, the Thai Army, local and tourist police. I also did hill tribe programs by taking a small number of tourists to hill tribe villages to spend the evening. All the money for the trek went to the villagers. I bought clothes for the children, medicines and blankets for the families I paid the villagers to build a bamboo schoolhouse and paid a teacher to teach Thai at the school who could speak their language. I taught them how to dispose of waste properly, keep the children and village clean and to use spoons instead of their fingers when eating which was a big source of their health problems. I provided seeds and Logan and lychee fruit trees for planting.

Randy Gaudet with village teacher

This was fine until I left the temple then the school stopped and the health problems returned. I talked with the Abbot of the temple and he now has a school for the children at the temple. He has a nurse looking after the children and takes those to the clinics that have problems.

While I was there I help start a guest home where travelers could stay in a Lisu hill tribe village and go trekking in the jungle and visit primitive hill tribe villages in the area. This was not easy, as the villages we visited didn’t want visitors as they wanted to maintain their lifestyle and culture. They have seen other villages who accept tourist turn into a village without harmony and lost their culture. These villagers were farmers and didn’t want to look at tourism as a source of income. I understood the problem as I have seen what a tour operator can do to a village. To them money is first and they don’t care about the hill tribe people or their way of life.

Building a Lahi Home

I stayed in these villages and met with the village headmen many times. I learned about their culture, way of life, religion, and do’s and don’ts. We then came up with a plan that worked out well for the villagers and our clients.

We can only stay in a village 1 night per week and no more than 6 persons. There are 35 villages in this area so we always have a village to take our clients. Nothing is allowed to be given to a villager directly by the visitor. It must be given to the guide who then gives it to the villager. No candy for the children and no photographs without permission. No money is allowed to be given for a photograph. The guide must be from the local area and must also be hill tribe and speak the language of the village.

Lahu Hill Tribe Children

I then trained 3 hill tribe men from the local area who speak English to be our guides. None of these men drink or smoke and their families are very well respected by all the villages.

Dinner in the jungle

For the Jungle portion of the trek I had to teach the guides to use a different trails so it could grow back. They make a hut out of bamboo and banana leaves for sleeping and I taught them not to clear cut and not to return to an area for at least two months. No more hunting of birds or wild animals.

Without the local culture we would not be able to give our clients the experience they are looking for. We also encourage our clients in helping the local people we visit.

Giving Shoes to Needy Children

Most of our clients want to help the poor villagers that they visit. We take them to a market here in Chiangmai to buy shirts and pants for the children before we visit. Shirts or pants can be purchased for a little as $1 USD, blankets for about $3 USD. We have had groups including one from Singapore who stayed at 3 different hill tribe villages. They brought medicines, blankets and clothes. They repaired playground equipment and repainted the school. We follow God’s word in Isiah 58: 7 “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, And not hide yourself from your own flesh?”.

Giving supplies to poor villagers

Our company buys clothes and blankets every year when cold season arrives to give to needy villagers. We also help orphan and abandoned children in 3 different children homes here in north Thailand.

Lisu Hill Tribe Guides with Family at Guest Home

We have trained and employed hill tribe people and families to be guides for us and host our clients. We helped Asa, a Lisu Hill Tribe man who has the guest home, photo right, get started and now has a very successful business. He handles all our treks for us along with other guides and porters he has hired. He used to get only 50 baht per day per group and now gets more than 1800 baht per person for taking our clients. We have a loving relationship with all the people that work with us and those we visit. To us they are family and our clients notice this and is mentioned often.

There are hundreds of tour operators in Thailand and most take their clients to the same areas and places. Most of these areas have more tourists than Thai people so there is no cultural experience to speak of. We won’t do that to our clients. We want them to enjoy a wonderful experience they will remember for a lifetime.

Taking tractor ti Rice fields

We specialize in quality and service with as much interaction with nature and culture as possible. I have been living in Thailand since 1989. I have traveled extensively throughout the Kingdom and wanted to share my wonderful experiences of Thailand with others. I talked with many travelers here in Thailand and saw a need to take visitors away from the normal tourist areas filled with large tour buses and groups. The biggest complaint I heard from visitors is “there is no real Thai culture”. “Everything is staged for the tourists”. This is because they keep following each other around using their guide books.

It took about 2 years of research to find the areas that were safe and could handle visitors. I spoke with village headmen, temple Monks, Hill Tribe villagers, National Park officials and local bird experts. I then had to train a staff that would take care of our clients with excellent service and provide correct information about Thai and hilltribe culture, Thai food, Buddhism, birds of Thailand, etc.

Harvesting Rice

All our guides are registered with the Tourism Authority but that is not enough. Our training program is by far the best in the Kingdom. They must not only study the subjects but also go to each area, town or village and learn first hand about the people their culture, birds and animals of the region along with any festival or event and when it takes place.

Learning to Weave

Our main and only goal is to provide a great experience our clients could not enjoy with any other guide or tour operator. From the comments in our “Guest Book” at our web site, email from previous clients and the large number of referrals we are meeting our goal. What we all enjoy is when our clients finish their tour they tell us “It was one of the best holidays we ever had and thank you so much”. “I will surely recommend your services to others”.

To us conservation is more than the natural environment. We take many clients to very cultural sensitive hill tribe villages. This is a very difficult balance of very different cultures but can be maintained. We follow 4 basic rules to maintain harmony in the villages and help the environment

Since we do only private custom excursions we want to know the needs of our clients. We then email back to them what we will and will not do for them. Most of our clients know only what they read from agent brochures about what to do in Thailand and these tours might not be the best for them. We explain to them that we do not go to these places and why.

Clients and Karen Hill Tribe Family during Home Stay

We send several email messages back and forth asking and answering questions before an itinerary is approved. We then do many follow up email messages about what they will experience, cultural do’s and don’ts, and answer any question they may have. By the time they arrive they have an excellent knowledge of all aspects of their journey with us.

Many of our clients are families and have special needs. We ask many questions about the children such as favorite foods and their interests as we want them to enjoy their holiday also. We want to know if anyone in the group is having a birthday or anniversary while they are with us so that we can make their day special.

Once our clients arrive we are on call 24 hours a day for them. They can telephone us anytime about any questions they may have. From the time they arrive at the airport to the time of departure back to their home we are there for them.

After they return home most of our clients stay in contact with us. Not only do they thank us for a wonderful time but they ask about the people they made friends with while with us. I am happy to say we have made many good friends from all over the world with those who have been with us.

Swimming at Waterfalls

I have talked with other tour operators and the Tourism Authority of Thailand about being responsible in maintaining hill tribe culture. No one seams to care, as money is the bottom line. Exploitation of the hill tribe people and their way of life are common here. I have been able to give lectures at guide classes for the TAT. I try to teach them about being responsible for maintaining the hill tribe culture. After all it is the guides who are in contact with the villagers and clients not the tour operators.

Randy Gaudet
All Thailand Experiences