Exploring a Hidden Hill Tribe Village in Northern Thailand’s Jungle
Category : Thailand
On our 2-day tour in the Mae Tang district (North of Chiang Mai, Thailand) we hiked through scenic landscapes, visited an authentic Karen hill tribe village, saw plenty of animals and survived an adventurous bamboo rafting. Overall an amazing and memorable trip that taught us a lot about the local culture, the Karen way of life and ourselves.
On the Road: Getting to Mae Tang
Early in the morning we were picked up by our guide Mike, a friendly young member of the Karen hill tribe, who recently started his own tour company. We found his “Authentic Trekking” offer online and wanted to try it to support his new business. As most of the Thai guides, Mike was perfectly on time and everything was well arranged. After storing our gear in the van, we noticed that there was a second person behind the wheel. He was wearing a hat and a green shirt with flowers. He looked like the Thai version of a cowboy and reminded me a bit of the killer Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. Was it a good idea to trust those two complete strangers?
Visiting the Local Market & Mok Fa Waterfall
Before leaving Chiang Mai we stopped by at a local market to buy some supplies for our meals. We took a walk around the market hall and watched different food stands. Back on the road we drove around an hour to visit the Mok Fa waterfall. It’s a nice place but I’ve seen cleaner and more remote waterfalls. If you’re lucky it’s not too crowded. In our case there were a couple of (local) people bathing. After a refreshing shower in the waterfall we already headed for our lunch in a local restaurant near the main road.
Freshly showered and well-fed we felt ready for our hike in the jungle. We left the main road and drove around one kilometre up the mountain on a parched mud road with plenty of holes. It is the only road that leads to Mike’s hill tribe village and is only accessible during dry season. I suppose any other car than a 4×4 would get stuck after the first few meters. I asked Mike what the villagers would do in case of a medical emergency during rainy season and he replied: “We would try to reach the city by motorbike”. Not a very inspiring confidence. But that’s where we wanted to get: off the beaten path.
Into the Jungle: Hiking to the Karen Hill Tribe Village
After a bumpy ride the Thai cowboy dropped us off and gave us a friendly nod. He didn’t seem to be too bad after all and promised to take care of our remaining luggage. We entered a trail that was formerly created by the Karen villagers. They used to walk to the main road and back every day. The trail was very narrow so we had to walk behind each other. At the beginning, most of the surrounding trees looked quite like the ones we know from Europe. But after a while the vegetation started to change: Bamboo trees and thick jungle appeared. The path narrowed even more and it also got cooler. It suddenly started to feel more exotic.
We enjoyed being the only people on this path. It reassured me that it was a good decision to book the tour with Mike. But our exclusive trek had its price: A great elevation. Most of the time we were either climbing up a hill or walking down. This was quite exhaustive during the dry season at temperatures around 38° Celsius. Nevertheless, it was still the best option. Mike told us that it would become very slippery during rainy season. Also, bloodsuckers would permanently try to crawl up on you for a having a delicious blood meal. No thanks!
The Vegetation & Wildlife
We learned a lot about the vegetation and wildlife. We saw all kinds of ferns and trees like the fig tree. It carries a fruit that monkeys like to eat. That’s why they visit this area of the jungle regularly for eating. Also we learned that a worm called “Duk Dea” is living inside some bamboo trees. The worms are considered a delicacy and the villagers take them out to sell them on the local markets. The “wildest” animals we saw at that time were termites, large grasshoppers and chicken. But this would be different on our way back.
After around 3-4 hours of hiking we left the jungle and entered a bigger path leading towards the Karen village. We enjoyed the stunning view on all the small cottages and the surrounding rice fields.
The Jungle Tree Swing
We also had the chance to try out a tree swing after Mike carried out a quick safety test (by taking the first swing himself). It was made of two old bicycle tires and a rope. I can imagine it wouldn’t pass a safety test by any European Authority J But that’s what I like about the Thai culture: There seem to be fewer rules and if people want to do something they just find a way. If you happen to come across the tree swing you should try it. It feels almost like you’re flying above the rice fields 🙂
Overall the hike on the first day is doable with average fitness level. The trees provided some shadow and we made a few breaks so we didn’t face any physical limits. Don’t pack too much gear otherwise the great elevation will make you tired. The real highlight of the first day was still waiting for us: The arrival in the village.
The Karen Hill Tribe Culture & History
Mike told us a lot about the culture and history of his tribe. The Karen tribe originates from Myanmar but many villages can nowadays be found in Thailand. The people fled to Thailand because of conflicts with the Burmese military. The Karen developed their own languages (Sgaw, Pwo & Pa’o) that are different to Thai. For me as a “farang” (that’s how Thai people call foreigners) it was hard to tell the exact difference. In the village that we’ve visited almost nobody has a regular job in the city. The majority of the villagers are farmers and produce their own food (mainly rice). They also keep animals like chicken and pigs for meat consumption. If there is an occasion to celebrate buffalo
Most Karen hill tribe people believes in Christianity. People preach and live altruism. They share food or other belongings with each other if needed. For this reason, money plays a minor role in their society because the people cater for themselves. However, many families collect at least some money over the years in case they require a medical treatment. They also celebrate Christian festivals like Christmas.
Exploring the Karen Hill Tribe Village
As we entered the village we found a very lively atmosphere: Barking dogs, grunting pigs and shouting villagers. Everybody seemed to be busy doing something. However, the people were working in a slow pace and found time to have a look at us visitors. Many of them gave us a welcoming smile. Our guide Mike was born and raised in the village so he knows everybody over there. We noticed that people were quite happy or at least neutral about our presence. A sign that this village was not being exploited by masses of tourists.
Almost all the wooden cottages in the village are made of bamboo and built on wood piles. People live upstairs in a small compartment and keep animals or food on the ground below. Some families have a separate storage room for the rice supplies of an entire year (around 2-3 tons of rice per family). Everything in the village is very basic. Some people don’t even have a bed and sleep on the floor. Mike told us that one gets used to that very quickly. Nevertheless, he was so kind to offer us a room with mattress.
Water & Electricty
The village is supplied with cold water through a pipeline. The water would heat up at least a bit during daytime. Electricity is very limited and we found one solar panel in the village. Mike told us that it generates enough energy to watch two hours TV in the evening. One of the few villagers that possesses a TV is his mother. People gather together at her house in the evening and watch a movie together until the lights turn off. A very different world… 🙂
The Karen People
Mike guided us through the whole village and introduced us to many people. Most of them were from his own family or anyhow related to him. This was not surprising because the village counts only around 250 inhabitants. The insight into the way of the villager’s lives was very authentic. We observed people performing their daily work like feeding chicken, doing laundry or preparing food.
The villagers seem to get along very well with the basic conditions and are satisfied with the things they possess. The atmosphere was very cheerful and friendly. People chatted and joked with each other and tried to interact with us despite the language barrier. They invited us to enter their homes and allowed us to take pictures. We tried to behave with integrity and followed all the cultural rules like taking off our shoes before entering a house. Still, we were positively surprised how open the people were towards us.
Visiting the Karen village helped me to remind myself about the high living standards in Europe. I wonder if we really need that many material things. I’m glad that I have electricity so I can watch Netflix whenever I feel like. But do we need a 60” 4k Ultra HD TV? I personally don’t. The villagers seemed to be very happy and enjoyed their lives. In contrast, many people in western civilizations work harder and harder to afford more stuff. I’m not sure if this really makes us happier in the long run.
In the village (also in whole Thailand) many things are made of bamboo. It seems like there are endless options for what bamboo can be used: Dishes, tools, construction, furniture, you name it…! 🙂 It is an amazing, very durable and natural base material. In my opinion the broad use of bamboo reflects the people’s ability to find creative solutions with the very basic means they possess. I admire that.
During our trip Mike cut bamboo chopsticks, spoons, cups and plates for us. I wanted to give it a try myself and cut my own bamboo cup. The result was just acceptable and Mike kindly improved my finished work. A few seconds and cuts later it was perfectly straight 🙂
The Night in the Jungle
After finishing our tour through the village we cooked together with Mike and his family. The kitchen was indoor and we cooked on a fireplace. At first I was afraid to get a smoke poisoning but the natural air exhaust called wind worked very well 🙂
The Most Delicious Thai Dinner
We had a classical Thai dinner: Fried chicken with basil, long beans, yellow curry, fish and rice. It was simply delicious. I’ve been eating at restaurants, street food stands and markets, but the meal in the Karen village was by far the best food I’ve had on my entire trip through Thailand. Maybe it was because of the fresh meat or our hike… Anyway, if you decide to do this trip with Mike you can already look forward to a very tasty meal 🙂
In the evening we sat on the “roof terrace” of our little guest cottage chatting with Mike. We appreciated that he speaks English quite fluently and took the time to answer all our questions in detail. He and his family were extraordinary hospitable and we felt well taken care of and safe all the time. Mike’s story is quite impressive but you should meet him and listen to it yourself. I was glad about my decision to book a tour with him despite the few recommendations he had collected at that time. As he belongs to the Karen, the income will partly be used for his family and the village. It is important to me that the money ends up at the right end when booking a tour. No native people should be exploited.
Later in the evening we found proof regarding the talk about altruism and sharing. A few villagers walked into Mike’s kitchen without asking and started to plunder the remaining food that we cooked. I was a bit surprised and Mike just smiled about my reaction. “It’s normal here. We share.” he replied. From time to time a few people joined us on the terrace to speak a few words to Mike and left again. It’s a matter of course to enter other people’s homes without asking in the Karen village. Most families don’t have a lock at their front door and in some cases not even a door. Maybe a bit surprising to people from Western civilizations.
Our night was not very relaxing. One might expect that insects keep you from having a good night rest in the middle of the jungle. But not in our case. In the middle of the night all the dogs in the village started to bark. Soon after the pigs joined the noise concert. After an hour of silence when I was just about to fall asleep again, the chicken started their wake up call. If you’re living on a farm you might be used to these noisy animals. For us however it was hard to catch a lot of sleep.
Jungle Trekking Part II: Back to Chiang Mai
A delicious breakfast provided the energy we needed for a good start into the day. We began to hike on a different path towards the bamboo rafting station early next morning. It took as another 3-4 hours across a terrain with many altitude meters and a merciless sun burning down on us during some parts of the trail. Don’t forget to bring a head protection for the hike. We walked across rice fields, passed rivers and saw a few very small villages. I enjoyed the scenery a lot but assume it looks even more impressive during rainy season (all the rice fields were already harvested and dry in April).
Once in a while we walked past some buffalos that were relaxing next to the trail. We we still didn’t see any wild or exotic animals at that time. Therefore Mike managed to make at least some bigger spiders leave their holes in the ground so that we could have a look. People from Australia would not be impressed but they definitely belonged to a bigger species than we know in Europe 😉
The Bamboo Rafting
After a strenuous hike we finally reached the bamboo station at the river. Two guys had some bamboo floats prepared and we took one of them. After cooling down in the water we started rafting down the river. The rafting experience was a bit different to what I knew before. Steering through the water with long bamboo sticks felt different and challenging. Especially when we had to navigate quickly through passages with plenty of rocks that might destroy our bamboo float.
Experiencing the jungle from a bamboo float was a welcoming change compared to the trail. We could listen to the exotic noises that you typically get to hear and absorb the tranquil atmosphere during calm river sections.
The Poisonous Snakes
The observation of the river beds paid off: I spotted a snake eating a large fish near the river bed. Mike stopped our bamboo float and navigated very close to it. Before I could take a close up picture the snake let go of the fish and swam directly towards us. I got ready to jump off the bamboo float but the snake preferred to stay in the water. Maybe that was better for both parties. I apologised in my mind for disturbing its meal and we continued our raft. Soon after we found another snake on the ground. This time it was dead already. Mike told us that most of the local people try to kill the snakes. Either because they want to eat them or because they are poisonous. I guess it’s probably better to encounter a dead poisonous snake than an alive one 😉 Especially if getting an antivenom takes many hours.
I felt more relaxed watching the rather harmless animals like buffalos in the river. They cooled themselves down in the water and watched us very critically when we passed. How could we dare to invade their privacy? Nevertheless, all the buffalos we have met were peaceful and used to the human presence.
Further down the river we also passed a few elephants that belonged to a nearby camp. We drove by a fisher village and observed local people swimming or fishing. After 4 hours we finally left the bamboo float near a small village and walked to the main road. Our Thai cowboy driver was already waiting for us.
A Memorable Trip
Overall our trip was a great adventure and we enjoyed every moment of it. Even the countless little things that we experienced in this new environment would have been worth the time and money. We highly appreciate the opportunity to explore the Karen culture and feel grateful for the discovery of so many new things. Thank you, Mike, for this memorable and amazing trip 🙂
Note: We made our trip in April, which is the end of the dry season. The water level is quite low during this time. Therefore, the rafting takes much longer compared to the rainy season. On the plus side, we had plenty of time to absorb the atmosphere and observe the surrounding river beds. Also there are very few mosquitos and insects at that time. According to our guide Mike the rafting can be quite dangerous during wet season because the water is flowing much faster. It happened already a couple of times that bamboo floats crashed on the rocks and people had to rescue themselves to the river beds. Book in rainy season if you seek for the maximum adventure 🙂
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