Hiking to the Hill Villages of Northern Thailand

Thailand’s hill villages are far from the madding crowd. Photo by Laura Byrne Paquet.

In the mountains of northern Thailand, not far from its border with Myanmar, lie countless tiny villages as far metaphorically from frenetic Bangkok as the earth is from the moon. Many of the people who live in them — members of the so-called “hill tribes,” such as the Palong and the Karen –have fled conflict and persecution in other parts of Asia, and the life they have created here is basic. They make their living largely through weaving and other crafts, and subsistence farming. Lately, some have opened bare-bones hostels to shelter the backpackers who tramp these rolling hills in search of tranquillity.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You want to escape Thailand’s busy cities and coastal resorts.
  • You enjoy chatting with people from different cultures (even if you have to do so through an interpreter).
  • Good for: moderately fit hikers and nature lovers.

My group certainly found peace on a sultry April day. Our guide picked us up from our hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second-largest city, and drove us north through Chiang Dao until the roads got progressively narrower and quieter. Then we parked, hopped out with our day packs and entered the humid jungle. Long before noon, the temperature was already creeping past 80F.

It wasn’t extreme hiking by any stretch of the imagination, but the combination of heat and a moderate incline had me thirsty and sweaty by the time we arrived at the first village, Mae Jorn. As we approached, a few dogs panting on the sun-baked dirt road or underneath wooden houses raised on stilts were the only signs of life. Then, suddenly, a bazaar materialized.

Open for business: women in a Thai hill village tempt hikers with traditional crafts. Photo by Laura Byrne Paquet.

Blissful Quiet — and a Souvenir Bazaar

Women of all ages, carrying baskets and blankets, congregated along the route. Within moments, they’d unfurled the blankets and laid out a range of crafts to catch our eyes: silver bangles, quilted purses, woven scarves. None of us were able to resist their sales pitches, and we all left with at least a few souvenirs.

We also had time to chat with people and learn at least a little about their lives. It soon became clear that tourist traffic and increasing mobility had brought changes to these long-isolated settlements. A 46-year-old grandmother, dressed in an embroidered jacket and woven red skirt, told us how she’d been married at 15 to a local man; her daughter married a man from the small city of Chiang Dao and now works in a hospital. Women in their 20s tended to wear their traditional red skirts with t-shirts, while the kids usually sported t-shirts and track pants.

Weaving is a popular industry in Thai hill villages. Photo by Laura Byrne Paquet.

As we walked between villages, the path through stands of bananas, bamboo, papaya, passion fruit and coffee became somewhat steeper, and my water bottle got a serious workout. Occasionally, we were able to spot the roof of a temple in the distance, signaling our next destination.

At the next village, Pang Daeng Nai, women again set up an instant market for our perusal. I was beginning to regret having bought so many items in Mae Jorn and not having brought more small change.

The third village, Pang Daeng Nok, offered a novelty: electricity (and, blessedly, ice-cold Cokes). The first two villages had been completely off grid, and it wasn’t until I heard the hum of a generator that I realized how quiet they had been. Barking dogs and throat-clearing roosters had replaced the ceaseless roar of traffic and tinny chatter of radios that had dogged me from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. That, perhaps, was the best souvenir I brought back from that day in the mountains: the sound of non-electrified silence.

Practicalities

  • Many companies in Chiang Mai and Chiang Dao offer guided hikes to the hill villages. Don’t attempt to go on your own, as the routes are not marked.
  • Check with a travel medicine clinic before leaving home to find out what shots you may need to travel in rural Thailand, such as a malaria vaccination.
  • Bring insect repellent, sunscreen, bottled water, a hat and closed-toe shoes (sneakers are fine).
  • Check government travel warnings. The area we hiked was not under any travel advisories, but neighboring areas of Thailand were, due to violence along the border with Myanmar.

 

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