In this article, you’ll read about our visit to the White Karen hill tribes in Northern Thailand, trekking through a Thai jungle, waking up in pure serene nature, and reflecting on the priority of privacy.
“So, how long does it take to get to the first village?” I asked hopefully.
“Ooohhh, depends on you!” laughed George.
We had just completed a 2.5 hour bike ride through Thai villages, and were about to commence hiking through a jungle, that is — a lush, wild and humid bush. The plan was to make it to the Huy Huai village of the White Karen hill tribe for a night. The sun reached its peak in the noon sky and we finished our lunch in a local restaurant tucked behind the road. You’ll soon understand why I wished for a more optimistic reply.
In Puglia, where Gianni comes from, this is the time of the day when you do nothing but kick back and wait for more bearable air. But, there we were, on a dry terracotta coloured road, with sweat dripping down our backs and tanned foreheads from the morning bike ride.
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After making Chiang Mai our winter base for two years during which we volunteered with the elephants, explored the marvels of Thai massages, experimented with local food, found one of the best tea houses and yoga studios, and visited close neighbourhoods, this (European) winter we decided to travel deeper to the mountains surrounding us. Frankly, more than the green forest intrigued us the indigenous hill tribes of Northern Thailand.
Hold on a second. Yes, some of the hill tribes near Chiang Mai are becoming an infamous tourist attraction. They received the nickname, “the human zoo,” and, “overpriced junk.” Sadly, what often is promoted as a visit to an authentic hill tribe village turns out to be a massive organised group trip for tourists where they bring you to a few alleys with bamboo souvenir huts and begging children.
We knew about that. Actually, we were scared we would end up in one of those villages ourselves when we started planning a trip to the woods. But we were also aware that not all of the hill tribe villages are the same. We believed that there should be places where people still live their lives as they have been doing for many generations, with their own customs, rules, beliefs, and… privacy.
Now, how to get there? How to approach locals without interfering with anyone’s private space? Would it be appropriate? Would they accept us?
If you’ve followed our journey for some time, you know how much we do love connecting with locals. There is something fascinating about being able to observe, learn, and be part of local life when you travel.
In the case of the White Karen hill tribes, we knew that we’d be able to visit them without disturbing their daily routines only with a local & responsible guide. This was going to be an intimate journey that we needed to be guided through. Literally.
As a matter of fact, there are no marked paths in Northern Thailand. Moreover, locals don’t speak English, and some of them don’t even use proper Thai, instead they use distinct dialects.
If there were a single lesson we learned on our trip to the White Karen hill tribes, then it would be about the priority of privacy. We realised that being a responsible guest at someone’s place isn’t only about having a courteous conversation with villagers and being respectful to their environment, but it is more about admitting humbly that the locals will decide how much you will interact with them, and how much (if ever) you’ll be able to learn about their lives.
It’s not up to you, your curiosity that drives you, or a guide who can translate everything, but rather the local people of the hill tribes who will set the rules you’ll need to follow when entering their territory.
And that’s completely fine.
We were grateful for the shelter we got in their village where we arrived just on time, before it got pitch black outside. We couldn’t be more thankful for a bucket shower that we saw like a treasure after a day of biking and trekking. And we couldn’t be more thankful for the fireplace they gave us to use at our disposal so our guide could prepare a dinner.
We had no right to ask for more. We were only silent guests there. So when the first family that we stayed with decided to dine alone, we had to put up with that and cook and eat our food alone, too. When the landlady came over and we asked her name, she only smiled, shrugged her shoulders and hid her face.
Nothing changed even after the guide translated our question for her. Naturally, none of us dared to insist on conversing. We all sat still near the fireplace and enjoyed watching the warm flames of the fire in her kitchen.
Not a show, but a real life
We saw local women wearing beautiful traditional clothes, and not because we were tourists and they wanted to show off. They put on their colorful skirts and dresses because this is what they do every day, regardless of whether there is a Caucasian stranger in their village or not. Actually, they never expect one there.
You meet busy farmers working on their fields, harvesting their rice, not because you pay an entrance fee for an outdoor attraction where somebody demonstrates life without machines. You see those people working hard because they are dependent on their crops, so they can maintain their families.
We were able to watch elders playing with their grandchildren on a verandah, a lonely lady weaving on a wooden porch, a young mother hanging the laundry, a wife setting the fire while her husband is rolling a giant tobacco cigar …
These were the precious serendipitous moments of travel. These were the moments where we felt connected to the local life immensely; we stood aside in silence when necessary, and talked to people only when they felt comfortable. The same happened with taking pictures and videos of them.
In fact, we usually split up when Gianni is taking photos and I interview them, and hardly ever both shot the same person at the same time. That way it’s less intimidating. And the Karens? Some of them weren’t used to cameras, so they either hid behind the windows or giggled, which made them so adorable.
White Karen Hill Tribes
The origin of the Karen people remains a mystery. They say the original roots of the Karen hill tribes (Ka Nyaw Wah in Karenic) in Thailand go back to Tibet and the Gobi desert, although, many families living in Northern Thailand nowadays migrated from Burma when escaping the communist regime a few decades ago.
Why “white” Karen? It’s a tradition that an unmarried Karen girl wears a long white V-neck tunic, the same that you can see in our video below.
Talking about traditions, Karen people were primarily animists. Nowadays, some of those families who live in the lowlands and are in contact with Thai people, started practicing Buddhism.
Others converted to Christianity thanks to missionaries in the area. Honestly, to see a Christian Church among bamboo huts in far-flung hills in Thailand is … quite an unordinary view.
Land over everything
The families in Huy Huai and Huy Kao Leep villages have been hosting travellers only for the past few years. This area is still pretty untouched by tourism, as it’s not easily reachable. The second family we stayed with makes money primarily from providing accommodation for tourists (although, this source of income is very limited since they can only accommodate only 4-6 people) and selling plums and chilies that they grow.
Another potential source of income for the Karens, is the option to join the Royal Project. They can work on organic farms supported by the government that help local communities exclusively with marketing. Farmers earn 50% from the sales, and half of this money they use for buying seedlings for the next planting season.
Karen people are very well known for rice cultivation and crop rotation. Basically they grow garlic, onion and rice in the same fields during different seasons; this is also how they keep the soil fertile and avoid soil erosion.
The limits of discomfort
To be rewarded with the genuine experience of the White Karen hill tribes, you’ll need to toil and moil. We hiked for two days to reach the families living in these remote uphill villages.
Interestingly enough, we met no other hikers in the jungle, apart from a few travellers at the waterfalls. The roads were quiet most of the time, and only a couple of motorbikes outran us.
Somewhere between trekking, panting, and having a break while leaning against a tree, I was ashamed of how much I was able to complain about a few hours of hiking and carrying a small bag with my camera, while local people walk long distances with their tools or sacks of rice and ride a motorbike for miles to simply get to their rice fields or buy some basic groceries.
When I finally realised that my body covered in soft cobweb from the trees, flies bumping against my sweaty arms, and my sandals full of small stones and dry leaves was nothing compared to all of the effort the villagers have to perform every day to survive, I finally managed to quiet the chatter in my mind and admit that I have to work on raising my resistance to discomfort.
Luckily, there was George, our guide. He used to be a Buddhist novice for six years. George came from a poor family, so he entered a monastery to get free food and education. Later on, he had this dream about working in the tourism industry, so he went to study, got a scholarship in Canada, graduated with his studies in tourism from Chiang Mai, and now works as a free lance guide in Northern Thailand.
He indeed knew how to entertain and make us forget about the heat and tiredness. Whenever he noticed we needed a break, he stopped and talked about any plant he found around. That’s how we learned to recognise a remedy for stomachache, fever, and a bubble tree with leaves you can blow bubbles through… He even made a bow and arrow from branches of a random bush, a helicopter, and bouquets of flowers from pandan leaves. Can you imagine the childhood of this guy?
What to expect from a trip to White Karen hill tribes with Rickshaw Travel
* 2.5 hours of biking through Thai villages, longan and ginger plantations
* Visiting two Buddhist temples along the way
* Two days of trekking through a jungle
* Hiking via remote villages
* Learning about the agriculture of the Karen People
* Visiting a Royal Project organic farm
* Staying overnight in basic & clean bamboo huts
* Taking a refreshing dip in a cool waterfall
* Visiting a local cemetery that offers cultural insight into the local culture and its history
* A stop at a local community centre with various crafts made by village elders
* Bamboo rafting
* Shopping at a local food market
* Meals prepared by your guide
What to bring with you
* Good trekking shoes
You’re going to trek in a wild jungle. Part of the path will be quite steep and not paved. We travel with Keen shoes and Teva trekking sandals, which are also great in hot weather.
* Comfortable convertible pants
You’ll sweat a lot in the forest, but it might get colder in the evening and during the night.
We use NorthFace Convertible pants on our trips, and they are just perfect for varying weather conditions.
* Sleeping bag
If you visit White Karen hill tribes on a private tour like us, the guide will carry a sleeping bag for you (which we even didn’t know at the beginning,) but if you do a tour with a small group, you’ll need to bring your own. We slept in a comfortable silk sleeping bag, very light, yet it kept us warm at night.
* Mosquito repellent
Just pack it. You WILL need it.
Homestays in the mountains come with little or no electricity. In the first village there was limited electricity used only for an emergency (that means no charging mobiles and cameras,) at the second place, we used candles as our source of light. You’ll thank yourself for packing a headlamp when using the toilette at night.
* Buff headwear
It’ll keep your forehead dry while trekking; I also like using them as a scarf at night when sleeping in a colder place.
* Day backpack
We travel with North Face carry-on backpacks and camera sleeve bags. The advantage of the camera bag? Great space to keep your equipment safe, and you can take out the camera very quickly. However, if you don’t need to carry the camera, opt for a light daily backpack that will make trekking easier.
* Waterproof bag
If you want to bring a mobile, your travel documents, or a camera with you on a bamboo raft, then consider bringing a reliable waterproof bag. We’ve been using a basic 5L bag while kayaking and canoeing on our travels, and it has saved our equipment many times.
* You will bike and do bamboo rafting WITHOUT your backpack. It will be stored in a truck and the driver will give it back to you at the point where you start trekking/finish rafting.
* Water is provided during the bike ride. For the rest of the trip, you will be able to buy it at the home stays.
* There will be a few groceries and a local market where you can buy some snacks before entering the jungle, and you’ll find a small stall with some snacks also in Huy Huai village.
* You can buy water, soft drinks, and canned beer in all home stays and near the waterfalls.
*We suggest bringing small notes of 20-100 bahts ($0.60-2.80) to pay for water/snacks in the villages.
How to visit White Karen hill tribes in Thailand?
This is the most important question when it comes to planning your visit to the hill tribes in Thailand. If you’re looking for a genuine local experience with an expert who knows the area and the culture, then choose an agency that will be able to deliver it.
We partnered with Rickshaw Travel, a travel company based in Brighton, UK that collaborates with local guides. They highly support the idea of responsible travel, and create the itineraries that will take you off the beaten path all around the world, while also supporting local businesses.
We met their team personally in Brighton, and their passion for making authentic tours with a focus on helping the locals and small group travel was extremely admirable. Moreover, they recently cancelled all their elephant riding activities in all their trips. This is a huge step forward!
Important note: The trips can be arranged as either a group trip (up to 10 people) or a private trip. Make sure you discuss both options with the Rickshaw Team.
Well, we wanted to see the village life in Northern Thailand and we did it. We wished to learn more about the Karen people, and thanks to our guide and the company we chose, we managed it. We hoped for personal interactions with locals, and we got it. Actually, we were given even more. We learned how important it is to cherish your privacy so you can remain who you are.
Thanks to the fact that the Karens remain shy, yet extremely welcoming, and because they have kept their daily routines used for decades without the influence from tourism in close areas; they are who they are— The Native Tribe.
Have you ever visited any tribes or a remote local community? How was your experience? What did you learn? If not, would you like to visit one? Please, leave a comment below.
Disclaimer: Our trip to the White Karen hill tribes was possible thanks to Rickshaw Travel. All opinions, lessons about the tribe, jungle plants, and effort put forth to get through the woods are our own.
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