CHIANG RAI – In the hill tribe villages of northern Thailand, no door (or kitchen) is closed to a stranger in need. The mountainous province of Chiang Rai is home to about half a dozen ethnic hill tribes, driven out of China and Myanmar by persecution and civil unrest.
Among them the Akha, Karen and Lahu live an isolated existence, preserving tribal customs, spiritual beliefs and languages and offering down-to-earth rural hospitality. Most have little more than a rice field or a few pigs to call their own, but they gladly offer what they have. Inviting wet, bedraggled strangers into their home to cook a BYO meal is just
I was spending two days exploring these rural provinces with Chiang Rai local Anan (Nan) Kodo, and I couldn’t have picked a better guide. An entrepreneurial Karen tribesman, Nan is the owner of My Dream Guesthouse, a collection of huts built on the banks of the Mae Nam Kok River overlooking a startlingly green vista of tropical gardens, pineapples and rice fields.
When he is not tending the guesthouse or his young family, Nan takes visitors on bespoke hill tribe tours, and with his sculpted cheekbones and beatific smile he’s proving to be Mr Charisma. Wherever we go, villagers stop what they are doing to chat, guffaw at his rapidly delivered jokes and welcome us into their homes. The “Nan effect” might have something to do with his impressive knack for languages (“I can speak all hill tribe dialects – Lahu, Karen, Akha, Lisu …”), but his boyish enthusiasm for life is endearing.
As we trek from the river into the steep foothills of Mae Yao, through jewel-green rice terraces and dense jungle, Nan bounces ahead, pointing out medicinal plants and rattling off facts about various tribes. Did I know that Karen people, despite a penchant for smoking tobacco, often live to 100? I did not but, according to Nan, their age is attributed to a pesticide-free diet and lots of yoghurt.
Under Nan’s tutelage, I’m well-versed in all things Akha by the time we reach Ban Apa, a rural village tucked into the mountainside. Within moments of our arrival we are being followed by gangs of small, giggling children and waved at by Akha women wearing elaborate headdresses festooned with silver, old coins and colourful pom-poms. Nan stops to greet a man sucking tobacco from a long silver pipe, who accompanies us to examine the town’s swing.
Of all the Thai hill tribes, the Akha are the most spiritual. The annual swing festival, when every villager takes turns to oscillate gaily on a huge bamboo swing, is one of many tribal ceremonies held to appease spirits, give thanks to the harvest and ward off evil. “The Akha sacrifice a dog whenever they build a house,” adds Nan with matter-of-fact cheerfulness, striding away before I can raise my eyebrows.
It’s a similar scene at Ban Yafu, an isolated hamlet set high among the slopes at 1000 metres, home to the Lahu tribe. Villagers live an agrarian life harvesting rice and rearing pigs. Some have converted to Christianity, but most worship ancestral spirits and a deity called Gui’Sha.
“And do all these tribes get along?” I ask, imagining God, Gui’Sha and spirits elbow-jostling in the heavens. In response, Nan simply beams. “You see the bamboo, the palm tree and the pineapple?” he says, pausing to point at a thicket of trees rustling in the breeze. “They grow together and live peacefully – just like the Karen, Lahu and Akha.”
Tonight we’re staying in the village and our hosts – a young couple with two small sons – are waiting. Pa Na is clad in faded blue Shan-style trousers, with sharp Tibetan cheekbones and a high-pitched laugh. His wife, Na Ne, wears a T-shirt, patterned sarong and rubber sandals. They welcome us warmly as Ja Nu, a village elder, hobbles down the road, waving his walking stick and grinning from ear to ear. “He always comes to see me,” Nan says, smiling with pleasure.
Like all Lahu abodes, the house is made from flattened bamboo and set high on stilts with a thatched roof and porch. The family’s livestock – chickens, piglets and an overweight sow – live beneath the house.
The village isn’t completely cut off from civilisation, however. A small shack sells Thai sweets and soft drinks. A town noticeboard features posters of solemn-faced political candidates. There’s even a formal decree, written in Thai, noting Ban Yafu’s official population of 165. But even with government assistance such as solar panels and a one-room school, life here is far from modern.
As dusk falls and smoke coils from the rooftops I leave the family to stroll into the foothills, watching villagers return from a day working the fields. Women emerge from the jungle hauling banana baskets on their backs; a strap across their forehead bears the weight. Others squat on their haunches, washing dishes in plastic buckets. Another heaves a pail of banana trunk mash over to a trough hewn from wood. She tips the contents out and six pigs fall upon it with guttural snorts.
When I return, the men have assembled in the kitchen. Pa Na has taken charge of tonight’s meal, slicing meat with a machete and directing Nan to chop vegetables for a curry of coconut, beans, galangal and garlic.
In Lahu households men are expected to pitch in with domestic duties, though should they object the tribe is fairly casual about divorce. According to Nan, it’s quite common and requires no lawyers, paperwork or hysteria – merely a pig and 150 baht ($5), payable to the village chief. “Liz Taylor would approve,” I quip but, unsurprisingly, no one gets the joke.
All families cook indoors, which dries out the bamboo and keeps mosquitoes at bay. My offer to help, however, is met with a swift chorus of disapproval. Guests must not lift a finger! It’s also considered terribly polite to let visitors eat first and, despite my protests, I find myself tucking in before everyone else.
Later that night, Na Ne and her sons slip behind a bamboo wall to sleep. Nan stays on the balcony with Pa Na to drink beer and they talk well into the night. Beneath a swathe of mosquito net strung from the beams I shut my eyes, listening to pigs snicker beneath the floorboards. Morning is a sensory riot of squawking roosters, the chopping of fruit and the scent of burning bamboo.
After a swift breakfast, we set off early in Nan’s jeep with Pa Na along for the ride. We plan to explore the most isolated parts of the mountains where hill tribes live amid misty contours of coffee and tea plantations, and plum and lychee fields. But in these highlands the weather has the final say. Soon, thunder clouds blacken the sky and fat raindrops splatter against the windscreen, transforming the dirt road into a muddy purgatory. I peer nervously from the window at the treacherous valleys and, as the jeep lurches and slides, I’m not the only one feeling uneasy.
“Pa Na is scared,” Nan says, a mixture of amusement and concern in his eye. I turn to see Pa Na crouched in the back seat chewing his thumb, most likely praying to God, Gui’Sha and any spirit he can think of. The deluge soon forces us to pull over; our plans for an outdoor lunch are abandoned. We’re stopped near a village when the elderly Akha man with betel-stained teeth appears. Safe and dry inside the home of our new friend, Pa Na busies himself cooking our lunch over the large, open fire pit.
Nan squats on the floor, cracking jokes in Akha dialect, much to the old man’s delight.
I perch on a wooden stool, popping pieces of spicy pork into my mouth and contemplating the warmth and generosity of these simple folk while also marvelling at the miniature United Nations before me: the Karen, the Lahu and the Akha. Three tribes in harmony together – just like the bamboo, the palm and the pineapple.
Staying there Bungalows at My Dream Guesthouse from 300 baht ($10) a night. Nan, an English-speaking TAT-licensed guide, offers three-day tours from 2800 baht a person including Chiang Rai transfer, accommodation and meals.
Requests for reservation, booking, tours, trekking and transport please contact:
Mr. Nan at: