Chiang Mai is the biggest centre for hill tribe trekking in northern Thailand and trekking is one of Chiang Mai’s most popular tourism activities. The main attraction of these treks is to experience both the natural environment and living with the hill tribes – who still preserve their culture from thousands of years. And many trek companies combine this with the excitement of elephant riding and river rafting on a bamboo raft. What you have now is an unforgettable trip for many tourists.

Duration of treks can range from 1 day to 10 days. Usually, the tribes you can visit on a day trip are located near main roads and have become too commercialised and touristy. Some are really horrid and a turnoff. There was one that I went to as part of a day tour where you have to pay an entrance fee to get into the village. Inside, everything is laid out nicely for the tourists, with many shops selling their handmade products. The whole experience was too zoo-like for me.

There are six major hilltribes which inhabit the highlands, the largest group being the Karen, followed by the Hmong, Lahu, Yao, Akha and Lisu. Each tribe has its own distinctive spiritual beliefs, ceremonial attire, languages, customs, rituals, dances and agricultural practices. The more popular treks last from 3 to 4 days and take trekkers through forested mountains and high valleys and meadows, as well as visits to more remote high-altitude hilltribe settlements for overnight stays. The best guides are hilltribe youths who customarily speak English, Thai and at least three tribal dialects. Treks commonly feature travel by foot, sometimes by boat, elephant-back, horse-back or jeep, or frequently a combination of two or three modes of transportation. Visitors are advised to contact the Tourist Police (at 75 Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road, Tel. 0 5324 8130 Fax. 0 5324 8974) or the TAT for information on the most reliable trekking companies. And remember, for trekkers protection, all treks must be registered with the Tourist Police.

Visitors should remember to:
• Respect hilltribe beliefs and religious symbols and structures.
• Dress modestly. Hilltribe people are generally modest and inappropriate attire may offend them.
• Ask permission before photographing someone. Some villages do not permit photography.
• Refrain from trading Western medicines and articles of clothing. Gifts such as pens, paper, needles, thread and cloth are acceptable.