Chiang Mai Hill Tribes – What to expect on your Tour

To connect with people and figure out their roots is our main aim while travelling. And if the place has indigenous people still holding on to their roots, then the curiosity increases ten folds.Northern Thailand is peppered with Chiang mai Hill Tribes like that!

I have seen pictures of the Long Neck Karen tribe and was fascinated by the brass rings around their neck. I kept wondering why they wore it and how it would look like in person. 

So on my visit to Chiang Mai, I decided to keep a day aside to visit these Chiang Mai hill tribes. You get to see these tribes from Chiang Rai as well as Chiang Mai. 

I was in Chiang Mai, and when I saw the pamphlet which read a trip to visit the tribal villages, I signed up immediately. And I got to meet the tribal people. 

Though the pamphlet read trip to the villages, it was not exactly like that! 

So here is what you should expect when you are on your Chiang Mai Hill Tribes tour.

long necked karen tribe
Long necked Karen woman with her work

Who are the Chiang Mai Hill Tribes?

Hill tribes are usually people who migrated from other countries into Northern Thailand. I don’t remember meeting even one who was native to Thailand. 

The tribes are mainly from Tibet, Myanmar or Vietnam, pushed out of their territory because of unrest in these regions. They decided to settle along the hills of Northern Thailand along the border. 

Which meant that they were not citizens of Thailand and so did not get any privileges as such. 

This created a sense of unrest in Thailand because migrants were occupying the reserved forests of their country and were looked upon as a threat. 

Though the Government has now stepped in and made things better, some still do not have a Thai ID card.

Tribal people live a sustainable life. They predominantly do farming, and they weave their dresses, wear ornaments made of natural substances. Though it sounds like they are people who take care of themselves and do not need any intervention, clashes between the tribes are quite common, and thus, at the end of the day, you need government support.

hill tribe house
Traditional hill tribe house made of bamboo

Baan Tong Luang – Chiang Mai Hill Tribes Village

So the Thai Government did step in to recognise and protect these tribes. Not just to give them privileges but also to conserve the ethnic groups. 

With modernisation and civilisation catching up, everyone is moving towards the comforts of life. So the Government has set up eco-agricultural villages across Northern Thailand where they bring various tribes together. 

The tribes can sell their handicraft stuff and earn a living out of it too!

With tourism involved, the culture gets preserved, and hence, we get to see a glimpse of their life. We get to see their houses, their way of living and the farms around the place too. One such eco agricultural hill tribes village is Baan Tong Luang, about 30km away from Chiang Mai. A question does arise about how ethical it is to hop around and watch these tribes. I will be as honest as possible in this post. 

Baan tong Luang
Walking in Baan Tong Luang

On that particular morning, the van came to pick us up from the hotel we were staying in. All the tour and travel operators in Thailand conduct tours in this manner without any hassle if you book a day tour or any tour with them.

After filling up the van with people from many other hostels and hotels, we headed towards Baan Tong Luang village. The village is about 30km from Chiang Mai, and the scenery starts to turn greener and greener.

On top of it, it was monsoon, and the hills looked very pretty as we approached the tribal village. A detour from the main highway took us through farms after farms, mostly fruits and paddy fields. 

We stopped at the base of what looked like a resort. I am not sure if you can stay there. We were the first to arrive that morning, and the place was waking up from slumber. So I could not make out much. 

After a quick climb with a small stream by our side, we reached a place where there were shops or stalls on the ground. A tribal woman was busy weaving something, and there were colorful shawls on display—the first glimpse of Long Neck Karen. 

It was not exactly how I had pictured it in my mind!

The place had stalls adjacent to each other, and a hill tribe represented each stall.

Chiang Mai hill tribe village
The stalls at Chiang Mai hill tribe village

It was not exactly how I had pictured in my mind. The place had stalls adjacent to each other and each stall was represented by a hill tribe.

Padaung Karen Tribe

The Karen are the biggest hill tribe group found in South East Asia. The Karens also occupy a majority of the villages you see in Northern Thailand. They are also called Kayan as they were original occupants of the state in Myanmar. 

Now they have relocated to Northern Thailand. The Karen women are known for their brass rings around their necks. They are called long-necked Karen, but it is the torso that is small because it cannot take the weight of those brass rings. 

The brass rings are added to the girl’s neck at their young age itself. It starts with a couple of rings, and with time as you age, they add more rings to the neck. 

When I asked why, they said that predators might attack, so the rings help fend them off. If a tiger attacks a prey, the first thing it would do is catch hold of the neck. And so apparently, they started adding the brass rings to the neck.

Only women wear this because they are always at their homes protecting their children, and it would be tough for pregnant women to defend themselves. 

Men, on the other hand, go hunting and are seldom found around their homes. Hence they do not need to wear them. These brass rings are heavy. It was tough to understand how they wore it while going about their daily chore.

I needed two hands to hold this, and they were wearing it on their neck! I swear you cannot bend or do anything with these rings on!

Long neck karen tribe
They are so used to being photographed that the kid posed the moment he saw a group

Karen women are known for their weaving skills, and it was very evident. The lady was weaving shawls sitting in front of her house. Her house was a simple bamboo hut. We could not enter, but we did get to see how the structure was. 

Considering the large number of tourists frequenting this place, it only makes sense not to let every tourist.

Differences between the new-age Karen girls and the old-age Karen women are also very clear. The older women who have been wearing the rings for many years can be distinctively identified. Their face structure is different from girls who wear the rings not permanently but once in a while. 

After 45 years or so, they need not wear these rings, which my guide mentioned. And after marriage, the man comes and stays along with the woman and does all work for her. They marry within their community, and for them, having a large number of children is considered prosperity: more children, more hands in farming.

Padaung Karen Tribe
Showing her skills on weaving – Padaung Karen Tribe

You could have seen them with a yellowish paste applied on their face and hands. This paste is called Thanaka. The Thanaka powder is made out of barks from the Burmese Thanaka tree, and it is said that it acts as a sunscreen, which helps to cool your skin.

Women don’t chew paan or tobacco in this tribe, but I am not sure how they get that red tinge on their lips. They speak their language. But now, with kids attending schools, they are learning Thai.

They don’t wear brass rings to schools, and thus the younger generation is not seen wearing them. I am just going to say we thank God. Umm, they don’t follow any religion, so, let’s say, thanks to the spirits.

Karen tribe
A long necked Karen family with Thanaka on her face

Kayaw Tribe

Kayaw tribe is a subdivision of the Karen tribe. They are also called the Big Ear Karen Tribe. They wear earrings that stretch your earlobe into a big hole. And the brass rings go on their leg.

It looks even more painful. Your calf muscle squeezed into a heavy brass ring. Why did it move from neck to legs? I have no idea. They start by stuffing their pierced ear with bamboo sticks until it turns into a big hole. They then adorn it with silver earrings

big ear karen tribe
Look at her ear

Kayaw tribes have proper villages with houses made of stone and cement. Initially, they were the biggest cultivators of opium. Every three years, they would settle in a mountain, cut down the trees and grow opium. And once the yield was done, the soil’s nutrition was sucked out, after which they moved to a new place. 

The Thai kingdom took notice of these disappearing trees and decided to step in. They started to give jobs to the Kayaw tribe so they would stop cutting down the trees. 

Initially, with opium, the men would smoke around, have many wives, etc. Things have changed now in favor of women with time.

They wear a handwoven jacket which is like a cotton shirt. Also, they are Christians as missionaries have taken them over.

Kayaw tribe
Kayaw tribe woman with brass rings in her leg

Palong Tribe

Palong tribe is the smallest Chiang Mai hill tribe, and all of them can be found in and around Chiang Mai itself. They came from Myanmar, and hence we can see them around the border. 

On this tour, we later got to visit their village as well. They can be distinctly identified by their pink and blue jackets and hip belt. They have a thick hip belt or loops called Nong wong. One made out of the bark of a tree and another that looks like wires. 

Every year they keep adding on more loops to their hip. These were pretty heavy too. The more you wear around the hip, the prettier you look. But seriously, this is like pulling dead weight along.

palong tribe chiang mai
Palong Tribe woman with her hip loops by the side

Akha Tribe

The most ornamental people are from the Akha Tribe. They had so many kinds of headgear to wear, and everything was so ornate. Their handicraft shop also was one of my favourites because it was filled with junk jewellery. 

They are also known for their embroidery. Even their dress is a jacket with embroidery on it. This was one of the ladies who was there that morning and was very welcoming. I tried on one of their head-dress, and it looked super funny on me. 

Like the Karen tribe, their houses are also made of bamboo and on a raised platform.

akha tribe chiang mai
Akha Tribe Woman with her headdress
akha tribe headdress
Different headgear from Akha Tribe

Lisu Tribe

Lisu tribes are from Tibet and had settled here about 80 years ago. They were also one of the tribes who followed animism. 

Animism is praying or giving respect to nature and spirits around you. But with recent developments, most of them got converted to Buddhism or Christianity. 

Their colorful dress can also identify the Lisu tribe with embroidery or designs painted on the clothes. Their unique headgear also looked beautiful. Those were not for sale, though.

Lisu tribe woman
Lisu tribe woman

Mien Tribe

The Mien tribe is also called Yao in Thailand. The mien tribe is known for its skill of working with silver and creating beautiful ornaments. They all seem to be wearing a black cotton robe with a thick red wool pattern running around their neck.

Mien Tribe Woman
Mien Tribe Woman

Visit to the Palong Village 

After we visited the Chiang Mai hill tribe village, our tour proceeded to walk through a Palong tribe village. This was about another half an hour drive from the eco-village. This is a real settlement by the Palong tribe. 

The mud road was wet with the previous day’s rain. We walked through the village. The village had a school, a church, a shop, and bamboo houses on raised platforms. Apart from the church, everything else was in a precarious state. 

The village still does not have electricity. It does not have a proper pipeline bringing in water to the village. In front of their houses, they have huge drums which collect rainwater. They were dressed normally, and only on occasions do they wear the tribal costume. The word spread that a tourist van has come to their village.

palong village
Water storage system, note how bamboo pipes are directing to it
Palong tribe woman in her village

I saw an older woman dressed traditionally while going around in the village. She was wearing all the loops around her hip and still managed to walk past us pretty fast. 

We were a group of just six or seven people. The women folks of the tribe had, however, very quickly assembled with their handicrafts for sale. Though there was a language issue here, we could interact better and have some lighter moments.

palong tribe woman
Sharing a lighter moment with a Palong tribe grandma

How was the Chiang Mai hill tribes visit experience?

There is a debate that these hill tribe villages are nothing but a human zoo. I would differ with this opinion. It is a platform for them to show their handicrafts, make a living out of them, and you get to see and learn a little about their lives and lifestyles. 

There is, however, a small voice at the back of your head that keeps reminding you that you are the privileged one. They welcome you with a smile and pose for a pic. However, it is a common courtesy to buy something if you are taking their portrait. 

By the end of this tour, I collected shawls, trinkets, chains, and much more stuff that I didn’t need. The village visit was similar too.

People bought stuff even from the tiny ration shop, hoping that you were helping their financial condition in some way. It is not like you are forced to purchase or tricked into it or not even like taking you on a guilt trip, but somewhere you will have the thought you need to contribute. 

The other debate is that these hill tribes are not authentic. You can see them using smartphones, tabs, and a bit of modernisation has peeked in. But they are also holding on to their culture and tradition. I mean, if you expect their younger generation to not get along with the world, that is very unfair. 

In some years, you might learn about these tribes only from the tribal museum, so now is the best time to interact with these indigenous hill tribes.

If you are looking to book this trip from Chiang Rai here is how you can book it – Click here 

Souvenirs to buy hill tribe village
Souvenirs to buy

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  1. Hello,
    Can you please tell me if the Baan Tong Luang village has reopened as many websites claim that it is closed since the COVID period?
    If yes, do you know if we can visit the village by ourselves or shall we be accompanied by a local guide or shall we join a group tour?
    Shall we visit the village at certain times of the day or is it opened at anytime from 8am till 4pm, Mon – Sun?
    Thanks. Best regards,

    • Hi Jacky, Best is you travel with a group tour. This can easily be booked once you reach your place of stay. And they would also have more information on if the villages are open or not. You will also have the flexibility to chose itinerary for the day. The commute is quite long to these villages.

  2. Such a great post! I always love to visit local tribes and learn about their everyday lives and struggles. Lovely pictures too!

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