You know you live a charmed life when you need a rest from the sensory overload of so much travel. That’s how I found myself living with the Akha people, an indigenous tribe in the mountains of Chiang Rai in northern Thailand.
It was an opportunity for some peace and quiet – especially after surviving Songkran in Chiang Mai just a few days earlier – and a chance for this traveller to get off the beaten track and go bush for a couple of days for some well-earned rest and relaxation.
- The Akha reside in small villages in the mountains of Thailand, Burma and China, and are said to have migrated into South East Asia during the early 1900s.
- Of a population of roughly 400,000 Akha people, 80,000 are estimated to now live in Thailand – particularly around Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai.
- The Akha are experiencing a long-term decline in the size of their villages in Thailand, which has been blamed on a combination of economic and ecological hardship.
- The Akhra are increasingly turning to tourism, offering tourists and backpackers an “authentic” travel experience, living with them in the mountains. Well, living in tourist-friendly guestrooms and bungalows alongside them, anyway.
- Akha Hill House in Chiang Rai is the only locally owned and managed hill tribe in Thailand’s northernmost province.
- It’s situated in a picturesque valley in the mountains, roughly 1,500m above sea level and 23km outside of Chiang Rai.
The drive out to the hill tribe, standing on the back of a ute with half a dozen or more Akha and other backpackers, was one of the highlights. For one thing, you get to travel through parts of rural Chiang Rai you mightn’t otherwise see. You just have to remember to hold on tight and watch out for low-hanging branches!
When you get there, you basically have two choice of room: a bamboo bungalow or a slightly nicer but more expensive one made from mud. Both options offer incredible views over a majestic tree-lined valley. My fiance and I went for the former and did not regret it.
Although simple – what were you expecting, a five-star hill tribe resort? – the bungalows are very comfortable. Most of the first evening was spent sitting out on the little bamboo deck, drinking Chang beer and watching the sunset.
There is an open-air restaurant at the tribe (see above), which serves up some fairly rubbish Western food as well as some pretty excellent local cuisine. The prices are low – but slightly higher than back in the city – and the view is amazing, looking down over plantations and into deep jungle.
It’s from here that you can access the internet – it seems you’re never too remote to not have internet access these days – and you can buy beer. It’s a great spot for meeting other backpackers and (trying) to communicate with the members of the tribe who work there.
It seems there is plenty to see and do in the area, including hikes, sightseeing tours and cultural activities. I walked to see an impressive three-tiered waterfall nearby, making time to paddle in the bathing pool at the bottom, but otherwise I didn’t do a heck of a lot.
Inspired by so much surrounding beauty and, of course, the peace and quiet, I made use of my time by doing a lot of travel blogging. At night, we’d always hang out with the other travellers staying with the tribe.
After two nights of bliss, we left the mountain tribe at Akha Hill and headed back to Chiang Rai, refreshed and revitalised, ready to catch the next bus to Chiang Mai. From there, we caught a sleeper train back to Bangkok and the peaceful tranquility of our time in the mountains seemed but a distant memory.
A sample of the Akha hill tribe accommodation price list:
- Bamboo bungalow with double bed, private bathroom and fan: 600 baht.
- Mud bungalow with twin beds, private bathroom and air conditioner: 750 baht.
- Mud bungalow with double bed, private bathroom, air conditioner and TV: 990 baht.
- Bamboo bungalow with private bathroom and fan: 350 baht single, 500 baht double.
If you’re looking for something a little bit different to do in Thailand, you can’t do much better than this. It’s off the beaten track enough that it’s enlightening, but not so far off the track that it’s intimidating.