Imagine living among a Thai hill tribe for a week; trying your hand at local crafts, sampling unique dishes and dancing the night away along to traditional tribal music. Sounds like something that could only happen on a National Geographic programme, right? Wrong!
With the advent of community-based tourism in Thailand, experiencing the life of a Northern hill tribe is far more accessible than you might think.Mountain views from Hloyo Community, Chiang Rai province
How can I visit a hill tribe village in Thailand?
Tour operators, such as Local Alike, offer trips to hill tribe villages including Hloyo Community (located in Chiang Rai province). During your stay, you can experience local life first-hand.
Fancy learning how to prepare traditional hill tribe recipes? They've got that covered. Is foraging in the forest or crafting jewelry more up your street? There's plenty of opportunity to get involved in that too.
What can I expect from my stay with a Thai hill tribe?
I stayed for 5 nights in Hloyo, an Akha hill tribe village with approximately 300 residents. Hloyo is situated just a 60-minute drive away from the regional capital (Chiang Rai) and is easily accessible by private car, as well as via package tour companies.
Staying in the village was an incredible experience and we were embraced by the locals, who welcomed us with a night of traditional music, dance and Akha delicacies like chilli paste served with crispy vegetables, minced pork and Akha omelette, flavoured with local spices like mountain chilli and ginger.Receiving welcome gifts from the locals (a traditional Akha bracelet decorated using rice husks)
Who are the Akha people?
The Akha are a hill tribe originating in Southern China. Nowadays, they can now also be found in Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and, of course, Northern Thailand. The Akha are expert farmers, famous for their Arabica coffee and tasty mountain rice. They are also known for their range of local crafts and delicacies (such as Akha wine).
So; what can you expect whilst staying with the Akha tribe in Hloyo?The Akha tribe are also known for their vibrant textiles and intricate headdresses, featuring coins, beads and a distinctive metal plate. Often, these headdresses can exceed 5 kilos in weight; so they are not for the faint-hearted!Spirit gates can often be found at the entrance and exits of Akha villages, with wooden ancestor figures standing guard against malicious spirits.
Accommodation: Mud house heaven
In Hloyo community, you can stay overnight in the village itself. Yohan, the community leader in Hloyo, has created stunning mud houses to accommodate visitors. These houses are constructed from local clay and rice husks, decorated with intricate patterns made from recycled glass bottles. The rooms are spacious, with panoramic views over the surrounding valley and jungle.Akha Mud House, Mae Salong
Particularly impressive is the roof, which can be opened mechanically, giving you a wonderful view of the clear night’s sky and – if you’re lucky – even a glance of the milky way.Akha Mud House, Mae Salong
One thing is for sure; you won't go hungry during your stay in Hloyo. Akha food is incredible; full of natural, locally-sourced ingredients and a vast range of herbs and spices, including mountain chilli, organic ginger and coriander.
To find out more about Akha food and some of its top dishes, including Akha chilli paste and omelette, check out my Northern Thailand food blog. Some of my particular favourites included spicy pork sausage, Arabica coffee, lotus flower tempura and fresh jasmine tea.
During our first day in Hloyo, we were lucky enough to learn some traditional Akha crafts and cookery techniques from the locals. Here are some of the things you can try your hand at during your stay in the village.
The Akha people are known for their woodworking skills. Local artisans create everything from ancestor figures, to elephant and horse figurines out of wood from the surrounding forest.
The tribe are all about sustainable living, so in traditional Akha style, locals use cut-offs from their woodworking projects to infuse whisky with a delicious smokey flavour.
- Bracelet making
In Hloyo the locals make stunning tribal bracelets out of natural materials, including rice husks. We spent an hour making these gorgeous bracelets, which make an excellent gift for friends back home.
During your time in Hloyo, you can learn traditional cookery techniques, mastering the art of grilling over an open fire. During my trip, we learned how to make delicious vegetable tempura from locally-sourced leaves and flowers.
- Mud house building
Hloyo is a community where ancient tradition and innovation go hand-in-hand. Sustainable tourism is a big part of what they do here and the mud houses play a central part in Yohan's plan to rejuvinate his village through community-based tourism.
As a visitor to Hloyo, you can be a part of this project by designing and decorating your own mud house wall. During my stay, we rode through the countryside in the back Yohan's truck, seeking out key building materials such as rice husks, clay soil and glass bottles.
Then, we created our own mud house wall designs in true Akha style. If you don't mind a bit of mud, this is a great way to experience local life and give back to the village community.
The Akha ethos
The Akha way of life is all about respect. Firstly, the tribe respect the jungle in which they fish, hunt and gather vegetables and herbs. There is an understanding that if the tribe cares for their surroundings, their environment will provide for them in turn.
.The Akha lifestyle is also all about respecting people. Ties between family and friends are close here and we were greeted with a warm welcome by the locals, who treated us like one of their own.
The village is a perfect destination for those looking to get back to nature and have authentic local experiences with some exceptional people.
So why visit a Northern Thai hill tribe ?
My time with the Akha hill tribe in northern Thailand has been truly special. I've met incredibly kind and generous people, with a rich list of traditions and culture. I’ve learned about ancient crafts and cookery, discovering how people and nature can live in harmony.
Visiting a hill tribe is a must for anyone travelling to northern Thailand who wants to expand their experience of the country's rich cultural heritage.