The Kok River is a cocoa-colored expressway into the heart of hill tribe country. Rushing down from Myanmar and through Thailand's northern mountains to the city of Chiang Rai, its banks and the surrounding slopes and valleys shelter hundreds of villages of a half-dozen major tribes — Lahu, Lisu, Karen, Hmong, Yao and Akha — which in turn are subdivided into many smaller groups.
These communities range from secluded mountain hideaways reachable only by foot or four-wheel-drive, to roadside attractions where tribal people dressed in elaborate traditional costumes pose for photos and peddle handicrafts to busloads of tourists.
The hill tribes and their unique culture have been on the backpacker's Southeast Asia itinerary for decades. This has led to widespread exploitation by unscrupulous tour operators, as well as rampant drug abuse and prostitution. In recent years, luxury resorts have also sprung up.
So if you're looking for some sort of primitive time-capsule village, you're out of luck. But this remains a place of breathtaking natural beauty, with a fascinating blend of cultures coexisting at close proximity, and there are a growing number of opportunities to visit the hill tribes on their own terms.
One of these is Akha Hill House, a rustic guest house operated by an Akha community in a mountain hamlet 14 miles (22 kilometers) west and 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) above Chiang Rai. Village headman Apae Amor runs it and employs many of the villagers. A portion of the proceeds goes toward tribal educational programs, he says. It's also highly affordable. The most basic rooms at Akha Hill House start at about $10 a night, and free transportation is offered to and from Chiang Rai in the back of a pickup truck.
Or, you can opt to go by water, as I did. I caught a long-tail boat from the public dock on the outskirts of Chiang Rai for a noisy hour-long ride up the river, called Mae Kok in Thai. The once-a-day public boat is 100 baht (about $3.25), though you could spend a lot more chartering a private boat that would stop wherever and whenever you want. I had the boat to myself when other tourists disembarked at a riverside elephant camp.
As the boatman chugged up a waterway swollen by monsoon rains, I sat near the bow and took in a landscape in a million shades of green: fields of corn and rice planted at impossibly steep angles; limestone peaks covered in jungle. There were small villages of bamboo and wood houses, people fishing the shallows with nets, a huge white Buddha looming over a bend in the river.
I was dropped at a grassy field containing a steaming hot spring and the headquarters of Lamnamkok National Park, which encompasses the surrounding hills. My destination was a three-mile (five-kilometer) uphill walk from there. "Follow signs," said the website. Easy enough.
After a half-hour search, I finally found a single hand-painted sign pointing up a dirt road toward Akha Hill House, and started walking. It was the last sign I saw.
But if I was lost, it was a pleasant kind of lost. The road snaked through fields and forests. Grazing water buffalo looked up from fields and chickens scampered away as I passed through Lahu and Karen villages. Asking directions was a challenge. I can usually manage enough Thai to find my way, but many people here, particularly the elderly, speak tribal languages.
Eventually, a smiling young guy with a motorbike offered a ride back to where I'd gone astray. Like most men in these parts, he carried a sheathed, machete-like knife on his hip for cutting bamboo. After a wild bumpy ride on the back of his bike, he stopped and pointed up a steep track that I'd walked right by an hour earlier.
The home stretch was a quadriceps-busting climb along a stony brook, past flooded terraces of young rice plants to a Lahu village where the road suddenly dead-ended. A narrow path continued through open fields, offering panoramic views all the way to Myanmar. Finally, after cresting a saddle between two forested summits and descending through coffee and citrus groves, I arrived at Akha Hill House.
The guest house sits at the edge of an Akha village, perched at the head of a curving valley on the slopes of Doi Hang mountain. Most houses are still made of traditional bamboo, raised on stilts with covered outdoor platforms. But a few concrete houses have appeared, and even a handful of satellite dishes poking from the thatched rooftops, signs that despite the Akha's reputation as the most impoverished of the hill tribes, this particular village is more prosperous — and modern — than some.
A retired American couple staying in Akha Hill House and volunteering as English teachers at the village school proffered that the lack of signage might be a way to ensure steady work for local guides.
The accommodations are rustic. My room was a mud and wood shack with an electric fan, cold-water shower and mosquito net draped over the bed. But it was perched on a steep slope with a spacious balcony that offered an amazing view. The common area has cold beers and inexpensive, tasty food, especially after a long day on the trail.
The Akha share this lovely vale with a Chinese village where some of the wooden houses are decorated with red paper lanterns. Together, the two villages have no more than a few hundred people living among rushing streams, hillside orchards and a sprawling tea plantation.
Many Chinese nationalists came south from Yunnan Province when the communists took power. Some settled in the border region where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet — the notorious Golden Triangle, once epicenter of the world's heroin trade. Both the hill tribes and the Chinese were prolific growers of opium poppies, but an aggressive government eradication campaign has led most fields to be replanted with coffee, tea and fruit, though the continued use of primitive slash-and-burn agriculture can be seen in the blackened stumps amid the greenery.
These days, tourism pays the bills. Apae Amor and several other village men are registered guides who can arrange mountain treks of up to seven days, by foot, elephant or bamboo raft, as well as sightseeing tours of the temples, museums and other sights of Chiang Rai Province.
I, however, came for fresh air and solitude.
The beautiful Huai Kaeo waterfall is a 15-minute walk from the village through the dripping jungle. The falls plunge over three drops, each with a swimmable pool at the bottom and plenty of big rocks to sit on and read a book or listen to the sounds of the forest. Climbing another 30 minutes on a muddy track will bring you to an open summit that offers more stunning views of the countryside.
One day, walking through the village toward the falls, I heard the familiar sound of Christian hymns sung in the unfamiliar tones of the Akha language. It was Sunday morning and churchgoing villagers were inside a little wooden house of worship.
Like most of Thailand's hill tribes, the Akha started in southern China and moved south into Myanmar (then known as Burma) where they were exposed to Christianity by British and American missionaries. While some tribes trace their history in Thailand over hundreds of years, the Akha are more recent arrivals, crossing over from Myanmar over the past 50 years to escape persecution by that country's military rulers. Even today, their brand of Christianity is blended with traditional animist beliefs and ancestor worship.
The Akha are perhaps most famous for their traditional dress. The most decorative of the hill tribe costumes, it is highlighted by colorful embroidered fabrics and headdresses intricately decorated with beads, feathers, shells and silver coins. These days, you are more likely to see Akha women in traditional dress selling trinkets at the Chiang Mai night bazaar. Most here dress in sarongs and flip-flops; the men wear T-shirts with logos of their favorite English football teams.
This is not a place where the outside world has been kept at bay, nor is it a tourist trap where bygone village life is re-enacted for the benefit of visitors. But it is a wonderful place to spend a few days relaxing amid stunning natural wonders and learning a little bit about a vanishing culture. That is, if you can find it.
If You Go...
AKHA HILL HOUSE: http://www.akhahill.com/. Located in the Doi Hang subdistrict of Chiang Rai Province in Northern Thailand. Proprietor Apae Amor also operates Akha River House, in Chiang Rai city, and offers free rides (in the back of a pickup truck) at 4:30 p.m. daily from there to Akha Hill House. Taxi fare from Chiang Rai Airport to the village is $20-$35 each way. Room rates range from $5 a night for wooden hut with outdoor shower to $35 for "VIP bungalow" with air conditioning, cable TV and Wi-Fi. Air Asia, Nok Air and other discount carriers often fly from Bangkok to Chiang Rai for under $100.